Future weathercasters become masters of the green screen
As you stand in front of that green wall and stare into the camera, the internal monologue goes something like this: "Pace yourself. Watch your monitor, and don't stand in front of the map. Remember to breathe at an even rate. Don't ramble; you only have about three minutes. Remember what slide is coming next, and make clear transitions. Don't stand in front of the map. Be aware of your arms—you want to look natural, not jittery. Don't get too technical. Avoid saying 'umm.' And for the last time, don't stand in front of the map."
Weathercasters on the nightly news make it look easy, but delivering a weather forecast in front of a green screen takes skill, patience and a considerable number of bloopers to get it right. It's a lesson in public speaking and humility that Atmospheric Sciences students, including Helen Holt, '14, and Lewis Dortch, '14, must learn if they want to become on-air professionals. The Atmospheric Sciences department offers two classes that develop students' confidence in a TV studio setting: Broadcast Meteorology for majors, and Weathercasting for non-majors.
"Working in front of that screen takes a lot of practice," says Dortch. "I remember the first time I tried it, I was talking about weather patterns around Asheville, and I really thought my hand was pointing at the town. Then I looked over at my monitor (a TV set that shows a composite image of himself with the map superimposed in the background), and I was pointing straight at Michigan. The next time, I found myself pointing at New York. It took me a few tries, but I eventually found Asheville."
Finding Asheville has become a running theme in Dortch's life. He grew up here but went to college in the Piedmont after high school. After a few semesters, he realized that he wanted to pursue weather forecasting as a career, so he switched to UNC Asheville, which has one of only two Atmospheric Sciences departments with a forecasting track similar to this in the state.
The forecasting track is ultimately designed to teach students who will work for organizations like the National Weather Service, NASA or NOAA. But I also see many students who are very serious about working in the television business, and they put in a lot of extra effort in the studio."
— Alex Huang, professor of Atmospheric Sciences
Holt came to UNC Asheville from Cape Carteret, N.C., specifically for this program as well. "I've always been fascinated by watching the weather patterns on TV," she says, "and I've always known that I wanted to make forecasting my job."
More than just weather reporters, these students are expected to be scientists first—able to understand and predict weather patterns.
Atmospheric Sciences students have two tracks of study available at UNC Asheville. They can go into the climatology track, which is aimed at scientific research. Climatology students typically advance on to graduate school and maybe work for a university or an organization like the National Climatic Data Center here in Asheville. Otherwise, students can go into the forecasting track where they will learn to analyze and process weather data to predict future weather and to deliver weather information to the public. Holt, Dortch and their classmates already have spent a few semesters studying within the department’s math-intensive weather forecasting track.
"The forecasting track is ultimately designed to teach students who will work for organizations like the National Weather Service, NASA or NOAA," said Alex Huang, professor of Atmospheric Sciences, who also teaches the broadcast meteorology classes. "But I also see many students who are very serious about working in the television business, and they put in a lot of extra effort in the studio."
He encourages even his research students to take at least one green-screen class. "I tell them that it doesn't matter what profession you choose, you will eventually be called upon to speak publically," says Huang. "You could be working for a forecasting agency, and the news people suddenly need to interview an expert. Or you could be a researcher who has to deliver a lecture on some new findings. You must be comfortable with speaking to cameras and speaking in public."
As for students who plan to be on-air professionals, this class is their first step. Huang admits that he's no Al Roker or Jim Cantore himself, but he's able to give students enough camera time and critiquing to help them develop solid demo tapes that can help them earn internships.
"You need to be able to think quickly and accurately as your maps change on the monitor," Huang said. "Be able to say not too much or too little, and let the graphics lead you in your talk—maybe add some energetic attitude and friendly personality."
Huang estimates that at least 20 to 25 graduates are currently working as on-air forecasters in cities across the country. Many more work behind the scenes at TV stations, including The Weather Channel—the ESPN of self-proclaimed weather geeks.
It's that strong foundation in atmospheric science and a good demo tape that helped Holt land her first internship this summer at WCTI, the ABC TV station in New Bern, N.C. She will help the station develop forecasts for their morning news broadcasts. "My shift will start around 3 a.m. and end around 7 a.m.," she says, noting that she will have to be awake by 1 a.m. to make the hour-long drive from home to the TV station. Never mind the early hours; Holt can't wait to start shadowing an on-air weather forecaster and get some exposure to industry-standard equipment and software.
"I'm so excited about this opportunity," Holt said. "Ever since second grade, I've wanted to be a weather woman. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I only wanted to come to UNC Asheville to attend this program. This was my plan, and I'm living a dream."