Survival Guide: Bob Ryan, chief meteorologist, NBC 4, Washington

Bob Ryan, Washington's NBC4 meteorologist


It's a safe bet that after politics and traffic, the most-discussed issue in Washington is the weather. The metropolitan area gets it's share of meteorologic oddities, and Bob Ryan, who has been the chief meteorologist at NBC 4 since 1980, has seen it all.

Ryan, who began his career in the 1960s, has served the Washington area longer than any other broadcast meteorologist, and leads a team of six NEWS4 meteorologists. So what business lessons are there to be learned from forecasting the weather? Managing Editor Evamarie Socha talked with Ryan to find out.

WT: How much of weather forecasting is science and how much is art?

Ryan: It's all science. It's similar to medicine in that you go to a medical practitioner or a doctor who is using the very latest equipment, science and techniques to do an analysis of the patient. In this case, the meteorologists are doing the analysis. The patient is the atmosphere.

Certainly, as with doctors, you're using science and all the tools, but you're also using your own experience. So there isn't anything innately mysterious about it in terms of it being an art.

WT: Is it important to be a good entertainer?

Ryan: I hope not, anymore than it's important for a newscaster to be an entertainer.

I think the state of the science is such now that people want to have weather information to make decisions, everything from short-term forecasts to severe weather in order to take action to protect life and property.  

WT: How have technological advances changed your job since you began?

Ryan: We certainly have direct access to these very sophisticated radar satellite systems. I think few things lend themselves as well to television as weather presentation and live sports, because after all, weather is something we see and experience every day.

WT: What do you do when you get a forecast wrong?

Ryan: In this business, you quickly learn that no matter how hard you try and how much you study, you know you are going to be wrong every once in a while.

I try to explain what happened or why the forecast busted. I'll go back and review and see what I missed, or how I can make sure the next time a similar situation comes, I try not to miss it.  

WT: Are you ever pressured to put a "positive spin" on a bad forecast?

Ryan: No. Nobody has ever [done that]. Obviously, if we've had five or six days of rain in a row, and the weekend is coming up -- it's my weekend, too, and I would hope that it would be sunny as much as anybody. But it would be silly to try to make it more positive.

I tend to be a positive person, so if it looks like there will only be a few showers, I make sure people understand that it's not going to rain throughout the entire period.

I don't necessarily think that's putting a positive spin on things, but I try to be as realistic and as optimistic as possible.

WT: Are there any rules you've learned about forecasting?

Ryan: I try to follow the same process each day with regard to the information I look at and what I do. I try and make the whole forecasting process as routine and objective as possible.

I try not to come in with a preconceived idea. ... Sometimes it can be very difficult, because ... we do work in a competitive environment. If three or four other forecasters are saying we're going to have six inches of snow, and I'm sort of out there on a limb, it sometimes can be a lonely spot.

WT: What life or business lessons are there in weather forecasting?

Ryan: It keeps you humble. As soon as you think you've got it figured out, the atmosphere will say, "Not so quick." You can't get too sure of yourself.  

WT: If this area were hit with a bioterror attack, what weather that day would best minimize the effects?

Ryan: The best situation would be fairly strong winds and if it was a bit of unsettled weather. It would tend to
disperse and wash away any agent as quickly as possible.

We're set up with a lot of the schools that we've provided with weather stations; they are now actually participating in the whole homeland security effort, in that the data is available live on the Internet to [the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration] and the [National] Weather Service, so they could see the wind direction and speeds at very fine detail throughout the city and the region. That's an important piece of information.

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