Meet Milwaukee’s TV Meteorologists | Milwaukee Magazine (2024)

It’s the third day of spring, and Mark Baden is dealing with a “nightmare.” A line of snowstorms is aimed square at Milwaukee … sort of. The storm front has a sharp cutoff, meaning even a slight change in its movement could make all the difference.

“We could have zero inches, or we could have 7 inches,” says Baden, WISN 12’s chief meteorologist. “But we’re not going to put out a zero-to-7-inch forecast for our entire area. That’s not really a good move.”

Baden has less than an hour left to prepare a forecast for the 4 p.m. Thursday live show. He sits at a desk in a corner of the WISN studio. The high-ceilinged, warehouse-like space houses a news desk, a standing backdrop and a green screen; Baden’s workstation is tucked behind the backdrop, hidden out of view of the cameras.

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Sitting behind a computer monitor, he looks at a forecast model, tracking the potential path of this late March storm, which is set to hit southeastern Wisconsin overnight Friday into Saturday morning.

While the model predicts the mathematical likelihood of weather phenomena, Baden’s job – along with the rest of the station’s meteorologist team – is to create something more nuanced, something that takes into account Lake Michigan’s significant and frustratingly difficult-to-predict effect on local weather, that notes how different sunshine angles melt snow, that considers how the spring mess will compact on the roads. And, maybe most importantly, that presents that information to people in a way that will make them pay attention.

Baden is called away to put on makeup. “They can’t hide all these wrinkles,” he says. While he’s getting caked up, meteorologist Molly Bernard, working the next desk over, “fixes” the graphics he’s made and makes a few of her own to add to the slideshow that will play behind Baden during the broadcast. She positions a bullseye over southeastern Wisconsin and adjusts a little cartoon snowman.

After Baden returns, he tweets out the bad news to an audience that was already sick of winter weeks ago: “I don’t want to share this but I have to tell the truth. You need to be ready for snow on Friday night and Saturday. The worst times will be Saturday morning. Plan your travel accordingly.”

The responses are quick:

“WTF!?!? You got to be kidding right?”

“If we get less than 4’’, will you retire?”

“F— you, Mark.”

Baden is an avid and unflinchingly chipper user of Twitter. “Social media is a dangerous animal – people feel like they can say whatever they want,” he says. “Do I get mad? Sure. There are things I’d like to respond with, but clearly, I’d like to keep my job so I don’t. You’ve gotta laugh it off.”

At 3:59, a producer calls for quiet on the set. Baden walks to his spot in front of the green screen as cameras roll. Televisions mounted on the walls play back the live broadcast on a 5-second delay. The news anchors across the studio lead off the hour, and then pass it to Baden. “Yes, it is looking more and more likely that southeastern Wisconsin is going to get accumulating snow,” he says, and delivers his prediction: 2-6 inches for metro Milwaukee. Clicker in hand, he cycles through the slideshow, Bernard’s bullseye appearing behind him.

After the minute-long segment, he walks a dozen steps back to his desk and gets to work preparing for his next hit. “Who’s the most unpopular guy here?” he says, and then points a thumb at his chest.

Baden is one of many TV meteorologists (or “mets,” as they call themselves) doing the same thing at that same moment in studios across Milwaukee. At Fox 6, Tom Wachs is shooting slightly higher with a forecast of 3-6 inches. On CBS 58, Drew Burgoyne is more bullish at 4-8 inches, the same as Spectrum News’ Brooke Brighton, while TMJ4’s Kristen Kirchhaine and Brian Niznansky hit a narrower range with 5-8 inches.

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And Milwaukeeans are tuning in – whether on TV itself, or more frequently, across social media, where mets are posting, tweeting and livestreaming their forecasts to viewers. Reactions run the gamut: friendly, furious, amused, vaguely frightened, somewhat deranged, heartwarmingly grateful, bewilderingly insulting and, in the case of just about all of the women meteorologists, undeniably creepy. Milwaukee’s weather people have their own weird little world, a job not entirely like any other, and they inspire loyalty, love and fury in not-quite-equal measure.

