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Severe weather coverage: The balancing act continues

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So far, it’s 0-for-2 on significant severe weather chances for the Kansas Flint Hills this spring.

Last Friday, as you see with the Storm Prediction Center graphic, the day started with an enhanced severe weather risk for most of Kansas. That risk eventually developed — largely, not completely — in western Kansas, but the risk here waned because of what happened in the second enhanced risk area across a good chunk of north Texas. End result? You can have all the dynamics in the world screaming supercells and tornadoes, but if you don’t have the moisture to work with, none of that’s going to happen.

The risk was actually moderate on April 8, increasing from slight and continuing through enhanced as the day progressed, but a strong capping inversion layer held down convection for most of the day and also kneecapped almost all storm activity if thermals did poke through. There were several severe weather reports to our south and a few tornadoes, but I later told several people that was as much nothing as I had ever seen with a moderate risk area.

Two similar but different situations with just about the same meteorological result.

The season has gotten fairly active after a very slow start, and the business of severe weather meteorology has certainly followed suit. In case you haven’t been paying attention the past three decades or so, you can pretty well see just how prevalent that business is.

I can’t speak for private companies, but I can tell you our local broadcast department takes the weather’s role in our daily lives very seriously, so when severe weather is a possibility we let you know. We try to do so (emphasis on the word “try”) in such a way so you can gauge the level of risk without sending you into a tizzy about what might be coming. And we try to give as much lead time as possible. As far as I’m concerned, it’s civic duty. And it’s one not to be taken trivially or to be replaced by the rush for listens or website clicks, although as often as we remind people to get local information from us and not other prospective media sources I can certainly understand that’s how it may seem.

In a way, we untrained weather broadcasters have become very good information regurgitants, especially in the days from the Palm Sunday Outbreak (1965), original Super Outbreak (1974), Omaha (1975), Wichita Falls and Grand Island (1980) to Moore (1999 and multiple times since then), Dixie Outbreak (2011), Joplin (2011) and El Reno (2013). We take what we generally know about severe weather situations and meld that with the information from the National Weather Service, Storm Prediction Center and, in our case, WIBW-TV to give you a sense of what you maybe facing as much as a week out. And as you can see, sometimes things pan out as expected. Sometimes they still don’t.

At least now there are very few instances where we can’t say we weren’t warned anymore. That certainly wasn’t the case up through the early 1950s, when the approach was to say as little as possible so as not to panic the masses, and even into the 1970s — albeit to a progressively lesser extent — as tornado knowledge slowly increased.

Unfortunately, the risk always exists that people will start tuning out severe weather forecasts when things don’t develop as expected in our back yard. We as humans have a tendency of compartmentalizing information very well, and in severe weather we can brush off the fact that a forecast was overall about 90 percent correct if that remaining 10 percent happened in our neck of the woods.

The last four forecasts were off. It’ll never happen here.

I have been a severe weather nut, as I’ve blogged previously, since the Omaha twister of 1975. Since getting into this field almost 20 years ago, it has meant the world to me to make sure what I say — and now that I’m running the news department, what we say  — is both factually accurate and reflective of what the situation entails, whether we are dealing with maybe one storm dumping pea-sized hail or an entire community beginning to sift through the wreckage of a significant tornado.

My takeaway from the last two severe weather chances is we in the media, myself included, have to be mindful of the balance needed in broadcasting severe weather situations. Especially the way media is developing these days, it’s now way too easy to overhype. Once that happens, you run an increasingly enhanced, moderate or high risk of people tuning out right before Mother Nature rolls out that dreaded worst-case scenario.


Fred White Retires, Passes Away

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Updated May 15, 2013

“You go through a lifetime of being around sports. If you ever question whether or not it’s worth it, all you need to do is sit and look down at the scene at Royals Stadium and see the joy this game has brought to the fans in Royals Stadium. Yes, there are more important things on this earth than sports I guess, but I dare say tonight, nothing can bring more joy to Kansas City than a little single into right field to get this thing to game seven. This improbable little team, doing improbable little things, now has pushed this thing to the brink.” — Fred White following Royals’ 2-1 win of St. Louis in the 1985 World Series Game 6

Sad news coming out of Kansas City, when longtime broadcaster and Royals media liaison Fred White retired Tuesday and died Wednesday due to complications of melanoma.

