A squall hits the airwaves Forecasting: WJZ says its new on-site radar can pinpoint a storm on your street. So can we, insists WBAL. Tempest in a teapot, says the National Weather Service.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sure, everybody talks about the weather. But of late, two Baltimore television stations have taken to arguing about it.

Earlier this year, the folks at WJZ, Channel 13, plunked down $300,000 to become the only station in town with its very own Doppler radar, which tracks the movement of weather systems. Just in time for last month's ratings sweeps, they set it up on the station's parking lot atop TV Hill and started boasting that they TC could provide viewers with up-to-the-second forecasts. They said their radar, since it's smack dab in the middle of Charm City, could track approaching storms down individual streets. They pledged their forecasters could now tell viewers in one part of the city just how long it would be before the neighbors' houses started getting wet.

And then they looked on in horror as their TV Hill neighbors, WBAL, Channel 11, started making pretty much the same claims -- even though their forecasters rely on readings from 70 miles away in Sterling, Va., site of the National Weather Service's Doppler radar, as well as radar sites in State College, Pa., and Dover, Del.

WJZ has access to the same information but claims it's far better to have radar right here in Baltimore.

For these two TV stations, who are locked in a struggle for ratings supremacy in Baltimore, the stakes are high. Viewer surveys show that "weather is often the No. 1 thing that drives people to the TV set to watch a newscast," says WJZ News Director Gail Bending.

WBAL's promotional spots, which aired in 30- and 20-second versions, promised "immediate" reports on weather conditions, complete with "pinpoint accuracy" and "street-level accuracy to conditions in your neighborhood."

It trumpeted WBAL's "powerful" forecasting technology and bragged that the station "surrounds the region with a computerized web of radar sites."

That's not true, insists management at Channel 13, saying theirs in the only weather operation in town that can claim that sort of accuracy or immediacy.

"I'm not sure what their service can do, but I don't believe it lives up to their promotional claims," says WJZ General Manager Marcellus Alexander.

WJZ's Bending ratchets the criticism up a notch. "WBAL promoted the system that only we have," she says. "Their radar is not live."

Does it really make a difference? Marty Bass at WJZ, who gives the weather reports during the morning program he co-anchors with Don Scott, certainly thinks so. Last month, responding to a viewer's question, he shouted: "We are the only ones that can pinpoint a street. Everybody else is lying, lying dirtbags."

Management at WBAL says, however, that there's nothing wrong or misleading about their promotions. Their claims of immediate, specific weather information have as much to do with their weather stations -- about 100 scattered throughout Maryland that feed temperature, precipitation and other information into a computer -- as with the Doppler radar information they obtain from Virginia.

"We're not claiming anything that is not true," says WBAL vice president and General Manager Phil Stolz, adding that Sterling's radar "is as powerful as you can get."

Says WBAL meteorologist Tom Tasselmyer: "To put a radar in your own backyard is strictly a promotional tool. You're not going to gain any advantage by doing that. You can't beat the system we're using; it is the most sophisticated, most powerful radar system devised."

Meteorologists and weather experts who don't work for television stations say the debate is much ado about very little.

"Both of them could provide pretty much the same information," says state climatologist Alan Robock, a professor in the department of meteorology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

There could be a difference when it comes to tracking narrow, well-defined storms as they rip their way through Baltimore, Robock acknowledges; a local radar could possibly provide quicker, more accurate information.

But that type of storm, common in the Midwest, is rare around these parts, he says. For the vast majority of storms around here, "those things are so big, you can still see them fairly easily from Sterling. They're more than a block wide."

Bob Chartuk, a spokesman for the National Weather Service's Eastern region, won't even cut the argument that much slack.

The Sterling radar is plenty specific, he says. "It can pick up insects, flocks of birds, just about any type of weather that's within its view." The NWS radar could even pinpoint a certain street, he says, if the situation calls for it.

True, weather information from Sterling can be five to seven minutes old -- the length of time it takes for the radar to complete a sweep of its area and send information along to the various vendors who, in turn, send it out to television stations. WJZ is able to complete a sweep in 90 seconds, says Rick Seaby, the station's director of broadcast operations and engineering.

Laurie Hermes, regional radar meteorologist for the NWS' Eastern Regions, stresses that the government uses the most sophisticated equipment available and carefully trains its employees on how to use it.

Of course, all this equipment can only say what's happening right now. As for what'll happen in five minutes, much less five days well, that's still the same crap shoot it's always been.

"Even though you know where the storm is right now, that doesn't mean you know where it's going to be 15 minutes from now," says Robock. "They don't always move in a straight line."

Pub Date: 6/03/97

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