FOX News’ Senior Meteorologist Janice Dean talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about hurricane season, her Freddy the Frogcaster book series and why she’d prefer not to face a storm head-on.
The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1 and, according to Janice Dean, 2015 isn’t likely to produce any record-breaking storms. “We are expecting a lower than average season this year,” she says. “This means we will typically see a few hurricanes and about 10 to 12 named tropical storms. The last couple of years have been kind of quiet, and I do worry about the complacency. Even though conditions are not as favorable for a busy hurricane season I am very wary of that because it only takes one bad storm in somebody’s backyard to make it busy.”
Dean’s love of weather started at an early age. She grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, where she experienced harsh winters. “We had big ice storms a couple times that shut down the city for weeks,” she says. “I always had an interest in how meteorologists do their job and how they are able to warn people in advance. I knew I wanted to go into broadcasting but didn’t really have an idea of the career path I should take, so I did a little bit of everything. Right out of college, someone thought she’s good on camera and so I became a part-time weather reporter and did that for a number of years in addition to being a community events reporter. I went to Houston for a few years, where I was basically radio based and did some anchoring and reporting and a lot of work as a DJ, which I loved. When people ask how I chose my career, I always say ‘my career chose me!’”
Since joining Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2004, Dean has earned the nickname “Janice Dean, the Weather Machine” for her expert weather reporting. During her tenure, she has covered major storms including Hurricanes Sandy, Irene, Igor, Earl and Katrina. She also substitutes for “Fox News Live” headline anchors as needed. Prior to joining the network, she was news editor and entertainment reporter for “Imus in the Morning,” which aired on WFAN-AM New York and simulcast nationally on MSNBC. Before “Imus,” she was a weekend on-air traffic reporter for CBS 2 New York and hosted various radio programs in Houston. In 1997 she served as an on-camera weather host at CBOT Television in Ottawa. Dean is also the author of the Freddy the Frogcaster series of children’s books.
Opportunist: How did you get to Fox, Janice?
Janice Dean: I was working part-time at the local CBS channel when I met a makeup artist who worked for the network. She said ‘let me take your tape over to Fox,’ and I thought why not? They happened to be looking for a daytime meteorologist, so I took all of the mandated courses that the AMS [American Meteorological Society] credits for becoming a Broadcast Meteorologist. It took me a while to get here but, you know, every person you meet and every job you take is important because it sort of opens up opportunities.
Opportunist: What advice would you give aspiring broadcast journalists?
Janice Dean: Try everything because you never know where your career is going to end up. I always had a broad idea of what I wanted to do, and I think the number of years I spent in radio helped me in my job as a broadcast meteorologist because it gave me the opportunity to ad lib. We don’t have a teleprompter—it’s all ad lib. My background in radio and thinking on my feet and being able to tell a story helped me to become what I am today.
Opportunist: How has weather coverage in TV news changed since you started out?
Janice Dean: I started as what they call a ‘weather presenter,’ where you go on TV and basically point to the map. I was always strong in math and sciences, but you didn’t need the science and math background that is required nowadays. The AMS has certainly given us credibility and their seal of approval, and the whole mandate is to make sure people on TV have the right background. Lots of times our job as a meteorologist is to save lives, so it’s important for people going into meteorology to know the science behind it. When I talk about a tornado, I know how it forms, how it is going to come and when I go on TV I have visuals of a funnel cloud and can talk to those images.
Opportunist: What is life like for you and your team when severe weather hits?
Janice Dean: I will say I am probably one of the few who doesn’t enjoy being out in a storm. When weather is quiet, it’s good. [Laughs] But I find that, more and more, there is always a lead weather story. For instance, when tornadoes swept through Oklahoma City a few weeks ago, we knew days in advance that there was the potential for dangerous weather. I work with two other meteorologists to make sure our producers, writers and assignment desk know what the weather story is going to be.