Baden’s workday ends long after sunset, and he, along with the rest of the city’s mets, heads home, trading spots with his morning-shift counterparts. But, of course, the “nightmare” is far from over. Now that the forecast is done, it’s time to wait. One long Friday lies ahead, and we’ll see if the weather folks got it right.

ASK ANY METEOROLOGIST when they first developed an interest in weather, and you’ll likely hear a childhood story of fear and fascination. For Baden, it was lightning striking a tree on his block. For Wachs, it was terrifying rattles of thunder shaking his windows. For Burgoyne, it was a television special on the danger of tornadoes.

But what separates the TV mets from their fellow forecasters at the National Weather Service or in academia is an interest in public performance. Brighton was drawn to television through her parents, broadcasters in sports and news for a Chicago station who met on the job. When he was a teenager, Burgoyne and his friends set up a janky studio, “Wayne’s World style,” in his basem*nt, where they filmed interviews that they submitted to their local public access station.

That unusual combination of fear, fascination, science and stagecraft is at the heart of the job they’ve all taken on. They have to analyze complex weather patterns – and look spiffy doing it. Prepare folks to take shelter during severe storms – and crack a corny joke or two with the news anchor across the studio. In three-minute on-screen bursts, they become the public face of Mother Nature, with all her unpredictable and frustrating turns. This leaves them at an odd vocational intersection somewhere between scientist, celebrity and punching bag.

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For decades, they’ve appeared in folks’ living rooms, delivering the forecast from TV screens. Now, that’s a smaller and smaller fraction of the job. Like all legacy media outlets, local television is facing cuts, with younger viewers migrating elsewhere, and meteorologists are far from immune. According to a 2023 YouGov poll, 53% of Americans get their weather from apps on their phones, the scourge of all mets. TV news is still a big source for folks over 45 (55%), but social media edges out TV for people aged 18-44 (32% vs. 29%).

One result of this is that meteorologists are doing more work with smaller teams, and staying constantly online to reach those new audiences on social media. “I wish we could give more focus to the weather itself,” Niznansky says. “We’re getting a little worn thin in all the different media platforms out there.”

In a world where everyone can find a quick temperature update and rain percentage on their phones, the mets’ pitch for relevance in Milwaukee is local knowledge and a personal touch. They can turn raw numbers into a recommendation for whether to cancel your weekend barbecue. They can explain why Lake Michigan might turn a prediction for a nice, warm Friday into a 40-degree shiverfest. They know Wisconsin weather, and, to put it simply, they’re more fun than computers.

A quick MilMag survey of Milwaukeeans’ favorite meteorologists led to exclamation-riddled answers: “Tom Wachs and Mark Baden. They give us mini science lessons with the weather!!” “Brooke Brighton! Always amazing coverage she does!” “Brian Niznansky by a wide margin! Loves bridging great weather reports with local pride.”

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TV meteorologists engender familiarity and loyalty in their communities, often forged during late-night thunderstorms and tornadoes, when viewers huddle and look to their preferred met for advice that could be lifesaving. Says Wachs: “I got a message from a woman once after some severe storms who told me that she was nearly in tears, she was so afraid of storms. And she said that my forecast made her comfortable and less afraid. … That’s what I try to do – you can’t control what happens with weather, but you can bring some power to a powerless situation with knowledge.”

But despite all the attention they get, not a lot of folks know about the actual work that goes into those few minutes on air. Before their shows, mets pour hours into examining weather models, monitoring a local NWS message board and figuring out a forecast, often based on their experience with past local weather events. “Do we peek at what other stations are doing? Sure, yeah,” Niznansky says. “We all want to have the best forecast.”

“We all want to have the best forecast.”

– Brian Niznansky, TMJ4

After forecasting, the mets spend up to an hour making the graphics (temperature maps, snowfall totals, etc.) that display behind them during the broadcast – Baden calls it a “glorified PowerPoint.” If you’ve never seen behind local television’s scenes, you might imagine the studio is filled with people helping out, but often it’s closer to a DIY enterprise, with just one producer behind the camera, and sometimes no one else at all.

When they’re on air, unlike news anchors, mets don’t have a script. They use the clicker to scroll through their slideshow and have a countdown in their earpiece telling them how much time they have left before the weather spot wraps and the news anchors cut back in for some light banter.

