What It Was Like Producing ‘The Great American Chillout’

I hope everyone got the chance to see our week-long coverage of “THE GREAT AMERICAN CHILL-OUT” in which we explored cool places to visit– especially during the summer.

For me it was definitely an amazing, adventure — I started the week more than 250 feet under the earth and ended it more than 6200 feet up– Really cool!

Let me introduce myself. My name is Michelle Birnbaum. I am a Senior Producer, and its part of my job to help viewers experience what we experience through video, sound and live shots.

Here’s a bit of a behind the scenes look at how it all comes together — before you see it. And let me tell you, these live locations were a challenge.

7/14 FRIDAY

The adventure begins! Photographer Brad Reynolds and I hit the road for Cathedral Caverns in Woodville, Alabama. It’s a cool place in more ways than one, but more on that later. For us its a 3 plus hour drive from The Weather Channel HQ in Atlanta. Gave me time to get some work done. We stayed in Scottsboro, and couldn’t go there without at least a quick stop at the Unclaimed Baggage store.

7/15 SATURDAY

Today is our “Shoot Day”- the day we gather all the content we will use during our LIVE shots on Monday. Brad and I are joined by reporter Justin Michaels.

The three of us — along with our awesome and very knowledgeable escort Randall — head deep inside the cave. We tag along on a public tour expertly guided by Park Superintendent, Lamar Pendergrass. Along the way we shoot video and talk to a few of the visitors. Then we break off to shoot some of the other stuff we need to, including a bit more video and what we call “teases” which is exactly as it sounds, tease people to stay tuned to see what happens! As part of my job, we sometimes get to go where most people aren’t allowed. We do this so you can see some different things as well. But I must admit it can be a fun perk! We also got the addition of a golf cart to help transport our equipment — and us when needed.

The cave is cool (oh wow!) as you can see from some of my photos, but its also truly cool. The temperature stays about 60 degrees inside the cave year-round, no matter the weather on the outside. Why? 60 degrees is the median temperature in the area and caves, in general, tend to stay the same as the average annual temperature of wherever they are located. They are not influenced by any weather patterns above. In all, we probably spent more than 3 hours in the cave — and a bit more time outside doing an interview with the Superintendent and shooting some extra video. All of it is uploaded to the computer and logged — and then we get to assemble the video and sound into the content you see on our network.


This shows the humidity inside the Cathedral Caverns.

7/16 SUNDAY

No rest for the weary. It’s a morning start to get the story together as well as all of the other elements of video and sound we will use during our live shots. Our hotel rooms become our office, audio booth, edit suite and more. Check out some of the photos. Between Brad, Justin and I, we produced not only quite a bit of content, but also a story about the cave, its history and its weather. Then a long email back to The Weather Channel staffers with all the information and time to feed it all back. Just to export it out of our edit program takes a good 45 minutes. Then we feed through a cool piece of equipment called a LIveU. It allows us to go LIVE using cell technology.

The Cathedral Caverns

About an hour and a half break, and it’s back to the cave to set up for tomorrow’s LIVE shots. We don’t always have to set up the day before, but in this case it was imperative. There is NO cell service in the cave and very little bandwidth outside so we had to use the satellite dish that is on our vehicle.  It has to be parked to see the satellite and tested. Then we have to run a cable from our truck to our LIVE location deep inside the cave.  We had to run, probably, close to 2,000 feet of cable. Acting engineer John Thayer drove in from Atlanta to help and we also had the help of Park staffers Penny, Ethan and Randall to not only lay cable but also help us get all of our equipment including lights, stands, camera, etc into the cave. There is electricity in the cave, but its still pretty dark. Of course it is— its a CAVE! We could not have done it without their help. Everyone set up and tested the shot back at The Weather Channel before heading to dinner. Unfortunately, we had to wait until the cave closed to the public for the day to do all this, and it took about 3 1/2 hours in all to do what we needed to do. It was close to 8pm CT when we were finally able to relax.

7/17 MONDAY/GAME DAY!

Morning comes quickly when you are up at 3:30am CT. Our first LIVE shot is scheduled for 6:40am ET/5:40am CT. We leave the hotel before 4am CT for the half hour drive to the Cathedral Caverns. Luckily there is a 24hr McDonald’s on the way!! Can you say coffee! Our Park friends are there to meet us and take us in with the addition now of Milton to help. So glad we set up the night before it would have been impossible otherwise. But we still had equipment to bring in and a full hookup. And SUCCESS! One of my biggest worries besides the LIVE shots working was communication back to The Weather Channel with no cell service. We had to rely on it going though the same cable that transmitted the picture. All 3 of us, Justin, myself and Brad were tethered to that wonderful cable! But the LIVE shots went off without a hitch. Our LIVE location was at a huge rock column known as Goliath, one of the largest in the world. Its 45 feet tall and almost 250 feet around. We were able to be LIVE from both sides of Goliath but even moving lights from one side to another took 20 minutes with help. Still the extra lights on Goliath made this mammoth even more spectacular!

