A chat with the creator of the weather podcast genre

For 11 years, Alabama broadcast meteorologist James Spann (ABC 33/40, Birmingham) and several of his friends in the weather enterprise have produced a weekly podcast (internet talk show) called WeatherBrains. It was the first in what has become a group of weather-related podcasts that are jointly celebrating the first-annual National Weather Podcast Month in March.

The weather brains normally record WeatherBrains on Monday evenings. Audience members can watch the discussion live on YouTube, watch it later on YouTube or download the program as an audio recording for listening at their convenience.

W9LW’s Ramblings had chance to talk to Spann about the show that started the weather podcast genre and now has an audience in the tens of thousands. Watch the 14-minute interview on YouTube or read it below. The transcript includes a few helpful notes and hyperlinks.

W9LW’s Ramblings: What prompted you to get into the podcast business?

Spann: I’m kind of an early adopter. I got my ham license when I was 14 and I just get into things early. And I saw some people doing these shows on the internet; audio shows. And I thought it was fascinating and thought, “Goodness, we ought to try this.” And, at the time, I really needed a creative outlet. Television weather is harsh. You’re on TV for two minutes, three minutes, you’re in, you’re out, it’s very structured. And I think everybody, I don’t care what you do for a living, you need some type of creative outlet. So, we gathered together some Weather Service people and broadcasters that do weather, very structured weather, and just started a 30-minute audio show, just to have a little fun. We never expected anybody to listen! I mean, you know, nobody knew what it was back then. But we’ve enjoyed it so much, we’ve met so many people and we’ve developed this family over the years, that it’s a joy. I look forward to it every week, even though it’s been on the air for 11 years.

W9LW’s Ramblings: How did you pick the first panel and how did you convince them to get involved in this thing?

Spann: Well the first thing, I didn’t want to be the host. I did not want to be the main guy, because my background is engineering and meteorology. My first major in college was electrical engineering and I finished in meteorology. I’ve never taken a class on how to be some host of a media show. So, we brought in a guy named David Black. David actually did weekends with me years ago, weekend weather, and David had a good background in broadcasting. So, he was the first host of the show, and I was just a panelist. We brought in my mentor, who worked for the Weather Service here for a long time, who was retired at the time, and a couple of other local guys. And then, we just decided to expand it, as we heard more people listening away from this (Birmingham) market, we thought, “why limit ourselves?” So, it has morphed from this little local show, to now, our people are in Oklahoma, in Texas, in Virginia, North Carolina, and it gives it kind of a national flavor.

W9LW’s Ramblings: How was the show different then than it is now?

Sometimes, in the weather enterprise, we need to talk. There are some big issues we’re facing right now. And I mean, big.

Spann: Originally, it was a 30-minute audio show. That’s it. Thirty minutes, audio, I mean, David wrapped that sucker up. He wrapped that thing up 30 minutes after we started. And now, it’s a two-hour, video and audio show. That’s the biggest difference. We kept pushing the time back because some of this stuff we need to talk about. Sometimes, in the weather enterprise, we need to talk. There are some big issues we’re facing right now. And I mean, big.  And it’s very frustrating for me, because my limiting factor is television. I have to go do the late news. And most nights on our show I’ll leave the post here and just let the other guys finish it out. So, we morphed into a two-hour show, that is audio – and most people still listen. I’d say about 75 percent, about 25 percent watch. We just, looking at the numbers, that’s the way it shakes out. We put it on video, because my boss here, wanted to put it on our local, digital weather channel. He thought it’d be a good supplement to that channel. So, we’re on the local television and cable systems with the show. So, it’s kind of a local TV show now, a YouTube show, but mostly, mostly still an audio podcast.

W9LW’s Ramblings: Why has it lasted so long? What have you guys been doing right?

I look forward to it every week. I can’t wait for Monday night.

Spann: I think, number one, we just enjoyed doing it. And of course, now, with social media, you can have creative outlets in different ways. But still, we love getting together. And the people that have come on the show over the years, we’ve met the most remarkable people in the weather enterprise that I didn’t know, and I’m old as dirt! I know most everybody, but a lot of these people I met along the way on this show and they’re marvelous people.

And we’ve had very emotional shows. We had a show here after a horrible tornado outbreak six years ago. We had 252 people that died in one day here. And that show was hard, but it was healing for me and for the others on the show, because we were still in like this state of shock.

We’ve had shows that have been kind of bizarre, where there’s a little conflict, and you know, sometimes conflict makes for good radio, television, podcasts. So, we don’t necessarily agree, but we try and be straight shooters and give people a fair chance. The Mike Morgan episode: Mike is an Oklahoma City meteorologist. We gave him the chance to come on and share, after he took some criticism after the El Reno tornado out there. And he came on, and that was an interesting show.

