The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A weather network, tied to one of Steve Bannon’s platforms, comes under fire

Meteorologists at WeatherNation have raised concerns about Real America’s Voice, the conservative channel with which it shares an owner

(Emily Sabens/Washington Post illustration; Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post; iStock)
9 min

The two television studios are separated by a wall with a sliding-glass door.

In one, Colorado-based meteorologists track snowstorms, hurricanes and day-to-day conditions around-the-clock for viewers of WeatherNation, a channel airing forecasts on smart TVs and streaming devices.

The other broadcasts shows on the conservative network Real America’s Voice, one of few remaining news platforms where false election fraud claims and other conspiracies get airtime. It airs Stephen K. Bannon’s show “War Room” even after YouTube, Spotify and other platforms withdrew access for the former adviser to President Donald Trump.

The two networks’ shared ownership has alarmed some meteorologists, who say that WeatherNation is helping to legitimize the extreme viewpoints aired on Real America’s Voice, occasionally sharing its forecasts on the political network; at times the networks feature the same advertisers. These critics also argue that in its own coverage, WeatherNation fosters climate change skepticism by shunning any mention of the established links between human-driven climate warming and the disasters the channel covers, thus discouraging viewers from considering the consequences of climate change.

An executive of parent company Performance One Media said the channels’ only financial link is their common majority owner — which in turn is owned by the media entrepreneur Robert Sigg — and called it “factually wrong” to suggest that any WeatherNation revenue is going to Real America’s Voice. Despite the networks’ shared real estate and owner, their programming rarely overlaps.

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But even some of the straight-news weather channel’s own employees are uneasy about its right-wing sister network.

Ten current and former WeatherNation employees who spoke with The Washington Post described a discomfort with the programming produced next door — as well as with an understanding that they should refrain from on-air references to climate change, despite the scientific consensus on how it influences on global weather extremes.

And the networks’ relationship has cost WeatherNation at least one advertiser. Weather programming is typically considered a safe and lucrative path to reaching consumers, but BMW of America told The Post it would no longer advertise on the network “in light of the connection to Real America’s Voice.”

WeatherNation president Michael Norton said in an interview that although WeatherNation’s success helped to shape strategy in the launch of Real America’s Voice, the two entities operate independently. He stressed that WeatherNation is strictly focused on giving viewers constant weather updates, especially during events such as hurricanes and tornado outbreaks.

“A lot of people tune into our service during those events to watch live coverage,” Norton said. “They know we’ve become a trusted brand during these live events.”

All of the forecasters interviewed said that while they joined WeatherNation because they shared that mission, the programming coming from Real America’s Voice alarms them. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

One former WeatherNation employee said that while he worked there, despite a vague sense of what was coming out of the studio next door, it was jarring to see how the conservative network covered the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, with what the former employee recalled as a slant supportive of the insurrectionists. “I was pretty shocked,” the person said.

Another meteorologist recalled declining a request to appear on Real America’s Voice for a segment providing updates on breaking weather news: “I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’ I don’t want my face on that at all.”

WeatherNation grew by narrow focus

WeatherNation grew out of a standard industry shift. It began with Paul Douglas’s layoff from a long-standing role as chief meteorologist at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis. He decided to turn it into an opportunity.

An experienced forecaster, Douglas — whose legal name is Douglas Kruhoeffer — founded WeatherNation in 2008. He taped forecast segments for syndication, emailing them to stations that could not or did not want to produce weather forecasts in-house.

“No documentaries, specials or movies, just cutting edge graphics, a heavy emphasis on social media, and a staff of degreed meteorologists,” Douglas told The Washington Post in 2011.

WeatherNation has never strayed from that road map.

Colorado-based Performance One bought a controlling interest in WeatherNation from Douglas in 2014. Douglas declined to be interviewed for this story but said in an email that he sold “the WeatherNation name and other interests” to Performance One and has had no involvement with the network since then. (Douglas remains a minority shareholder in WeatherNation.)

With Performance One in charge, WeatherNation expanded its reach. By 2015, the network got a spot in Dish Network’s offerings to 14 million subscribers.

