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A ray of sun for Verizon’s weather line — and options in case it stops shining

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Everybody talks about the weather, the old saying goes, but nobody ever does anything about it.

The same might be said about the Verizon weather line, the venerable 202-936-1212 phone line that has provided a detailed D.C.-area forecast since the days of Ma Bell in the 1940s. As I noted before in this column, Verizon decided to discontinue the weather service (and its 844-1212 time service) as of June 1.

Well, today is June 1, and the sun is still shining on 936-1212.

“I got a reprieve,” Keith Allen told me when I called him Tuesday. Keith runs D.C. Weather Services, the group of forecasters who have the contract from Verizon to provide the forecasts. “I got a stay of execution.”

I don’t know how long that stay of execution might last, however. Are there any deep-pocketed, community-minded corporations that might come forward? I know that my employer, The Washington Post, has been in discussions with Verizon about taking over.

“There are a couple of different interested parties involved,” said Verizon’s Aaron Nestor.

Keith told me that he’s been charging Verizon $800 a month to provide at least four different forecasts a day.

When he told me that, I nearly dropped the phone. Less than a thousand dollars a month, split among his five-person team?

Yup, Keith said. It’s what he bid back in the late 1980s to first get the contract. He never asked for a raise because he was afraid Verizon would drop him and switch to a cheaper provider.

“You might as well say this is a labor of love,” he said. And Keith loves D.C. weather — and forecasting it. One of his cars has the license plate “9361212.” The other car is adorned with “WE61212,” a remnant from when telephone exchanges had mnemonic devices for the first two digits.

Said Keith: “I want to be able to continue to do this for the public and these good folks who do it for me. Nobody has a better group than I do.”

Of course, a new sponsor would have to factor in the cost of the phone technology, too. And there’s the fact that most people think the telephone weather forecast is not exactly a growth opportunity, doomed like the buggy whip and the whale oil lamp to an eventual obsolescence.

On the other hand, vinyl records, porkpie hats and cassette tapes are making a comeback among young hipsters. Why not 936-1212? It’s so retro, it’s cool!

I hope — and the many readers I heard from hope — that Keith can keep this going. But in case he can’t, there are some alternatives for those who like to hear the forecast or the time over a telephone:

If you want to set your Rolex or Swatch to the very second, call the U.S. Naval Observatory’s master clock at 202-762-1401. You will have to understand military time, where 1500 hours equals 3 p.m.

There are options for the weather, too. The National Weather Service provides information for the Washington area at 703-996-2200. Punch in extension 1 again and again and you will eventually get a computer voice with the day’s forecast.

As computer voices go, it’s not too bad. The Telecompute Corp. needs to work on the robot voice you hear when you call 202-589-1212. But this new service is still a work in progress.

Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, has a voice recognition service called “Tell Me.” Call the toll-free 1-800-555-TELL [8355] and you can request all sorts of information. Say the word “time” and you get that. Say the word “weather” and the machine will ask for which area.

There’s a familiar human voice at the WUSA (Channel 9) weather phone. Either Topper Shutt or Howard Bernstein records the forecast, retrievable at 202-364-WUSA [9872].

None of these alternatives rises to the level of Keith’s crew, who pack a lot of information into an economical package. And none features Neal Pizzano , the frisky morning voice of whom one reader wrote: “I have had a secret crush on Mr. Pizzano for years and believe he is a local treasure.”

The question, I suppose, is how much a local treasure is worth.

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