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Sunny and Mild: Getting to Know Our Fair-Weather Friends of Local News

Weathercasters in Los Angeles take a lot of flack. How tough a job can it be when every day here seems to be 72 degrees and sunny with zero-percent chance of rain? To those who’ve been caught without an umbrella in an unexpected downpour, predicting the weather can feel more like voodoo science than the “technical art” KNBC’s Fritz Coleman knows it really is.

Kevin Scanlon

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When it Raines . . .

Kevin Scanlon

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Head turner: Elita Loresca

Kevin Scanlon

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The entertainer: Mark Thompson

Yet L.A.’s weather personalities also get a lot of love. We welcome them into our living rooms night after night, and wake up to their cheerful advice about whether we’ll need a sweater to face the day.

But few of us realize that a tremendous amount of both science and communication skills goes into forecasting the weather. We in Los Angeles live in what Coleman, arguably the most gifted communicator of the bunch, calls a “geographic irony,” where a desert nestles up against an ocean, where nine microclimates mean that two feet of snow on Mount Baldy can co-exist with roses blooming in Huntington Beach, and where drizzling is major, insanity-inducing weather. On paper, it seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does. And since weather largely moves from west to east, our local weathercasters are the country’s advance guard, prophets of sunshine and the storm. Phoenix, Cincinnati, New York, New Orleans all look to us to see what the wind will bring.

The senior weathermen of our local evening newscasts have longevity and represent the continuity of our lives. They are concise, funny, smart and sincere but never condescending. Condescending is a deathblow to a weather forecaster, who must appeal to as wide a segment of the population as is humanly possible. That this audience both demands of and lambastes them for a softer, more easily digestible presentation — the shrinking of the American attention span is no secret, and neither is the sense that the stuff we’re watching on the news isn’t really “news” — only adds a level of complexity to the job.

ABC7’s Dallas Raines tells amazing stories and finds the drama buried within the dry prattle of meteorology. FOX 11’s Mark Thompson is the guy who always makes us laugh, whom we look forward to hanging out with after a tough day at work. And for those of us too young to have ever seen the bow-tied Dr. George Fischbeck of Eyewitness News in action, KNBC’s Coleman is a father figure — good sense and stability personified. CBS 2’s Johnny Mountain, meanwhile, with his shock of cottony-white hair and jolly delivery, is the Santa Claus of weather. There would have been much to ask him — he claims to be a journalist because he has “low self-esteem,” and his favorite author is the “person who wrote Find Waldo” — but alas, I did not meet the criteria he specifies in his official KCBS bio (his dream interview: “Myself to me”), and he alone among L. A.’s four major weathercasters is unprofiled here.

Of course, the friendly, nonthreatening so-called “weathergirl” has always played a part in the news package. But only lately is she coming to prominence as a bona-fide weather woman. It used to be that the weather desk was the only way a woman could break into TV news. Before the appearance of the straight-talking, helmet-haired female co-anchors of the ’70s and ’80s, reporting on murders and wars was mostly a boys’ game. But as competition from cable networks and alternative infotainment sources increased, and as our local stations tried desperately to reach younger viewers, our female weathercasters started dressing less and less like the silk-bloused-executive Mensa-candidate wannabes of yore. With long, sometimes-golden, sometimes-brown tresses tumbling across her tanned shoulders, and tight, plunging V-neck tops over tight jeans, Fox 11’s Jillian Reynolds (née Barberie) pioneered the Forever 21 style of weathercasting, ushering in the era of weather report as cocktail party. You could roll out of bed in the morning and count on her — or, more and more, someone like her on other stations, someone quick-witted, wholesome (but not too wholesome), naughty (but not too naughty), with sparkling eyes and a million-megawatt smile — to talk (or free-associate, since her prattle often takes on a life of its own) about wind velocities and high-pressure fronts. But now L.A.’s newest female weathercaster, KNBC’s Elita Loresca, who certainly has an FHM-approved body, is carving out a middle ground, with more modest outfits and a sweeter, less va-va-voom delivery — she is Mary Ann to Reynolds’ Ginger.

 

Beyond the personalities, we love weather reports almost as much for the way they break up the misery of the news of the day. Grounded in science and numbers, weather and sports segments bookend the Dadaist masterpiece that is the daily news presentation.

On a recent May evening, the 11 p.m. news begins. A cadaver-sniffing dog smells something strange at Barker Ranch; Charles Manson may have buried more victims there. Deputies look for a mystery woman in connection with arson in Altadena. A missing San Diego couple’s boat is found washed up on a beach in Mexico. An earthquake rumbles in Riverside.

