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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

‘Rock stars’ of Kansas weather: A conversation with four local broadcasters

By Carrie Rengers
The Wichita Eagle

Kansans have a well-known obsession for weather, which makes celebrities of the broadcasters who report it. There are few more recognizable people locally. They are equally important to their stations – for ratings and profits.

In Wichita, that includes KWCH, Channel 12 chief meteorologist Merril Teller, who has been there for almost 31 years; KSN, Channel 3 chief meteorologist Dave Freeman, who has been there for 19 years; KAKE, Channel 10 managing meteorologist Jay Prater, who has been there nine years; and KFDI 101.3-FM news director Dan Dillon, who has been the voice of radio storm coverage for 33 years.

It’s rare that the four are together, but they have much to discuss when they are.

The Eagle: I feel like I’m sitting with the rock stars of Wichita.

Prater: Hmm, nice.

Teller: Well, when I was about 15 or 16, but not anymore.

(Everyone laughs.)

The Eagle: So what are the cool parts of your job?

Teller: Well, getting to help people in dangerous situations.

Freeman: It sounds corny, but I was going to say exactly the same thing. We have a job where on any given day you can go home at night and say, “Man, we saved somebody’s life today.”

Teller: It’s priority No. 1, even though it happens really, when you get down to it, infrequently.

The Eagle: How many severe weather days do we get?

Teller: Boy, I don’t know …

Freeman: In our whole market?

Teller: 30 to 45, somewhere in there.

The Eagle: Nah, we don’t care about the whole market, just Wichita (laughing).

Prater: But that’s just it. We have to care about the whole market. … It’s like if I talk to Stan (Finger, The Eagle’s weather reporter) and I say, “Well you know out west today,” and he goes, “Oh, Goddard?” Ah, no, that would be near the Colorado line.

The Eagle: What are the biggest obstacles to doing your jobs?

Teller: Keeping up with the technology.

Dillon: Yes.

Teller: And the learning curves.

Dillon: We have to jump through so many more hoops in terms of severe weather coverage in the evening than we’ve ever done before. You had mentioned that it makes you feel pretty good to, you know, be part of an effort that saves people’s lives. That’s exactly how I felt after (the tornado on) April 14. … When it was all over and no one was hurt, I felt like, wow, I’m a part of something special here.

Freeman: Yeah, that night, I mean, in my head I was thinking 100 fatalities. …When somebody told me that not only was there no fatality, but one serious injury, I think that goes to the National Weather Service, who did a great job that night … and then I think it goes to the fact that in this market we have four really strong operations that truly are full of all dedicated people. And I would also say we all actually get along, and we all like each other, which you can’t say in many markets.

Prater: And not only do we have a good relationship as broadcasters, but our community has a very good working relationship with the weather service in Wichita, and that, believe it or not, is not universal throughout the country.

The Eagle: So how do you feel going into a day like April 14, knowing the weather could be devastating?

Teller: Get the regular work out of the way as quickly as possible.

(Laughter)

Teller: Because you know when it hits the fan, you’re not going to have time for anything else except storm coverage.

Freeman: Well, I’ve got to be honest with you. I actually – literally on those days – I say a prayer before I go to work: “Please don’t let me screw up.”

The Eagle: But in terms of – dare I use the word excitement …

Prater: No, I wouldn’t call it excitement as much as focus and determination. … You understand the potential for loss of life. Especially now. … I’ve got a 3- and a 4-year-old at home, and when I’m at work, I’m worried about my family, and you know the 14th was the first time I was ever confronted with my family being in the path of a tornado that I know is on the ground. … It took me a few minutes to collect myself.

Freeman: For that moment … you’re a father, you’re a husband, and then … you have to force those emotions back into place and you say, I’ve got a job to do.

The Eagle: Do you guys get a little envious sometimes that you can’t get out and see the weather that you’re reporting on?

Prater: Absolutely. I would love to chase – as long as it’s outside of Kansas. … I gotta be at work. Can’t take the day off.

