Weather broadcasting and training in the late twentieth century: the meteorologist's view



Weather forecasts on BBC radio and television are recognized as the bench mark by which all other weather broadcasts in the United Kingdom are judged. Having spent many years at the BBC Weather Centre, as forecaster and senior meteorologist, the author reflects on the development of television weather forecasts on the national, licence fee funded, broadcaster in the United Kingdom. The period referred to in the paper saw technology evolve rapidly with television weather graphics at the forefront of the technological revolution. Changes in the recruitment and training of forecasters over time are discussed, giving an insight into the behind the scenes evolution of the workings of television and radio weather broadcasts. Copyright © 2010 Royal Meteorological Society

1. Introduction

The National BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Weather Centre has always employed meteorologists from the UK Met Office, arguing that it is essential that the person telling the weather story really should fully understand the physical processes of the atmosphere and thus can have some impact in the forecast. This paper presents an overview of the history of UK weather broadcasting, from a general historical overview and a discussion of the development of improved ways of communicating the information (Section 2) and the ways in which the work of the broadcast meteorologists evolved (Section 3).

2. Meteorological television broadcasting

2.1. The early days

Weather broadcasting has changed dramatically over the last 50–60 years (BBC, 2009) moving from no graphics at all to the sophisticated fly-by sequences used today. In fact, when the BBC employed UK Meteorological Office forecasters to front the first weather broadcast on 11 January 1954, they used meteorological symbols which, to the uninitiated, were a complete mystery. Today, the Met Office has some 100 symbols to describe the actual weather, ranging from nothing at all to heavy thunderstorms with hail (BADC, 2009), but there is no meteorological symbol for sunshine. This is, primarily, because the Met Office was formed in 1854 to provide maritime forecasts for shipping, then moved on in the twentieth century to develop their forecasts for the ever expanding aviation industry (the Met Office remains to this day as an agency within the Ministry of Defence). Aircraft, and to a certain extent shipping, have no need to know about sunshine, only bad weather which might hinder their operations and this is why, even today, the weather forecast will often deal with the ‘bad’ weather first.

From the 1950s, using international weather symbols agreed by the World Meteorological Organisation (which are still used by all meteorological offices around the world), the broadcasters showed triangles for showers, dots for rain and, occasionally, three horizontal bars for fog but, of course, a viewer needed to know the code before fully understanding the forecast. This made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the weather broadcasters to show the expected weather so the early TV broadcasts were more like a radio broadcast with a few scientific pictures thrown in. When there was no cloud forecast for the next day, or if the country was cloudy but with no precipitation forecast, the forecaster would have to stand in front of a blank map! This is much the same today with the daily fly-through as broadcast on the BBC weather forecast if the weather is very quiet. There is a sense of going full circle, but in doing so there has been a great deal of innovation and changes along the route.

2.2. Towards a clearer forecast

The first major change came on Saturday 16 August 1975 when the author introduced the first broadcast using a new set of ‘viewer friendly’ graphical symbols. These were based on a design by then college student Mark Allen. They were made from magnetic rubber and placed on steel boards, and the trick was not to let them fall off the base maps!

The test as to whether any symbol is good is whether the viewer can fully understand what it represents without having to resort to some form of decoding. These new symbols, which can still be seen on the BBC web site, showed clouds, with rain, sleet, snow or lightning coming from them and, for the first time, the viewer could see sunshine. The other advantage the new symbols had over all that went before them was the ability, albeit very crudely, to show how the weather was expected to change with time by placing one symbol over another.

During the early and mid-1980s advances in computer technology allowed broadcasters to display more advanced graphics on-air. From Monday 18 February 1985 the BBC Weather Centre, with the author as Senior Meteorologist, moved into the electronic age. Magnetic symbols became a thing of the past and computer-generated maps were used to convey weather information to viewers.

This was a case of evolution rather than revolution, because many of the older, but familiar, symbols were retained as well as adding many other forecast parameter fields that were available from the Met Office computer model, such as satellite sequences and forecast rainfall patterns.

Over those 30 years from the early 1950s, there had been a massive leap in the way that the BBC tried to show the viewer thoughts on how the weather may evolve in the coming hours and days, but by the mid-1980s, as well as changing the graphical displays, there was also an associated need to change the way that forecasts were presented to the audience which, at that time, could exceed 10 million viewers.

3. Becoming a TV weather presenter

3.1. The first broadcasts

All the BBC National weather presenters work for the UK Met Office. The BBC Weather Centre is a joint collaboration between BBC staff, mainly producers and enablers, and the Met Office forecasters as the presenters.

The BBC Weather Centre, situated at Television Centre in west London, has always employed meteorologists from the UK Met Office arguing, quite rightly in the author's opinion, that it is essential that the presenters telling the weather story must fully understand the physical processes of the atmosphere and thus be able to have an input to the forecast.

As far back as the 1950s little or no training was given to the radio or television broadcasters. Recruitment from and by the Met Office was very haphazard and did result in some unsuitable candidates being put forward as possible television weather presenters. Some simply were not able to present the forecast in a coherent and understandable way, whilst others found that they were terrified of cameras! The training was rather haphazard and consisted of shadowing experienced broadcasters, then being expected to present broadcasts on air! They were chosen from the staff already working at the London Weather Centre with little consideration given to suitability, so it was amazing that the broadcasts then were as good as they were. The Met Office took the view that if one was intelligent enough to be a weather forecaster in London then one could surely be able to broadcast.

All the potential broadcasters had to have successfully completed the Advanced Forecasting Course (Met Office, 2009) at which they were given an audition. This consisted of writing and reading a radio script which was judged by Met Office people who had seldom, if ever, themselves broadcast! Candidates who were deemed successful were earmarked to be posted to London Weather Centre where they would learn their ‘trade’ of radio presentation by following someone already broadcasting.

