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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: NBC5 chief meteorologist says just be yourself

June 8, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

PLATTSBURGH - Come rain, wind, sun or snow, NBC5 Chief Meteorologist Tom Messner will tell you the weather forecast - with a smile. Always with a smile.

"Well, a lot of people say they have a name for me, and then I get nervous," he said. "Usually it comes out like this: 'Well, we call you smiley.' And I'll be, 'OK. I'm good. I've been called worse than that.'"

Messner's smile is his trademark. And why not? He's a happy guy.

Article Photos

NBC5 Chief Meteorologist Tom Messner gives a weather forecast Monday, April 30 at the WPTZ studio in Plattsburgh.
(Photo provided — Andy Flynn)

"I've got a great job. I've got a great family. We love where we live. Things are really good."

The biggest compliment Messner gets is when people say, 'Hey, you're the same guy off TV as you are on TV.' He keeps it real, never fake. And that seems to be his greatest asset. It's what's made him a North Country institution as a WPTZ weatherman since 1990.

One of the ways Messner keeps it real during the forecast is to stay away from teleprompters. News anchors read the news, usually written by someone else. But the meteorologists are just telling stories from memory. By the time they've gathered the data and translated it to weather maps, they have a good idea of what's going to happen.

On most weekdays, when he's not at a remote location such as downtown Burlington, Messner works the evening shift at the Plattsburgh studio. He arrives in mid-afternoon, preps his forecast and goes on live during the newscasts that begin at 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. Yet, thanks to technology, his work day begins much earlier. He supplies weather forecasts to six radio stations, and some of those feeds are from his home. Before he arrives at work, he's already looked at a variety of weather data on the internet.

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In the studio

Walking through a dimly lit control room, with a variety of monitors and news-gathering desks for reporters and anchors, Tom Messner walks into a brightly lit studio set. In the middle of the room are cameras and teleprompters.

Across the studio, to the left, is the anchor desk. That's where Stephanie Gorin and Brian Colleran sit during the weekday evening newscasts.

To the immediate right is the green wall that Messner stands in front of when giving a portion of his forecast. Viewers don't see the green; they see the weather map Messner sees in the two monitors that flank the green wall.

To the left is an on-air desk with three computer monitors that Messner uses to give forecast highlights at the beginning of each newscast. Just a few feet away, to the immediate left, are four computers underneath a wall of four flat-screen TVs monitoring different stations, including the local ABC, FOX and CBS affiliates. That's where the meteorologists gather the data they'll use to create their forecasts.

It all starts with raw data - temperature, dew point, relative humidity, winds - from the region and weather forecast models. Messner says those models are mathematical equations that take information from a variety of sources, such as airplanes and weather balloons.

"All this data is plugged into a computer ... and it spits out what the computer sees the atmosphere will do. Then as forecasters, you look at these different models, and they all kind of look at this data a little bit differently, and you try to figure out which model you think is going to be the best for a certain occasion."

Or a certain location. National forecast models can only do so much for a local meteorologist.

The computer doesn't know the nuances of topography that Messner has to deal with across the region. So he takes the models and all the data he can find and interprets the weather forecast.

"But it's not the end all and be all," he said. "Experience is important."

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Experience

Messner grew up in the Rochester suburb of Webster on the south shore of Lake Ontario. He graduated from high school there in 1978. Then he attended the College of Wooster, in Ohio, earning a degree in business economics. He worked for the college radio station, and after graduation, he took his talents to Akron, Ohio, selling radio advertising. But he didn't like that too much.

"I wanted the excitement of being on the air, so I got back on radio as a DJ in a little town in Ohio, Galion, Ohio and then moved to the Finger Lakes of New York very close to where I grew up."

After working as the program director at Q92-FM in Rochester, Messner auditioned at WROC Channel 8 as the weatherman, and he got the job. Yet he had no experience in TV and no training in meteorology. He said that first day he realized he had no idea what he was doing.

Messner says he learned some basics by watching the Weather Channel and reading the newspaper.

"And we had a map that was not a green screen or a green wall. It was literally a metal map and you would kind of paste on the magnets with little cold fronts and warm fronts, Hs and Ls for highs and lows. And I went on TV and said, 'Wow. This could be a great career.' But I really need to get a clue."

Messner went back to school for meteorology at SUNY Oswego, eventually taking more classes at SUNY Plattsburgh and online. Soon he was working for a new TV station in Watertown, Channel 50. He'd take classes in Oswego in the morning and work the 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts in Watertown.

When Messner began his job at Channel 50, his boss asked him, "What's your act going to be? How are you going to go up against Danny Burgess?"

Burgess was the popular meteorologist at WWNY-TV in Watertown.

"I remember saying to him, 'I'm going to be myself. It's not going to be an act.' ... And he was very skeptical. He was like, 'Hmm. We'll see if that works.' And it did. So I think I've been on that track ever since."

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Times have changed

In the early 1990s, weather data wasn't as readily available as it is today. That began to change by the end of the decade as a new tool -- the internet -- gave people the opportunity to upload and access data. During this transition, Messner said he called radio stations throughout the region to collect real-time data before the 6 p.m. newscast. He made weather maps based on that information.

Today, there are plenty of weather stations around the region at schools, in people's yards, at tourist attractions. Most have their data available online.

In January 1998, Messner said his most memorable weather event hit the North Country - the Ice Storm.

"I'll never forget the sound. That was one of the biggest things with the Ice Storm, just the sound of the trees and the branches crackling, cracking, then falling to the ground. I think that will always stick in my mind."

As Messner looked at the data to figure out the forecast prior to the Ice Storm, he was struck by the potential it had for destruction. There was clearly going to be ice, and it was clearly going to last a long time.

"I remember getting on TV on the 11 o'clock broadcast at night saying, 'I've never seen anything on paper that looks like this is going to look. This is going to be trouble.' And it was almost scary."

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Getting it wrong

With modern radar - the tool Messner says is the most useful in today's weather forecasting - he can show TV audiences what's coming and when it may hit a particular location. But in the shoulder seasons of fall and spring, when rain can turn to snow, it can be tricky.

Such was the case on Sunday, April 29. After a colder-than-average April - with fresh snow keeping many of the local ski centers open - it looked as though this day would bring rain to most of the WPTZ coverage area. NBC5 meteorologists had only predicted a little snow in the higher elevations. What they got, however, was much different.

Looking at the radar in the morning, there was a swirling mass of green - rain - for much of the coverage area. But in the middle of the Adirondack Park, over the Tri-Lakes villages of Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake and surrounding communities, there was a swirling mass of blue - snow. And it didn't let up until there were more than 6 inches of snow. Messner says it got colder than his team thought it would.

"One thing about forecasting weather here is there's just some crazy topography. ... We have a valley over in the St. Lawrence Valley, and then we have the mountain range the Adirondacks. Then you have the Champlain Valley. Then you have the Green Mountains. Then you have the Connecticut (River) Valley, and then you have the White Mountains. We're on in all these places, so it's a bit of a struggle to try to get it right."

Just a few degrees can make all the difference and make a weather guy look pretty bad. That's what happened April 29. Needless to say, that was the big story for the Monday, April 30 newscasts, as the snow finally began melting.

Messner said he sometimes gets complaints, but not necessarily when he gets the forecast wrong. He's learned that people usually get upset when the weather isn't what they want.

"We might say it's going to rain Saturday. .... We're saying it all week long. And then when Saturday rolls around, people are like, 'Aww, there's the weather guy. You made it rain!' And I'll be like, 'Well, we said it was going to rain.' 'Yeah, whatever.' That kind of comes with the territory."

 
 

 

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