Once our 5 hours of LIVE shots are done, its time to wrap everything, pick up the cable and pack up. The area we were in was muddy so the cables and us took some cave mud out with us!

The hospitality and help we received from the Cathedral Caverns staff was awesome! I am grateful to them for helping us bring this spectacular and “cool” location to our viewers. After goodbyes, it was time for John, Brad and myself to drive home.

I got to spend a couple of days back in Atlanta — just enough time to finalize all the plans, logistics, and some file & new video for the next adventure, Mt Washington in New Hampshire.

THURSDAY 7/20

Packing for this trip was a bit tricky because I’m packing for two climates the cold/chilly/windy weather at the top of the mountain, and the more temperate, summer conditions at the bottom. We are going to be spending time in both places. I fly into Portland, ME in the afternoon, then drive about an hour and a half to Mt. Washington/North Conway area. It was a scenic drive to the North Conway area. I passed one small New England town after another on the one lane road. There I met up with Meteorologist Reynolds Wolf and Multimedia Journalist Matt Saffer.

FRIDAY 7/21

The second adventure in a week officially gets underway. We spend the early afternoon shooting an interview with the GM of the Auto Road and video at the base before heading up the steep, winding Auto Road leading to the mountain. And I’m not exaggerating about the steep, winding aspect!  Its about an 8 mile road that is an almost constant 12% grade (sometimes steeper) and by-the -way, no guard rails, on purpose! Matt was driving (thank goodness!) and there were times I admit I could not look. On a good day, like we had, it takes about half an hour to make the trek by car, on a bad day a lot longer, and on a really bad day in the winter, using a snowcat, it can take upwards of 6 hours to go up. And remember, people live at the Observatory year-round recording what’s known as the world’s worst weather, so there always has to be a way to get up and down. Interestingly, part of the road has been left unpaved to allow people to experience what the journey was like before there was pavement.


A timelapse of our journey to the Observatory.

We made it! Time to pull out the warmer gear! First glance around- all I can say is wow! But there’s no time to dwell, it’s already late afternoon and we have another interview to do then set up for LIVE shots in the morning. Like in the cave, we wanted to have cables set and tested, communications set and tested so at 0 dark 30 we would be ready to go. Oh, did I tell you we were spending the night there? And another thing, to say the cell service was spotty is an understatement! Thanks to IT Guru Keith Garrett and Matt, who had made a visit to site survey the week before, they had figured out that with a long ethernet cable we could connect our LiveU unit to the Observatory WiFi.

At the top of the Mt Washington Observatory.

Now the problem of communication with The Weather Channel HQ with not very good cell service. As I’ve said before cell phones are the usual way we set up what’s called our IFB which allows The Weather Channel to tell us we are LIVE, to wrap, etc. And in this case we could not use the same cable we used for picture as we did in the cave. We were considering our options, including trying to tap into their land line with a long phone cable or cordless phone, BUT again thanks to Keith we figured out we could do WiFi calling on Matt’s phone. My phone and Reynolds phone could not do that, we discovered, after I spent time on the phone with my carrier. So, luckily as a backup, I had brought one of the TWC spare phones that was on another carrier and we were able to use that one. This is just par for the course, having to rig and figure out and problem solve to make it all work!

One of the potential LIVE locations was gonna be in what’s known as the tower. The visiting public is not allowed in the tower. It has a lot of weather observing equipment and is actually higher than the summit. Mt Washington, itself, is the highest point in the Northeastern United States, and the tower is higher than that. We all went up to the tower to take a look. Now, not many people know that while I don’t have a fear of being high up, I do have a fear of being high up and having no control, nothing to hold onto. To get to the tower you have to climb 2 ladders, a huge fear for me! I actually went up the ladder and down a couple of times saying I just couldn’t do it. But in the end I did, and I’m glad I did!  An amazing view and experience. The winds up there were about 55 mph sustained!

Winds are so strong in this location that this house had to be chained to the ground!

Back inside, all set up, I meet my bunk mates for the night, the 3 summer interns, all very nice. In addition to the full time staff, and the interns, oh and Marty the weather cat, there are always volunteers who help out. In this case, long time volunteers Dennis and Johanna were with us and served as the cooks. Dennis made awesome homemade pizza and a delicious chocolate torte!

