The many misconceptions of meteorology: No, TV meteorologists are not rich celebrities

Good afternoon.

I haven’t posted in quite a while, which is mostly due to the fact that I have been busy with finishing my thesis and school work. I am graduating from an undergraduate program in geography this spring, and I am entering a graduate meteorology program this fall. Where you might ask? Probably Mississippi State University – I am awaiting one other response but given that I was accepted at MSU nearly a month ago, I won’t give the outstanding offer much longer. That is nowhere near the Northeast, but I will surely continue to post here on at least an occasional basis (more frequently around high impact events like major blizzards or hurricanes).

Russell Bird: 1988-2016

There are many types of meteorologists, from the private sector in companies, military, government offices, consultants and academia. However, most of you are probably most familiar with what you see on TV, since the men and women there tend to give the forecast most readily to the public in an eye to eye perspective. Sadly, one rising talent in the field – Russell Bird – passed away yesterday after reportedly dealing with severe depression. Although it has not officially been disclosed, reports say that he took his own life. He was one of the meteorologists at KTVZ in Bend, Oregon, a small city in the central part of the state, and was in his first year in the field, at only 27 years of age. His challenges are met by many in the field, and depression is a common issue.

That creates great misconceptions among the public, and they tend to see journalists on the news – including meteorologists – as a bunch of celebrities who live the Hollywood life. That is as far from the truth as it can be, even for the most prominent at the national level like Ginger Zee and Jim Cantore who we are most familiar with. Yes, they almost certainly (but I can’t be proven 100% as that is personal) life very comfortable lives and are well known at the national level. However, even for them, it was a tough start. NO meteorologist makes a salary even close to what a Hollywood star makes – and what happens at the entry level may shock all of you. Most of the data for the next three sections comes from previously conducted surveys.

What to expect on day 1

There are 210 media markets in the US, although they vary in size from the globally influential markets like New York City and Los Angeles to very small cities anchoring sparsely populated rural areas like Bend, North Platte (Nebraska) and Presque Isle (Maine), among others in isolated areas. Generally, you will end up in the bottom half of markets when you start out from college (which, as I mentioned last year, is a very tough challenge as well!). Most likely, you will have no family anywhere near you. If you are lucky, you might get into a mid-sized market but in a challenging timeslot like weekend mornings, meaning you’re out of bed and heading to work when the bars are still crowded or just closing! That means a family life is difficult and your own life is off balance, as I will explain later.

As for salaries, you probably aren’t even going to be living a comfortable life at first. Working a typical entry-level broadcast job (a non-Chief position in a small market) means you’ll be very lucky to get $30,000 a year, and in fact a part timer may not even get $20,000. That works out to barely above the poverty line for someone living alone in a small town – you’ll be eating like a student and buying very cheap or used clothes if you want to look good. That is why the famous dress became such a hit among females in the business (especially younger ones) – it looked great on TV and was very cheap. Not exactly a comfortable life after spending at least 4, possibly 6 or more, years in college? Fortunately it gets better as you gain experience. Sometimes, you might be able to work while still in college (particularly in your last year) but that is extremely difficult and you need to be lucky to both have the job and education. I could never do that.

Movin’ on up…

If you are willing to make the sacrifices and do a good job in your first year or two, larger markets will start calling, or higher level roles will become available. My friends from the classes of 2013 and 2014 are already seeing this happen to them. You may get into a mid-sized market (say, DMA between 50 and 100), or get a higher profile position – such as mornings or afternoons. Some may also get a Chief Meteorologist job in a small market if they decide they want to stay there (there are some advantages, such as the low cost of living). Your salaries will then move up somewhat (up to, say, $35,000 or $40,000 a year) – enough to live reasonably comfortable on your own, but not enough to grow a family on one salary.

Also, if you have a family, you will be moving a lot for the first few years or so! It can be tough to not only have to deal with difficult timeslots, but also difficult living conditions as you move from city to city, often in different states, for several years. If you have children, they have to constantly make new friends and have new experiences. It’s a tough job to try to build up, but the rewards are great. Note that this assumes you are good and encouraged to keep trying. Some decide to leave the field at this point, saying they have had enough – and that is understandable, since they might find higher salaries in public relations or other fields.

Towards the pinnacle

After a few years (for someone well liked), openings may occur in large markets – at least top 50, sometimes top 25 or better (albeit in an entry level job there). Alternatively, higher profile jobs may appear in mid-sized markets, particularly the Chief Met job (if you like where you are). Sure, you will not likely get either of those before you are well in your 20s (or older if you started later), but you will have a good life before you are 30 – at least financially, and depending on where you are, you might like it there too.

Those positions make good money (although not six figures), so while you aren’t “rich”, you can really start to have a family and support yourself, unless you are in a really big or expensive market. That is why I would argue that a Chief Meteorologist in DMA 70 or 75 (or so) is a better position than a weekend morning met in a top-10 market, despite the fact the latter likely pays more. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer high level positions, meaning you have to do well in the smaller markets to get a chance.

At the top of the ladder, salaries are quite high – often well over six figures for Chief Meteorologists in large markets. Even given the high cost of living, those are excellent, well-paid jobs that beat out most other careers for those in their 40s and 50s (even if they don’t come close to Hollywood movie or TV salaries). However, those jobs don’t come around often, and there is lots of competition. You may never get to that level, and if you do, it may come after 15, 20 or more years of experience. By that age, you want it in a specific market to be close to family or because you are established, and there are typically only 3 or 4 news operations in each market (at that level). That said, hard work can go a long way, and if you can attract high-level news directors, you can be rewarded big time.

Struggles along the way

Yes, you can live quite decently after 5 to 10 years of experience if you do well. However, at first, you are essentially in dorm life. Depression is a real challenge in college, and is a major problem among those struggling in life. I know first hand – I have dealt with it many times, and even felt about taking my own life at times. Fortunately I got the help I needed (albeit once I tried to repel it). I have been on such medication for over 15 years. Unfortunately, the same was not true for Russell Bird, which was a sad and preventable story. Hopefully we can prevent more tragedies.

Young, entry level meteorologists are usually far from their home, with no family and working difficult hours (typically early mornings and/or weekends, with no holidays off and little or no vacation time). Yet they have to do the same work that a well-paid large market Chief Meteorologist does, and may have to do reporting on the side as well. Altogether, the work life, personal challenges and financial issues are often stressful. Yes, the rewards later are good and come before the rewards in many other careers (who often are struggling well into their 30s or later), that is enormous pressure for someone in their mid-20s. I know on Facebook there is a secret group for meteorologists (I am not a member) working on their mental health and challenges, and the field is like a close-knit family. Literally, they are relying on each other to get through the tough days.

Conclusion

If I decide to go into broadcast (still undecided), or if you are, what you see is not what you get – especially not at first. They are hard working men and women who overcome difficult challenges given their young age. The rewards later may be great, but most don’t get there unless you are good – and you will be struggling at first! Yet they love what they do and continue to do it despite the difficulties and personal challenges.

Sadly, what happened to Russell Bird this week is a reminder that it can be too much for us to handle, and that you may need mental assistance (like I do) to take that road. Get help if you need it – but remember you are not alone!

I strongly recommend that you all read this excellent post from Eric Sorensen (meteorologist at WQAD in the Quad Cities) as well. He dealt with the same issues at the start of his career.

Forecaster Craig Ceecee

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