John Kelly: Phone Weather Forecaster Tries to Get Callers Off to a Good Start

By John Kelly
Tuesday, April 14, 2009; B03

Alittle after 2 this morning, Neal Pizzano quietly padded to the basement of his suburban Philadelphia home and starting thinking about you.

In the pre-dawn darkness, his face illuminated by the glow from his computer screen, Neal thought about the sort of day you might have, what you might wear, where you might drive, what might bring a smile to your face. And then he picked up the telephone, dialed a number and started talking to you -- well, you and thousands of other people.

Neal is one of the voices of Verizon's recorded weather line, part of a rotating cast of meteorologists callers hear when they dial 202-936-1212 (or 301- or 703-). In an age in which you can pull up satellite images on your computer screen or watch an entire cable channel devoted to the weather, Neal's forecasts -- and the old-fashioned way they're delivered -- still have fans.

"You don't want to be sounding like you're tired, sick or down in the dumps," Neal said of his early-morning monologues. "That voice is something they're looking forward to. I feel it's my duty to be upbeat no matter what my personal life is dealing me at the time. I've always said, 'Have a good day.' I actually mean it."

When Neal started recording the forecast in 1981 -- he currently does it Sunday, Monday and Tuesday mornings -- he aped DJ Adrian Cronauer's famous "Good morning Vietnaaaaam" delivery. He's modified his shtick since then.

He divides his broadcast into two parts: a no-nonsense recitation of current and upcoming weather conditions, followed by a goofier segment. "Today is National Peach Cobbler Day," Neal might say. "And Hug Your Sister Day."

On St. Patrick's Day, Neal delivers the forecast in an Irish brogue. He says it's the only accent he knows how to do.

Google his name and you will find that some women fantasize about him.

"People just love him to death," said Keith Allen, who started D.C. Weather Services, the contractor that provides the recordings to Verizon, in 1981. "When he's off or goes on vacation, people want to know, 'Where's Neal?' "

Keith said there's been some sort of telephone weather service in Washington since 1939. Twenty-five years ago, his service used to get a quarter-million calls a day. Verizon won't give precise figures for today -- "competitive reasons," said a spokeswoman -- but Keith says it's in the "tens of thousands," not bad considering the phone number isn't even printed in the phone book anymore.

Neal moved to Wallingford, Pa., a few years ago after a lifetime spent in the Washington area (Peary High School in Rockville; meteorology studies at Montgomery College). He posts his audio forecast by 4 a.m. and is at his real job -- as an airline dispatcher -- by 5. By 7, his forecast is replaced by one of D.C. Weather Service's seven other meteorologists'.

Neal dallied briefly with the big time. He's been on the radio. Channel 5's Sue Palka told him about a gig at a Richmond TV station, and he did the weekend weather forecasts there for a while. But it never quite clicked.

"I know that it's a different type of business," he said. "Some of it is dealing with hype. In order to gain viewership, you have to make things a little more dramatic than they really are. That part kind of bothered me. . . . Most people, all they really want to know is, 'What is the weather going to be so that I can dress for work today?' They don't care at 5 in the morning what the hurricane is doing in the Gulf of Mexico. But if you go on TV you're going to get all that."

In other words, a little too much showbiz.

Not that Neal is averse to showbiz. He's appeared as an extra in several films and television series, including "Ladder 49," "Invincible" and "The Wire."

There's something a little old-fashioned about Neal, both his corny delivery and the Alexander Graham Bell technology he uses. He makes no apologies.

"The reason why the telephone is still popular in Washington, D.C., is it's accessible by nearly every single person out there. Not everybody has the Internet. Not everybody has TV or radio right when they need it. . . . When you want it on the telephone, you pick it up, you dial and you're getting weather information instantaneously."

And you're getting something else: a smile, a laugh and, as strange as it is to say it, maybe even a friend.

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