A Brief History of The Wacky Weatherman Trope

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The weather is certainly not something to be trifled with. As severe and dangerous events are becoming more frequent due to the effects of climate change, meteorology is a more serious business than ever before.

When the Weather Channel announced it would buy competing online weather service Weather Underground, many people were furious. The latter was always viewed as a serious, data-driven meteorological source, whereas the Weather Channel runs a website that tends to be dominated by click-bait link teases rather than actual weather reporting. Fans of Weather Underground feared their staid site would turn into a shiny and vapid dumping ground for sensationalist storm stories, but weather reporting hasn't always been treated with stoic reverence.

During television's early days, the "Wacky Weatherman" was a common and celebrated feature on newscasts. Between 1948 and 1952, the FCC put a halt to any new station licensing. This meant that channels in major markets had little to no competition for viewers. News reports remained serious, as did the weather. But in 1952, when the FCC's diktat was lifted, new competing stations starting popping up around the country. According to Robert Henson's Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology, "the ratings race was now under way, and television weather was not to escape its efforts."

"There were obvious restraints on the news itself—fires and shootings were hardly the stuff of comedy—so weather evolved into a primary arena for making the newscast more palatable," writes Henson. "The result was TV weather’s wildest and most uninhibited period.” Because all the information was coming from the same source—the National Weather Service—there was no need to have professional meteorologists in-house. The AP wire would spit out the forecast, and comedians, models, and other compelling faces were used to spice it up and bring in viewers.

In the above clip, Savannah, Georgia's Captain Sandy reads the weather with Clamity Clam, Aurther-mometer, and Wilbur the Weather Bird. Captain Sandy was a character played by multiple people over his run, highlighting the importance of having a weather "personality."

“A Nashville weathercaster gave his forecast in verse," writes Robert Henson. "Viewers in New York could get weather information at midnight from an ostensibly sleepy woman in a nightgown, tucking herself into bed.”

In 1957 in an attempt to wrestle the weather away from the wacky, the American Meteorological Society created the AMS Seal of Approval "as a way to recognize on-air meteorologists for their sound delivery of weather information to the general public." This was given to "television and radio forecasters who have a degree in meteorology or have completed 12 credit hours in atmospheric or related sciences…the weathercaster must submit a recording that is reviewed by a board of professional meteorologists.”

This coincided with a development that proved to be even more influential than any seal of approval: technologies that helped predict local weather more accurately. In this clip, former Tulsa, Oklahoma weatherman Don Woods talks about how his station took the radar system from an old B-25 bomber and re-tooled it to pick up precipitation. It was the first such use of radar technology, and, according to Woods, "Everybody was awe-stricken."

Soon, advanced and accurate technology replaced wacky characters as the big draw for weather reports, although television stations' newfound gizmo-based hubris is always good for some laughs:

Nowadays, there are remnants of the "Wacky Weatherman," but they exist mostly in the movies or areas with a pleasantly monotonous climate. You can only say "72 and sunny" so many times before going a little batty.