It has been hypothesized that continuous ground-based remote sensing measurements from collocated active and passive remote sensors combined with regular soundings of the atmospheric thermodynamic structure can be combined to describe the effects of clouds on the clear sky radiation fluxes. We critically test that hypothesis in this paper and a companion paper (part 2). Using data collected at the Southern Great Plains (SGP) Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, we explore an analysis methodology that results in the characterization of the physical state of the atmospheric profile at time resolutions of 5 min and vertical resolutions of 90 m. The description includes thermodynamics and water vapor profile information derived by merging radiosonde soundings with ground-based data and continues through specification of the cloud layer occurrence and microphysical and radiative properties derived from retrieval algorithms and parameterizations. The description of the atmospheric physical state includes a calculation of the clear and cloudy sky solar and infrared flux profiles. Validation of the methodology is provided by comparing the calculated fluxes with top of atmosphere (TOA) and surface flux measurements and by comparing the total column optical depths to independently derived estimates. We find over a 1-year period of comparison in overcast uniform skies that the calculations are strongly correlated to measurements with biases in the flux quantities at the surface and TOA of less than 6% and median fractional errors ranging from 12% to as low as 2%. In the optical depth comparison for uniform overcast skies during the year 2000 where the optical depth varies over more than 3 orders of magnitude we find a mean positive bias of less than 1% and a 0.6 correlation coefficient. In addition to a case study where we examine the cloud radiative effects at the TOA, surface and atmosphere by a middle latitude cyclone, we examine the cloud top pressure and optical depth retrievals of ISCCP and LBTM over a period of 1 year. Using overcast periods from the year 2000, we find that the satellite algorithms tend to compare well with data overall but there is a tendency to bias cloud tops into the middle troposphere and underestimate optical depth in high optical depth events.