The constant need to cheerfully improvise leaves an imprint off air. One of the most striking things about interacting with a met – say, if you’re a journalist interviewing them – is the lack of vocal tics. While most people, such as said hypothetical journalist, pepper their speech with ums, ahs, likes and other verbal placeholders, mets tend to speak with a glossy polish and performance-readiness honed from years of live TV, where a mistake might just land you on a “Hilarious TV Bloopers 2023!!” YouTube compilation. (Niznansky racked up about nearly 3 million views as a Green Bay news anchor, when a producer pranked him by inserting a nonsensical Anchorman reference, “I love lamp,” in the middle of his script – and he read it.)

Competitive Collaboration

The scene doesn’t seem like fiction: After a long, hard week at the green screen, Milwaukee’s meteorologists meet at a watering hole to swap tips over cold beers, grousing about wonky forecasts. But alas, it’s not the real world; the TV weather industry is fickle, and mets are in direct competition.

Collaboration between Milwaukee’s meteorologists is mostly limited to the occasional National Weather Service conference, or a nascent effort to better coordinate emergency warning systems – so all the stations have, say, the same coloring and terminology. The most active nexus is a National Weather Service live chat, where amateur weather spotters and pro mets monitor unfolding phenomena in real time and drop updates on the message board-esque site.

Despite the lack of working together, friendliness prevails. “We really have a great relationship with meteorologists at other stations,” says Fox 6’s Tom Wachs. “In some other markets, competitors really butt heads, but I think we’re very Midwest Nice here in Milwaukee.”

WHILE THE JOBhas many facets, mets universally consider getting the forecast right the hardest part. Meteorology is a complex and unforgiving science, full of equations that would terrify any humanities major.

“In the 1920s, there was no such thing as scientific weather forecasting – it was a joke,” says Jonathan Martin, the author of several meteorological textbooks who has taught atmospheric sciences at UW-Madison since 1994.

What changed? You can chalk it up, in part, to war.

“We were faced with World War II, fighting an industrialized nation that had gone bad,” Martin says. “We had to figure out ways to beat them.”

Correctly forecasting weather could turn the tide in battle: Fog might provide cover, a storm might block air support, rough seas might sink a shipborne invasion. Allied nations devoted resources and manpower to forecasting, developing techniques like hydrogen balloons that could carry instruments into the atmosphere to measure air pressure, temperature, humidity and wind direction at different altitudes.

After the war, that accumulated knowledge paved the way for what Martin calls a “revolution” –
numerical weather prediction. To explain it in full is a task best left for a textbook, but to put it simply, meteorologists developed equations that describe how weather systems operate. The meteorologists at the NWS continue to use updated versions of those same models to forecast. “The NWS, they work longer hours than us, sometimes they’re working harder, and they never get any of the glory we do because they’re not on TV,” says JD Rudd, chief meteorologist for Spectrum News 1 Wisconsin.

Over the past 20 years, numerical weather prediction models have greatly increased in reliability, reaching about 90% accuracy over a five-day span (even if sometimes it doesn’t quite feel like that).

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“We may have one model that says it’s going to be 70 tomorrow and one that says it’s going to be 50 – so what do we do?” Wachs says. “We have to peel back the layers. Is one of the models bringing in a lake breeze? Do we think that’s likely? What about the jet stream? I think of it like cooking. We have all these ingredients for weather events, like thunderstorms or tornadoes, and we’re trying to see if they’re going to come together to make that happen.”

When a particular weather dish stewing in Wachs’ wok doesn’t come together, people get angry. Real angry. When you look back on Christmas 2022, you may remember a lovely day, marred by no bad weather. Or you may remember that grandma canceled dinner plans to avoid a massive snowstorm – predicted by every local meteorologist – that never happened. Wachs cites that forecast as one of his worst ever. “It’s tough to get those angry emails, those angry tweets, when you pride yourself on wanting to help people and a forecast goes wrong,” he says.

Niznansky says he gets “heckled” in the grocery store, although it’s “99% in fun.” That percentage drops significantly online, where “keyboard warriors” get involved. In comment sections and tweet threads, insults and fury fly faster than a lawn chair in a wind squall. A thick skin is a necessity, and any meteorologist who can’t “kill with kindness” will likely find themselves searching for a new career.