Even during the 1960s and 1970s, when there was some semblance of auditions for national radio, there was still little or no training. At the end of the Advanced Forecasting Course, 1 day was devoted to radio auditions which consisted of all the UK course members writing a radio script and reading it out to three Met Office College instructors (who still had no experience of broadcasting but who then decided whether candidates had any potential as a weather broadcaster).

There were three categories into which a potential presenter could fall:

  • no good at all (in which case you had the rest of the day off);

  • acceptable for local radio, and,

  • deemed suitable for national radio.

Nothing more was done about these successful forecasters until a vacancy arose at London Weather Centre when they would be invited to an audition. It was at this stage that the professional broadcasters came into the loop because these auditions were undertaken at the London Weather Centre, via a fixed audio telephone line to Broadcasting House, where the Head of Radio 4 would listen and decide the candidate's fate. The successful candidate would then be posted to the London Weather Centre and shadow an experienced broadcaster for about 1 week. After that they were on their own: sink or swim. Following this induction, little or no further training was undertaken.

The television forecasters at this time, and right up to the mid 1980s, were part of the London Weather Centre and spent half their time presenting on radio and the rest at Television Centre. Posts were all graded at Higher Scientific Officer level so that if any of the broadcasters were promoted they immediately left broadcasting for senior forecasting duties elsewhere and it was at this point further auditions would be arranged. The television forecasters were always recruited from the existing pool of radio forecasters at the London Weather Centre. The television auditions were very similar to radio in as much as, without any formal training, the volunteers went to the Television Centre, were presented with a set of weather maps and told to perform. The BBC, usually the Head of the Presentation Department, then decided who would fill the post. On arriving at Television Centre the training would be similar to the radio by shadowing an established broadcaster for about 1 week.

This system carried on through the 1970s and into the early 1980s when the BBC Presentation Department started to take a more active role in the broadcasters and their training. In the meantime, the Met Office had realized the need to give, at least some, training in broadcasting and on every forecasting course one of the TV forecasters would give a lecture and some coaching on broadcasting skills and the need to use a language that the listeners and viewers could understand. This was followed by both a radio and TV audition, the latter using a revolving cube with a synoptic chart on one face, and weather symbols on the others, and although it was a very crude arrangement it gave the Met Office more of an idea of the forecaster's broadcasting potential. Those that were deemed suitable to broadcast, even on local radio, would be posted to an Office where that was part of their duties.

3.2. Increasing numbers of broadcasts: the 1980s onwards

The early 1980s saw the introduction of daytime television, as well as World Service Television and a television channel for the UK forces abroad. This resulted in a significant increase in the number of BBC television weather broadcasts rising from three a day to almost 150: the need for extra weather broadcasters became desperate.

At this time the national radio broadcasts were transferred to Television Centre and so the BBC Weather Centre became an independent forecast office and broke all links to the London Weather Centre. The staff needed to cover this extra work increased from five part timers out of the London Weather Centre to some 18 full-time staff based at the new weather centre in Television Centre.

The numbers were impossible to recruit directly from the Met Office so a search began for suitably qualified science graduates to fill the vacancies and their training was to be done in-house. They were recruited directly by the BBC but were then employed by the Met Office. Training took on a completely different role and a new training facility was developed at the BBC Weather Centre and opened by Sir John Houghton, former Chief Executive of the Met Office.

It was decided that these new recruits, who had good communication skills already, needed to understand a certain amount of meteorology but did not need the depth of theoretical meteorology given on both the Initial and Advanced Forecasting Courses. At this time the decision was made that with the rapid increase in the numbers of staff a new tier of management was required, such that some of the experienced broadcasters would have delegated powers to organise and control different outputs of broadcasting channels, one of which would be training, not just of the new staff but continuing training for those more experienced members. These managers would report directly to the Senior Forecaster. The training consisted of meteorology and broadcasting, completed in parallel between the Met Office broadcasting manager and BBC weather centre producer. This was highly successful with many of the present broadcasters graduates of that system.

Further to that, the BBC Weather Centre Editor persuaded the Met Office that much greater notice should be taken at the initial graduate entry into the Office of the candidate's broadcasting and communication potential, giving the argument that even if the new entrant was not going to be employed in broadcasting their communication skills would still be an asset to the Met Office in delivering many other services and communicating original research. At this time the tradition of all broadcasters being graded Higher Scientific Officer was broken so that anyone in the Met Office who successfully completed the Advanced Forecasting Course, no matter what grade, could apply for an audition when any was advertised.

Not only did the number of broadcasts increase from Television Centre in London, there was also a large increase in the number of broadcasts in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the English regions as these started broadcasting in the early morning. Therefore, more new staff were required here as well with many being professional presenters, rather than meteorologists.

All new presenters were trained in basic meteorology and broadcasting skills at the BBC Weather Centre in London and still are to this day. At the same time men and women were recruited directly by the BBC in London to take on a role of Broadcast Assistants, and were employed on tasks helping the broadcasters and duties such as Ceefax and weather stories worldwide. Many of these staff have moved on to BBC broadcasting, both on radio and television, nationally and regionally.

4. Summary and conclusions

The latter part of the twentieth century saw a dramatic change in the way the radio and television weather broadcasters were recruited and trained. Technological advances changed the way in which weather forecasts were broadcast, from drawing on charts, to using magnetic symbols and then on to the use of computers to display complex graphics. The question now is where next? It is with great pride that the author sees the same processes continuing to this day enabling the weather broadcasts on the BBC to be acknowledged by its peers worldwide as being the best and continuing to innovate.