On-Air Highlights

Talking weather

Written by Ben Allen | May 9, 2014 11:12 AM
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Storm clouds hover over a farm in Lancaster County.

By mid-February, I might as well have memorized the phone number for the State College office of the National Weather Service. It seemed every week I was making a call to check on what the next storm would mean for the midstate. But when everyone started saying a storm would be the biggest of the winter, we knew we were in for a long day.

When big news hits, it often comes as a surprise. There are no warnings when a plane might crash or when a tragedy might strike in Central PA.

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In between pitches for “Roses,” Allen anchors when the weather turned bad.

Journalists are forced to rely on their training and try to keep up. But when major news such as a hurricane or a snowstorm can be anticipated, planning becomes key. Conditions might interfere with that advance planning, but at least the staff knows what needs to get done and who will be responsible for each piece of the story.

Tim Lambert did the delegating. I would take care of delays and closings, check updates from the National Weather Service, provide hourly newscasts on WITF and keep witf.org up to date. The snow left Matt Paul stuck at home, but he managed to walk to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency headquarters for a news conference with Gov. Tom Corbett. Scott Lamar turned “Smart Talk” into special snow coverage, featuring interviews with spokespeople from PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The show also included an update from StateImpact Pennsylvania’s Marie Cusick, who was in Lancaster. Watching it all, and making sure we didn't miss anything, was Lambert. (He even donned a formidable snow suit to venture out in the cold to capture audio and snap pictures.)

Oh, and just to complicate things a little bit, the storm came in the middle of our on-air “Roses” campaign, which fell to Fred Vigeant, WITF’s director of programming and promotions for TV and radio.

How did all of this work in practice, though?

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Fred Vigeant, Tim Lambert and Ben Allen used Twitter, TV and the Internet to get updates.

There’s an art and a science to covering breaking news. The science is the planning, the backup plan and the backup plan to the backup plan. The art is being able to transition from writing for a newscast to updating delays and closings B to an interview with the National Weather Service or PennDOT. It’s basically taking a full day and compressing it into a couple of hours with the added pressure of getting timely, accurate and complete information to listeners. But that’s what makes all of this fun.

With snowstorms, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The snow starts falling and doesn't stop for hours. When it finally does, well, there’s the cleanup. When will the roads be clear and open? What about my street? Will my town have enough salt to keep the roads safe going forward?

There were constant updates on “Morning Edition.” Then Lamar had updates on “Smart Talk.” More updates followed at the top of each hour, taking listeners all the way into that evening’s “All Things Considered” when Lambert picked things up.

And just when you think you've made all the calls you can, something else develops and there’s more to do. In the world we live in, WITF doesn't just update you through 89.5 FM and 93.3 FM stations. We also have Twitter accounts (@witfnews and @BenAllenWITF), witf.org and sometimes even Instagram to provide the latest information.

Thankfully, Joe Ulrich also made it into the WITF studios that day and was able to help support our work. Many tasks inevitably fall through the cracks during breaking news. Ulrich, who is also a talented photographer, managed to capture the mood inside the studio and snagged a couple of great shots of the scenes outside.

Through it all, we just kept moving and moving and moving. As things settled down, we had a chance to catch our breath. While none of us got to go sledding down the hill at the WITF studios, the day was a success.

Just one more reminder: There are no snow days in the media business. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

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