In the first of a series to help familiarize readers with Twin Cities weathercasters, Minnesota Forecaster sat down with Patrick Hammer, KSTP morning meteorologist, for a wide-ranging conversation. Patrick spoke about everything from what attracted him to Minnesota, his California roots, KSTP’s forecasting philosophy and how he was originally expected to work in the family’s retail clothing business. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: What would you be doing if you weren’t working as television meteorologist?
A: I have no idea. Well, I guess I’d have worked in the family business in San Francisco, where I grew up. It was a mens and boys clothing store called Young Mans Fancy where everyone in San Francisco went as a boy to get their first suit. That was kind of my path. But when I was working at the store I also interned at local TV stations in San Francisco and my grandparents didn’t know. They would have been like, “Weather? You like weather? We don’t like weather. This is what you’re gonna do.” I loved the tradition of the store but I knew the retail industry was kind of going like this [he motions downward] and I had this passion for weather since I was two. I had to do it.
Q: How did you go about pursuing a career in weather?
A: When I went to college, USC did not offer a degree in meteorology. I also had an interest in urban planning, still do, and became a teaching assistant in the Geography Department. The Geography Department had some of the weather classes. So that at least got me into weather even though I didn’t major in it. When I got out of college, I went into real estate office leasing in San Francisco. Then I went back to work at the store. And that’s when I said, “OK, I got to do this.” I got my AMS seal in 2002. I didn’t get my first on-air job until I was 26, which is later than people who get weather degrees right out of college. Even though I knew what I wanted to do, I had a different way about getting there.
Q: How did your career evolve from there?
A: I got my first on-air job in Chico, California in July 1996. I thought I’d be there for six months. But it was a party school, and at the time I was 26 and I’m like, “this is awesome.” I’m reliving my college life. Four years later, I’m still there and I’m the chief meteorologist and everything and then finally my buddies came to me and said, “You gotta get out of here, you’re never going to grow up.” So finally, in 2000, I left. I went to Albuquerque, then Seattle and then I did a stint in San Francisco, which was my hometown and my home market. It was for the sister station of the station in Seattle. I worked there for a couple of months, but it was only going to be kind of a part-time, temporary fill-in kind of situation… and with a wife I knew I needed something more stable. So I came out here in 2005. I’ve always dreamed about working in Minneapolis just because of the weather. In San Francisco you get some interesting weather in the winter but in the summer it’s “fog on the coast, sunny inland” and that gets old. So this market is far more challenging. And for that reason, I love it.
Q: What’s it like to be a meteorologist in California?
A: The weather in places like San Diego is an afterthought, and it’s just not a promotable thing. People don’t really watch it because it’s fairly predictable. Now they all have their little idiosyncrasies there. You’ve got the coastal eddy and how that affects fog. And you get big temperature variations from the coast to inland, but other than that…. Here it was 103 last summer and the lowest temperature we had last winter was 16 below so that’s a 119 degree shift! I love that.
Q: It seems like a lot of meteorologists are from the Midwest and other parts of the country that get more “interesting” weather. Yet you’re from San Francisco.
A: But you know even though you don’t live in a place that has severe weather, there are still microclimates there and the weather can be as fascinating and some very well known meteorologists have come out of San Francisco.
Q: What are some of the more interesting weather phenomena you observed and forecast while working in Chico?
A: Two of the most interesting features were the Delta Breeze and Tule Fog. The Delta Breeze occurs when there’s enough hot air that builds in the Sacramento Valley and eventually that hot air will lift and allow a cool breeze all the way from the ocean through the delta and you’ll go from 105 in Sacramento one day to 80 the next. That happens in the summer quite a bit. The Tule Fog happens in the winter. It’s high pressure and it can just envelop that valley with fog for weeks. It causes flight cancellations and many accidents. [Tule fog is named after the tule grass wetlands (tulares) of the Central Valley of California.]
Q: How attractive is to work in Minneapolis, where snow is obviously more common than in other cities?
