Keith Marler: Accuracy is the Foundation

Keith Marler: Accuracy is the Foundation

In the first of a series to help familiarize readers with some of America’s weather forecasters, Weatherist spoke with Keith Marler, winner of Weatherist’s “America’s Favorite Weather Forecaster” contest, and meteorologist and morning host at KMSP in Minneapolis. We caught up with Keith at home while he was going over his daughter’s homework, playing a memory match game with his son and prepping beef stroganoff for dinner. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

What do you like best about what you do?

I have a multi-track answer to that. First, I love the fact that every day is different and you start the day fresh. Then, by the same token, once you’re done with that – barring severe weather of course or continuing coverage of a weather-related story, you have to put it to bed. You go home and get to start fresh the next day again. No matter how good you were the day before on your forecasting skills it doesn’t mean diddlysquat when you start your next forecast. Beyond that, I just love weather. And I love the science of it.

keith marler family You’ve worked both mornings and evenings in your career. How do you compare them?

Mornings are infinitely better for me. I don’t have any desire to work evenings at this point. In my opinion, that’s a shift that doesn’t lead toward the life I want to live with my family. Morning shows are long and they allow you to be yourself and get to know your viewers. There’s no faking your personality or who you really are. On top of that I have a young family, and so I love the shift itself. Sometimes it means you don’t sleep a lot but on a “normal” weather day, I get back home for lunch every day. So that’s great.

If you weren’t a TV meteorologist, what would you be doing?

I’d be either a math or physics teacher, probably in high school.

Did you have any weather “idols” growing up?

I grew up in Ft. Smith, Arkansas watching KHBS’s Ken Rank. I remember watching him from the time I was about six through junior high. He came across as a smart fellow but he was very personable. He was a man about the community, he was funny and he was just a really nice guy. As I got older, I realized that I knew him as my weatherman.

keith marler goofyYour profile on the KMSP website says that you were once too shy to be on stage, so how did you break through and let the ham shine?

In high school, I did one theatre thing. I don’t think I could act to save my life. I enjoyed the being up there but … I don’t know what changed. It started small in college and started with little things, classroom things, then it grew to large lecture things and then it grew to large auditorium things. It was just a gradual progression. And I just kind of enjoyed it and I always enjoyed crowd participation stuff. Whenever I emceed, I would do stuff with the audience if I could. I enjoyed that interaction.

What would viewers be surprised to know about you?

That’s a good question because I kind of live my life on the air. Things that happen to me and my family ultimately get told. I’m not afraid to share my opinions and it’s pretty much “what you see on TV is what you get in real life.” I love to cook and I’m a big comic book nut, but I’ve talked about that on the air.

How has the role of a television meteorologist changed over your years in the business?

You have to be a lot more well rounded and you have to be a lot more technologically adept. Meteorology hasn’t become more complex but the tools to it have become more complex and become more readily available. In the TV news boom years in the ’80s and ’90s, staffs were huge and there were weather producers that assisted meteorologists. While it’s always been the case in small and medium markets, the forecaster is such that you are your own entity. It’s all on your shoulders. On top of that, because we do have better technology, we can do more.

How has social media changed your job?

In the past two or three years, we’ve really pushed out on Facebook and Twitter. It used to be, say 10 years ago, I’d get a letter in the mail or someone would call the station. Or maybe an email. But now you’re constantly in contact with your viewers if they choose to reach out to you. And between Twitter and Facebook, I have 16,000 people that I have instant access to, and in turn they have instant access to me. That doesn’t stop when the show stops. This past 24 hours [after a large winter storm struck Minneapolis], I’ve gotten a ton of question asking specifics and I do my best to answer as many as I can.

keith marler state fairWe’ve noticed a number of tweets between Twin Cities forecasters. Does fraternity trump competition?

Of course. We’re no more competitors than two meteorology students are in the same class who are trying to get the better grade. You still hang out with your fellow students, you’re still friends with your classmates. Our stations may be in competition with each other but we’re just soldiers doing roughly the same job. Whether or not people are watching obviously has something to do with us, but much more to do with the complete television program that’s involved as a whole.

