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Up Close with Tony Pann, WUSA 9 News

Jamie Jones @ 11:15 PM

Originally by Andrew Freedman, August 2004

This is the first in a series of interviews with Washington-area weather professionals.

Broadcast meteorologists come in two distinct breeds: Those who simply report the weather, and those who truly live the weather, their emotions rising and falling with the barometric pressure.

For someone who never intended to become a TV meteorologist, WUSA TV's weekend meteorologist Tony Pann falls into the latter category. When the weather is active it is difficult not to get caught up in his enthusiasm.

For example, recently during an 11 p.m. broadcast he described Hurricane Charley the way a proud father would gush over a child. "This is a beautiful storm from the satellite perspective, with great outflow, really impressive," he said.

During the blizzard of 2003 that brought two feet of snow to parts of the D.C. area, Pann provided tag-team coverage with Chief Meteorologist Topper Shutt and colleague Howard Bernstein. As the storm wound down, it looked as if he had to be forcibly removed from the post where he was monitoring the latest radar trends.

His love of weather is what has earned Pann the loyalty of weather geeks and general audiences alike and has propelled him from his first TV gig in Dayton, Ohio on to major media markets in Baltimore, New York and his current home in the nation's capital.

In an interview, Pann said he knew in high school he was destined for a weather career, but he dreamed of being a tornado chaser and weather researcher. He chased storms while getting a B.S. degree in meteorology at Northern Illinois University, witnessing an F3 tornado churn across Dekalb County in Illinois. "It was awesome!" he said. "You gotta get out there."

After college Pann embarked on a short-lived applied weather research career at an operational forecasting firm in Chicago. There he worked on atmospheric dispersal models to predict where dangerous pollutants might flow under different weather conditions.

"I had every intention of going to chase tornadoes and doing research and all that stuff," Pann said. Within a year of starting at the firm he received a call from a former professor, encouraging him to apply for a TV forecasting job at a station in Dayton, Ohio. He took a chance, landed the job and spent five years in Dayton before moving east to Baltimore for eight years. He then headed to New York, the nation's largest media market, where he got national exposure filling in on NBC's "Weekend Today Show." He returned to the Washington area in 2001.

He said forecasting weather in D.C. is surprisingly challenging due to the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachians. "It's a fun, fun place to forecast because we can run the gambit from hurricanes to tornadoes to snowstorms," he said.

Pann describes forecasting as an acquired skill that does not necessarily require a college degree, saying he has witnessed weathercasters with bare bones credentials "out forecast" degreed meteorologists. He said the key is to "really learn and pay attention to how to look at the [computer] models and how to use them."

Pann said the proliferation of computer models and other weather technologies have made it even more important for stations to hire forecasters who have a solid grasp of the science. He said some media outlets are reducing the quality of their forecasts by relying too much on computer models and not enough on personal forecast skills.

For example, he criticized the National Weather Service's new zone weather forecasts, which he said are based on a single computer model with little human input. "Their forecasts are so bad," he said. "When you put out a forecast based on only one model the chances of it being right are obviously less," he said.

Pann praised NWS forecasters, but said it is a shame they do not have as much input in local forecasts as they used to. "The product that goes out to the public is worse than it was even two or three years ago," he said. He said The Weather Channel now follows a similar approach to their "Local on the 8's."

All weather consumers are by now aware of the all-out war between stations for the best Doppler Radar with the most memorable name. Pann called such marketing "crap," but did take the opportunity to plug his Channel 9's radar compared with other D.C. stations. He said since his station owns their own commercial Doppler system ("Doppler 9000"), they have the advantage of setting its parameters and have a more rapid scan time. Thus, his station's radar sweeps the skies every minute, as opposed to every six minutes for NBC 4's "Digital Doppler XT" that takes its feed from the NWS radar in Sterling, Va.

Perhaps the ultimate example of a Doppler moniker, Pann said, is a station he heard of that decided to crush the competition by naming its radar "Big Foot Doppler."

"You can't get any bigger than 'Big Foot Doppler,'" he said. "It's really cool. They've decided to make fun of it, but at the same time they stumbled onto a name that people definitely remember."

After experiencing different media markets, he said D.C. residents don't "freak out" about inclement weather any more than other areas, except, of course, in the case of snow. He said when he first came to Baltimore from the Midwest the school system was shut down for an inch of snow, which thought was absurd.

"They only freak out with the snow, more so than they should," he said of Baltimore/Washington residents.

Pann's love affair with the weather extends to his home life as well. His wife MaryEllen is a TV meteorologist at Fox 43 in York, Pennsylvania. MaryEllen has a business degree, and learned meteorology at Mississippi State University. "I'll put her up against anybody in a forecast contest," he said. "She's got that women's intuition sort of thing going on." The weather duo has a daughter, Brittany, who could continue the weather dynasty someday.

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