The Eagle: How do you handle it when you’re criticized when the weather doesn’t match your forecast?

Prater: You care, but it’s part of the job, and you’ve got to deal with it.

Teller: We know the inaccuracies that are inherent in forecasting weather. And we know we’re not going to be perfect every time.

Prater: People don’t understand probability.

The Eagle: So are Kansans any smarter when it comes to weather than anybody else?

Dillon: They have to be because of their livelihood. … Especially with agriculture. You really can’t live here without knowing what’s going to happen with the weather.

Freeman: You come up to a kindergartner in this area and say, “What’s the tornado safety rules?” and they’ll tell you. … Back in the eastern part of the country, they’re going to give you a blank stare. I think people are very, very weather savvy here.

The Eagle: Where is the worst part of Tornado Alley, and are we in it?

Teller: Yeah, we’re right in the middle of it.

Prater: Everybody can tell you where Tornado Alley is, but if you gave us four maps, and we all secretly drew out Tornado Alley, not one would match.

The Eagle: How tough is this market in general to cover?

Freeman: This I believe is the most challenging … television severe-weather market in the country. … I don’t think anybody has a worse combination of climatology and geography in terms of the challenge of covering. You don’t come to this market unless you come in with your eyes open.

The Eagle: How do your wives feel about your jobs?

Freeman: You better be married to a saint.

Prater: I’m incredibly lucky. My wife is the daughter of a funeral director. … She understands what it’s like to have somebody on call 24-7, 365. And that has helped a lot.

Dillon: Same with Carol. … She knows it’s part of the job.

Teller: (Rita) knew what she was in for, and she’s put up with it.

The Eagle: When you’re out of town and miss a big severe weather event, how do you feel?

Prater: You feel guilty, but at the same time, nothin’ you can do about it.

Dillon: I was in Kansas City when Greensburg hit. … Heard about it the next morning on the Weather Channel.

Freeman: What?

Prater: If we hear of anything on the Weather Channel, we’ve not done our job.

(Howls of laughter while Prater and Freeman bump fists)

Freeman: Yeah, next time we’re at a conference (Weather Channel meteorologist Jim) Cantore won’t talk to us.

Prater: I got his personal cell.

The Eagle: How concerned are you with digital media that maybe one day you won’t actually be needed?

Freeman: It’s changing at an astounding rate – the behavior of viewers. … How they get information. How they consume and use it is changing I think at a faster pace now than anytime in history.… I think every single person at this table will not recognize the business when we’re done as compared to when we started.

Prater: If there ever comes a point where the user base doesn’t feel the need for that connection, if we become such a sterile society that it’s strictly data driven, then we’re out of luck.

The Eagle: For now, there’s still a very human element to it, though, right?

Prater: I will admit that if I am concerned that a major outbreak is going to occur, I have trouble sleeping the night before because I am worried about the weather and the kind of job we’re going to do and the impact it’s going to have on people. … You’d think by now I’d be able to sleep pretty well at night before a big event. I still can’t.

The Eagle: Does technology make your jobs easier?

Prater: Every time we have an improvement in technology that’s supposed to save time, well it might save time in that one particular task, but because that became easier, they assume, oh, we can do all this now. And so, don’t occasionally we miss Difax (an early digital method of transmitting maps) and colored pencils?

Freeman: What are you talking about? We actually stood in front of real maps.

Prater: Oh, my gosh. There’s something about a piece of paper with a colored pencil that seems so caveman-painting-on-wall now.

Teller: When I started, there were two computer models available to forecast with.… Now there are umpteen different models that we could look at every day, but there’s not enough time to look at all of them.

Prater: That’s true. The problem we have is truly drinking from the fire hose. … Honestly, it’s a golden age in weather. We’ve got science. We’ve got remote sensing. We have better modeling, and I just – I’m just excited about what the future’s going to bring. I just hope it doesn’t get too perfect where, you know, you still need a weather guy.

The conversation has been edited for length.

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or crengers@wichitaeagle.com.

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