During watches and warnings we are hyper-focused because we have to be ready to go on TV at a moment’s notice to deliver the news. I understand the fascination in seeing a tornado up close and personal, but I prefer to be in the studio for a number of reasons. The biggest one is safety. I have two young children and want to be sure I’m OK for their sake. If I’m on TV telling people ‘don’t be outside ... take shelter immediately ... or seek higher ground,’ I shouldn’t be the one giving that advice while I’m outside in the storm. I find it dangerous and bizarre to say you shouldn’t be out there while you are. If I’m issuing the warnings I prefer to be someplace safe with a roof over my head.
Opportunist: Have you ever made a forecasting error and, if so, how did you handle it?
Janice Dean: Yes it does happen, and yes we do hear about it. A good example is this past winter here in the Northeast when forecasters were predicting 20 to 30 inches of snow for the New York City area, which would have been record setting. Our computer models, the reliable ones we typically look at daily, showed that conditions were certainly favorable for an epic snowstorm. The next day New York had seven inches; however, to the north and east of us the forecast was right. The big storm forecast was off by 50 miles east. Long Island had over a foot of snow. Boston had 18 to 20 inches. When it didn’t hit New York City as we were predicting, people were saying things like ‘you guys don’t know what you’re talking about’ and ‘you’re the only professionals who still have your job even though you got it wrong.’
Meteorology is not an exact science. We are improving, and our five-day forecast is certainly much better than it was years ago. I do national weather and don’t hear as much about it as those covering local weather. It was tough on the local meteorologists. They felt it was their responsibility to apologize. My feeling is as long as people were prepared and knew there was a possibility of a really big snowstorm, I would rather err on the side of caution. In the grand scheme it’s not that bad, but since we were talking about a snowstorm hitting the biggest city in the U.S. it was a big deal.
Opportunist: Can you share a few highlights from your career? Did you ever have a harrowing experience during a storm or any other crazy weather?
Janice Dean: Hurricane Katrina obviously was a big one. I remember getting urgent information from the NWS [National Weather Service] saying the storm could be potentially deadly and seeing images of people going into the Superdome and knowing it would be a historic event. When you’re forecasting you realize the potential magnitude of a storm, but you can’t allow yourself to go there—to a worst case scenario—in your mind. Unfortunately, Katrina did. It was one of the most devastating storms to ever hit the United States and we haven’t had a storm like it since.
Tornado Moore, which hit Moore, Okla., in 2013, was an EF5 tornado that devastated a school where kids were. This storm showed us that we need more underground shelters and drills in schools so kids know what to do.
During Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, we got the information out several days in advance. I think I was the first broadcast meteorologist to warn that Hurricane Sandy could devastate portions of New York and New Jersey, and I remember very vividly telling everyone to scrap the lead story and go into this one instead because it could potentially devastate millions of people. I always feel I have a responsibility if there’s a storm that will do damage to let Fox know that we need to go with it. Unfortunately, the storm did happen and it did devastate parts of the East Coast.
Opportunist: What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
Janice Dean: Forecasting a storm correctly is certainly a good feeling but, to date, the most exciting part of my career is definitely teaching kids about weather. Seeing their eyes light up and teaching them how to make a preparedness kit or put an emergency kit together with their parents or look at different cloud formations—that, to me, has been the most rewarding part of my career since I got into broadcast meteorology. I had a bunch of kids come in today to learn about the green screen and they loved it! Maybe we inspired a brand-new generation of meteorologists or got them interested in science and math. That’s why I wrote a series of weather books for children. Reading brings us together, and so does weather. Weather is something that happens to all of us no matter where on Earth we live.
Janice Dean: People would often ask if I could recommend any children’s weather books. They would say ‘I can’t find anything out there and my child loves the weather.’ Having two kids, and having read hundreds of stories to them, I did some research and found a few simple books and others at the advanced level but nothing in between to describe conditions for a hurricane or a flood or tornado. Kids are inquisitive and sometimes parents don’t know how to explain things. Telling kids that a thunderstorm is ‘God bowling’ is cute but it doesn’t take the fear out of it. I started out as a little girl being afraid of thunderstorms, so I wanted to write a book to explain what happens in the atmosphere and take the scare out of it.
