Summer has never been the same around here since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina demolished New Orleans and Hurricane Rita demolished every Houstonian's desire to get on a highway ever again.
Last year's hurricane season was a dull bust (not that we're complaining), but every expert is predicting doom and gloom this summer.
Which means hype, hype, hype from the local weathercasters, taking delight in telling viewers to stay tuned because that tropical wave off the coast of Africa is very possibly going to come right up the Ship Channel.
Except, allegedly, for Channel 2. Their slogan this year is "No drama and no fear."
Chief meteorologist Frank Billingsley is actually known in town for being whatever the opposite of a Hurricane Hyper is. He was the first guy to make the call in 2005 that Rita wouldn't hit Houston.
We talked to Billingsley about the philosophy of calling hurricane landfalls. (It saddens us to report that when he called us from home, blaring in the background was Celine Dion, but what can you do?)
Billingsley says the idea that hurricanes are a ratings-pumping, moneymaking boon for local stations is mistaken. "There's a lot of man-hours and overtime, and we go commercial-free for a lot of it," he says.
During Rita, the Nielsen ratings company couldn't even provide numbers because so many of the people being surveyed at that time were evacuating and not watching TV.
He also says he doesn't feel any pressure to say a hurricane's headed our way, or delay the moment when he tells viewers they're safe (and can, presumably, turn back to Judge Judy).
"When I have a good inkling a storm is going to miss us, I share it," he says. "I can't promise it, but I can show you what I see and say, ‘Here's why I think it will miss.' The viewer still has to decide what to do."
Billingsley, unfortunately, didn't want to rip on some of his competitors, who are masters of the hype game.
Then again, when you're blasting a Celine Dion CD, you can't help but feel the love.
So for the past couple of weeks we've been getting regular calls at work from telemarketers for the Houston Chronicle. We have complained about this; we have been connected to "supervisors" who have apologized and promised our name and number would be forever banished from the phone list; we have continued to get calls.
Like the one we got recently. Little did we know we'd been called by a telemarketer who simply would refuse to end the conversation, no matter what we did. Somewhere in this guy's personal code or his employee handbook was the idea that he would never give up on a customer, no matter how hard that customer tried to make him do so.
As the pitch began, we decided to turn on the tape recorder:
...with the ads and coupon book, you're going to save a bundle of money on that.
HB: Yeah. Why would I want to get the Houston Chronicle?
TM: To get the news.
HB: I can get the news elsewhere. Do you have, like columnists in there?
TM: Umm. Yeah. It has everything in the paper.
HB: Okay. Who's one of the good columnists?
TM: I personally don't live there, to read the paper.
HB: You don't know who any single one of the columnists is? You're telling me I should subscribe to the paper and you can't tell me who one of the columnists is?
TM: The paper should have it in there.
HB: Yeah. You're telling me I should get this paper because it has great columnists. So which ones are great?
TM: Well, I really don't know firsthand.
HB: You don't know whether they have good columnists or not?
HB: Then why are you telling me to buy the paper?
TM: I'm just saying, if you want to read it for the columnists... (pause). If you don't want it...(longer pause).
HB: Then what?
TM: You don't have to get it.
HB: Well, you're taking my time, interrupting me at work to tell me I should get it, so I assume you've got some good reasons.
TM: Well...(pause)...I really don't know that, sir.
HB: What's your favorite part of the Houston Chronicle?
TM: I don't live there to really know that.
HB: Yeah, but you're telling people to buy it, so you'd definitely know [the paper] and have some favorite parts of it. What would it be?
HB: Okay, who's the best sports columnist?
TM: I don't know.
HB: You don't know? What do you like about the sports section?
TM: To find out about what I missed?
HB: Yeah, but you can get that, like, on ESPN or something.
TM: Like I said, sir, if you don't want it you don't have to get it.
HB: Well, why are you calling me at work telling me to get it if you can't tell me why I should get it?
TM: It's our job?
HB: Well, I'm trying to do my job I'm not calling you at work and telling you to buy something that I don't know anything about, am I?
TM: Well, we can call you back at a more convenient time, then.
HB: Will you have some reasons then why I should get the Chronicle?
HB: Not just "sports," but something specific about the paper that would make me go out and buy it. Because right now you aren't giving me anything.
TM: Yeah, we can call you back at a more convenient time...
HB: What would be a more convenient time?
TM: When you're at home?
HB: You think I'd rather be interrupted at home to hear about a newspaper that you know nothing about?
TM: (Pause) I don't know. (Even...Longer... Pause. Wheels apparently spinning in vain, his script offering only one option) All right sir, we'll just call you back at a more convenient time.
HB: But what would be a more convenient time?
TM: Later on today, tomorrow?
HB (Wondering what the hell it will take to get this guy to just say, "Well, goodbye then."): Why do you keep saying you'll call me back at a more convenient time?
TM: Because it sounds nicer? Because you just said we're calling you at work and you don't want to be called at work.
HB: But I've also said I don't want to be called to be urged to buy a paper that you admit you know absolutely nothing about.
TM: If it's like the paper where I live, it's going to have some stuff.
HB: What paper do you read?
TM: The Post-Dispatch.
HB: In St. Louis? What do you like about it?
TM: The sports and entertainment.
HB: And they got a pretty good sports columnist there, right?
HB: Bernie Something?
HB: Okay, so if you were going to tell people to buy the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, you'd mention that, right? But you can't tell me anyone who works at the Houston Chronicle that I should read.
HB: Okay, maybe I should call you back at a more convenient time. What's the number?
TM: I don't know the number here.
HB: Okay, what's your home number?
TM: I'm not going to give that out.
HB: But I can call you at a more convenient time at home. Like when you're trying to eat dinner or something.
TM: (Pause.) I don't know, sir. Like I said, if you don't want it you don't have to get it.
HB: Like I said, give me a good specific reason to get it and I'll think about it.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
TM: (Yet another pause.)
HB: (Finally giving up.): Anyway, I gotta run, and thanks for the enlightening conversation.
You Better Run
Trying to avoid an encore of the Hurricane Rita traffic disaster, officials along the Gulf Coast have developed a new evacuation map that will apparently solve all the problems. Using ZIP codes, they have designated which areas should evacuate first, which should wait until those folks get out, and which should just stay still and hunker down. This is, of course, an utterly foolproof plan. Of course people in Galveston are not going to wait until the last minute to leave their empty homes; theyre going to make sure burglars have a few sunny pre-landfall days to do their looting. Of course people in Kingwood are going to see a Category 5 storm loom off Freeport and decide to stay hunkered down so that others may leave. We see absolutely no way this plan is not going to work perfectly.