Posted by: trevormeers | March 26, 2010

Gooooood Morning, Skunk River!

One of the earliest goals I recall was to stand tall behind a giant wooden wheel and captain a boat. (Well, technically, I wanted to be an F-16 for a while when I was 7. Not a pilot. The actual plane. But I try not to dwell on the dreams crushed by physics’ heartless ways.)

True, the only blue water anywhere near my boyhood home was really mud-tinged, the lazy flow of knee-deep Oak Creek and a reservoir formed by backing up Oak Creek several miles upstream from the house. Still, saltwater somehow found its way into my veins. On many afternoons, I braced myself proudly in the bows of canoes commanding the shore of farm ponds or I crossed Oak Creek on ferries crafted in the pole barn from shipping palettes and Styrofoam. During those early experiments, Oak Creek’s depth proved particularly handy.

Even today, I long for the salty spray in my face, the glow of harbor lights far behind me and the cry of seagulls leading us to the fishing ground. That longing could run aground in Iowa’s cornfields—were it not for the little white box that sits by my sink.

As I switch each day from brushing my teeth to shaving, I hit a rubberized button on the box and guest-star for a few imaginary minutes on Deadliest Catch. The computerized voice of the NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) weather radio is, to my ears, the sound of the sea. I learned to listen for it while riding fishing charters in Alaska, listening to monotone reports of tide levels and cold fronts carry over the low rumble of diesel engines.

Weather radio, in fact, is the best early-morning show going in Des Moines, unless you have a taste for recaps of American Idol and endless Hawkeye sports updates wrapped around giveaways of sunroom upgrades and chocolate samplers.

Like the producers of any good morning show, NOAA rolls with a male/female team, even if they are digital. Dusty and Storm, I like to call them. Dusty anchors the show, covering the day’s climate summary and forecast. He doesn’t rush a thing. You could admittedly get the forecast in about 20 seconds online, rather than wading through Dusty’s 8-minute repeating loop. But he delivers adventure-grade forecasting. Listening to his forecast instead of local TV is like the difference between navigating with a topographical map and a state highway map. Plus, without Dusty, how would I have any clue how many heating-degree days we had yesterday? Thanks to Dusty’s daily reports, I happen to know that you can have a ridiculous number of heating-degree days in a single regular day. But I’m still not sure what a heating-degree day is.

Mid-way through the loop, Dusty tosses it over to Storm for the severe weather outlook. No news is good news with Storm’s beat, and the less she has to say, the more evasively alluring she gets.

Even the biggest fans of Dusty & Storm In The Morning, however, have to admit that the English language sometimes gives them more trouble than a fast-moving high-pressure system. For months, Dusty pronounced “Polk,” as in county, as “Poooohhhhhgue.” Finally, NOAA must’ve hired a consultant, because one morning Dusty was suddenly nailing it as a crisp “Polk.”

Storm’s biggest issue is bizarrely accented syllables. It’s her job each morning to declare whether the weather spotter network will be needed today. It usually comes out as ““spAAAHHHHter informAAAAAAAtion”. Sometimes she seems to give herself a little surprise and spurts out a line like there’s a front moving toward “the oHIo river valley.” She must’ve figured that storm was moving to the Missouri valley until she came to the final part of the sentence.

The Dusty & Storm duo arrived on the scene only recently. The NOAA website dedicated to the computer voices (yes, there is one) reports that until the late 1990s, real people recorded messages throughout the day. The job got a little intense for the government forecasters, whom I envision for some reason exclusively as 40-something men with moustaches, short-sleeve shirts and neckties. Some stations operate up to 13 different weather radio transmitters. Switching to the automated voices let Team Moustache simply type a report and send it to the computer for recording. A government analysis showed the change cut production time from 15 minutes per hour to 15 minutes per 8-hour shift. When thunderstorms and tornadoes are spilling out over the plains like cockroaches racing out of a ruptured wall, that speed saves lives.

Even in an automated world, though, couldn’t they get a better sound by using a real human voice to record specific weather phrases? No, says NOAA. Too many variables. And what happens the one time you need to mention Five-Mile Creek in a flood warning, and your voice talent didn’t record it in the studio months ago?

A little more digging on NOAA’s website turned up some really juicy career history on Dusty and Storm themselves. The first automatic voice NOAA tried was named Paul. The website tersely reports, “There was some dissatisfaction with Paul’s voice.” And so Paul got shoved off the air like a sports-talk host who swears with the mike on.

In 2002, we got Donna and Craig. Donna, I learned, is Storm’s real name. (Celebrities have to keep those kinds of covers.) She’s found her niche and stuck with us, with ongoing improvements. Her on-air partner Craig wasn’t so lucky. After a short stint, he chose to spend more time with his family and pursue interests outside the Weather Service. I think I heard him on the DNR’s automated hunting call-in line last fall. Craig’s ouster opened the door for Tom. In some markets, you even get guest appearances from a Spanish-inflected fellow named Javiar.

Trolling deep in the bios of NOAA’s on-air talent also led me to some unpleasant discoveries. The site includes recordings of each celebrity’s voice. I clicked Donna and heard a voice similar to Storm’s, only a little bit smoother. I chalked it up to Storm having an above-average day when they made the recording. The real shock came when I clicked to hear Tom’s voice. Expecting Dusty’s familiar tones, I instead heard a shocking new voice. This voice was discernibly more suave. Silky smooth, almost NPR-ready compared to Dusty. Like Jack Buck reading a hurricane warning.

Then I clicked to hear the exiled Paul. I couldn’t deny the obvious truth: It was Dusty’s voice. Somehow, Des Moines-area weather radio has become the backwater landing ground for the computerized host deemed too irritating to be trusted with automated reports of heating-degree days. For a few moments, I felt dissed by the boys in the short sleeves at the weather bunker. But then I slunk to the bathroom sink, hit the rubber radio button and sat down to listen to Dusty/Paul fill me in on when the Skunk River was expected to hit flood stage in Colfax.

I was reminded how many days Dusty had started for me, how often he’d given me the sense of standing in a boat cabin somewhere on Kachemak Bay. If Dusty were more than a computer, I’d get in touch with him to offer a little encouragement. I’d remind him that Ronald Reagan started in Des Moines radio, too. Paul may have gotten kicked off of most weather radios, but for Dusty, Poooohhhhhgue County just might be a launching pad. Thunderstorm season’s coming. And that, as anyone in the weather radio business knows, is when stars are born.

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