I’ve said numerous times the reason I wanted to get into broadcasting (make that sports broadcasting) as a career was one inning of listening to White and Hall of Fame broadcaster Denny Matthews back when i was 9 years old. At first, it was simple fascination with baseball that drew me to the field, and it didn’t hurt that KC was playing my beloved Orioles on a hot August night. Later on, it was the narrative, the capture of baseball’s ebb and flow, the staccato bursts and legato, luxurious meanderings of each individual game and season that captivated me and drew me closer to what has turned out to be a significant part of my current career.

I have no idea why I gravitated to the Matthews-White partnership as quickly as I did, but I think (aside from the fact they were the only game in town, in a manner of speaking) it was because they brought complementary views and approaches to the broadcast. Matthews had the largely journalistic, almost newslike delivery. White was less shy about rooting for the Royals, perhaps less inclined to painting a verbal picture than Matthews, but he never overdid it like a lot of broadcasters have done throughout time. They didn’t interact as much as some crews — each set of innings seemed like it belonged to Matthews or White as their handiwork — but when they did talk amongst themselves, it struck of two friends talking to each other. Nothing forced.

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Royals broadcasters Denny Matthews (left) and Fred White captured the franchise’s heyday in the 1970s and ’80s. photo.

For sports, broadcasters are the soundtracks for rabid and casual fans alike. They set the tone for what’s happening on the field of play. That soundtrack can be histrionic, hyper, bloated, unintelligible…and regardless of the style, somebody will say that’s the best way games should be called. Both individually and together, White and Matthews brought an understated approach to their craft. In essence, they let the game dictate how they emphasized the game’s peaks and valley without ego or hype.

Between listening to White and Matthews and following Nebraska football through the voicings of Lyell Bremser, I quickly developed my broadcast philosophy (although I never truly thought of it until my current job): let the game’s moments or the ebb and flow dictate how to punctuate. Don’t hype. Catchphrases are OK, if used in moderation. Criticize judiciously, balancing that criticism with an understanding of the situation and thus adding possible mitigating factors.

That’s not to say I follow my philosophy consistently, but that’s how I feel about the profession.

Anyway, those lessons were supported by other broadcasters. Frank Adkisson did a wonderful job calling Omaha Royals and Lancers games in the 1980s and early 1990s, basically because he used that exact philosophy. Nationally, the voices of Dave Barnett, Al Michaels, Keith Jackson and the now-silenced vocal cords of Pat Summerall and Jim Durham could all capture the moment in their own ways without going diving into the cesspool of hype and blather.

And regionally, it was Denny and Fred. Not Harry Caray. Not Mike Shannon or John Rooney or Hawk Harrelson.

I only met White a couple times, back when KVOE was a regular attendee at the Royals’ special daylong festivities for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters. I can tell you that what you heard for over two decades on the air was what I found to be true in person: a down-to-earth, unpretentious, smart, funny, inquisitive man who had time for everybody — even if he really didn’t have time for anybody because of his schedule — and was more than willing to lend his advice and experienced ear to broadcasters like me seeking advice.

It was maddening when the Royals replaced White, and Ryan Lefebvre didn’t get a fair shake for years from fans like me simply because he was Fred’s replacement even though he was worthy of the job. It was sobering to hear health issues forced White away, this time from life itself. Frankly, it was depressing. You know days like this are coming, the days when your childhood idols have to go on, but it doesn’t make things any easier.

For Royals fans, White’s death is eerily similar to the passing of fellow broadcaster (and White’s longtime college TV basketball partner) Paul Splittorff in that they both ultimately succumbed to cancer, although this was seemingly a much more sudden transition from life to death. Splittorff’s status was in limbo for several months before his diagnosis was revealed two years ago, but by that time he didn’t have long to live.

White was a broadcaster who has the respect and admiration of a lot of sportscasters across the Midwest. Based on how he was behind the microphone and how he was away from it, he earned it. Broadcasting needs more Fred Whites. In this day and age, it’s unlikely we will see that happen.

Rest in peace, Fred. I know you have a good starting lineup to talk about — and from what I hear, the bench is pretty good, too.

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