Reflecting the Wisconsin Idea: Weather Guys — Weather science with a strong chance of humor

In late August, UW–Madison professors Jonathan Martin and Steve Ackerman prepared to head to Vilas Hall for their monthly radio gig — only to emerge directly into an unforecasted summer squall.

“It’s raining?” asked Martin in surprise. “Hey, Steve, can I borrow your umbrella?”

As they slogged through the pelting rain and wind, they laughed at the situation.

After all, both are local meteorology experts — Martin is chair of the atmospheric and oceanic sciences department, and Ackerman is director of the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies on campus.

And together they are “The Weather Guys,” sharing climate and weather science with the public as regular guests on Wisconsin Public Radio’s call-in show “Conversations with Larry Meiller.”

Photo of Ackerman and Martin in a sound booth during their radio show.

UW–Madison professors and guest meteorology experts Steve Ackerman (wearing red shirt) and Jonathan Martin (wearing striped tie), also known as “The Weather Guys,” talk about climate and weather science during Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR)’s call-in show “Conversations with Larry Meiller”. Photo: Jeff Miller

Apparently, even the Weather Guys sometimes get caught in the rain unprepared.

In the studio, Ackerman and Martin settle in quickly with headphones and microphones, bantering with each other and Meiller during the public radio message break before their show. They’ve been at this for 10 years now, and it shows.

Meiller attributes the pair’s popularity on his show to their blend of expertise and approachability. “Steve and Jon are great guys. They’re funny, they know their stuff, and they’re able to communicate that in a very friendly, offhand way that helps you retain the information.”

“Radio can be a tough medium because we’re all trained to learn through our eyes,” he says. “You have to have someone who can talk about complex topics like climate, global warming, or climate change and do it in such a way that people listen… and actually learn from it. They do an excellent job of that.”

Radio can be a tough medium because we’re all trained to learn through our eyes. You have to have someone who can talk about complex topics like climate, global warming or climate change and do it in such a way that people listen… and actually learn from it. [Jon and Steve] do an excellent job of that.

— Larry Meiller

Their snippets of weather science go down so smoothly you might not realize at first how much you’re learning.

“We’re careful to explain the more technical concepts in ways that make sense to a person who maybe hasn’t had the mathematics,” Martin says. “Just take the time to figure out how to say it — people are interested.”

They certainly are.

A steady stream of calls keeps the Weather Guys on their toes. Today the questions are from all over the map, both geographically — from Manitowish Waters to Darlington and Chippewa Falls to Algoma — and topically, inquiring about local rainfall records and whether there is any science to back up the Chinese government’s claims to control the weather during the Olympics.

Ackerman and Martin handle each one with their characteristic style — solid science served up with a healthy dose of humor.

“I think [listeners] realize that, while we know a lot, we’re also not totally serious all the time,” Ackerman says.

“We even said once, ‘If we don’t have an answer, we’ll make one up!’” Martin laughs.

Occasionally they do get a real stumper.

“A woman called us up and asked us to explain what she called an ‘N-shaped rainbow,’” Ackerman recalls. “I had never heard of that, so we peppered her with questions… She had made good observations and they were always counter to what I thought it would be. At the end we just said we couldn’t explain it…

“She ended up sending us a picture, and sure enough, it was an N-shaped rainbow! It was just what she described — I never would have believed it!

“I grabbed a bunch of optics books and most didn’t have it, but I found one that did. It didn’t explain it, but said it has to occur over lakes — which makes me think it’s a solar reflection off the lake or something like that. The next [show] we came back and said, ‘Yes, this really is an N-shaped rainbow,’” says Ackerman.

“Several months later, we had another caller call in about the same thing,” he says. “She didn’t call it an N-shaped rainbow, but she began describing it like an N-shaped rainbow. By then, we knew what it was, so we could act like we knew all about it — ‘yes, did it appear over a lake?’” He and Martin both laugh.

Ackerman’s interests in education have long extended beyond the lecture hall.

Ten years ago, he approached Martin about getting involved in radio. A cancellation on Meiller’s show gave them an opportunity, and their debut made a good impression, Ackerman says. “They liked it, so they picked a [regular] day, and away we went. Ten years later here we are, still doing it, and still having fun.”

Their distinct east coast accents — Ackerman from New York and Martin from Boston — have not stopped them from becoming respected authorities on Midwest weather.

“People really like the program and certainly like Jon and Steve,” Meiller says. “They have a lot of enthusiasm for their topics… I can see it in their eyes, listeners can hear it in their voices. It’s an important thing about radio… you have to have enthusiastic guests, people who really like what they do and are passionate about it, because they can convey that to the audience through their voices. And they do.”

Their excitement shines through even when talking about the show. “I love when we get the questions where somebody is having a bet with their spouse or someone,” Ackerman grins.

Martin chimes in. “If you win that boat, you better call me up!”

Though Ackerman is away on sabbatical during the 2007-08 academic year, he enjoys the show so much that he has timed his monthly visits to Madison to coincide with the Weather Guys’ regular appearance.

“I wouldn’t give this up. It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “Plus I’m afraid if I don’t show up, Jon will take over and they’ll realize, ‘We don’t need Ackerman!’”

During shorter trips, the absent half occasionally participates remotely.

“A lot of times when Steve’s on the road, he’ll call in from somewhere, like a phone booth in Tokyo or something,” says Martin.

“My family has stories where I would call from rest stops. I’d go to the pay phone,” Ackerman says. “Now with cell phones it’s not that bad once I get a good signal.”

Usually — except that time driving across Iowa when the phone cut out…

“I remember because my family was furious. We finally found a good signal and I made Anne pull over and stay there,” Ackerman laughs. “It’s hot and it’s sticky. The girls were in their teens and of course the car has to be quiet… They weren’t very happy!”

As the calls pour into the studio, it becomes clear that weather appeals to people on a very personal level.

Many listeners share stories or memories about extreme weather events. Others ask the Weather Guys to explain unusual observations: What kind of wind snaps off trees 30 feet above the ground? How can it snow in July? Why does the sky look green before an especially nasty storm?

Want to know the answers? Just ask the Weather Guys.

You can catch them on the air the last Monday of each month from 11:45 a.m.–12:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Written by Jill Sakai