Interview with James Spann

I got a chance to interview James Spann a few weeks ago. Jilda was peeved because she's an amateur weather woman and to her, meeting James would be like meeting Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.

His status rose even more as a result of the deadly tornadoes that raked Alabama on April 27. I'm guessing more eyes were on him that day than were on the Super Bowl earlier this year.

My cousin's Casie Bridges and Regina Hicks can testify that listening to James's on-air reports, on April 27, saved their lives. They live near Argo in the path of the tornado and took shelter when James said the storm was near. Regina's home was heavily damaged, but they came out OK.

After the outbreak, when Spann learned that over 230 people died, he and his team felt like they'd done a horrible job. But representatives from the National Weather Service in Washington D.C. said that some predicted thousands of people could have been killed in those storms. Randy Palmer of Tuscaloosa (formerly of Cordova) said, "James Spann probably saved more lives in central Alabama than penicillin." I tend to agree with Randy's assessment.

One factor that set these storms, and their warnings, apart is that James used not only traditional TV and radio, but also social media — Facebook, Twitter and other tools — to warn people of the impending disaster. "Many kids today don't watch my newscast, and they don't read the paper," he said. "Some people make fun of me for using social media, but if we hadn't, I believe a lot more college kids might have died." ABC 33/40 was one of the first stations to install video tower cams, giving the weather team a way to see approaching storms in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Anniston. In December of 2000, when violent weather struck just days before Christmas, it was 33/40's tower cam that showed the tornado live on the ground.

James said he's always believed that if you can show viewers a tornado on the ground and heading in their direction, they'll take action. But the early tower cams were cumbersome and hard to manipulate by remote control. After the tornadoes in 2000, James went on a quest to improve that technology. He found other types of cameras that were better suited for the weather team, and ABC 33/40 now has some two dozen of them throughout central Alabama. Their goal is to eventually have 500.

Another factor that was huge during the April tornado outbreak was Sky-Watchers who used cameras on the dashboards of their vehicles to capture even more compelling video from the field. "John Oldshue is one of the unsung heroes of April 27," said James. "He captured that big wedge tornado on the ground when it was still 30 miles south of Tuscaloosa. That dramatic video convinced a lot of people to take cover."

You can also thank James Spann for ABC 33/40's policy of preempting regular programming whenever there is a tornado warning in the direct market area (DMA). James made the policy a condition of his employment. The station agreed. These days, all the local TV stations follow the practice and it's saving lives.

Another skill that makes James effective at his job is his encyclopedic knowledge of central Alabama's geography: "You can tell people a tornado is south of Clanton and they may not act, but if you tell them it's approaching Jim's BBQ, they know exactly where that is," he said. He learned about these small towns by taking what he calls "the road less traveled," but that's a story for another time.

Even with this hectic schedule, Spann spends time in the morning with his wife Karen.

The family gets together most evenings--sometimes for a meal, and sometimes at the baseball field to watch Ryan, their 13-year-old son play. James and Karen also have an older son (26-year-old James Spann, Jr.) who is heading to Mississippi State to become... Surprise: a meteorologist.


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