The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The revival of telephone weather forecasts in Washington, D.C.


You may have thought the days of dialing your phone to get a weather forecast were dead. But this old-fashioned way of knowing whether it will rain or snow is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.

“Telephone weather has rebounded,” says Howard Phoebus, a forecaster with D.C. Weather Services, a group of local meteorologists and weather hobbyists that has provided phone-based predictions since late the 1980s. They begun offering forecasts on the memorable number WE6-1212 (936-1212) and now can be heard at 202-589-1212.

Phoebus says the call volume of his service has seen a steady increase over the last few years.

Before there was the internet, one of the only places you could get current  weather updates, without waiting for the television news,  was on your phone.  Many Washingtonians would dial WE6-1212 (936-1212), sometimes multiple times a day, to access the service hosted by Verizon (and its predecessors).

Phoebus and his 7 colleagues, including Keith Allen, the group’s leader, became household names.

But in 2011, when real-time weather information had become available on so many different electronic platforms, Verizon decided to pull the plug on its long-standing service.

Many people, particularly older adults who had for years relied on the dial-a-forecast service, vehemently protested.

After publishing the news Verizon was terminiating the service, Post columnist John Kelly said he received hundreds of complaints. But Verizon looked the other way.

“We thought our days were numbered,” Phoebus says.

Still, the service wasn’t entirely kaput, and landed at a new home. Telecompute, a local company that provides recorded telephone information in markets around the country, adopted it. Once again featuring forecasts from the likes of Phoebus of D.C. Weather Services, Telecompute has been continuously broadcasting recorded weather forecasts at 202-589-1212.

The Metropolitan Council of Governments and Clean Air Partners have sponsored the phone forecasts, which lead off with information about today’s air quality and then feature the weather outlook for the next several days.

But the move from the sticky WE6-1212 number, etched in the minds of loyal callers for decades, to a new, little publicized number decimated call volume. In its final days with Verizon, Phoebus says the service was receiving hundreds of thousands of calls per day. When it moved to the new number (202-589-1212), that number dropped to 2,500 calls per day.

Warren Miller, the president of Telecompute, says he’s unsuccessfully attempted to obtain the magical 936-1212 number from Verizon. “They [Verizon] claim they can’t release the number because it’s part of a type of service that they’re still operating,” Miller said. But dial 936-1212 and you hear only: “We’re sorry. Your call cannot be completed us dialed. Please check the number and dial again. Thank you.”

Verizon’s lack of support notwithstanding, the new service’s call volume has slowly grown, via word of mouth.

“We have gotten [the call volume] up to 15,000-20,000 on a daily basis when weather is tranquil,” Phoebus says.

Phoebus says his service provides a niche for folks rolling out of bed in the morning who want a hassle-free way to get a forecast more detailed than on a digital display.

“Those early morning callers are finding that this is the best and quickest method to get good weather,” he says. “Because those callers like the morning forecasts, they call again later in the day.”

Pepco recently signed on as a sponsor for the phone service as part of a campaign that promotes being weather-ready for storms. It hopes to drive people to its Web site for storm readiness information and to download its free mobile app.  “We wanted to use a phone service as a complement to placing adds on 3 popular weather Web sites,” says Michael Herbs, senior manager for advertising at Pepco.

Phoebus sees the Pepco sponsorship as validation for the service and positions it for future growth.

“With the upsurge in call volume we’ve been able to create through the Council of Governments and word of mouth alone, and with Pepco now getting on board, our hope is that we can get back to the day of hundreds of thousands phone calls per day,” Phoebus says.