“Now for the weather out there,” says KNBC anchor Colleen Williams. “May gray and fog hanging around with us all week long. What about the weekend, you ask at this point? Fritz Coleman has the answers.”

“Thanks, Colleen,” Coleman says. “Well, no doubt about it, a murky, overcast day today. Look at some current temperatures: These are ones that we’ve registered over the last half-hour or so. It’s cloudy and we’re filling in quickly. Here is a great example of what gives us a thick marine layer. You see the swirling of the air? When you get south of Santa Barbara County, it’s a great example of what the air does when the general airflow along the coast of California is parallel to the coast. It eddies. ... Now, how important is that thing going to be for your weekend? We’ll talk about it.”

Cue footage of Jenna Bush. She will wear an Oscar de la Renta dress at her wedding. In Upland, the FBI is tracking a trio of robbers. The police are looking for a ring of jewelry thieves. Then, summer travel tips. Then a doctor is arrested on sex-crime charges.

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“Is it gonna warm up? Or stay cool?” asks anchor Paul Moyer this time. “Here’s Fritz Coleman.”

Kevin Scanlon

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Silver fox: Fritz Coleman

“Outside tonight,” Coleman begins, “you can just see the grayness in the sky.”

Weather segments are typically split in two: a short 45-second-or-so teaser, followed by a two-minute weather report proper.

“Looks like the marine inversion’s not quite so strong tonight. But it could get a little soupy again Sunday morning,” Coleman concludes. “Maybe slightly longer-lasting low clouds and fog.”

Cut to ducks running amuck on the White House lawn.

Odd as it seems, the weather may be the last remaining bastion of useful information on the modern news program. Barring that, the mere sound of a strong voice reciting the numbers is a powerful, lulling thing, whether it belongs to an icon like Fritz or Mark or Dallas or Johnny or to a relative newcomer like Josh Rubenstein on CBS 2 and KCAL 9. When all else fails, these people assure us, we can always talk about the weather.


A Geek in Bronzed Wolf’s Clothing: Dallas Raines

Known for his dramatic flair in front of the map — there are entire Web sites devoted to the way he crouches — Raines is the ultimate weather alpha-nerd, the guy who can poke a head outside and tell you what the ambient temperature is within one degree of accuracy. He’s also a consummate storyteller. On a partly cloudy, slightly gusty 66-degree afternoon in Burbank, meteorologist Dallas Raines is holding court in the ABC7 Weather Center, sharing some of his best.

Story No. 1, or, How Dallas Fell in Love With the Weather: He was 8 years old, at school in the small Georgia town where he grew up, when the tornado came. His teacher ordered everybody into the basement, but Raines, drawn to the storm, snuck away and hid in a storage area. Looking to the west, he saw a massive cumulonimbus rotating supercell. At its base, the nascent tornado.

“Just then,” he says, lowering his voice for dramatic effect as if telling a chilling bedtime story, “something lifted me up off the floor. It was not the tornado ...it was the football coach.”

The coach grabbed Raines and stuck him into the basement. The tornado tore a path through the forest. Later on, having begged his parents to take him out to ground zero, Raines saw huge pines and pecans twisted and lifted up out of the earth. He inhaled their rich scent. How is it possible, he wondered, that wind could blow that hard?

There is an alternate tale of how Dallas fell in love with meteorology, which has to do with one particular old weathercaster he used to watch in the 1960s, before the days of Doppler cam and satellites, who would draw every low-pressure front and where it was going on a blackboard with chalk. He’d get chalk everywhere — on his pants, hair, shirt — and at the end, as a gimmick, he would throw the chalk up in the air. If he caught it, his forecast would be accurate. If he dropped it, it meant the forecast would be wrong.

 

“He was kinda geeky,” Raines recalls, “but he had tremendous passion for it. By the end, his presentation looked like chicken scratch. Watching that guy, you learned how the weather moved.”

Speaking of school, Raines is reminded of a 100-question American Meteorological Society written exam he recently took (and aced) to upgrade the station’s weather credentials. “What’s all on that test?” he says cheerfully, trying to remember, the swingy vowels of the South sliding into his voice. Climate change, astronomy, black-hole questions, thermodynamics, dynamic meteorology, someone in the room says. You get the sense that Raines took the test mainly for fun. “Do you have time to hear my Ted Turner story?” he says.

