BROOKE GLADSTONE: Minnesota is legendary for its fierce winters and equally fierce obsession with weather. It's a place where idle chats about wind chill can bloom into full-fledged debates and where a meteorologist can easily claim ten minutes of a 25 minute broadcast! It was a rough winter this past year in Minnesota, but even if it weren't, the coverage would be huge, because it is Minnesota and without the weather -- well there is no "without weather" in Minnesota. So if the media can't report on actual storms, they'll just tell you what might happen during a storm. On the Media's Sarah Lemanczyk has been tracking the weathermen.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: This spring you can't turn on the TV in Minneapolis/St. Paul without finding a meteorologist concerned about your safety. His concern is usually flanked by lots of fake thunder, and in the case of Channel 5, his concern is voiced over blue-gray images of a young family cowering under an umbrella. [CLIP PLAYS -- RAIN AND FAKE THUNDER]
ANNOUNCER:The average person wouldn't see this storm coming. Neither would the average radar. Now with Sky Max Five, the only million-watt radar in the Twin Cities, Dave Dahl shows you the storm's other radars miss. Unmatched experience with radar. And now a million watts of power! The Sky Max Five weather team....
SARAH LEMANCZYK: Million watts. That's a lot of watts. Of course Channel 4 says that they have the best weather technology on the planet....
ANNOUNCER: The bottom line is: we have amazing technology. But we've combined that with experience. Who's been tracking storms the longest? Not just years but decades -- of finding the storms, what do they mean, where are they going, how dangerous are they going to be? You don't get that overnight in a piece of equipment! You build that up over decades. Technology and experience -- we have that on 4.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: Technology -- experience. I like that. That sounds good. I'm not sure if it's better than one million watts. But here's the basic question: why do local stations spend all this time and money hawking the weather? I tracked down Dave Dahl, chief meteorologist at Channel 5 in St. Paul and wielder of the new million-watt Sky Max Five.
DAVE DAHL: It has helped our ratings and I think the overall goal is to not only get more people to watch but of course keep more people safe, and severe weather -- severe weath-- we haven't had a lot of severe weather yet, so I believe that'll be the first real tell-tale sign -- if we can get a lot of people to watch us when we do get severe weather, then it will be a winner.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: Sure. In a perfect world, it's a win/win. You get the number one slot in the ratings war and everybody emerges safely from their basement after the storm has passed. [CLIP PLAYS]
ANNOUNCER: Storms tend to hide where most radars can't find them. [RAIN AND FAKE THUNDER] Like behind other storms.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: But is fake thunder really the best tactic?
DAVE DAHL:Yeah, I don't want to be scary. I did -- we did want to pique people's interest. I mean the whole idea of the ad was to get them interested in what we were going to do and what - and, and-- want to see this new technology that we're coming out with. So the scary part -- I, I don't totally agree with, but the fact that they do catch people's interest, that's the whole idea.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: On a pleasant, sunny afternoon I met Brian Lambert, media columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press at a local coffee shop.
BRIAN LAMBERT: Weather has the, has the aura of being legitimate. I mean this has a community service aspect. It's not, you know, it's not-- exploiting violence or anything else. So--in that way it looks like-- you know kind of a clean promotional slate for them.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: Unlike sweeps-induced panic about teen prostitution, the weather is real -- every day. And that fact lulls our skepticism to sleep -- at least long enough for us to believe that promos that run 4 or 5 times a day could really be about our safety. Dave Dahl.
DAVE DAHL: When we first installed the Doppler I was working here, and we used to talk about the Doppler radar can stop everything! It was the way we promoted it! But we made it sound like it was going to stop all severe weather. The day after a tornado struck in Roseville, a woman called me up and she s-- she was crying on the phone and she said "Why did you let that tornado hit my house?" She said "you have the Doppler radar!" -- and I felt so bad that we had made people believe that because we have a Doppler radar we can actually stop weather! We can't stop it, but we'll-- able -we're able to see it now in advance.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: Doppler - radar - live storm tracking -- it's exciting dramatic terminology - the type of thing you'd tune in for even if you weren't sure what it meant. Again, Brian Lambert.
BRIAN LAMBERT: It is a great gimmick for them, and it's-- it, and it is - whatever the reasons -- if it's true or not - but for whatever the reasons, you know, Minnesotans love this stuff and love being in touch with it. I guess it's some kind of a link to our agrarian past, you know, when our-- our inner farmer or something.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: It's true. Here in Minnesota we love the weather. We even make our meteorologists stand outside while they give us the forecast so we can kind of "live" the weather with them right at that moment. And the networks rely on our voracious appetite for all things atmospheric. The result this spring is a very public battle for the hearts and minds of Minnesota with meteorologists accusing each other of bravado or downright incompetence. It's a battle that Dave Dahl takes personally. In fact, he gets a little emotional about it.
DAVE DAHL: When they start to mention our radar and our station on their air, it's great! It's great promotion for us because it does then tell people - hey! - maybe we should tune to Channel 5! Because they have something that, that this guy thinks is too strong! Well if it's too powerful, what's too powerful? I mean-- if it can actually show us more, how can that be too powerful?
SARAH LEMANCZYK: All this power, all this radar, all these ads-- whether or not there's any weather to report. [CLIP PLAYS]
ANNOUNCER: The only thing showing up in the metro, believe it or not, are some controlled burns! We actually have some brush fires and the Doppler radar is so sensitive that it can actually pick up, in this case, plumes of smoke.
SARAH LEMANCZYK: So even if the skies are peaceful, whether is still the biggest and most expensive gun in the local television ratings war, and they're not about to stop shooting. Even if they're just blowing smoke. For On the Media, I'm Sarah Lemanczyk.
ANNOUNCER: Otherwise a little bit of ground clutter showing up, dry scanned and that's the way it's....
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, goodbye to a wry news guy; TV after TiVo and music videos that overturn these social order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR. [FUNDING CREDITS]