SATURDAY 7/22

LIVE day from the summit of Mt Washington! Awoke, very early, as you can imagine. We were up and working by about 4:30 am ET. But in exchange for the early hour, we were treated to an amazing sunrise! I was grateful for the experience.

We had interesting weather throughout the morning of LIVE shots. It was actually a perfect way to show viewers how quickly conditions can change at the top. The morning started clear, then in a matter of minutes the fog rolled in and you could no longer see the mountains around us. Then as quickly as the fog came it moved off. This happened a few times throughout the morning, including, as if on cue, during one of our LIVE shots.

Saturday was also the day that the Mt Washington Observatory held its annual Seek the Peak Fundraiser. In case you don’t know, the Observatory is a nonprofit education and research facility studying weather and climate. 24/7, 365 days a year, every hour a weather observer/meteorologist records the conditions and has been for 85 years now. But way before that, 1870, is when the first weather data on the mountain was taken. Mt Washington is known as having the world’s worst weather. Why? Basically because of it being the highest peak in the NE, there is nothing to get in the way of any weather system coming from Canada. Anyway, this year 3 members of The Weather Channel family took part in fundraiser which includes a hike up the mountain. And its not an easy hike as I would slightly experience a bit later. Kathryn Prociv, Jess Arnoldy and Kendahl Thompson all completed the journey. At last count, more than $157,000 had been raised in total.

Kendahl Thompson and Kathryn Prociv making their way up Mt. Washington.

After the LIVE shots were done for the day, and new video of the hikers shot for the next day, Matt Saffer and I decided to do a short hike of our own. Mt Washington is listed as a strenuous hike and I can see why. Parts of it are sheer rock with no clear path, and that’s what Matt and I encountered. We did not do near what the fundraising participants did, but definitely got a taste, and I can now say I hiked part of the Appalachian Trail on Mt Washington!!

With that done — no rest for the weary. Matt and I began editing the content we would use for our Sunday LIVE shots, which would be from the base of the mountain. We started working while still at the summit, but had to descend in enough time to shoot some video of the Seek the Peak celebration where Reynolds was the MC.

Driving down the mountain, kinda the same as up for me. At times I could not look, but the descent is a little faster, that is if you don’t have to pull over to cool your brakes, a very common occurrence. In both directions, we saw people pulled off cooling their brakes and got a whiff of that burning smell.

After shedding the extra layers, and shooting the video, we hightailed it back to the hotel to finish our work. We finished up about 8 pm, and went to dinner while the video was uploading to The Weather Channel.

In all, I have to thank the folks at the Mt Washington Observatory for their help and hospitality during our visit. Everyone from President Sharon Schilling on down. Meteorologists Tom and Ryan, Tech Guru Keith, my initial contact and set up wonder, Krissy, Cooks/Voulnteers Dennis and Johanna Interns, Margaret, Elizabeth and Julia, and especially Marty the weather cat!. If I have left anyone out I apologize. We could not have have done it without you. Also thanks to Matt Saffer and Reynolds Wolf for their hard work as well! It was a true team effort as always!

We were not the first media outlet to go LIVE from the summit, but we were the first national media outlet to go LIVE from there. Two firsts in a week

But this adventure wasn’t over yet. Another day of LIVE shots were pending.

SUNDAY 7/23

Tech Guru Keith had constructed a portable WiFi station at the base for use at the fundraiser celebration party and made it available to us for our Sunday AM shots. I don’t think we could have gone LIVE otherwise.

Very few LIVE days go completely hitch free, and our “hitch” Sunday came when Matt and I showed up at the LIVE location. The  entrance to where we needed to be was closed off by a locked gate. If we couldn’t get in the gate we’d be too far away to use the needed WIFi signal. Thanks to Matt for having the phone number to the summit, and to Ryan for answering (he’s on the overnight shift) and for getting permission for us to get/use the gate code. After that, pretty much smooth sailing for the rest of the morning. There were a few times we lost signal, but for the most part it was solid.

One last thing: whenever and wherever we travel we are fortunate enough to encounter fans, even & especially the little ones, and this trip was no exception. Thanks to Matt for carrying The Weather Channel stickers and to Reynolds for always being available for that special photo.

Its amazing out there!


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3 Comments


  1. Thank you for taking the time and effort to bring us to Mt. Washington. Beautiful photos! No guide rails you say? That’s one way to curb texting and driving. A place I keep telling myself i am going to visit, perhaps someday.

  2. What an awesome journey! I applaud your bravery for climbing the ladder on the tower, me.. no way, I’ll just watch safely on the ground!