“Social media is probably the worst [part of my job],” says Baden, who often uses the tongue-in-cheek hashtag #BlameBaden. “But it’s a lot easier for me being a male vs. a female, with the garbage that they get.”

Scroll through the responses to a female meteorologist’s posts on social media and you’ll find plenty of leering (“Beautiful smile!”) and pointed comments about her hair, lipstick, clothing and more untoward things. Not to mention liberal use of the term “weathergirl.”

Bernard recalls one viewer who was “bent out of shape” about a particular dress she deemed unbecoming. “I reached out to her, and I said, ‘I like the dress. I bought the dress myself. I hear you, and I hope you find something to do today that brings you joy instead of trying to take me down,’” Bernard says. “I never heard back.”

“I’ve been in this business for over 10 years; I’m not going to let that stuff get to me,” says TMJ4’s Kirchhaine. “I sometimes push back. … When it gets to the level of bullying, I stand up for myself. Not to be mean, but just to educate people.”

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At its best, though, social media provides a platform for conversation and nuance, giving mets a chance to dive a little deeper into weather phenomena that they don’t have time to explain during quick TV hits.

Bernard has a story that serves as bleach to help wash away the unwelcome comments: “There was a viewer that would reach out to me,” she says. “His 7-year-old was watching my forecast and asking these great questions. To get to help keep this young kid interested in science and weather, that makes a difference.”

But the most dramatic moments in the life of a met, as you might imagine, are always the severe events.

“We have a very important role when it comes to those situations,” Brighton says. “It’s about making sure that we have a clear, not panicked message.”

“You have to be a calming voice.”

– Drew Burgoyne, CBS 58

Mets are often accused of sensationalizing weather for attention by their online detractors. And scary storms do get views – there’s no denying it. Are your eyes glued to the television when it’s a balmy 75 with a light breeze, or when thunder’s shaking your rafters? When it comes to the latter, there’s a consistent debate among mets over how best to avoid “cry wolf” syndrome in their presentations so that viewers won’t dismiss them when something truly dangerous is coming. “You have to be a calming voice,” Burgoyne says.

One severe weather memory stands out for Kirchhaine. In 2021, a particularly nasty series of tornadoes wreaked havoc around southeastern Wisconsin and left over 100,000 people without power. The next day, she interviewed a woman whose house had been destroyed.

“They had been watching the weather on television, and she was like, ‘I knew that it was going to be bad, so my family and I camped out in the basem*nt.’ She pointed out where her kids’ bedrooms had been, and that corner of the house had been completely ripped off, so if they had been upstairs,” Kirchhaine says, pausing a moment, “…you know. But she had been watching the weather, and she took precautions. That’s why we do this job.”

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IT’S NOW THE FIFTH DAY OF SPRING,and Milwaukee is covered in snow. The unwelcome storm has been dumping heavy snow for about 12 hours since Friday evening, and the plows are out in force cleaning up accumulation. Thankfully, temperatures are rising and all that mess is starting to melt.

Baden’s initial “conservative” prediction of 2-6 inches on Thursday afternoon proved to be just that. In fact, Milwaukee broke its snowfall record for the day, hitting 8.7 inches. That was a little above Thursday’s predictions but in line with what the mets were saying on Friday morning.

To the north and west, the forecast was a bit of a mess. That sharp cutoff to the front was not forgiving – some predictions were right; others were way, way off. Areas that were forecasted to get little, if any, snow got upwards of a foot. Sun Prairie hit 12.5 inches, Ripon 12, Beaver Dam 10.5, Eagle 9. As you would expect, there are complaints (and hyperbole) on the internet. “You got some ’splainin to do here. WTH happened to turn 0-1-2 [inches] into 20???”

All in all, it’s not a fantastic forecast, but it’s not a horrible one either. Maybe we’ll call it a draw. And for the mets, that’s a pretty good day. 

Managing Editor Archer Parquette won 2022 Milwaukee Press Club awards for “Bobby” and “Of Farms and Fleets.”

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This story is part ofMilwaukee Magazine’s August issue.

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Meet Milwaukee’s TV Meteorologists | Milwaukee Magazine (2024)
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