I’m super excited about this Spotlight interview! Meteorologist, Don Paul – who can be seen on WKBW-Channel 7 – weekends at 6 & 11 – is known for his forecasting – but, there is MUCH more to this Jersey native who now calls Buffalo home! I feel fortunate to call Don and his wife, Deb – good friends. Here’s our Spotlight chat with the self-proclaimed weather geek!
Q: I know that you truly love doing the weather – when did that begin?
A: My interest in weather began at age 6 or 7. A WNBC-TV weathercaster got excited about coastal snowstorms threatening the NY area, and his excitement was infectious. All of my meteorology classmates in college from the NY area felt the same way about this fella named Tex Antoine. By the way it’s very common for those who go on to study meteorology to become weather geeks as young kids.
Q: What was the most high stress weather story you’ve been a part of?
A: The most stressful job in forecasting is handling violent weather. I spent a year in Wichita which, fortunately, was not a horrific year for tornadoes. When it comes to forecasting severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, the pressures increase because lives are at stake. You simply won’t see unschooled weathercasters in places like Oklahoma City, Wichita or Birmingham. During an actual outbreak, the stress is maximum because seconds count. WNY is no tornado mecca, but in my first spring here, on May 31, 1985 a very large outbreak of tornadic thunderstorms crossed NE Ohio, NW PA, Ontario and upstate NY. By late evening that day, 88 people died. While we had tornadoes in the SW corner of WNY, none of the fatalities occurred here. That was very stressful. Now, with the added necessity to hit social media simultaneously…FB live, twitter, FB, station website, the stress during severe storms has worsened. Lake effect snow is stressful, but it leaves you with time to THINK and not have to break in with emergency bulletins.
Q: How has predicting weather changed since you started?
A: Satellite imagery has drastically improved in clarity and in speed of dissemination. Doppler radar enables us to see the circulations in storm systems and the precipitation types and amounts. Computer models continue to improve in resolution so we can see with far greater detail/resolution small weather features. When I got here, the primary model in use couldn’t represent the Great Lakes as water. We simply didn’t have the computer crunch power to do it. The availability of world class continuing ed online as well as at conferences makes it easier to keep up and gain new knowledge. In lake effect forecasting, the ability to get reliable guidance on the precise low level wind direction is crucial (if you’re off by more than 5 degrees on the compass in northern Erie County, you can warn–or not warn–the wrong 100+k people).
Q: What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you on air? Any good bloopers? Come on…
A: Believe it or not, I don’t have any great bloopers. Considering weathercasts are not scripted…they’re adlib…that’s surprising. The closest I came to getting in trouble came by accident. Back in the mid 80s, I was beginning a weathercast with accumulation reports, and I said to Bob Koop and Carol Jasen (now Chrissy Nigrelli) “so most spots in the southerntier got 2-4″. Oh–except Sherman. (a tiny town in Chautauqua County). Sherman got 12.” Bob Koop silently mouthed the word “SHERMAN???” He had never heard of Sherman, and I said, “Yes, Bob. Sherman’s a TOWN, not a guy.” As I walked to the green wall, the two of them fell apart laughing and I began to sweat when I realized how that came out, thinking I’d get called on the carpet. It was an accident, but when we looked at the playback it sounded like I’d contrived to say that on purpose. Fortunately, management wasn’t watching. Pretty dull blooper story, eh? Another story…it wasn’t crazy, but my favorite live shot was under the Shea’s marquee in 85 during Curtain Up. I interviewed Milton Berle, with Henny Youngman standing off to the side. We lost our power a minute before we went on, and our photographer freaked out, sending an intern to trace cables. Berle said, “Relax, gang. When I did live tv on NBC, stuff like this happened all the time.” I said, “Mr. Berle, you had ELECTRICITY at NBC, didn’t ya?” He responded, “You got a point, kid!” Just then, power returned. I once did a 2 man weathercast with Detroit weather icon Sonny Eliot for his roast which I can never post on Facebook. Too much bad language. Funny, but I run a ‘family page.’
Q: You almost met Frank Sinatra once – can we have the story?
