Severely Snowy, Even for These Parts

The polar vortexian winter pushed Gray TV’s WSAW in Wausau-Rhinelander, Wis., to use all its newsgathering know-how

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
Stations can win the local news ratings battle with savvy weather operations like the one at WSAW.

While it's been a cataclysmically bad winter across many swaths of the country, just about everyone has been able to find solace in the fact that another part of the country has it worse than they do.

Not so much with Wausau, Wis. The market was hit with nearly 71 inches of snow as of mid-last week, well above the impressive average winter total of 60 inches, with a bit of winter left to go. It was the snowiest December-February on record, the secondcoldest, and it broke a record for the most days below zero (56) that was set back when World War I was just heating up.

Here’s another telling stat: Statewide traffic fatalities in February numbered 19, the lowest since such figures were first recorded in 1937. At least some of the credit for public safety goes to crack local news crews such as that at WSAW Wausau, whose four fulltime meteorologists, terrain-tackling “Storm Chaser” vehicle and newsroom culture of tireless devotion to weather coverage have kept viewers in DMA No. 135 well-informed throughout the dastardly winter.

“We believe weather is the key to winning—it’s very difficult to be No. 1 without winning weather,” says Al Lancaster, VP and general manager at the top-ranked WSAW, a Gray Television-owned CBS affiliate. “We have the right combination of technology and personalities to keep viewers informed about how the weather affects their lives.”

Wausau Winter Lowlights

Bisected by the Wisconsin River, Wausau is in northcentral Wisconsin, some 140 miles north of Madison along I-39. Other news stations in Wausau-Rhinelander include Quincy Newspapers-owned WAOW and SDR Rockfleet-owned WJFW, which conducted their own noble newsgathering this winter.

And what a winter it has been. There was the three-day stretch when the temperature did not cross zero. There was an even longer spell when the wind chills were down in the -30 to -50 range and schools were closed for days in a row. There were stories related to frozen pipes and dangerous roads and propane shortages and roofs collapsing under the weight of yet another snowstorm.

“It’s amazing, the number of ways winter weather impacts lives around here,” says Mike Breunling, WSAW chief meteorologist.

In the midst of its 60th anniversary on the air, WSAW wears its “Weather Authority” branding proudly. Breunling, with 18 years at the station, heads up the meteorological team in a market where station weather crews typically have three full-timers. The WSAW team was extraordinarily busy this winter, and Breunling says constant communication—evening/late news crews updating their incoming a.m. counterparts on severe weather patterns, and vice versa, and covering for them when required—has been key this winter.

So has a straightforward approach with viewers, many who are savvy enough to know when the weatherman is hyping an approaching disturbance. “You’ve got to have a lot of trust with viewers,” Breunling says. “They know we give them the best information and the best assessment. I think over time, viewers get a gut sense of how honest and how objective we are.”

Good Gear Matters at Gray

WSAW’s technological approach, more fitting for a larger market, has been key as well. The station has a 24/7 weather channel on its dot-three. (MyNetworkTV airs on its dot-two.) The “24/7 Weather” outlet gives WSAW the option of sticking with regularly scheduled programming during severe weather, while covering the havoc full bore on the secondary channel.

The station also deploys no fewer than five TVU packs (the rivals have one or two), which use cellular technology to allow WSAW’s reporters to go live from just about anywhere in the vast hyphenated market. Also enabling them to go live from all corners, in all conditions: A modified Toyota FJ Cruiser known as Storm Chaser that is the only one of its kind in the market. It’s outfitted with various cameras, including a GoPro unit that is affixed to the exterior, giving viewers a passenger’s-seat view of road conditions.

Parent Gray Television is considerably larger than other owners in Wausau-Rhinelander, which means WSAW has resources that other stations don’t. “Our company is very forward-thinking when it comes to technology,” says Mikel Lauber, WSAW news director.

Lauber says the GoPro—the same HERO3 that viewers can pick up for around $400—has been “extremely useful” for a range of stories across the winter. It provided underwater shots from a Polar Plunge fund-raiser, and a squirrel’s-eye view of just how dire the pothole situation is around town. “We use it on a daily basis,” says Lauber.

WSAW also uses social media effectively; it has over 47,000 Facebook followers, well ahead of WAOW’s 23,000. (The two are more evenly matched on Twitter.)

Commented user Karen F.: “I appreciate you guys getting the school cancellations to us as fast as you can and also the weathermen and woman working on this hard-to-forecast winter storm.…Just wanted to say thanks for all you do and to let you know not everyone is onery (sic) lately.”

A River Runs Through It

Around the dial, weather was the lead story in Wausau on many, and perhaps most, days this winter. For its part, WAOW has a March 24 special called Relentless: A Winter to Remember. “There were very, very few days where we haven’t had at least one reporter on a weather story,” says Lauber.

Even as the weather breaks (there were a few highs of 40 in last week’s forecasts, offsetting some lows in the single digits), the horrific winter of 2013- 14 will continue to dominate the news rundown in Wausau. There are soaked basements, a delay for maple syrup production and the potential for river flooding as the snow melts.

It all depends on how this winter—at the same time unforgettable and eminently forgettable— marches into the warmer months.

“The ramifications of a cold, snowy winter,” says Wausau weather vet Breunling, “won’t end until well into spring.”