A ray of sun for Verizon’s weather line — and options in case it stops shining
By John Kelly,
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  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 .
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.