But they’re all interesting, they’re all good. I look forward to it every week. I can’t wait for Monday night, mainly not for my participation, but just to listen to the guest we have on.

W9LW’s Ramblings: Have you ever felt like stopping? Has there ever been a week when you just didn’t feel like doing the show?

Spann: Nah, no. And again, you know, my job has changed. Television weather, we used to worry about being on television at night. Now, with social media, digital platforms, it doesn’t stop. I don’t sleep. I haven’t slept, really, since 1973. It’s just, I need that. I need to come in here for 90 minutes and have some fun, and laugh, and cut up a little bit, and just be yourself. I’ve never thought about stopping. I figure, as long as I’m on television, I’ll keep doing this. I want to work about eight more years. I’m 60, so I figure I’ll work maybe until I’m 68, maybe a little longer. And I’d like to hand it off to one of the other guys. We’ve got some younger guys on the show that would just be great, I think to take it and keep running. And again, my part is small. The only reason I’m considered the host is because I’m the guy with the football here. We do the show, and I’m the button-presser buy, I’m the producer, the engineer, the bottle-washer here, the sound effects guy, and if I’m not here, they really can’t do it right. So, I pretty much have to be here. But, again, I’ve never thought about stopping.

You know, sometimes we think about, “Are we gonna run out of guests?” No! There’s always somebody. There’s the new generation getting in this, in the weather enterprise. There’s always somebody new. And quite frankly, some of the guests we’ve had in years past need to be on a regular basis. Some of these are characters, like Chuck Doswell, goodness, I’d love to have him on every month, just to hear Dr. Doswell and some of the others in the weather enterprise. So no, we’re not stopping, we’re just getting started.

W9LW’s Ramblings: So, you’re just having a blast.

We try and make it technically clean. I think the big problem with podcasts is bad technology.

Spann: I am! And you have to have fun to do this. And the other thing, too, is that we try and make it not only fun and decent guests and good content, but we try and make it technically clean. I think the big problem with podcasts is bad technology, where people maybe have bad audio, or you know, it’s not clean, and there’s a lot of break up. And look, we’ve had our problems with our guests, that’s the main problem, because, you know, they’re having to you know, come on a show and they might not have one of these fancy microphones like this (pointing to the professional mic that he uses during WeatherBrains) and all this equipment. But we try and make the show clean, technically and I think that’s a help, too. People expect that. You know, they’re used to seeing broadcast-quality content and we think the content here should be the same.

W9LW’s Ramblings: Is there anything that the WeatherBrains podcast hasn’t achieved, that you’d still like to see it do?

I would like to do the show on remote a little more.

Spann: I think, the one thing we need to learn, is the remote stuff, to do that a little better. We have taken the show to annual meetings, the National Weather Service annual meeting, we did the whole show in Norman, Oklahoma, a couple of years ago. And almost every major weather convention, we are live, somehow. Typically, it might be one or two of our folks, but some years, it’s everybody. And I think what we probably need to do is invest in a strategy to do that where it’s clean. I love a clean show, and it’s very hard to do that on location, especially when people are watching. At the NWA (National Weather Association annual meeting), we had, like this auditorium full of people, and we were on these big screens. And so that’s the one thing I’d like to be able to do, is to take the show on the road and do it in a more professional manner. And again, it was OK, I mean, you go back and listen to those shows and it was OK, but I don’t think it was quality the way I’d like it. And I’d like to do more of that. I’ll be speaking in Chicago in a couple of weeks (DuPage County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Advanced Severe Weather Seminar), I’ll be at Valparaiso (Great Lakes Meteorology Conference, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana) in about a month. We’re empty nesters now. Our children kids are grown. And for years and years, I was at the ballpark in the spring. I couldn’t get out. I had to be there for the kids. And now, I’m free to do that. So, I would like to do the show on remote a little more.

We are on the verge of a collapse of the watch-warning system in this country.

And, again, I’d like to use it as a platform, to maybe, you know, push some topics that maybe we haven’t pushed. And people accuse me sometimes of being too hard on the guests, and sometimes I’m too easy on the guests. I don’t know what the right answer is. But we’re gonna have a show coming up soon, where these guys, they’re gonna start doing their own warnings, and they’re claiming they can do polygons down to one or two houses. We can’t do that! It’s not ethical to do that.

I’m telling you, we are on the verge of a collapse of the watch-warning system in this country. All the TV stations are about to start doing their own warnings. I’m telling you, that horse is leaving the barn. The train is out of the station. And if we don’t stop it, we’re gonna have mass chaos. And I’ve got empirical evidence, research in my hand from social scientists that will show that inconsistent messaging and confusion will lead to deaths. Period. And so, we’re gonna try and tackle this thing in the summer, but you know, so many of our shows are just fun, and they need to be fun. But every once in a while, we need to do the hard shows, and I think we need to do the hard shows a little more often, instead of doing the fluffy, easy shows. So, that’s something else I’d like to do. We’ve just got some issues. We’ve got some issues in the weather enterprise we have to tackle. And if our show can be an outlet for that, great.