Real America’s Voice created as ‘a platform for patriots’

Sigg and his management team, meanwhile, always were looking for new strategies to reach viewers and advertisers. They explored a Christianity-themed network and a Spanish-language version of WeatherNation, former employees said. Performance One also operates Pursuit, a network devoted to the outdoors.

Amid the tumult of Donald Trump’s administration, when mainstream media outlets began to limit commentary from Trump supporters repeating the president’s falsehoods, Sigg and his team saw another opportunity in conservative politics.

They launched America’s Voice News in 2018, changing its name to Real America’s Voice two years later “as a demonstration of the company’s commitment to serve as a platform for traditional values, audience participation, and news and events that shape the future of real America,” a company announcement said at the time.

By 2020, the company said Real America’s Voice had “succeeded tremendously” and was drawing “tens of millions” of viewers across a host of media platforms — Dish, Pluto TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Google Play, Facebook and YouTube — “with more channels planned in the future.”

Gina Loudon, president of programming at Real America’s Voice and a prominent Trump supporter, called the network “a platform for patriots all across America who care about traditional values.” Loudon wrote a Trump-endorsed book in which she said he was possibly “the most sound-minded person to ever occupy the White House.”

At WeatherNation, even if some disagreed with the content of Real America’s Voice, its success demonstrated how competitive and savvy Sigg and his team could be, said Erika Lopez, who worked as a WeatherNation meteorologist from 2015 to 2020.

“They’re great businessmen,” Lopez said. “They find something that’s missing in the TV industry and they just go with it.”

Success as competition in weather media grows

WeatherNation’s maneuvers through an evolving and increasingly competitive weather industry appear to be succeeding, although measuring this precisely is difficult.

Norton said viewership has grown “quite substantially” year over year but did not provide specific audience figures. He said advertising impressions, or the total number of times an ad appears on someone’s screen, have grown more than twofold each year for the past eight years.

Industry data captures part of WeatherNation’s reach.

Roku, a streaming device that connects to TVs and comes with a WeatherNation app installed, had more than 100 million users in 2020, according to data from the research firm eMarketer. Pluto TV, a free streaming service operated by ViacomCBS that carries WeatherNation and Real America’s Voice, was meanwhile expected to surpass $1 billion of ad revenue this year, according to eMarketer.

And WeatherNation has about 700,000 followers on Facebook, some 100,000 more than Real America’s Voice.

“It reminds me of what the Weather Channel looked like 20 years ago — very basic experience with elementary graphics, elevator music played behind local updates, et cetera,” said Michael Greeson, the principal analyst for Aluma Insights, a research firm focused on streaming video. “To put it another way, it appears made for older viewers who just want the basics.”

The Weather Channel and competitors including the newly launched Fox Weather still command large audiences and are pursuing viewers via streaming devices and other new platforms.

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Former WeatherNation employees said they were proud of their coverage and believed it drew significant viewership during major weather-news events such as hurricanes. But they said they were never told how many people were watching.

“I always assumed it was just my mom,” one meteorologist said.

WeatherNation sticks to its mission: ‘This isn’t about politics’

WeatherNation executives did not deny that their programming avoids any mention of climate change, an issue the Weather Channel and even Fox Weather have highlighted as global warming increases the likelihood of severe storms, wildfires and drought.

“We’re a weather forecasting service and the content of our service is tailored to what our viewers have said they want to see,” a company spokesman said in an email. “That’s our policy, weather 24/7/365.”

For BMW of North America, there was reason enough to stop advertising on WeatherNation, although spokesman Phil Dilanni would not go into details. Although the network “was not initially flagged as a potentially problematic outlet for advertising,” Dilanni said, the automaker has determined that the network does not meet its advertising standards.

As for WeatherNation employees’ concerns about appearing as guests on Real America’s Voice, Norton said he considers the segments to be no different from the network’s meteorologists’ appearances on Fox News, MSNBC or other national media. When meteorologists have raised concerns about the politics of Real America’s Voice, he has always pointed back to WeatherNation’s mission and essential function, he said.

“I said, ‘Well, I’m not asking you to believe in the politics,’” Norton said. “‘This isn’t about politics; this is about providing weather information to viewers.’”