A: I worked in various low level positions at WNEW Radio in NYC (forgetting meteorology as I did so) for 2.5 years. It was the best adult radio station in the country. It’s where Sinatra started, and a famous NY personality, William B. Williams (who gave Sinatra the name “Chairman of the Board”) had remained friends with Frank since the early 40s, when he was the announcer for the Paramount shows with Tommy Dorsey and Frank. I took ONE sick day in all that time, with a stomach virus. When I came in the next day, Williams asked “where were you yesterday, young man?” When I told him, he said “you missed it.” “Missed what?” “Frank came up to shoot the breeze, off air, with no entourage. He stayed at least an hour, he was in a fantastic mood, and you could have told him how you grew up just north of Hoboken and all that jazz (I brought copy in to Williams all the time). He walked around as he was leaving and said hello to every staffer. And YOU missed it, young man.” Yep, I missed it. Frank was and remains my musical idol.
Q: Some folks may not know about your love for jazz – tell us how that came to be?
A: Jazz came into my life when my late older brother began playing the Brubeck “Take Five” album. My brother played drums fairly well, though he never made a living at it. But when Bobby Darin went from “Queen of the Hop” to “Mack the Knife” that radically different sound of a swinging, contemporary big band arrangement and Darin’s finger popping phrasing turned me from rock and roll toward both mainstream big band jazz and the Great American Songbook. Listening to WNEW during high school, where they played Sinatra, Ellington, Basie, Torme, Joe Williams, Brubeck, Sarah Vaughn…well that just moved me away from rock toward music I viewed–snobbishly, I admit–with more substance played by more accomplished musicians and sung by song stylists at a level which remains untouched today. And THEN, in 1966 drum virtuoso Buddy Rich formed another big jazz ensemble, released a live album with Sammy Davis, then 2 live albums of his own. That did it. I’d never heard such a powerful sound, led by a drummer who kept time with white heat and impossible technique and speed. My tastes are unquestionably too narrow, I know that. But I just don’t have time in this life for musical mediocrity. Sometimes I hear the dreck playing when I’m at the gym…the pop stuff…and it annoys the hell out of me. I can’t NOT listen to it, and it’s just awful with zero talent behind it. Back to big band jazz; it was fun during and after college to go to live Buddy Rich shows in Central Park or the Fillmore East, where the other band on the bill, like acid rockers Procol Harum (Buddy loved being on the bill with rock groups so he could reach youthful audiences) were the headliners for most of the audience. Buddy and his band would follow, and simply blow everyone of those fellow kids away. They had never heard the raw power of a modern big band (we’re not talking Glenn Miller here) or witnessed the most explosive drummer in history, and roaring ovations would follow every chart. I remain very passionate about great ensemble music, great orchestrators, imaginative arrangements which soar. Still a huge part of my life! I wish I could read music, but my older daughter graduated the U of Michigan School of Music, one of the nation’s best, and plays flute, composes and orchestrates. So I live a little vicariously through her. The summer after she graduated Michigan, she got a scholarship to be principal flute in an 84 piece symphony and 35 piece jazz chamber ensemble at the Henry Mancini Institute, then in LA. She got to work under some of the greatest film composers and arrangers and with artists like Joshua Redman, Jack Sheldon, Dave Grusin, Johnny Mandel, Elmer Bernstein (watched her play the flute open in his Oscar-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird” theme) Christian McBride, Peter Erskine and musical director Patrick Williams. I have all their Saturday night concerts beautifully recorded on CDs…a treasure for me forever.
