STARKVILLE, Miss. — Across the country, a barely detectable Southern flavor spices local TV weather forecasts, up to a third of which are delivered by former students of Mississippi State University.
Meteorologists are one part TV star, one part scientist, and Mississippi State takes pride in producing forecasters who can do both parts equally well.
“That is our claim to fame — producing people who do TV weather and who are hopefully a little more prepared than Willard Scott,” says director Mark Binkley, the program’s director who says NBC’s semiretired weatherman is more a personality than a meteorologist.
The American Meteorology Society, which gives out a seal of approval that’s often advertised on local news programs, says about 25 percent of forecasters it approves are MSU-educated. Keith Westerlage, director of on-camera meteorology at The Weather Channel, said up to a third of the nation’s forecasters have ties to Mississippi State — when you add in the people who study through its distance-learning program.
Behind the university’s formula are two professors — one for the science, one for everything else.
Wayne Verno is the everything-else guy: image consultant, voice coach, psychologist ...
He may urge students to have more inflection in their voice, less movement in their eyebrows. And if asked, he might quietly advise weight loss to improve job chances.
Beyond that, Verno says: “I have to let students develop their style. It’s not my place to say, ‘You’re going to be the serious weathercaster and you’re going to be the more comical weathercaster.”’
Verno’s partner, Mike Brown, handles the science.
The two pride themselves on producing students who are technically sound.
TV weather has evolved over the years, from a straight-laced presentation in the 1950s and 1960s, to a personality-driven approach in the 1970s. Since the 1980s, stations have pushed for forecasters with a solid meteorological background.
The American Meteorology Society sets the national standards for broadcast meteorology. It judges both education and communication skills.
“We’re really not supposed to be experts in on-air talent,” says the AMS’ Kelly Garvey. “We pretty much like to judge the scientific ability of the person, but because it’s so important for the broadcaster to relay the message to the public, we have the tape grading.”
Garvey said the AMS awards about 80 seals each year. Mississippi State’s 25 percent take is not matched by any other school, she said.
The university’s influence is so wide because of its video and Internet distance-learning program, which takes three years of study at 15 hours a week. About 1,400 students have graduated since 1987.
It has helped some of the highest-profile forecasters in the country. About a quarter of The Weather Channel’s 30 on-air forecasters have a Mississippi State pedigree. The program is popular because it gives midcareer people a way to advance while continuing to work, Westerlage said.
Bob Stokes, seen on The Weather Channel Saturday through Tuesday mornings, said the program was “wonderful.”
“You had to study for this stuff. It’s not something you just walk in without cracking a book,” Stokes said. “Some of the more successful and outstanding broadcast meteorologists have gotten their education at MSU.”
Many weather schools teach more hard-core science than Mississippi State and are more likely to fill private and government jobs, as with the National Weather Service.
Fred Carr, director of the University of Oklahoma’s school of meteorology, says many schools offer a weather broadcasting emphasis, but not the intensive course Binkley and Mississippi State have.
“Mark, I’ll have to give him credit, he’s put Mississippi State on the map with that program,” Carr said.
Binkley says research shows TV audiences pick a news channel based on their weather coverage.
“When it’s a high of 92 and a 30 percent chance of showers, they’re all going to say the same thing,” he said. “The days that there is severe weather is when you find out who your best person is. And the only way to be good in severe weather is to know your meteorology.”