WRAL’s “Weather Center” was created in 1982 as a way to blend the science of meteorology with the station’s already popular on-air weather presentations. The Weather Center bridged two distinct weather eras at Channel 5 and laid the groundwork for the eventual transition between WRAL’s two weather icons–Bob DeBardelaben and Greg Fishel.
During WRAL-TV’s first quarter century, the station’s weathercasts were presented by on-air personalities who stressed information and communication, not meteorology. These TV “weathermen” gave viewers the basic weather stats of the day, but relied on the professionals at the National Weather Service “bureau” to provide the science behind the forecast.
WRAL’s earliest weathercasters were known as “Atlantic Weathermen.” Announcers Bob Knapp and Bob Caudle would don the uniform of an Atlantic-Richfield gas station attendant to present the nightly forecast. Atlantic sponsored weather segments at stations up and down the east coast and WRAL was a part of that network in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
In 1976 Bob DeBardelaben became the station’s primary weathercaster. DeBardelaben never wore the Atlantic-Richfield uniform, but his friendly style and smooth presentation quickly made him the region’s top weatherman. The fun-loving DeBardelaben was soon known as “the biggest name in weather,” a title that followed him the rest of his legendary career.
By the early 1980s, WRAL General Manager John Greene and News Manager Steve Grissom saw an opportunity to take the station’s weather content and image to a new level. Central to the plan, WRAL would hire a team of certified meteorologists that would give Channel 5 the most scientific, accurate forecasting capabilities of any television station in the region. The plan was approved and with that, “The WRAL Weather Center” concept was born.
The Weather Center idea was based on people, science, technology and promotion. Expanding the weather profile of WRAL-TV was a primary goal, but Capitol Broadcasting executives also saw business opportunities ahead as they analyzed the capabilities of the new weather operation.
In the beginning it was all about people and the Weather Center expansion brought new faces to WRAL-TV. In mid-1981 Capitol Broadcasting began hiring meteorologists; Greg Fishel was first, followed by Mike Modrick and Bill Schmidt.
This new team of weather scientists gave WRAL the ability to produce forecasts in-house. The scientific staff also provided behind-the-scenes support and meteorological guidance for DeBardelaben, who welcomed the new scientific staff with open arms. The new meteorologists were assigned to anchor WRAL-TV’s morning, noon and weekend weather segments; they also made appearances in the evening newscasts (alongside Bob) during extreme weather.
CBC put the meteorologists to work in other areas, as well. They began feeding audio weathercasts to WRAL-FM and the North Carolina News Network stations as a form of cross-promotion and new revenue. With the new radio output the Weather Center became CBC’s newest business unit.
Prior to launch WRAL-TV began promoting the Weather Center with a non-stop campaign based on the slogan “Wired for Weather!” The promos featured a lightning bolt, thunder-clap and announcer voice telling viewers that WRAL-TV was indeed “wired for weather” and ready for anything Mother Nature could throw their way!
The television station would also undergo change to create a new home for the growing staff of weathercasters. WRAL-TV built a modern, multi-function weather office adjacent to the main anchor desk in the newsroom. This allowed meteorologists to gather data, prepare forecasts and present the weather from one location without having to move to a separate studio. This built-in logistical advantage would pay dividends sooner than anyone could imagine.
The WRAL Weather Center officially premiered the week of January 11, 1982, and right on cue—North Carolina was hit by a winter storm that dumped half a foot of snow on the Triangle. Bob DeBardelaben, Greg Fishel and the rest of the Weather Center team jumped into action to provide non-stop coverage and scientific analysis from their impressive new quarters.
The well-timed snowstorm showcased WRAL’s new scientific team and cemented the station’s image as the Triangle weather leader. Not long after the snowfall the manager of another station in the market was quoted saying “I don’t mind competing against WRAL, but there is no way we can compete against God.”
The Weather Center set the stage for a wave of new technology that would further distinguish the station in the Triangle. WRAL was the first station in the region to buy and operate a state-of-the-art Doppler radar. In 1997 WRAL premiered “Doppler 5000,” which gave Weather Center staffers the ability to track storms and analyze severe weather with their own dedicated radar. The 250,000-watt unit was built by Baron Services in Huntsville, AL; it was installed near the WRAL transmitter facility in Auburn, NC.
In 2007 WRAL became one of the first stations in the country to deploy a revolutionary dual-polarization Doppler radar. Dubbed “Dual Doppler 5000,” the new unit features one million watts of power—enough to punch through the heaviest rain and snow to give meteorologists an amazing view of the inside of the storm. WRAL put this new capability to dramatic on-air use in April 2011 when meteorologists were able to detect tornadic debris as they monitored severe storms sweeping through the state.
From the beginning, innovation has been the hallmark of the WRAL Weather Center. WRAL’s six fulltime meteorologists are constantly finding new ways to forecast the weather. WRAL was one of the first TV stations in the country to partner with a university to develop and use an exclusive forecasting model. WRAL and NC State joined forces to develop a complex computer model that was later sold to a weather information company and incorporated into weather forecasts throughout the country.
Today Weather Center staffers are exploring ways to use computer model ensembles as well as higher-resolution versions of the models other stations use, to explain what the weather is doing and how it will affect viewers. In the end, the WRAL Weather Center remains focused on three primary goals: keeping citizens safe, providing them what they need to know to plan their day, and educating them on the processes by which the weather affects them.