I always had a passion for weather. I just never knew that I had it until my dad asked me what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I still remember the conversation. It was my senior year, I was sitting at the dining room table right next to the head of the table. My dad walked in through the hall toward the kitchen, stopped, put his hands down, and said, “Son what are you going to do for the rest of your life?” “I don’t know dad. Fireman? Electrician?” He went, “Why don’t you go study the weather? You’re like a freak when it snows. We leave the barn light on so you can see the first flakes. You shovel the driveway so your mother can get to work. You have to wake up every day for the next fifty years of your life and go to work – you really have to love what you do.”
That was that. We looked into colleges, and I settled on Lyndon State where I eventually got my degree in meteorology. At school when I studied the broadcasting side, my first time in front of a camera was awful. I tried to memorize everything I was going to say. I completely failed. It was ugly. The next time I thought, “You know, just go say what’s on your mind. Don’t rehearse. Just go do it.” It worked.
After I graduated, I was painting a building in Vermont when I got a call that would change my life. I was up on this scaffolding when my brother yelled, “Hey The Weather Channel wants to talk to you.” It was totally out of the blue because I didn’t apply. They found me. It was really cool because we just got the network on cable in Vermont, so I actually watched some of those guys.
At the time, The Weather Channel worked with a company who knew where all the upcoming meteorologists were graduating from and where they were being placed. Lyndon State is a very popular school for growing meteorologists, and they have a very high percentage of job placement in the industry. So that’s how they found me. They got a look at my tape on this huge reel and brought me down to Atlanta for an interview. When I came down, I was a little bit star struck- which I don’t usually get for anybody.
The interview really went well. The hiring manager, Ray Ban, was just a really cool guy. We were just man to man with each other. I don’t think he expected me to be any different than what I am on the air today, and really that’s the only way I am. What you see is what you get. We had an honest man to man interview. He liked me and gave me a shot. I’d like to say that after 30 years I haven’t let him down, but I never forgot that. He didn’t have to give a kid with no experience that dream shot. To come here from college to a national network was a huge deal! I didn’t have any clue at the time how huge a deal it was, but it really was. Getting a job at The Weather Channel right out of college was like wow!
The Weather Channel 30 years ago was weather all the time. The morning on-camera meteorologists would alternate hours – 5, 7,9 and 11 or 6, 8, 10 and 12 – and it was a lot more talking than it is now. For a four hour shift, you’d talk for 25 minutes of each hour. Which, after four hours, is a lot of chattin’ and a lot of map. We’d have to stack our own shows. We put the frames that the maps were on through an old quantel paintbox, so we had store it, recall it and put it into a thing called a stack. The stagnant images would each get a number. Radars used to have to be called up from the newsdesk by a person. Then you would call for them when you were on the air. Then that person would switch the radar on and off the air. We’d have to move our own maps – a little bit like we have to do today – which is the only thing that’s the same. But there was no drawing on them. We also had to adjust our own cameras before we went out on the air. So if I followed a tall person and forgot to adjust the camera, I’d come out looking like a talking head!
I always want the ball when the game is on the line. So I made myself available to be the go-to field reporter, frankly at some personal sacrifice, but that was the job I was meant to do. I remember the first weather event I covered like it was yesterday. The second landfall of Hurricane Andrew in Louisiana, 1992. My air conditioning unit on the 16th floor of my hotel blew in the window and into the middle of my floor, while I was in bed sleeping. I wake up, and I look outside the window and literally there were transformers exploding everywhere surging and popping. It looked like the Fourth of July. So I woke up everyone “We got to go live. We got to go live. This thing is coming in.” I woke up the crew, and we get up and running. I think it was one of the earliest times we’ve ever been live on the air in our existence.
Though you always remember your first, other big events stand out. Katrina was a game changer. I think had post traumatic stress from that – that I dealt with on my own. I never smelled death; I never witnessed death until then. They were long hours. We slept in the car, and we ate crap food, but hopefully our efforts there helped bring humanitarian efforts to the people of Mississippi and Louisiana. Ike was amazing because I was in the eye. So I got both sides of the hurricane including the calm. Fran was scary because I watched boats come up on the road across from my hotel. That was crazy. The thundersnow events I experienced in Chicago and Plymouth, MA were really dynamic and powerful. It’s intense to see Mother Nature one up herself a little bit because it’s never the same. No storm is ever the same.
