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Up Close with Veronica Johnson, NBC4

Jamie Jones @ 11:02 PM

Originally by Andrew Freedman, November 2004

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

Veronica Johnson has been known to throw herself out of an airplane thousands of feet in the air in what skydivers call "accelerated free fall," yet she almost didn't pursue a television meteorology career due to shyness.

She grew up a reticent young girl in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after living for a time in Europe where her father was stationed in the military. Her early memories of weather were the cold and snowy European winters, contrasted with the hot and humid Carolina thunderstorms. Weather was her connection to her father. "From my earliest memories my dad and I would always talk about weather, that seemed to be our big topic of conversation," she said.

In High School Johnson learned about weather from an ex-Air Force pilot science teacher who broke ranks with the textbook and taught students about the atmosphere and flying, all the way down to how to prepare flight plans. The teacher inspired Johnson to consider pursuing meteorology or aeronautical engineering. She chose the former, earning a degree in atmospheric science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Throughout school she avoided giving presentations, sometimes failing assignments because she refused to get before a group and present results of her work. Asked whether she considered a career in TV weathercasting she exclaimed: "Never, ever, ever, ever!"

At the urging of a college friend, she interned at a TV station in Tennessee with Mark Reynolds, whom she said is still forecasting on-air in Johnson City, Tenn. She said the fact that she and Reynolds were about the same age helped her get over her fears. "It was someone I could relate to," she said of Reynolds. "He made it very comfortable to pick up the clicker and start doing a presentation in front of the weather wall."

Following her internship in Tennessee, Johnson became an apprentice at The Weather Channel, spending her Sundays honing her on-air presentation skills with an on-camera meteorologist at the fledgling network. She then landed a gig on the overnight shift.

One gets the impression that for Johnson, each early broadcast was an accelerated free fall. "In the back of my mind I remember thinking: 'it's not just local, it's national. I never wanted to do this but here I am, the irony of it all,'" she said.

She moved on from TWC to help start the Fox station WBFF in Baltimore, then on to New York's top-rated WABC, and back to Baltimore at WMAR. She came to WRC "NBC 4" three years ago. The station is one of a handful of local news operations owned outright by NBC, which she says is an asset.

"They've had the best of the best and the most," she said of TV weather technology. "It's kind of like being at a little Weather Channel."

At NBC 4 Johnson works with Chief Meteorologist Bob Ryan, a D.C. institution who has been with the station since 1980. She said Ryan's work ethic is increasingly rare in the TV weather world. "You do your own, you look once, you look twice, you look three times at the models and the information to get it right," she said. "At other stations it was kind of a lot of guys that I work with did the rip and read, not as much sense of responsibility. Here it's let's get it right, once you have it right, make sure that you're communicating in a clear and concise way so that the audience doesn't leave scratching their heads saying 'what's the forecast?'"

As a black woman, Johnson has had to break through barriers in the broadcasting world, and she said even today it remains difficult to be a woman in the news business. She doubts there will ever be a weather team made up of three females and one male.

"Why is it that it always has to be off balance? Management at most news stations are afraid to make a move like that because they will think 'well the public isn't ready for that,'" she said.

The challenges of being a black woman in a white male dominated business influenced her early broadcasts, making her more reserved. "There was very little of my personality that came through because I was so busy trying to prove that I was a credible weather person," she said. "Now I am better with it."

She said when she is out in the community giving talks she emphasizes to young girls that they have a tougher road ahead of them in science, but there are opportunities. "I am quite honest with them," she said, telling young women, "It will be a little harder for you."

Johnson loves being outdoors, and said if she didn't go into on-air weathercasting she would have pursued studying severe weather in the Great Plains where she could go storm chasing. For now, though, she will have to satiate her urge for adrenaline by pursuing hiking, biking, and her hobby of accelerated free fall skydiving, which she got into a few years ago.

"There has been really nothing else that I can think of that has ever given me that same rush," she said. Her husband, an executive with Sinclair Broadcasting in Baltimore, is a skydiver also. "He doesn't like to be one-upped by a lady," Johnson said.

Johnson is the mother of three, ranging from age six to 18, and she described them as "just as dare-devilish."

As for the upcoming winter forecast, Johnson said she has ditched her longtime sports car for a jeep, if that is any indication of what she expects.

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