June 8, 1974: "The Day Television Weather Grew Up"

Saturday is the 50th anniversary of one of the most important days in both the history of television meteorology and of the science of storm warnings. I happened to be in the right place at the right time; it was the most important day of my professional life.


The full story is here


The story begins when Dr. John McCarthy, my atmospheric physics professor during my final semester at the University of Oklahoma, had recommended we rethink how we would handle a major tornado outbreak after he returned from investigating the April 3-4, 1974, tornado “Superoutbreak.” I was then the weekend meteorologist at WKY-TV (now KFOR) in Oklahoma City. One of the things he urged me to consider was, “When there are multiple tornadoes, forget the severe thunderstorm warnings!” I resolved to do so if I was ever in that situation. 


I took John's advice to heart and gave it a lot of thought. There was no way of knowing I would need it just weeks later. 


On Friday, June 7, the weather maps for the next day were frightening. A powerful low pressure system was rapidly moving toward Oklahoma from the northwest. All of the elements needed to create tornadoes were converging on the Sooner State. At 10pm, I told viewers they should pay close attention to the weather the next day because tornadoes were likely. At 3:30am Saturday, my phone rang telling me I needed to get in to cover severe thunderstorms and flash floods. I spent the morning at the station. Around 11, I went home to grab a very quick nap, shower, and have some lunch. 

Original NAFAX 500mb chart, 7am CDT June 8, 1974

Surface weather map, 1pm CDT. The yellow line is the "dry line."
There was a mesolow just north of Lawton that was moving east. 

I was back at work about 12:15 and, at 12:30, a tornado watch was issued for central Oklahoma. I went on the air immediately with the news.


Up to this point, there was nothing particularly unusual about the events of the day. But, it is important to realize how weather was handled on television in that era. Very few stations had meteorologists. The paradigm was weather was the “entertainment” segment of the news. I was from Kansas City where no station had radar, no station had a meteorologist, one station had a cute “weathergirl” (as opposed to a woman meteorologist) and another had a comedian who threw ping-pong balls at the weather map when hail that size was reported. In two other Midwest markets, cartoonists drew cartoons during the weathercast. 


WKY televised the world's first actual tornado warning (broadcast by the late Harry Volkman) in 1954 with a staff of meteorologists doing its weather coverage even in that early era. 


In the 1970’s, it had radar and its weather team were all meteorologists. The chief meteorologist was the legendary Jim Williams and the #2 meteorologist was Larry Brown. Because it was a Saturday, I was the meteorologist on-duty. 


By 2pm, thunderstorms were developing – rapidly – southwest of Oklahoma City. About 2:30, I went on the air informing viewers it was time to monitor the weather closely and that tornadoes were possible the rest of the afternoon. 


I called the National Weather Service (NWS) office as soon as I got off the air to tell them I thought a tornado was headed directly toward them. At the time, all radars had ground clutter within a 10 to 20-mile radius around the radar’s location. Our radar was far enough away from the NWS that we could see the developing “hook echo” (a signature of a tornado) while it would be in the ground clutter of theirs. At 2:42pm, the roof flew off the hangar across the street from the NWS as the tornado touched down and began a F-3 intensity 9-mile path into the city. That was the first of five tornadoes that struck the OKC metro area that afternoon – a record number of tornadoes to strike one city in one day, a record which still stands today. 

At left, I am tracing the echoes from our upgraded, state-of-the-art WSR-100-5 radar which was a month old. 
At right is the hook echo approaching OKC's Will Rodger's Airport, the
location of the National Weather Service's office. In those days, all radar was black and white.

We were in nearly continuous tornado coverage – something that wasn’t done in 1974. 


I realized from my storm chasing experience that the supercell that caused tornado #1 was going to pass the station at an angle that might give us a chance to broadcast the tornado. It took three cameramen to balance the heavy studio camera on a slanted loading dock. It worked: we got the tornado live -- for only the third time in television history. Subsequent research has shown live images of tornadoes is one of the most effective ways of getting people to appropriately react to protect themselves in tornado warnings.