Q: You’ve worked with some amazing people over the years. Any good stories? Just one…
A: When I had a flunky job at WNEW, I was an assistant to a great reporter who had poor vision and couldn’t drive. He was a harsh taskmaster, that reporter. But I got to see, and even chat with a few times, Governor Rockefeller, Mayor John Lindsay, & Senator Jacob Javits, the NYPD Police Commissioner. Poverty wages, sometimes nasty boss, most exciting job I ever had. We covered stories like the shooting of Brooklyn mob family head Joe Columbo (I was there), I argued with a mob guy named Fat Tony Salerno over where I could park (which set a young NYPD cop to laughing because I obviously didn’t know who Salerno was), met Rickles, Steve Allen, Buddy Rich, Tony Bennett, George Burns. We cornered Nelson Rockefeller at 5:30am leaving his 5th Avenue apartment the morning after Attica. We covered on a daily basis the anti-corruption hearing where Serpico was the chief witness. Every day was a different adventure. I started a 9 year working relationship with 40+ year NY radio personality Ted Brown, writing jokes on the side. He never understood the “weather side” of me, but he was the guy who encouraged me to try to get a writing gig with Johnny Carson. I’m proud to say Carson’s Head Writer, Ray Siller, twice tried to get Johnny to hire me in 2 years, but that I was personally passed over by The Man himself. Close, but no cigar. In the long run, both Johnny and I were the better off for his judgment that he didn’t need an inferior version of Pat McCormick when he had the real Pat McCormick.
Q: You’ve seen Buffalo’s resurgence over the years – what are your thoughts on how far we’ve come?
A: Buffalo’s resurgence has taken a while to sink in. When I got here in ’84, the downtown rail had just been completed, the hiring bosses assured me Buffalo was on a big comeback. But it wasn’t. We’ve all heard for so many years of these projects which held out hope, and then they simply didn’t happen. Now, things have been happening downtown at an almost breakneck clip, and it’s been real for several years. I serve on a board for what we’re calling the World Weather Center. We hope to see a magnificent experiential facility devoted to weather, climate change, and education, with Disney-quality attractions in signature architecture. The Center will be devoted to all types of weather in the western hemisphere, not “just” WNY snow. We have a feasibility study under way, and hope to find funding for the 2nd phase of the study. We’re uncertain of where it will be sited; whether, for example, it will be in Buffalo or in, say, Niagara Falls. It’s going to depend partially on which community is more ready to move on this. There is not another facility like this in North America, if not the world. Research shows the public’s interest in weather is inexhaustible, so this isn’t just some passing fad. It’s got tremendous tourism potential, and it will be a regional center for school trips from Ohio, PA, NY, and Ontario,.It will host atmospheric and climate research and conferences. It’s going to be big and, yes, expensive, but its payback can be huge for our region. I hope to be a docent meteorologist there (an unpaid position)! 🙂
Q: You’ve worked in other markets – what makes Buffalo different?
A: Buffalo is different in that has such an amazing varied culture, including the theater community, the quality of the BPO, for example, beyond what you’d expect for a city this size. Our architecture is world-renowned. This is an incredible restaurant town. While I grew up next to NYC, I came here after 5 years in the Detroit market which was then the 7th largest tv market. When I got here, Buffalo was still around 38th or 40th in size, and now we’re down to the low 50s. But the comfort level here is so much more relaxing compared to living next to a big city just in terms of the commute. It’s more midwestern, like Detroit, than it is similar to NYC. There is a general friendliness to the people here…an accessibility. My daughters got to grow up in Williamsville schools, and I was nearly jealous. I’d attended a lackluster school system in my Jersey hometown, and I didn’t know just how lackluster until I got to Rutgers and saw how far behind I was in math skills compared to classmates who came from good systems in wealthier towns. I didn’t know I’d spend the rest of my career here when we got here. But after just a year or 2, I knew this was home.
Q: What makes you totally Buffalo?
A: I now have lived longer here than I did in New Jersey. I still have Jersey roots in terms of humor (read sarcasm) and my accent comes back when I’m sleepy. But THIS is home, and has been for a long time. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been so well received by such a large portion of the viewing audience for so long. Very little hate mail or vitriol. I try to treat viewers with respect for their intelligence, interest in learning a little more, and their sense of humor. I’ve been blessed with seldom being told by the bosses to “talk down” to the viewers. It’s so much more fun working that way, and being my energized self rather than having to invent a whole new (and phony) personality. I love to talk. It may have bugged a few producers, no doubt, but communicating with genuine rather than forced enthusiasm has served me pretty well and made much of my career a joy to behold–at least at my end.