A: When they get snow in a place like Seattle, it’s a big deal. And even though you hear people say, “It’s just an inch of snow” those hills are steep. And it does snow in Seattle. There are some years they’ll get snow five or six times. Some years you get none. But that was my draw to this place… winter. I love forecasting snowstorms and last winter I loved it. I mean how many 13-inch storms did we have? We had like three or four of them whereas my first couple of years here we were just getting this piddly stuff, and I’m like “what?” This isn’t going to work. I think we’re into this pattern over maybe the next year or two where weather swings will be more dramatic.
Q: What else do you find unique about this market?
A: There’s a lot of viewer loyalty in this market and, in particular, morning viewers are a little less apt to change. As the saying goes, “They don’t know who they like but they like what they know.” So having a little longevity is important, sticking around for a bit. When I first got here, I replaced a guy by the name of Jim Guy who had been here a long time. All of the sudden I showed up and people are like, “Who in the heck is this guy?” And it took a while to not only gain the respect of my coworkers but also to get warmed up to the viewers. I would say there was a Jim Guy hangover for at least six months.
You also don’t find many “rip and readers” [people who “rip” the forecast from the National Weather Service and essentially just read it] in this market whereas you get that in a lot in other markets. And believe me, I’m still learning. I learn every day from Dave, from Ian, from others… I mean, I watch.
Q: Do you feel like you’re an entertainer or a scientist?
A: I think it’s both. At the National Weather Service, they’re very good, but they’re notoriously a little drier. They eat, sleep and live weather and are more shift oriented. Yet, I take it home with me as well. When I’m twittering at home, it drives my wife crazy! You know we’re having dinner and I’m doing updates. But did I get into this to be on TV? No. Do I like being on TV? Yea, I like it. I have a passion for this and doing it in front of an audience. You’ve got to be personable and be genuine, because the minute you’re not yourself, the minute it sounds phony, people see that. You have to be real and I think most everyone is in this market. There’s not a lot of BS here because it wouldn’t survive.
Q: How has social media changed your role or your perception of your role?
I don’t do much with Facebook but I love Twitter. There’s just a lot more that we can do to engage an audience. I think it’s exciting. You know some guy said, “Thanks for all the Twitter information. Now I don’t need to watch any more.” And part of me initially felt that I didn’t want to give it all away, yet if you develop a relationship they will come to you when weather happens and when it’s necessary. And luckily in Minnesota there are more of those kinds of days than anywhere else. I don’t believe you can tweet something like, “Want to know how much rain we’re going to get? Tune in at 5.” People are smarter than that. Tell ‘em, but maybe don’t give it all away. But I don’t want to just text my 7-day forecast to everybody because yea, you do still want people to watch. But if they know you, when there is a time to watch you’re who they’ll go to I believe. It took me a little while to grasp that. Chikage (Windler) was helpful in getting me to understand that.
Q: How do you feel about the idea of employing confidence ratings in forecasts?
I see both sides of the argument for using confidence ratings. A guy I know in Albuquerque has something called a “bust potential” because storms in the southwest can be far more fickle. He would have a forecast for the storm but he would also include a bust percentage like 30 percent that this doesn’t work out. And they actually started promoting it and it was a cute little thing and something different that other people weren’t doing.
If I feel like there’s a lot of uncertainty, I communicate that by showing different models or explaining that models are showing different timing and amounts. Or I’ll say that new model information came in and while I’m not sold on it we can’t turn our back on it. But I think people think, “You’re a meteorologist, you should know.” Ultimately, I think you have to go with your gut, go with what you think and sell it.
Q: From our assessments on The Minnesota Forecaster, we’ve seen several instances where KSTP’s forecasts stand out from the collective consensus of other Twin Cities weather outlets. Why is that?
A: I’m glad to see that we’re not all the same, that we all have a little different way of doing things. We’re not afraid to take chances and go for it. I remember the day last summer when we hit 103. Granted, we all underestimated the temps that day, but we had 94 on Day 7 and everybody else had the low 80s. Sometimes you take a little bit of a risk. You knew there was a little bit of a chance that that warm front would have stayed south of us and we could have been cooler. But it kept showing up.