The tornado we broadcast live.
Photo by Steve Tegtmeier

Our one-month old radar was painting a stunning picture when combined with chaser and spotter reports: four tornadoes on the ground simultaneously in central Oklahoma. Jim had come in to do WKY Radio and Larry was in to answer the phone and monitor emergency management radio. Jim was kind enough to allow me to continue doing the television coverage. Not only did we use the radar to explain to people the location of tornadoes, we told them where they were going. For example, when a hook echo was near the town of Pink, Oklahoma, we said a tornado was headed in the direction of Shawnee. While the City of Drumright was outside of our viewing area, when a tornado was reported near Wellston, we told viewers that tornado was going to head toward Drumright. That tornado was F-4 intensity. Tragically, it killed 14 when it struck a nursing home as well as other structures. But, with the specific information we were providing, people in our viewing area had more time plus the information they needed to protect themselves and their families. 

Drumright Tornado: Courtesy Tornado Talk

By dinnertime, we thought things were starting to wind down. We were wrong. Jim took a call from the operator of the cable television company that handled the Tulsa area. All of the Tulsa television stations were off the air* due to power failures. He asked if we would continue to provide our coverage for northeast Oklahoma. If so, he would put us on the system for the evening. We agreed. So, I found myself covering the record-breaking storms in the Tulsa area, one of the markets without radar and with a cartoonist weathercaster. The city was struck by two tornadoes and a record flash flood. 


It finally ended around 11pm. We were exhausted. In those days, television lights were extremely bright and extremely hot. I noticed my dress shirt and undershirt were soaked in sweat. My eyes were sore from the darkened room needed to use the radar and the immediate transition to nearly daylight when the television lighting was turned on so we could go on the air; a cycle that probably repeated 30 or more times from afternoon to late evening. 

Map of tornado paths, June 8, 1974. 
The long-track tornado in Kansas struck Emporia, killing 6.

On Monday, we were surprised by the letters and postcards that began coming in. By the middle of the week, WKY had received 75 letters thanking us for our coverage. Some said we saved the lives of their families. The local newspaper published a letter to the editor thanking us and the newspaper’s editorial cartoonist – a frequent critic of television – published a cartoon with a man sweating while patting his television saying, “Forget what I said about ‘boob tube!’” In WKY’s viewing area of central Oklahoma, thankfully, there were zero fatalities in spite of the rash of tornadoes.

All of this would have been nice but confined to central Oklahoma until what happened late the following week. A man in an extremely nice suit and obviously expensive haircut came down the hallway to tour the newsroom and weather office. He was escorted by our general manager, assistant general manager, and news director. I shook his hand, he asked me a couple of questions, and then went into news. I learned his name shortly after he left: Frank Magid. He was there to learn about our storm coverage and how we accomplished it. 


Mr. Magid was the founder of (then) the only television news consulting company in the United States and his “Action News” advice was considered highly credible and effective in building ratings for his clients’ news operations. His clients included WABC TV (NYC) and stations throughout the nation. Even today, Frank Magid Associates is used by television stations across the United States. 


It was like a switch flipped: during the next couple of years, radars were purchased, meteorologists hired, and weather comedians’ contracts were not renewed. Mr. Magid partnered with ABC News to create Good Morning America and, for weather, hired John Coleman out of Chicago -- who was a terrific presenter and highly credible on-air meteorologist. Within a relatively short period of time, GMA was challenging Today’s decades-long ratings leadership. As Wikipedia puts it,


 Good Morning America overtook its rival for a period from the early to mid-1980s with anchors David Hartman and Joan Lunden,


Today, virtually every television station has access to radar and most markets have at least one meteorologist. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcast stations, now mandates tornado coverage, which wasn’t true in 1974. “Wall-to-wall” (continuous) coverage during tornado situations is common. But, even though the science, technology, and techniques have improved, when major tornadoes threaten, your local television meteorologist works as hard as we did that Saturday.


It is likely that some or all of this would have occurred eventually. But, there is little doubt that June 8, 1974, was “the day television weather grew up.”

*Here is radio coverage from Tulsa's KRMG before the first of the two tornadoes struck. It is here, scroll down to the second "June 8" recording. You will hear the radio announcer reading off counties under tornado warnings but no description of where the tornadoes actually were occurring (until the NWS comes on, briefly, twice.This is part of what we revolutionized that day -- minute by minute reporting of the location and projected paths of the tornadoes.  

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