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posted: 4/21/2018 6:00 AM

How John Coleman and others launched the Weather Channel

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  • Angie Ballentine discusses the days stories during the 3 p.m. daily production meeting at the Weather Channel Studios on January 3,2008 in Atlanta.

    Angie Ballentine discusses the days stories during the 3 p.m. daily production meeting at the Weather Channel Studios on January 3,2008 in Atlanta.
    Bloomberg photo by Chris Rank

 
By Jason Samenow
The Washington Post

When the Weather Channel launched in 1982, its founder, John Coleman, knew he was on to the start of something important. In its first night on air, he presciently told viewers that the channel would "become the nation's primary source of weather information."

Shaking off skepticism, the Weather Channel quickly became one of America's most beloved cable networks and, indeed, the most-watched source for weather news. Before the internet, it provided unrivaled access to weather information and helped keep people safe in severe storms. Its programming had a magnetic quality, luring many viewers to watch for hours on end.

Joe D'Aleo was the first director of meteorology at the Weather Channel and helped Coleman launch the network in 1982. He and Coleman, the well-known former Chicago weatherman who died earlier this year, recently released a new book on the cable channel's earliest days, "Weather Channel Pioneers, Tales From Those Who Made It Happen."

D'Aleo responded to questions about the book and the Weather Channel. His answers were edited for length and format.

Q. Tell us about the motivation for writing the book and its intended audience.

A. John Coleman and I and a number of the original Weather Channel pioneers decided to tell the story of what it took to revolutionize the way weather information was disseminated to the nation, to tell the story of how the Weather Channel was started. We wanted to write the book before time silenced many of us. John passed away a few months after the writing began.

Many of the pioneers contributed their own experiences of working those early days, and this makes the book an entertaining and informative history, "the inside story" behind the founding of one of the country's favorite cable channels.

The book tells our stories and memories of how we succeeded in what was thought to be an impossible quest. We invite readers to step back in time and experience what it was like to make that dream a success and imagine sharing that adventure. The pioneers were in many ways trailblazers. We can only imagine how many careers in meteorology we have influenced over the years.

The book should appeal to just about everyone who loves weather and remembers the Weather Channel over the years.

Q. John Coleman is often credited as the Weather Channel's founder, with funding support provided by Frank Batten Sr. and Landmark Communications. I understand you played a pivotal role in the channel's launch as well. Can you briefly walk us through who the key players were in getting the Weather Channel off the ground?

A. John Coleman first told me about his dream of a 24/7 cable weather network when I was working as a vacation fill-in weather producer for his weather shows for "Good Morning America" in the hot summer of 1980. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to follow him. My family and I left my home in beautiful Vermont to work with John full time on "Good Morning America" out of the WLS studio in Chicago.

John was a veritable meteorological broadcaster rock star. He worked magic with green screen technology, pulling weather maps out of the air on WLS and "Good Morning America" -- in a world mostly still using magnetic maps. He was winning awards for his on-air weather presentations in the early 1980s.

As exciting as that was, John was frustrated by the fact the time allotted for each show was never guaranteed. If the news or sports segments ran over, weather took the hit on time.

He was convinced that what was needed was a 24/7 weather network like what CNN was doing for news.

Over the years, John polished up the business plan and sometimes, after his last morning show, would fly off to a distant city to try to sell the idea. His idea routinely was rejected. John flew home, changed his clothes and came to work.

After a year of rejections, though, I was feeling a little like Sancho Panza following Don Quixote on his impossible dream quest.

But suddenly there was interest from a number of major media players including Landmark Communications. They had wanted to expand into cable programming to do news when the CEO, Frank Batten Sr., developed cancer.

After Frank recovered, they set up new venture groups to explore alternatives. One of the members was in a poker game with John Coleman and when John told him about his weather programming idea, he brought him to Landmark. They quickly worked out a deal and we were off and running.

Q. When the Weather Channel launched, what was the level of confidence it would succeed?

A. Though there were doubters, we were confident internally we would be meeting our viewers' needs and would succeed. A National Weather Service survey indicated that TV was the main source of local weather information. This was true despite the fact that a typical station or network only devoted 15 to 18 minutes on an average broadcast day to weather coverage.

We had major challenges though -- the biggest was providing the local information that the viewers needed. Our technical staff worked furiously to be able to deliver the local weather, local forecasts and all severe weather messages.

For it to work, we had to get the Weather Service to change how they formatted their local forecasts and warnings with address coding that allowed our systems to know what was important to them and where they get displayed.

During this incredibly dynamic start-up period, everyone went straight out, never entertaining the thought that what we wanted to do was impossible. We pulled off everyday miracles, overcame all obstacles and, along the way, changed the paradigms for technology, weather data, forecast and warning delivery, meteorology and on-air weather presentations. It was a time and a team like no other.

Q. What is your impression of the Weather Channel as a network today? Do you watch it? Do you feel like it is fulfilling your early visions? What might you change about it to make it better?

A. I watch little television, keeping myself busy with seven-days-per-week forecasting for WeatherBELL Analytics, along with my compadre Joe Bastardi and our other great staff.

The Weather Channel realized years ago that the internet and mobile technology would cut into ratings and focused more of their energies on those areas. That was the right move.

I hope the network does as their new owners promise, recommit to being the full-time weather source on TV.

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