When we’re wrong, or if there’s a bust, it bugs me, obviously. Even if I said it was going to be sunny and it turned out to be cloudy. I mean is it really affecting people? No. But I got it wrong. And that doesn’t sit well with me.
Q: How do you feel about sharing model-predicted precipitation amounts in your on-air presentation?
A: One of the things that has been a help, but in some ways a hindrance, is the fact that now we display model data which we never used to do years ago, and a lot of these systems like WSI have a built-in RPM model which often times nails it. It’s really something. However, some times it can be out in left field. And if you’ve got your forecast thinking all done and then all of a sudden this in-house model shows something different, don’t show it because you got to stick with your forecast, use it as maybe a tool internally, but don’t show it just because it looks good. One of the things that Dave (Dahl) does – and one of the things I really learned from him – was still kind of going old school. For example, when you make your snowfall forecasts don’t just throw out model data. Throw out what you’re thinking and use that as your forecast and not these models. We can become overly reliant on the models and sometimes you just have to go with what you see.
Q: Do you think forecasting beyond five days really makes sense?
A: Yea, I do. But I think beyond five days is really a trend. We could almost just say 80s, 90s, 70s, or mild vs. a specific temperature. But we stick with it. I think you have a pretty good handle. Are you going to forecast a 90 percent chance of snow on day 7? No. Usually our pops [percent chance of precipitation] won’t go any higher than 40 percent on Day 7. We just don’t know. But a lot of people go, “OK, we’re getting married next Saturday. What do you think?” And I always tell people it’s a week away. Here’s what I’m thinking. Call me back three days out and then we can nail it a little more clearly.
Q: Given that the Twin Cities have no elevation differences and the weather is not affected by close proximity to a large body of water, do you think it’s necessary for temperatures to be detailed in all of the towns and suburbs that comprise the greater Twin Cities?
A: That’s something that we talk about. Here’s the thing. There will be days where there will be a clear difference in north and south metro temperatures. There can be a warm front right through the state where there can be a huge change. And sometimes east to west. But nine times out of ten without elevation, without topography, an area that is fairly small is not gonna see a huge difference. There’s no land-sea effect. There’s nothing. But we’re reminded that people want to hear their town mentioned so if you say “In Buffalo or in Eden Prairie” that will resonate. Particularly in the summer, though, it’s hard to say that it makes much difference. But in the winter it can be a different story because sometimes you can clearly see that the south metro may get eight inches of snow while there may be one in Cambridge.
Now in San Francisco, they really use a lot of detail. They used to just have a 5-day forecast, but now they all do 7-day forecasts and three different ones: coastal, bay and inland … so there are many numbers up there. But you’ve got a huge difference.
Q: How do you feel about going on air when there’s severe weather?
I know that we all think we really like it when severe weather happens because we know we can own it. If it’s your day off, you come in and the station gets the helicopter up. When the North Minneapolis tornado happened, we set the bar very high. Dave and I teamed up and our helicopter was up showing what happened. One of the other stations stayed with golf and that really surprised me.
We have a policy and I think every station has it, too. If there’s a tornado warning in the seven-county metro, you go on. If it’s out of that, you still go on but you probably cut in. Last summer during the tornado, I came in and we covered up NASCAR. People can get angry. I made the mistake of taking a 20-second break off the wall-to-wall coverage and checked my email. A lot of people were not happy. But listen, if there’s a tornado warning in the metro… if we weren’t on and somebody dies... You’re mandated to show warnings and things. We’re not mandated to go wall to wall. And you don’t do it just because everybody else is doing it. It’s just what we do. And the Hubbards [owners of KSTP] completely support it.
Q: Do you foresee the day when severe weather coverage can be streamed so it doesn’t affect regular viewing?
A: I think that the technology is there for us or is just about there. We could just stream it online but not everybody’s got the Internet. My goal would be to put it on channel 45. Or why couldn’t we have taken NASCAR and put it on one of our other channels? But on the weekends there may not always be all the staff here that can figure that out.