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BLOG: Weather behind the scenes

Head Weather Analyst Philip Duncan continues his trip of the USA…
On Tuesday last week I met with America’s Weather Channel ( and CNN, both of which are based in Atlanta, Georgia. Coming from the dry, arid, plains of Colorado and Nebraska the week before I wasn’t too sure what to expect weather-wise when I arrived that night. My visit was for just 24 hours in Atlanta with wall to wall meetings all day Tuesday.
My contact Brent Bass, a meteorologist at who I’ve known for years, picked me up at the airport (first time we’ve met face to face though). He told me some parts of Atlanta recently experienced their worst floods in two centuries but the big high that gave me sunny, warm, weather in the Midwest also followed me to Georgia. It was certainly crisp but when I woke the next morning the sun was out and the weather was perfect – in fact the high was in the low 20s. 
The Weather Channel has a large high rise building out in a forested part of the city with spectacular views. Brent works for the Weather Channel Radio Network – basically doing an advanced version of what we do at the Radio Network in New Zealand with our WeatherWatch brand. I met the scientist who helped develop some of their incredibly smart technology – and it’s this technology that led us to them in the first place as we were impressed with their accuracy compared to other weather data providers around the globe. They were a great bunch of people and I hope I can share some of the great ideas they have developed in the US with New Zealanders.
That afternoon Brent whisked me to a restaurant where I ate Fried Green Tomatoes…they were kinda gross. Not too sure what the fuss is all about. Another odd thing about America is that most burgers come to you open with no salad. So you have one bun on its own then another bun with the meat and cheese on it. That’s it. You order your tomato, lettuce etc separately. If you want it all in the burger you ask for it ‘dressed out’. It’s kinda strange coming from New Zealand – some of them honestly have a great deal of trouble understanding our accent so I think my radio background has helped ensure I speak slowly and clearly.
Then I was off to CNN. There are only two moments in my career when I’ve been awe-struck. The first time was when I had just started working at the Radio Network and I met Paul Holmes in the lift. I don’t know why, but even today when he pops up to where I now sit I still feel slightly nervous around the guy. Probably because in the New Zealand media industry he has achieved the very top of the ladder – whether you like his style or not. And to those who work in radio he has the job that many of us would love.
The second time I was awe-struck was at CNN last week. My fantastic host Eric showed me around the building and because they are going through renovations the corridor we were walking in was nothing flash. Eric opened a door and we chatted as we walked through into a large room full of computers and people working. Before I realised it I was standing smack bang in the middle of CNN’s newsroom – when I looked up I could see the large illuminated CNN signs and realised instantly that this was the newsroom backdrop that you see when they’re broadcasting live. It was one of those utterly surreal moments. And behind me – the anchor talking into a camera. Not behind glass. Not in a separate room. But live, right there.
Eric took me right across the CNN Centre – a massive building with its own shopping atrium. Later he left me with the senior producer of CNN weather, Dave Hennen. As timing would have it, one of my favourite weather presenters of all time – Chad Myers – was there. I only know Chad from seeing him on TV covering big hurricanes. These guys stay up all night with their coverage when a huge hurricane moves in. He was the one that explained to viewers that a hurricane is like an ice skater….as they pull their arms in they spin faster. Hurricanes are similar. As their eye tightens the storm spins faster, sucking more energy in. I learnt that explanation from him.
Expecting a plastic, American, egotistical TV presenter I was instead warmly welcomed by a two very down to earth people. We chatted about the weather in New Zealand and how our forecasters differ. In America the government gives most of its data for free – allowing private organisations like CNN and to package it up and present it in the best way possible to the public. In New Zealand, the government has MetService, which it operates as a commercial business. Meaning data is rarely given away for free and free data is not updated as often as it could be. I’m sure you’ll know my view on which system I would prefer.
I had the chance to stand in the CNN Weather Centre and I don’t know if you’ve seen it but they basically have a $2000USD iphone screen on the wall. You can touch it, drag open items, zoom into rain radars, touch screen for temps, etc, anywhere in America. It really was an amazing product. I hope that the government in NZ relaxes the contract with MetService to free up data so that we can create products like that here in New Zealand…but with the government forecaster making a healthy profit I can’t see any politician wanting to change that any time soon. Is the public of New Zealand being well served here? I’d be interested in your comments.
Finally, I met up briefly with CNN International. (By the way, the Radio Network is a CNN Affiliate which is why I was so lucky to get a behind the scenes look). Again, incredibly friendly and welcoming hosts who are very keen to mention New Zealand more often in their international weather updates. They’ll be no doubt checking the WeatherWatch site for any weather news stories they could use.
So two amazing organisations – and my mind is filled with plenty of new ideas which I hope I can elaborate more on in the near future. 


Zelda Wynn on 29/10/2009 9:45pm

“So two amazing organisations – and my mind is filled with plenty of new ideas which I hope I can elaborate more on in the near future”.
I hope you get the opportunity to do so! The iphone screen sounds amazing.
No! public of NZ not being well served in many areas.
I do like your description of the hurricane being like an ice skater.

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