This is the sound of an old weather radio that has been in my house for as long as I can remember.
SW Washington Weather, Oct 22, 8:22 AM (Recorded in the Woods)
It has a single button. On the bottom there is a switch that allows you to change the volume, and alternate between three frequencies, all of which access the same content.
It was one of those objects that was a source of ambient curiosity as a kid, always playing in the background. It had a weird, otherworldly quality, like it was beaming in from some lonely planet where one man lived, observing the weather forever. But when you’re a kid, most things have an otherworldly quality, because you’re still a dummy.
As an adult, or something that resembles an adult human, I found this radio in my childhood basement, a place that had become a static and uncurated museum of late 80’s, early 90’s life in SW Washington. Turning it on was transporting. I was immediately ocean-side on the dreary, greyed-out coast near Astoria, OR.
And after the teleportation wore off, I began to wonder about this guy. He had seemingly been narrating the weather without end, since I can remember, and showed no signs of slowing.
Wherein Mike Learns More About Robots
Growing up, I was sure I was listening to some weather man telling me about the coastal weather. He was entertaining me, informing bar-pilots on the Columbia river of perils like Krakens and wind, and warning fisherman of dangerous conditions headed their way. This guy was a national treasure. Even listening to the radio now, 25 years later, I was pretty sure it was the same fellow, droning on 24-hours a day, making that sweet government money in exchange for his tireless broadcasting skills.
As it turns out, the National Weather Service (NWS) has 1000+ stations broadcasting the weather, emergency conditions, or other hazards, and transitioned most of them to a synthesized voice named “Paul” in the late 1990’s. So I probably was listening to a real human with sad emotions as he interminably forecasted more fog and rain when I was a kid, and somewhere in the last two decades, they swapped him out for a synthesizer, like Indiana Jones swapped out that cool statue. (But not for a synthesizer)
The Maudlin Era
Apparently in 2016, the NWS began to transition all of the stations to the same “New Paul”, a cutting-edge synthetic voice. Previously, there were still some local variations all over the country. Wichita even had a woman’s voice they dubbed “Misty Dawn”.
I’m not sure what it means for the future of my friend and I, now that I have reason to believe he is an automated script read by a government-owned console. It’s a pretty typical story-arc of a friendship, I guess: Boy makes friend with faceless voice in a box, boy grows up, boy boy realizes box-voice is not tethered to human being, boy quietly ruminates about the meaning of all this, boy falls asleep with pants on.
For my part, I couldn’t find any specific mention of the SW Washington broadcast with regards to the change to a synthesized voice. I will choose to carry the dim-lantern of belief that there is a chance that a withered old man is gazing out the window on a spit of land somewhere on the rugged coast, keeping us all safe and informed.
Forecasting the Future
In this American’s well-reasoned view, it would not have killed the NWS to program a little more pep into the script. In an effort to gain back some of their listenership that has no doubt been lost to other forms of entertainment or weather like Serial, iphone weather apps, and Flying Toasters, I submit this audio sample for a more engaged, humanized version of the weather, geared toward the youth of today.
Alternate Weather Forecast Suggestion Box