Nick Johnston is used to being ahead of the weather.
The Albany native spent a few years delivering the weather reports on the morning shows of the Capital Region, garnering a loyal local following (and a bit of comical attention from the Daily Mail). But in 2017, he was let go by WTEN. It caused a stir in the community; fans even created a petition to try to keep him on the show. Although thousands signed it, the petition didn’t get Johnston back on the air.
Since then, he’s altered his career and pivoted to teaching at the New School Center for Media in Albany. He’s also kept forecasting, just at his new digs. Just about every day before class, he gets on Facebook (on his Meteorologist Nick Johnston page) to forecast and he still gets hundreds of comments and reactions.
But Johnston said the adjustment hasn’t been entirely easy.
Here, he talks about how he got his start in the weather business and his concerns about the future of local news.
Q: Why weather? As a kid, what got you interested in it?
A: Well, when the 1987 October 4th snowstorm hit Albany, I was five at the time and that left a pretty big impression on me. But by then, I’d had my parents come up with an ABC’s of natural disasters so it started very young. I also found out early on that I loved public speaking. I felt very much at home up in front of the class.
Q: That’s rare [most people don’t seem to like public speaking].
A: Yeah most people fear public speaking, but I couldn’t get enough of it. My parents decided I liked attention . . . so they tried getting me involved in theater. I was not comfortable with that. If it was having to memorize someone else’s words, it didn’t work. If I was talking [about] a subject that I had researched or that I knew something about, that was my wheelhouse. I remember one time I was in a play and I just froze. I was terrified.
Q: How did you get into meteorology?
A: [I went to] SUNY Brockport for a four-year degree in meteorology. Then I came to the New School, which was at a different location at the time. I needed to get that TV certification.
Q: What was your first gig?
A: Wichita Falls Texas. It would not surprise me if you’re not familiar with Wichita Falls, it’s a tiny town in North Texas, but you start small and work your way up. I started as the weekend meteorologist, then the morning spot opened up and I worked my way into that. I was there for a year and a half then a start-up station opened up in Burlington Vermont. It was a launch station so that was a neat experience. They didn’t have a morning show at the time so I helped them figure out how to launch that. Then from there, I went to CBS 6, which was very exciting.
Q: So it was good to be back covering the northeast?
A: Yes, Texas was great. I loved the people but I was not built for a Texas summer. I did, however, get to storm chase in Texas and for a meteorologist, that’s on your bucket list. I got to do some tornado chasing.
Q: Was it terrifying?
A: Once! Most of the time it’s like fishing, you never catch anything - at least that’s me when I go fishing. One time me and my photographer had to pull over because we couldn’t see. I was chasing tornados using the radar on my flip phone. So we got too close. That was the one time I was like “right, you’re chasing a tornado.” Before I left, I did get to see one on the horizon from a much safer distance.
Q: Besides chasing storms [in Texas] what was the best storm to cover?
A: Irene. Tropical storm Irene. That’s the biggest storm I ever covered and that was when I was up in Burlington Vermont. I was the chief at the time so I got to plan and execute our station's coverage at the time. My and a photog were up for 28 hours straight covering the flooding in Rutland. So that was quite an experience. Roads, bridges, houses, cars all washed away. You were watching these raging rivers and we kept hearing these loud crunches and cracks. It took us a while to figure out that it was boulders rolling along beneath the water. [I was] awestruck by the power of the water.
Q: What time did you have to get up for the morning news?
A: [I had to be] up at 2 a.m., in by 3 and live by 4:30 a.m. I had about an hour and a half to prepare [graphics and forecasts]. Then about 30 seconds to put on makeup and get ready. Yes, we had to do our own makeup. There’s no makeup person for local tv stations, 30 years ago maybe but not anymore.
Q: Who taught you how to apply [makeup] then?
A: Nobody really. So for most of my time on TV, I was pretty bad at it. Just using CoverGirl and not very well. Later, they had consultants who would come in and give you tips. People ask me if it’s weird and yeah, it’s weird at first. But like anything else you get used to it. HD is very unforgiving. I still do the forecast, just here at the New School on Facebook.
Q: I know it caused a stir when you left WTEN. People were signing petitions for you to stay.
A: It was very humbling. But it also hurt because it didn’t matter in the end. It was very gratifying to have that kind of support, it really meant a lot. TV is changing and it is not adapting well. So I’ve had to adapt, which has been tough because it was something I’ve loved since an early age.
Q: Do you feel like it’s become more volatile? What is it not adapting to?
A: It’s not adapting to apps and streaming services that have taken a bit out of its viewership and they haven’t replaced the younger viewers. The older viewers are still there but they haven’t [brought in] younger viewers. I think there was an opportunity there for them to have done a better job of anticipating and investing more in apps and websites. So it’s a tougher industry to get into in some regards. [when I was hired] they wanted you to have a degree in meteorology and have a certification. But that matters less now.
Q: How has the transition into teaching been?
A: Well because it was my first teaching gig, it was a little stressful at times and I have felt the weight of wanting [my] students to succeed, which is tough because it’s not just about the job you do. You want them to do well and that’s tough.
Q: I saw that you recently went and spoke with Schenectady High School students as well.
A: Yup, I still love going into schools. It is not hard to get a meteorologist to talk about the weather. It’s hard to get us to shut up about it.
Q: You mentioned that TV stations could be better at adapting. How are you trying to prepare your students for that world?
A: Well, now social media is its own career field. Businesses have whole social media departments. It’s opening new doors, as TV constricts, there are new opportunities.
Q: Are many of your students graduate students?
A: Some have their high school diplomas or their GEDs. But a lot of them are college grads. I came here as a college grad. We get some older students who are interested in trying a new career field. One of my night students is a coach at a local school. He’s been producing a mini-sportscast with a buddy of his for years and he wanted to get better at it and he wanted to take it to the next level.
Q: What’s the best career advice you’ve received over the years?
A: I used to think you could get good at one thing and that you could then build a career out of that. I no longer believe that. I think it’s much better to be diversified and have multiple skills in your back pocket.
Q: Would you want to go back into working as a meteorologist full time?
A: I’m not sure. I’ve given that a lot of thought. I keep waiting because I feel like local TV is such an important service, I just keep waiting for something to replace it or do it better. As it stands right now, I need job security for me to move forward with my life at all. I don’t believe I would ever get that in television. I still love it, which is why I’m happy to do it independently here, although it would be nice to get paid for it. But more importantly, I need job security and I need to know that doing a good job matters.
Q: What’s your next move? Are you going to stay at the New School for awhile?
A: At least part-time. But I’m actively working on figuring that out right now. I’m hoping to hear back [from] a consulting firm this week, which would be a slightly different pivot. They wanted to use my presentation skills to help explain new health care regulations and changes. Taking the complex and making it easier to boil down: that is right up my alley.
Q: I saw that and you’re still getting lots of [engagement] with the forecasts on Facebook.
A: It’s interesting because it’s an unpaid hobby at this point. It’s still something I enjoy. I don’t know how long I’ll do it but the fact that it’s still got a following kinda makes me want to keep doing it. Because I feel connected to that whole community.
Q: Anything else I missed or that you want followers to know?
A: Just that at times, through the past two to three years, the support of my fans, while at times it has hurt because it doesn’t matter [to the stations], it did matter a lot. I’ve been very grateful for their support.