Story No. 2; Dallas’ Ted Turner Story, or, How Dallas Came to Be a Weathercaster in Los Angeles: Raines was 26 at the time, doing the weather under contract for CNN. He was a young hotshot with offers right and left, and Good Morning America calling, wanting to hire him away. “When a network calls you, generally the stations let you go,” says Raines. “It’s not a big deal. But Ted wasn’t like that. He said, ‘We’re a network.’” So Raines was summoned to Turner’s huge, colonial Tara-like office. Its giant electronic doors swung open, revealing five Asian men, who stood up in front of Turner’s desk. “I have to stop the meeting because Dallas is here,” Turner said, as Raines slunk into the office, peering at Turner’s massive collection of Confederate Civil War memorabilia and the heads of various lions mounted on the walls. Turner pulled out a big saber. “Dallas, come on in here,” he said, while whipping the saber around. “I hate the networks. They think they can come in and take our people. Do you hate them?”

He pointed at Raines with the saber. Let’s just say Raines stayed with CNN. When his contract came up, the network put him in a station in L.A.

Though he’s come to love L.A.’s microclimates, extreme weather remains Raines’ favorite. Which brings us to Story No. 3, or, What Dallas Did Last Summer: Last May, the station sent Raines out to Kansas to cover a devastating tornado outbreak. Driving around the countryside in a radar-equipped truck chasing the storm — locals would see them coming and head in the opposite direction — he and his camera crew found themselves within 50 miles of an F5. Raines saw the massive rotating supercell, a thunderstorm that extends 50,000 feet up into the atmosphere, one so big, commercial airliners won’t go through them, they go around them.

At night, the tornado hit. In the blackness, the lightning lit up the sky, and for just a few seconds, he’d catch glimpses of the whirling funnel. Raines asked his fellow tornado chasers if they could all go intercept it. “No,” they said, horrified, “we’re not gonna do that.” It was the most scared he’d ever been in his life. With the sirens going, and the wind blowing, “Wow,” he figured, “I’m really in it now.”

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Getting Warmer: Fritz Coleman

Of the city’s top weathercasters, Fritz Coleman is the silver fox. The elegant white hair, the delicate glasses, the graceful carriage — all of this has sunk into L.A.’s collective consciousness after 25 years of his evening weathercasts. Coleman represents nothing less than the continuity of our lives. If gale-force winds are blowing and fires are raging, if it’s raining bloody murder onto your carpet, Coleman is the one you want reassuring you that everything will come out all right in the end. The Fritz effect isn’t an accident. It is the result of a carefully honed, time-tested delivery.

“My interest is in warm communication,” he says. “It’s not in informing people that they’re gonna lose their home in 15 minutes because there’s a tornado coming.”

A master of the perfectly turned-out sentence (his formal studies were in communications, after all), he would make a fabulous White House press secretary, or hostage-crisis negotiator. He is succinct, engaging and clever.

Since you might call weather the “palate cleanser” between tragedy and sports, figuring out how to tastefully fit it into a news presentation is an art, Coleman believes.

“You have to finesse an appropriate attitude. Your info may be benign and light, but what you’ve just come out of is death and destruction. You don’t want to have a tire-squealing transition and snap their necks coming out of tragedy to be Mr. Amusing. That would be counterproductive to say the least,” he says. “And job-threatening on another level.”

 

We walk around the chilly sets, and he shows me how to do the weather on the green screen. Caught in the glare of the lights, the script scrolling on the monitor, I discover that gesturing at an empty swath of green is harder than it looks. During the first Hollywood writers’ strike 20 years ago, technicians went AWOL and there was nobody to handle the fancy TV equipment. Janitors were pitching in to work the cameras, even. But the weather stops for no man, and the show must go on. So Coleman went old-school. He held up black-and-white maps faxed over by Associated Press and drew the weather movements with a grease pen on a globe.

Each morning, he checks in with the National Weather Service and decides what his “story” is going to be. For today, it’s “sunny and getting warmer.” But there is another story he’ll be devoting a few seconds to: There’s going to be a catastrophe in the middle of the country. He glances at a monitor with a boil of clouds like twisted cotton over the East. The storm is brewing. “Temperature, relative humidity, wind, barometric pressure, all change every second, all the time,” he says. “It’s like mercury in your fingers.”

Coleman came to Los Angeles originally to do standup comedy, and in a way, doing L.A. weather has allowed him to fulfill that goal. Longtime viewers may recall not only his gigs at the Improv or the Ice House, but also the time he did a St. Patrick’s Day forecast wearing a green suit that disappeared against the green screen and made him look like a floating head.