A large proportion of votes in the recent forecaster contest came from Minnesota. Why do you think weather is so closely followed in Minnesota?

I don’t think I could pin it down to just Minnesotans. I would go with anyone in the Midwest. That was the case where I grew up as well, and that was in Arkansas. Some weather can be, “Yea, I need to get a jacket,” but it can also be, “Oh sweet Moses, I’m going to be stuck in my house for three days.” Or now I’m out of power. I think it’s a product that it impacts peoples’ lives as more than just a minor inconvenience. Weather can have a very profound effect on multiple days of the year for folks in the Midwest.

What are some forecasting challenges you’ve had in places where you’ve worked before?

In Duluth, my forecast challenge was twofold, and both had to do with Lake Superior. Number one was all about lake-enhanced snowfall. That was my first experience with it and wow … like what happens on the south shore, particularly in northwest Wisconsin. The second part of that was because of Duluth’s unique elevation change at the lake, which can create trapped fog or be a cooling force in the summer. The station was in Canal Park in Duluth, which is right on Lake Superior. And I lived on top of the hill, inland about 3-4 miles away, with about 800 feet difference in elevation. My favorite was in the summer sometimes when you’d get a little fog and it would be 62 with a cooling breeze and I would go home at 2 p.m. and it would be 80 or 82. We could have a 30-degree temperature swing in that five miles. And it was crazy, and you can’t forecast around that. And that’s why the phrase “cooler by the lake” became the blanket phrase.

Probably the biggest forecasting challenge when I worked in DC had to do with the same two mechanisms – proximity to water and elevation. Nor’easters and the power of cold-air damming, when that air is trapped between the ocean and the mountains across Virginia up through Pennsylvania. And how quickly that can funnel down and can just make craziness in the forecast. And that rain/snow line. That’s probably how I lost my hair! And that’s what was so frustrating about the last 24 hours here because I felt like I was right back out in the Mid-Atlantic walking that same rain-snow tightrope.

Speaking of mixed precip winter storms, the one Minneapolis just had on Feb. 28-29 was unusually severe for the area. What do you think caused the freezing rain to persist as long as it did?

Well in “olden” days we’d have a snowpack all around us and into Iowa that would chill the air before it came up here. It gets a few hundred mile-run of air conditioning before it comes here. And we didn’t have that this time. We had a tongue of warm air but we were just cold enough to where we kept that freezing layer just at the surface. But yea, I think the silent partner in all this was the fact that the snowpack was limited.

You’ve probably seen worse ice storms in Washington or growing up in Arkansas?

Actually, the worst ice storm I’ve ever been in was my second year in Duluth, April of 1999. A big system came through and I want to say we got between a half an inch and an inch of ice. Power went out and trees were snapped, but more importantly ice formed on the top of our transmitter tower in Duluth, and as it melted the next day huge chunks of ice just fell and punctured and destroyed our transmitter in the building. We were knocked off the air for a bit over a month!

keith marler polar plungeWhat are some of the most memorable storms you can recall?

Growing up, I’d say tornadoes. In every school I attended growing up – from my preschool through high school – I knew and can still picture every place we would go in case of a tornado because we had so many tornado drills. I remember several times in elementary school and once in kindergarten actually having to put that into motion and being in the interior hallway with our heads between our knees and our hands over our head … almost like the 1950s nuclear drills. Seemed like all afternoon in kindergarten but it was probably just 45minutes or an hour when we were trapped as a huge storm went rolling on by.

The memories ofmy youth growing up were just littered with massive storms that were rolling on through. I love thunderstorms. I remember the old emergency alert on broadcast television when a giant red screen would pop up, followed by an announcement from the weather service: “There’s a storm warning for the following counties…” TV shows were constantly interrupted in the spring and summer. I’d be enjoying a show like the Dukes of Hazzard and all the sudden a guy would come on telling me I needed to do something!

