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A Sharper Weather Eye

8/05/2005 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The weatherman's job just got a lot harder.

The American Meteorological Society (AMS), which bestows its seal of approval on TV meteorologists, is upgrading its requirements and making it more difficult for broadcasters to earn its designation.

The scientific society recently introduced its Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM) program, which compels weathercasters to meet new requirements: They must have a bachelor's degree in meteorology or an equivalent, such as atmospheric science; pass a written exam; and continue their education with seminars and public outreach.

Requirements for the original AMS seal aren't nearly as rigid. Weathercasters must take courses in meteorology and have on-air experience. The most popular education route is an online course from Mississippi State University. More than 1,000 weathercasters have enrolled in the program. Under the new AMS program, though, such certificates would not be enough to get the CBM seal.

So far, about 65 meteorologists have upgraded to the CBM, and stations are already touting their new status. KCCI Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says it is the only station in the country where all weathercasters on staff have CBM designation, and KIRO Seattle boasts that its Andy Wappler is the only CBM-approved meteorologist in its market.

Says Wappler, “You owe it to the audience to keep developing.”

WFOR Miami Director of Meteorology Bryan Norcross says, “So many people call themselves meteorologists, the term has been diluted. The AMS is about credibility, accuracy and science.”

Meteorologists who have their seal can upgrade fairly easily by taking the exam and continuing their education. The AMS will award the lower-level seal only through 2009, but after that, the CBM will be the only certification. For each, members pay a $300 application fee and $160 annual dues.

The AMS seal was created in 1957 as a way to distinguish weather personalities—who were often attractive young women or colorful characters, such as a clown—from scientifically trained weathercasters. Through the years, AMS has awarded more than 1,400 seals to broadcasters who send in a tape of on-air work and have some educational background in meteorology, atmospheric science or environmental studies.

Meteorologists can carry their seal with them when they change stations, and the distinction is particularly important for landing a job in severe-weather markets, such as tornado-prone Oklahoma, the Northeast snow belt, and Gulf Coast and Southeast markets frequented by hurricanes. Stations promote their weathercasters' AMS seals.

Establish Credibility

Weather is one of the top reasons viewers tune into local news, according to research by TV-news consultants. Stations jockey to be the market weather leader, routinely plunking down a half million dollars on the latest technology and gadgets. Accreditation from a scientific society like the AMS is another way to establish credibility.

In recent years, however, with so many meteorologists toting AMS seals, the designation has become a commodity. Now the AMS says it has designed a more stringent program. “Our profession has become more technical, and the education requirements are more demanding,” explains AMS Executive Director Keith Seitter. “The current program was not sufficient.”

Not everyone is convinced that an upgraded AMS seal is necessary. Some news directors have grumbled that the new certification chiefly serves the society.

There are alternatives to AMS recognition. The National Weather Society also awards seals to broadcasters, and a new program will hit the market later this year. Weather-information provider Stormcenter and TV-station consulting firm AR&D are developing a curriculum that emphasizes weather and environmental science.

Says AR&D Managing Partner Jerry Gumbert, “The weathercaster of the future has to be a scientist.”

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