Opportunist: Did the name ‘Freddy the Frogcaster’ come to you right away?
Janice Dean: Naming Freddy was a long process. It didn’t happen overnight. I was rocking my youngest to sleep one night and trying to come up with a character. I knew groundhog was taken. [Laughs] I read somewhere that frogs, especially in the jungle or forest, have an intuition that storms are coming. They are natural weather forecasters. I came up with Freddy the Frogcaster, Sally Croaker and Polly Woggins, and I would say it took probably five to six years from the time I came up with the idea of the book to getting it published. I tell people if they want to write a book to never take no for an answer! I went to a couple of publishers before I found one who liked the idea enough to publish it. If you really and truly believe in your idea, you can make it happen.
Janice Dean: Yes. Freddy the Frogcaster and the Huge Hurricane comes out the first week of July. I thought it was important to talk about hurricanes because the season will be underway, and hurricanes can be very scary. Freddy loves weather and loves to talk about it. This time a hurricane is coming close to his lily pad and he is able to make sure the town is prepared. One of my favorite expressions, from John F. Kennedy, is: ‘The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.’ The story is about preparing for a storm in advance, knowing that it’s coming and getting the word across on how to stay safe.
I had a lot of kids read it because my whole thing is I don’t want them to be scared. It’s important to talk in advance and do things as a family in advance to prepare. NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and the NWS have come on board and have given Freddy their stamp of approval. They want to work with Fox and Freddy to get the message across about how important it is for people to be prepared. I have a fourth book planned, which I think is going to be a tornado book. We are talking about collaborating with the NWS and NOAA, to have Freddy as their weather ambassador to help make kids across the country aware.
Opportunist: So can we expect to see Freddy the Frogcaster dolls and other merchandise in the future?
Janice Dean: That would be amazing! I have big dreams for Freddy. The books have done well. I hope we do a lot with NOAA and NWS, and I think Freddy would be a great cartoon character because he wants to inspire kids and make them aware. I don’t know why he couldn’t be on TV between ‘Sesame Street’ talking about different types of clouds and how weather forms. [Laughs] It’s all in little leaps at a time.
Opportunist: Pun intended, right? [Laughs] We are dying to hear about your days as a classic rock DJ. Can you share some stories from behind the scenes?
Janice Dean: [Laughs] I would say that is the coolest job I ever had. I was a community events reporter for a classic rock station and I started spinning tunes for about four hours. In between music sets I would talk about the music. I love music. It’s something that brings everyone together. When you hear a song on the radio it takes you back to a memory. I met some really cool people. You don’t know what to expect when you meet someone famous, but most of the rock stars I met were really nice. Steven Tyler of Aerosmith did a meet-and-greet with our station and wouldn’t let me out of his sight. He was a total gentleman but very flirty. [Laughs] One time Rod Stewart was doing a sound check and serenaded me over the mic with ‘Have I Told You Lately.’ I was in my 20s at the time and thought I was the coolest kid around. Those were great memories.
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years, Janice?
Janice Dean: Hopefully, still here at Fox and still writing. I love it here and have no desire to go anywhere else. I wake up and love coming into work every day—not only because I enjoy what I do but because I work with amazing people. We are truly a family. It’s very rare to work at a place you feel is like a second home. People here really care about me. I have made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. They’ve seen me get married and have children and go through illnesses with friends and family. They have given me a tremendous opportunity and have also been so supportive of Freddy. They are just as excited about him as I am! I just signed for another couple of books. There will be five, and we are keeping the dialogue going with NWS and NOAA to get the word out that it’s important for kids and parents and teachers to learn why things happen with weather.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor and journalist with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides between Florida and Michigan. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Janice Dean on Twitter: @JaniceDean
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