Fritz Coleman has also written a play. Speaking about the difference between the persona he uses in the play — titled Tonight at 11! — and the persona he has on television, he once told an interviewer, “There is no difference. I play a weatherman in this play. The only thing that is not like my real life is the number of the channel. This is fictional Channel 8 to protect the guilty.” It is a brilliantly Fritzian answer: on point, self-effacing, subtle enough that you wonder if that touch of irony really is irony.

“All people really want to know,” he says now, “is, ‘Do I need to give my child a sweater? Do I need an umbrella? Do I need to leave 15 minutes early in order to get to work on time because Magnolia Boulevard is going to have puddles the size of stadiums on it?’” For every broadcast, Coleman condenses an encyclopedia’s worth of science into easily digestible answers to these questions. I ask him finally why he does the weather, expecting something pithy and philosophical.

“In a grand sense,” he says, “I like being on television. I look forward to it every day.” He grins. “It’s the best two minutes of my life.”


The Girl Next Door: Elita Loresca

It’s a tough market for a female weathercaster here in L.A., this place with a long-standing tradition of iconic broadcast babes, where every inch of you must be telegenic and where veterans like Jillian Reynolds and Jackie Johnson rule the airwaves with cute, boobalicious tops and teeth as white as dry-erase boards. Channel 4’s Elita Loresca is the new kid on the block, but when she came to L.A. from Miami to work the early-morning weather spots, she had already been named America’s Sexiest Newscaster by readers of the men’s magazine FHM. There was even a Web site in Miami devoted to her outfits, which she found baffling. Loresca doesn’t spend a lot of money on clothes, but, like beautiful women everywhere, has that ability to look like a million bucks even in a dress that might have been bought at a swap meet. She is less a Dolce, Prada, Armani girl than a Kohl’s, Target, Macy’s shopper.

On one recent morning, heads are turning as she walks around KNBC’s studios in a stretchy red sweater she picked up on clearance at Nordstrom, a pair of slim, black slacks “from one of those cheap Asian stores, you know, a Fashion Gal or something like that,” a silver Tiffany necklace and black, crocodile-patterned patent-leather Jessica Simpson stiletto heels (again, clearance, 25 bucks), out of which peep her tiny, coral-pink-painted toes.

If you’d happened to catch any of her Miami weather broadcasts, which were shot in wide angle, you may have caught a glimpse of those toes. If, on the other hand, you caught the October 2006 issue of FHM, and the pictures that went with her America’s Sexiest Newscaster spread, you’d have seen considerably more of her. She characterizes the FHM thing as an “interesting” experience, on the whole beneficial, since it was done in a “tasteful” manner agreed upon by her parents and the station. These days, though, you’re more likely to see her in a little black blazer on KNBC rather than a rain-soaked negligee — she says she’s dressing both weather- and age-appropriate (she is 31). “It gives people an indication of what it’s like outside,” Loresca says. “‘Oh, she’s wearing a turtleneck, it must be cold.’”

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This city is perhaps the most specialized venue for the ongoing weather-babe wars, where there is ample room for not one but two sexy, hot Filipina weathercasters. Channel 13’s Maria Quiban is actually Loresca’s good friend and mentor. When Loresca was still in school at Cal State Fullerton and making her way through various local cable stations (she also wrote obituaries for a time at the Orange County Register), she interned at the Orange County News channel, where she learned the ropes from Quiban, who would explain stuff while she assembled each day’s weather graphics.

During her tour of duty in Miami, Loresca covered four hurricane seasons, including the one that brought Hurricane Katrina. It was thrilling, she says, having come from the West Coast and never experiencing such torrential winds before, with waves crashing against the seawall and hitting everyone from the hip up. Her station was on the bay and she reported those storms from outside, a cameraman holding her down and a cord lashed around her waist so she wouldn’t get blown away. Glamour went out the window with Hurricane Wilma.

Loresca’s personal weather tastes are more conservative. She prefers a languorous June gloom — morning fog with clouds that start to strip away by afternoon to a slow reveal of hazy sun.

Her personal lifestyle choices are more conservative as well. When the party kids are stumbling out of bars, she is waking up at her usual 1:45 a.m. She was at work today by 2:45 a.m., when she read the National Weather Service report, checked to see if the highs and lows she gave the day before were accurate, checked how they compared historically and if any cities would be breaking temperature records. She was in makeup by 4 a.m., had taped her first weathercast by 4:45, a “gas-cast” for the Shell gas-station pumps, and at 4:58 a.m., she went live on Today in L.A.

