Sun Magazine Readers' Choice Awards [Pictures]
Personalities: Meteorologist and Internet-famous person( Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun photo / February 24, 2014 )
Wouldn't it be cool if the snow was as high as the basketball hoop?
That message -- accompanied by a photo of a snow pile that was, in fact, just as high as the driveway basketball hoop -- was posted on Justin Berk's Facebook page on Feb. 14. For more than five years, Berk -- a former WMAR and WBAL meteorologist -- has kept tens of thousands of Mid-Atlantic residents up to date with his forecasts, plus daily lessons about science and anecdotes related to his lifelong passion for meteorology.
The personal touch to his free-of-charge reporting has won him many devoted fans -- including a group that saw his post last month, decided that he could use something more effective than a shovel, and raised $720 in three days to buy him a snow blower.
"A lot of these people, I've never met before," said Berk, 40. "I've never really asked for anything, but the fact that they got together to chip in and buy the weather guy ... a snow blower is really cool."
Berk, who spent five years at WBAL and nine more at WMAR, figured out a way to significantly raise his profile after leaving TV. When Berk and Baltimore's ABC affiliate parted ways in January 2012, his Facebook page had about 5,200 likes. Now? More than 120,000.
"It's nice to have that kind of impact," said Berk, whose page, according to Facebook analytics, was seen by more than 5 million people during the February storms. "For the most part, I'm just sharing forecasts and cool science stories."
Berk's social-media stardom -- he also has more than 12,500 Twitter followers -- has buoyed his post-broadcast career. He does consulting, forecasting and decision support for contractors who plow snow, in addition to institutions that could use "a few extra hours ahead of the weather."
He also speaks to schoolchildren through his Wind For Change program (a science education lesson conducted through the Cool Kids Campaign, a nonprofit for kids dealing with cancer); has taught and served on the faculty advisory council at Stevenson University; and developed the Kid Weather App with his oldest son.
Berk has garnered some notoriety for questions he's posed about climate change, but nowadays he prefers not to address the topic. "To me, what's most important is our local weather," he said. His fans tend to agree.
"He's a very real person," said Julie Ray Smith, a Glen Burnie photographer who coordinated fundraising for Berk's snow blower. "What stands out for me -- and I trust him more than the Weather Channel -- is that he's accurate, and when he's not accurate, he owns it. I've been there on his page when he had about 5,000 people, right after he left ABC 2. Now there's more than 120,000, and he still individually responds to you."
Take note: Julie Ray Smith, 34, of Glen Burnie, remarked on Berk's responsiveness on Facebook: "I remember once I said I was getting ready to grill steaks, and he said there was a storm coming -- bring that steak in and stop grilling. That is a real connection right there. And you know what? He was right.""