And we know a lot of people listen. I mean, let me tell you what, if we make somebody mad, we hear about it.

W9LW’s Ramblings: How many are there? Tell me about the audience. What do you know about the audience?

The audio download’s running about 30 to 40 thousand every week.

Spann: You know that’s the other thing. It’s fuzzy math. Podcasting is fuzzy math. You get downloads. You don’t know if somebody listened for one minute, or the whole show. You don’t know! You just don’t know. And we’ve not tried to monetize this show. We all have jobs, we have a salary, we don’t need to. There are some expenses involved with it, but whenever we do a fund-raiser, like, we sold t-shirts and hoodies; that money goes to a scholarship fund to honor one of our panelists that passed away, J.B. Elliot. He was my mentor. So, we’ve done things like that. So, we really don’t care if one person watches, or you know, 10,000, or 50,000, 100,000. The latest numbers that I’ve seen, the people that watch on YouTube, that’s probably in the 5,000 range every week, after a month, after one month. A lot of people watch later. One thing we’ve learned, they will watch and listen weeks after you do the show. So, you have to remember that, that people don’t always listen the next day. It might be the next month, or even the next year. But about 5,000 on YouTube and the audio download’s running about 30 to 40 thousand every week.

You know, it’s creepy! You know we started this not expecting anybody to listen and you know it’s — there’s a lot of people that listen to this thing. And again, we don’t want that to bother us or, I don’t even want to think about it. We call it the digital mahogany table. We sit around, it’s like we’re sitting at a coffee table, just chatting about the weather. Again, will we ever monetize it? I don’t know, maybe, if I get fired, we’ll have to. In this business, you never, you’ve been in this business (referring to interviewer’s previous career as a TV newscast producer), you never know.

I support a lot of podcasts. I listen to podcasts driving down the road.

And again, there’s nothing wrong with monetizing these things. You’ve got the two big models. You’ve got the advertising model, and then the value-for-value model, which is where listeners just send donations. You have a Patreon account, or a Go Fund Me or something and people just send in some donations. It’s great. The people that need to do that, that’s great. I support a lot of podcasts. I listen to podcasts driving down the road. But in our case, I don’t think we’re gonna do that.

W9LW’s Ramblings: Last question: What advice, if any, do you have for anybody who might be thinking about starting a podcast, whether it’s about weather, or anything else?

Be consistent. If you’re gonna do it, do it every week.

Spann: Be consistent. If you’re gonna do it, do it every week. Don’t do a show once a month, or once every two months. You’ve gotta do it consistent, on a consistent basis. I don’t think we’ve missed a week in 11 years. So be consistent, be sure the quality is good. Invest in a mic. You don’t have to spend money on this kind of thing (pointing to the Heil Sound model PR 40 mic that he uses during WeatherBrains), or even what you’ve got (referring to the interviewer’s CAD Audio GXL2200 mic). You know, spend at least 20 or 30 bucks on a decent, little mic, to make it sound good. And be sure your guests sound clean.

You don’t have to be some professional radio announcer guy, just be yourself!

And then, just be yourself. Don’t try and be somebody else. That’s the beauty of podcasting, you don’t have to be some professional radio announcer guy, just be yourself! And have fun and talk about what you have a passion for. Everybody has a passion, everybody loves something. In my case, it’s weather. I was born with it. I don’t know why. But just find a subject and follow your passion and talk about it. And if you do that, and do it consistently, you’ll be successful.

While it seems like there’s 10 million podcasts, and there probably are, I still think the door is open for some people to take some niches that maybe haven’t been filled, and do shows. So, it’s a fun thing to do, there’s no barrier to entry. Just go do it and have fun.

And promote it. Get on social media. And that’s the other thing, you know, with social media, now you’ve got free promotion. You’ve gotta be careful with that. That’s the one thing, you know, I dabble in it pretty heavily. But I don’t do politics over there, I don’t do anything but, if you follow me on Twitter, or any of those platforms, Instagram, Snapchat, Google+, whatever, there’s no politics, no volatile stuff, it’s just weather stuff. But build up an audience on social media and boom, there’s your promotion. You’re automatically able to promote yourself across your social media platform.

One thought on “A chat with the creator of the weather podcast genre”

  1. Great interview, Jay! It’s fun to hear how Weather Brains has evolved and knowing how the newer weather podcasts have each found their unique approach to what Weather Brains started. Thanks for hosting the National Weather Podcast Month media information and schedule this inaugural year!
    Phil Johnson
    Co-Host/Co-Producer
    Storm Front Freaks Podcast

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