I’ve been around a lot of death and destruction in my life, and I really don’t care if I never see that again. Really just the worst time of their whole freakin lives and they are standing right in front of me pouring it out to me. It’s not just one person. It’s person after person after person day after day, disaster after disaster, and it takes its toll on you.
On a humorous note, one of the things I struggled with the most in my career was the hair loss. I really hated losing my hair. I thought “Do I get plugs? Do I get a hair piece?” I started taking these topical solutions and using these pills to grow hair. The day I decided I was going to shave it all off was during Katrina because I knew the power could be out for days and I wouldn’t be able to get near an electric razor and trim it. So I said screw it. I’m just going to shave the whole dang thing off. I think it works for me. I loved my hair, but I like this look better now. It’s not so much that I cared, but it was what the business expected. It expected a full head of hair. Once I shaved it and enjoyed the way I looked, I thought, “This is the real me,” not this halfway in between guy who has some hair. It happened at the perfect time where being bald was kind of cool. Bruce Willis led the way. Thanks man. I went from Stallone in Rambo with huge hair to Bruce Willis with no hair, but I still had the same type of charisma.
My God has the forecasting world evolved since 1986. The technology improvements are incredible. The different computer models we look at. The way we look at them. The speed of which they come to us. Higher resolution models. The detail in some of these models. We’ve had upgrades in the radar and satellite. Being that guy who may or may not get it right is just a thing in the past. If we don’t get it right we are pissed off. It’s pretty rare that we get it totally wrong. There really isn’t much that we can’t see coming these days. Back in the day we were lucky to get it right, especially with east coast storms. The rain/snow line has always been something that’s difficult to forecast and it still is to an extent.
When I first got here, Local on the 8s was HUGE. Every 8 minutes I can get my local forecast, are you kidding me? Now if it takes you 8 seconds to get your local forecast that’s a long time. That’s where we’ve come. So you kind of wonder where the future is going.
Social media has just revolutionized how I communicate the weather. There are so many things I can do and show on social media – it’s crazy. People love sending pictures. Sunsets are still beautiful and sunrises are still gorgeous. Cloud structures are breathtaking. I get to see what they see, and I get to share with everybody less. Big time audience interaction. Now if I don’t tweet for a couple hours or a couple of days, people are like “dude, you alright?” Or sometimes people will just flat out ask me what I think of a situation.
One of my favorite things about this gig is being able to meet people – I just love meeting people in the field. I love that my parents were able to watch my career – literally. I’ve worked with some great meteorologists – oh my God! I mean John Hope was my mentor. He taught me compassion. Dr. Forbes is my mentor. He taught me radar meteorology top to bottom. He shows me dedication to his craft. This guy literally goes home and takes the country with him. I love his work ethic. I love being side by side with him when the game is on the line.
I don’t like to sit around and do the same thing. I like to mix it up a little bit. It’s nice to be out in the field. It’s where my people are. It’s where I feel most comfortable. It’s an extension of my childhood. I was outside all the time as a kid, even in the worst weather. Now I do it as an adult and get paid for it and enjoy it. When I started at The Weather Channel, I was a swashbuckling young guy wanting to be in the worst of it, but now there is purpose. People expect me to be out there. They expect me to take them through it and tell them when they can get back home. It’s a tremendous driving force when you have a purpose-driven life. It’s really a powerful thing. So I feel like I’m that guy. People count on me. One of these days I might not feel that way, and that’s when I’ll hang it up.
My advice to others thinking about a career in meteorology is the same thing my dad said to me – make sure you love what you do. Because you really do have to wake up the next fifty years of your life and go to work everyday, so make sure you love what you do. It’s nice to look back and think about how many lives that we have saved, helped along the way and influenced, especially with young men and women out there who found their love for weather by watching The Weather Channel.
It’s been a wonderful ride.
See all of the stories and videos that commemorate Jim’s 30 years at The Weather Channel by clicking the links below!