Another memorablestorm happened in Maryland. We had a tornado when I worked in Washington that came up and out of the beltway and across the University of Maryland (my alma mater). It unfortunately killed two folks on the campus, ripped cars across parking lots, did damage across the campus and went up Route 1 through Laurel, Maryland, near my home. Tornado damage is just generic “damage” when you see it on TV, but when you see it in your neighborhood… I covered tornado damage before in my career but it was always a place I’d never really been that familiar with pre-damage, but to see it in my neighborhood not far from my house and on the campus where I went to college and to see buildings damaged and trees ripped through… that was the memorable one for me out there.

This winter, there’s been a lot of talk about weather models not doing such a good job in Minnesota. Do you agree, and if so why do you think that’s the case?

Well, Ian (Leonard, KMSP evening meteorologist) and I have a little mantra that we chant. We recited it together just last week: “A model is not a forecast.” A model is just yet another tool that can be chosen to be ignored if you don’t like it – if it doesn’t make sense. All models are just that. They’re models! They can only behave based on a baseline. And when you’re not operating on that baseline, everything’s thrown out of kilter. Some forecasters use the models as an excuse to give a bunch of data and if the forecast is wrong they can just say it’s because of the models. That’s not my job as a forecaster. My job is to interpret the models for you. Not say, “Well, here’s a radish, here’s some shallots, here are some tomatoes. I’ll let you make of what you want.” It’s my job to take that and make some kind of crazy dish. And hopefully it’s delicious.

OK, here’s a question for the true weather geeks. You’re stuck on a deserted island and one you can only bring one weather model with you. Which one is it?

I’m cozy with the NAM (North American Mesoscale Model). It wouldn’t give me what’s going on next week but I love the NAM like there’s no tomorrow. It’s my favorite tool for short-term precipitation and precipitation types. I gotta tell ya, it did a pretty decent job this time around once we got into it with getting our rain/snow conversion. And even when I lived on the east coast in DC, the ETA (predecessor to the NAM) was my favorite tool for precip or precip type.

keith marler and ian leonardHow much forecast collaboration takes place with the rest of the team?

On a normal day-to-day basis, Ian and I leave notes for each other and chat on the phone a couple of times since we live on the opposite side of the clock and rarely see each other in person. We’ll leave our graphics up on the computer and I’ll use his 7-day forecast as yet another model to consult (like the MRF, the Medium Range Forecast model also known as the GFS). I am not bound to echo his 7-day at all from a directive perspective but he is a good forecaster and I like to think I’m a good forecaster, too. So obviously we’re going to be on the same page for a lot of stuff.

Also, we assist the newsroom when there are major weather events such as big winter storms or severe weather preparation in the spring and summer. We try to put together pretty in-depth weather briefings in layman’s terms with graphical support, and we email that out to a large list of people so that everyone’s on the same page inside the building for preparation or promotion purposes.

Do you see yourself as forecasting individually or as part of a team?

We all have our own spin on things but I feel like Ian and I are a team. He and I are on the same wavelength with each other. You know I was very pleased to see on Weatherist that we were voted favorite weather team in the metro area. I thought that was really cool.

I’ve worked at places before where the folks really are individuals, like a little island, and there’s no communication. But our department is a true department.

How important is accuracy?

I think it’s very important. I mean that’s the whole point, isn’t it? I have fun being me and it’s fun being on TV and on the Buzz and interviewing people but at the base of it all is accuracy. It’s the foundation that everything is built on. Without that accuracy, people aren’t going to trust you. If they can’t trust you, they’re not going to like you or be able to depend on you. There’s a lot of forgiveness and a lot of leeway … people understand the complexities of weather now even more than they did 10 years ago. They understand that there’s a limit to our ability to forecast the weather. Sometimes you can’t just get the weather down to where people want it in a short two-minute weather segment … some want it by the block and to the minute and that’s not something we have the capability of doing for our entire viewing area. But we try to get as close as we can because accuracy is what everything is built on. tracks local and national weather forecasters and grades them for accuracy.  Keith Marler and the team at KMSP have consistently been rated the most accurate local forecaster in the Minneapolis area.  For a look at the current rankings head over to see the Most Probable Forecast and the Leaderboard.