Five Questions for Wonya Lucas

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Wonya Lucas became general manager of The Weather Channel Networks at the outset of October, upon the retirement of former president Patrick Scott. Editor-in-chief Tom Steinert-Threlkeld caught up with her, riverside, in Atlanta. Excerpts follow:

MCN: You come aboard at a pretty interesting point. How does this year compare to other weather years for America?

Wonya Lucas: Last year was an interesting year as well. There were a number of large storms as well, but none with as much impact as [Hurricane] Katrina. I guess we’ve just finished with [the tropical storm letter] “Z” this week. But it does speak to the power of weather and the relevance of weather.

We as a network have really focused for all those years on severe weather before landfall, up until the minute of landfall. But not really focusing much at all post-landfall, where really many of the human-interest stories happen.

We are not a news organization. But news as it relates to weather is important.

MCN: You’re not a news organization? Most people think you are, that you’re news about weather.

WL: We are not a typical news organization. We’re about looking ahead about what is going to happen. In terms of severe weather, it’s preparing people. Really, it’s focusing on a public-service mission. It’s not about how we generate great ratings and all that stuff.

MCN: Do you let your anchors and reporters get blown around in the wind?

WL: They do get blown around a bit. But, no, that’s not our m.o. What we are really trying to do is talk about, from a meteorological standpoint, what is happening and what is about to happen. Anybody can get out there and get blown around. We want to talk about what it really means.

MCN: How do you expand your mission?

WL: This season we focused more on the “after,’’ the post-hurricane, than we ever did before. We’ll continue to do that with more depth.

There are really three reasons why weather matters to people. The first is preparation, daily preparation. The weather forecast is a glimpse of the future. This is one of the few content areas that provides that kind of insight.

The second part is inspiration — what people do with their weather information. They are inspired to do something, to pursue their passions in one way or another. People who are interested in outdoor information, we do that on the air right now, with our vignettes about health or fitness or safety.

The third is awe. This is where severe weather really comes in. Viewers talk about their sheer awe of weather and how it makes them feel small.

MCN: What have you learned about how to cover weather from the hurricanes of this year?

WL: The preparation part of it is so important. We did a pilot episode for a series that launches next year, called It Could Happen Tomorrow. And our first episode was, what if a category 5 [hurricane] hits New Orleans? This was done last year and tested early this year. It was going to launch Jan. 6 of ’06. But the notion that we had already explored what could happen when severe weather hits a very vulnerable area, [we already knew] that if the levees broke, that the flooding would be catastrophic. We have other episodes where we are examining in other areas of the country, what would happen if a severe weather act that is not highly unlikely, just not imminently probable, were to happen.

MCN: Bonus question: What happened to that first episode?

WL: We were able to leverage it. [With its computer-generated graphics] we could show what would happen if the levees broke, what the impact of the winds and the rains would be on where New Orleans is situated.

But, of course, a Category 4 hurricane hit New Orleans. So, it actually happened yesterday. It doesn’t work for It Could Happen Tomorrow anymore.

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