Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Weatherperson's Spotlight: Bill Henley

Bill Henley forecasts the weather during the morning hours on Channel 10, along with co-hosting The 10! Show.   Henley, a native of the Midwest, was candid about the amount of change that has taken place in how weather was presented on the news.

“When I started forecasting and broadcasting the weather, it was a lot different than what we see today.  Back then weather was included in the news, but just barely. It was usually at the very end of the news and sports and whatever else they had up their sleeves. Then whatever time was left over was given to the forecast. This is also what I remember seeing on TV up Chicago. Harry Volkman was the well respected and longtime weatherman who worked at number of TV stations and was especially memorable because he would visit a different school every day and would always wear a boutonniere on TV given to him by that days' students. By the time he got around to my school, I was in high school, but I still remember it. At the time I had no inkling that I would one day enter the same profession, but maybe he had planted a seed. If so, it lay dormant for years, until I was in college and working at a TV station. Out of the blue, the news director asked me to take over weather duties on the news. I loved it. I had tried other jobs in broadcasting, but this just felt right. I immediately enrolled in my university's meteorology program, and have been at it ever since.”

Henley graduated from Cal State-Chico with a degree in broadcasting and a minor in meteorology.   He’d later end up working with someone who mentored him early on in the process.

“I had some great mentors along the way, Harry Geiss and Harry Stockman both steered me in the right direction and later Stockman and I would work side by side at KXTV in Sacramento.”

Being the morning meteorologist is a challenge for the night owl.   Henley’s up at 3 AM and is thankful he has an eight minute commute to work from his suburban home.

“It really helps that nobody else is on the road at that hour.”

Henley’s day is very much an on-the-go exercise between television, radio, and even texting.

“First thing I do when I get to work is to look over what the crew has left from the night before and then look at the latest data to see what has changed, if anything. I update the forecast make the graphics, and at 4:30 AM. we are on the air. We do two and a half hours of local news before the today show takes over at 7 AM. During this time I'm on TV roughly every 10 minutes with updates. In between those on camera appearances, I'm keeping the graphics and forecast updated, reporting the weather on B101 radio, sending out a weather text message that some 3 thousand of people receive each morning and when I have a moment to spare - it's time to make coffee!”

Probably lots of it, one would safely assume.

 “Once the Today Show takes over at 7 o'clock, I'm on the air every half hour with an update. By 9 o'clock in the morning, I'm transitioning to The 10! Show that tapes every day at 10 am to air at 11:30.  After The 10! Show, we have a meeting to discuss the next day and I'll steal some time to get things done around the office such is answering emails and phone calls. Then I get to go home and usually, if I'm lucky, I'll take a nap!”

Henley’s been in Philadelphia for eighteen years, all of them at NBC 10, mainly as the morning meteorologist.  He helped bring the EarthWatch system into Philadelphia and had prior experience with it in his prior station in Florida.  He freely admits that one of the most challenging forecasts was that infamous storm that we all know and loathe but, unlike one of his former colleagues, stated he didn’t think it would be so bad.

“My most challenging forecast was most likely the blizzard of March 2001. Of course this is of the legendary blizzard that never was. Many forecasters were calling for the biggest blizzard in 25 years and it was dubbed by many "the storm of the century". I however was in the minority. I didn't think we're gonna get much of anything out of that storm and it would largely miss us.”

As an aside, Henley has always struck me as low key and not as sensationalistic.  I digress…let’s talk more about March 2001!

“Unfortunately when many voices, right or wrong, are calling for calamity and many were making plans for preparing the city and surrounding areas for the worst, and at television stations preparations were made for around the clock coverage, nobody wanted to hear that it wasn't going to happen. They didn't want he hear that the sky was not falling. So even though I was right, I'm afraid my forecast was lost in the blizzard of bad information that surrounded that event. If you got to hear my message, you were one of the few. Many were reminded that day that computer models are not perfect.”

The latter is truth.  Computer models really aren’t perfect…and Bill isn’t tied at the hip to any one particular model.

“When it comes to computer models I'm not really emotionally tied to any one of them. However, for long range forecasting it's hard not to like the European model, but you can't count out the GFS either. What is the most impressive of late is the RPM (Rapid Precision Mesoscale) model we have access to from WSI corporation. This is the company that provides us with the computer system that delivers all the raw weather data to us and the graphic system that displays it on TV. The RPM output is easy for us to display on our television graphics.  It's powered by the WRF (Weather Research and Forecast) and is updated every three hours. It does excellent job handling short term weather scenarios. This makes it super useful in the morning when I get to actually show people what the rest of their day will look like. It's not perfect, but it has been very impressive. RPM model output is not publicly available, but we have full access to it at NBC 10.”

(Writer’s note -- there is a national version of it available through WGN in Chicago but is Chicago-centric with regional and local information.)

Thankfully the use of computer modeling helps, especially given our challenging climate in Philadelphia.

“The most challenging part of forecasting in the Philadelphia area would have to be forecasting snow amounts. With better computer models and a little more experience each year, this has become more exacting, but it is still a challenge. We try to give a range of what to expect in different parts of our broadcast area. Unfortunately what Mother Nature gives us doesn't always fit neatly into to a television graphic. Someone somewhere always gonna get a little bit more or a little bit less than what they see on the TV screen.  But if the majority people fall within the range of what we are forecasting, that is most definitely a success.”

Bill doesn’t spend all of his waking time in front of computer models, cameras, or hanging out with Hurricane Schwartz.   He does have an interest in tinkering with computers.   He also would have considered photography or flying had he not gone into broadcasting and meteorology.

What about Bill’s perfect weather day?

“A perfect weather day for me personally, would be what you get after and nice cold front late in the spring or in fall. Nice clear skies or just some scattered fair-weather clouds, temperatures in the upper sixties to low seventies and a pleasant breeze…that would be great.”

Yes it would!

“But professionally that would be boring! So give me some showers to track in the morning, maybe some thunderstorms too and then let the sun come out in the afternoon!”

Bill does end with this piece of career advice for those of you looking to get into the field of meteorology full time.

“For young people thinking about going to into meteorology, education is of course, front and center. But while studying, take advantage of any internship opportunities that you can possibly talk your way into. The more the merrier. It doesn't matter whether it's at a TV or radio station or the National Weather Service or with some other company that employs meteorologists. Make your own way for cash. Internships can help you figure out what path you want to take with your career. Plus you'll meet lots of people along the way that will help you achieve your goals!”