In her opinion, people seem to notice more how she does the weather, not how she looks. “I’ve never been a showy-showy-showy person,” she says. “If I come off being a little rrarrr!” — she shoots a naughty, hypersexual look — “it’s one thing. But if I come off like the girl next door, I think that makes more of an impression. I like to give it to you nice and basic. I don’t try to confuse you by using big words that I would never use with my 3-year-old nephew. Doing the weather is like a soap opera. If viewers love you, they’re gonna keep you around. They’re not gonna kill you off.” It’s safe to say that her viewers, who range in age from 2 years old to 100, would tune in to watch her read a grocery list.

Yet at the family baby shower she went to this weekend, the prevailing comment was, “Oh my gosh, you look so skinny in person. On TV you are so taba,” which means “fat” in Tagalog.

“I was blessed with a full moon,” she countered with a happy sigh. “A little round face. You have to love what the Lord gave you. If I look 10 pounds heavier on television than I do in person, so be it.”

“But why you diet?” said the aunts, imploring her, in that Filipino way of saying hello, to eat, eat.

“Thank you,” said Loresca, yielding to yet another photo with the relatives, who love to take pictures. “But I can only have one fried chicken, not 10.”


Keeping It Real: Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson’s first audition as a weathercaster happened a long time ago, on a boat in a marina with a surprised lady who opened up a can of whoop ass on him because she couldn’t figure out why he was on her boat. He was a young buck then and had never been on camera, and on top of that, the station had neglected to secure her permission. But he went with the flow and ad-libbed some funny stuff.

 

Ad-libbing funny stuff is a running theme in Thompson’s weather career. There was the Memorial Day he predicted it would be sunny. It rained, and he felt so bad about it he asked an old lady to punch him in the arm on camera for the entire broadcast. (She did.)

People on the street used to casually ask him how come it’s always so warm in the Valley and so cool at the coast? “Well, the topography of California is such that the warmer air is locked into the Valley locations, whereas the sea breeze and marine influences are limited to the coastal strip, depending on the pressure changes, you know, inland and offshore, which is what drives those wind velocities, and that’s a dynamic that’s ultimately going to influence whether or not that sea breeze makes it into the inland valleys,” he’d answer, before he realized that asking about the weather was really people’s way of saying “hi.”

They’d stare at him for a bit. “Dude,” they’d say, “I don’t want to ask you anything ever again.”

Thompson is not the swashbuckling storm-chasing weather guy, or the cerebral scientific weather guy (though he has a background in philosophy and biology and is plenty smart). He’s the everyday Joe of the weather trade, the guy you’re happy you sat next to at a sports bar, who happens to know a thing or two about monsoons. There are weather guys, he says, like one of his friends at the Weather Channel, who love to be out in hurricanes. “You’ll see him buttoned up in hat and gear, and he’ll be out there. That to me isn’t ‘doing the weather’ anymore. You’re not a weather guy, you’re a reporter. That’s what reporters do. You’re out there giving a sense of the moment. It’s a different job. Weather guys tend to be very one-dimensional in terms of the science,” he says in the deep, beefy radio voice discerning viewers may recognize from American Idol or When Good Pets Go Bad.

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“What do you mean by one-dimensional?” I ask.

“I mean, we’re kind of thought of as nerds, weather guys, are. There’s sort of a wonkish aspect to it all.”

The L.A. weather guy is such a cliché, in fact, that it’s an embarrassing job for him at times.

“It makes me reflexively apologetic,” he says. “It’s like, ‘What, you work 30 seconds a day? It’s gonna be sunny and 72 with some morning fog?’”

When he did the weather in Denver, by contrast, every day was rock and roll — intense thunderstorms and tornadoes swarming in the afternoon. That was not fun. Thompson has deep respect for the L.A. cliché and will gladly live it any day.

Sometimes he’ll notice other weather guys just reading the temperatures off the board. That guy’s just phoning it in, Thompson will think. “I will never phone it in, ever. That would be an insult to the audience. I could read the tickertape or wire copy, but if I’m gonna do that, they might as well just read it themselves. I’m distilling it, giving it a little bit of panache. Showmanship is important, but at the same time you don’t want to be David Copperfield out there or court jester.”

One of his goals is to be accessible to as many people as possible. “That’s why I like to keep it all pretty . . . ”

Keep it real?

“Keep it real, baby! I like to talk on the street. I like to lay down the knowledge every night.”

“Did you want to be a weather guy when you were a kid?” Something ineffably charming, energetic, personable and unpretentious about him makes me wonder. He’s been asking me just as many questions as I’ve been asking him.

He shakes his head. “I just wanted the bus to come, I was freezing my butt off.”


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