Meet Robert Drake: Philadelphia’s Unofficial Weather Savior

The city's go-to source for hype-less forecasts is on Facebook.

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Over the last several major weather events in Philadelphia, we’ve noticed that more and more people seem to be looking to a guy named Robert Drake on Facebook for what’s really going to be falling from the sky. Drake, best known as a DJ and the producer of WXPN’s Kids Corner, was the first one to pooh-pooh any chance for Snowmageddon in Philadelphia this time around, and he’s been a constant critic of the hype surrounding the forecast. So we got him on the phone to learn more.

How did our local meteorologists do this time around?
Actually, I think we did pretty good. People are judging based on the final result. But the reality of the situation is that there was a storm and it did dump feet of snow and have blizzard conditions. The only thing it didn’t do was hit as far west. Given the choice, I’d rather have a meteorologist inform me that this could happen versus not tell me and I’m caught off guard.

Which seemed to be what happened with our recent Sunday ice storm.
Yes. That was a perfect example. The fact is, that is something that could have been called better, because the temperature was so cold on the ground. But on Saturday night, Sunday morning, maybe their a-team wasn’t on board. And perhaps that is why they are now playing it a little differently.

I was surprised that the city and school district announced their Tuesday closings at 10 p.m. Monday night, when things still seemed very uncertain.
I was really surprised that the school district let out early yesterday. It makes no sense. Even if we got the storm that was anticipated, nobody said it would happen until later at night, 10 p.m.

In hindsight, they were relying on meteorologists saying there would be snowfall of some variation on Tuesday, and a lot of people wanted to be cautious. Unfortunately, once the city closes down, that’s it. You can’t reopen. You can’t change school. But the Monday early dismissal just baffles me.

But it sounds like you don’t think the meteorologists are to blame.
The weather forecasters — and here, most of them are, in fact, meteorologists — on TV and on the web, they get the short end of the stick. They lay out what might happen, but then the assignment editors will take the worst case scenarios and create fear stories.

I love it: Fear stories.
I watched all of them this week. I DVR’d all of them just to see what’s happening. Every one of them was talking about Philly being on the edge, the extreme cutoff of the storm. No one was saying blindly that we’ll have a blizzard in Philly. They were all saying that it was depending. That’s the meteorologists.

But then the station goes back to the news desk and there are five fear stories. The typical viewer glazes over all of it and says, I need to prepare for Armageddon. I don’t know the reason. I guess some people just want the headline.

You mean like people who don’t read my stories and just pitch a fit over the headline?
Ha. I don’t have to tell you twice.

Do you have professional training as a meteorologist, or is this just a hobby for you?
It’s totally a hobby. I always wanted to study weather when I was a kid. I was fascinated with it. And then I had a chance to meet an idol of mine: Jim O’Brien. I met him at a station event at Channel 6, and I expressed my love for weather and for radio.

I’m sure he thought I was a crazy teenage kid, but we talked about his life and enjoying what you do and making sure that whatever you do, that you’re chasing your passions. And I came away from that inspired.

Did you go to school for it?
No, the big problem for me was that, back then at least, studying weather involved a lot of mathematics. I was terrible at math, still am. That quickly snuffed me entering meteorology as a field, and so I turned to radio.

And then in the past couple of decades, because of the Internet, I was able to study weather on my own time and use computer technology to do that math, and it helped me understand how weather works.

So with these different forecasts, are they all interpreting the data differently, or is it different data?
It’s different data. There are several models used to help predict how weather will happen. That was the first sign for me.

Last week — Thursday and Friday — those four or five different models were all doing different things. Some saying one to five, others a foot. Some forecasters just regurgitated that on the air. Someone said, We can get two to 15 inches! It became comical. That’s not forecasting at that point.

To me, when they don’t align, you should play it cautiously and not go out to the far extreme. The models for this storm never were aligning until the storm actually formed and was hitting Boston. Then the models started to align.

But you can’t explain that in two minutes on TV. Dave Murphy showed the four models and how much snow each was predicting. But to the average Joe watching TV, he’s not paying attention to the graph. He just wants to know how much snow.

This storm was uncertain. No one knew how quickly it would turn up the coast. It also developed more east than we expected and turned quicker. But what was really interesting from a geek perspective was that, out of nowhere, a block of cold air came from the western part of the state and formed a wall that blocked the storm from coming back toward us. It was forced to go up and not trickle back to our area.

Will the science and technology ever get to the point when we can say precisely what will happen tomorrow with the weather?
Not in our lifetime. No matter what people do, Mother Nature has the upper hand. It’s her game, and we’re just playing.

We can’t tell when an earthquake is going to happen. Think about that. In California, in one of the richest parts of the world, the money there can be easily invested in the highest technology. But you just can’t figure out when earthquakes are going to happen there. Trying to figure out how Mother Nature works is always going to be a guessing game.

We can’t predict weather unless we’re in a greenhouse, which is why it remains a forecast, which is just a prediction.

So what can people do?
The important thing is to avoid the hype. If your livelihood is affected by the weather, take the extra time to learn more about it. There are websites out there where you can learn about it in a layman’s type of way.

Anything on the horizon?
Yep. There’s a clipper moving in on Thursday night. It will be pretty dry but very cold, but there’s a chance for the region to get a couple of inches on Friday morning. Then late Sunday night into Monday, post-Super Bowl, but it’s too far away to decide. The most anyone can do is look three days ahead. After three days, it’s all useless.

What do you do when you aren’t doing this?
I shape the lives of children. [Laughs]. I produce Kids Corner on WXPN. I’ve been there for 28 years. And when I’m not doing that, I DJ in Philadelphia, which I’ve been doing for 20 years. And when all of those things aren’t happening, I am studying some website in the dark of night learning about the wind changes.

So yes or no: Will my kids be able to build a snowman this winter?
I certainly hope so. I know I would like to build one.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.