Milwaukee Talks: Channel 4 meteorologist Jesse Ritka
Jesse Ritka, the weekend morning meteorologist on WTMJ Channel 4, calls herself a morning person. And that's good, because the 27-year-old Minnesota native – but rabid Packers fan – finds that she can let personality shine through in her sunrise forecasts.
A self-proclaimed math nerd, Ritka loves the teaching side of meteorology, getting out and speaking to schools, and particularly showing girls that science can be cool. Ritka joined the "Live at Daybreak" team in February 2011, but in that short time she's used social media to connect with viewers and has even taught her four weather colleagues a thing or two.
We caught up with Ritka over coffee to talk about Siri, growing up in Vikings Country and why predicting snowfalls is her favorite part of her job. Enjoy this latest Milwaukee Talks.
OnMilwaukee.com: When you came up in the news business, you didn't have the luxury of focusing only on meteorology, right?
Jesse Ritka: In South Dakota, I was reporter, photographer, editor, writer and meteorologist. Hey, it was great experience.
OMC: That experience has had you circling around Wisconsin until you finally got here. Kind of like a tornado, actually.
JR: That's a good analogy. I love the Midwest. I was born in Minnesota, but let me make this clear: I'm a Packers fan. My mom is from Manitowoc.
OMC: Is that true, or do you just have to say that?
JR: Yes. I'm serious. My husband is a Vikings fan, so twice a year, we don't talk. I've got a picture I can show you from third grade, wearing a Packers shirt.
OMC: OK, sorry to interrupt. Tell me the rest of the story.
JR: I went to college at Iowa State, circled around to South Dakota and made it back to Wisconsin. I only worked (in TV) in Sioux Falls before here, and I was honestly thinking I wouldn't get the job in Milwaukee when I sent my tape to TMJ. I expected I'd get to Green Bay first and see how it goes. When they called me up for an interview, it was really fast and I wasn't expecting it.
OMC: You still do some non-weather stories on Channel 4, but weather is obviously your passion, right?
JR: I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist since seventh grade. I initially wanted to be an actress, because my parents are both communications teachers and really involved in community theater. I wasn't getting the leads in plays, so I wondered what was right for me. I was really good in math and science, and I thought this might be it. I went down that path to set myself up for this. I chose Iowa State because I didn't know if I wanted to go into TV or into research, because I had a love for math. I worked at a private forecasting firm, and then I got an internship on TV side of things, which is a lot more "me." I got a journalism minor, because I thought it might give me an edge. Now, I've been lucky to do positive stories, science stories and weather stories.
OMC: How have you changed as a meteorologist since you first got to Milwaukee? As a viewer, you seem more polished.
JR: Oh yeah, my nerves when I first got here – going from market 100-plus to market less than 35 – that's a pretty big jump in the television world. I was very nervous when I first started. Now I can let my personality come through. The comfort level helped me relax.
OMC: I get the sense you're a funny person. Do you let that part of you exist on the air?
JR: Silly or punny? I like to have fun. I like to let some of the nerd side of me show, which can sometimes come off as funny. When you're talking about a serious event, you completely close that off. But last winter, I almost got bored. You have to come up with something to keep people interested. That's why I'm never going to go to California. They only give you a certain amount of time to say it's sunny and 70, whereas here, you're pretty much guaranteed a full two minutes to do a weather report.
OMC: Why is weather on TV so detailed? Do people really need to know the depth of information that you provide?
JR: Part of it is credibility. Anybody can just look at the weather service and see that it's 40 and sunny. At least with me, I like to put some of the science in there, because then you establish with people that have the education, the science background, that they can trust that your forecast will be relatively accurate. I pride myself when I have a week-out forecast and I nail the temperature. Especially when it comes to severe weather situations. Tornados, for example, are extremely hard to predict.
OMC: Is that what separates you from, say, Siri?
JR: Don't get me started on Siri! Are you really going to trust a computer or your local meteorologist who knows the local microclimate of Milwaukee, of southeastern Wisconsin, who's telling you the lake is going to have an impact on our temperatures, and no, we're not going get quite to 100.
OMC: So Siri is close enough, but ...
JR: Siri can be in the ballpark, but to be meteorologically accurate, it's within three degrees. And when it comes to the timing of snow and rain, I don't think she's got it. Will it be a messy commute home, for example?
OMC: Do you think the presentation of weather on TV is outdated? Do people wait around for your forecast? And how has technology changed things for you?
JR: Twitter wasn't a big thing in South Dakota. Here, there's such a social media calling. People want it and use it. I think it's another way to be interactive with people, but I think technology has helped out because I know on certain days when it's going to be rainy, it's a lot easier to take out my radar app, draw on it, and tweet it. But it doesn't reach people like TV does. One of those most popular things on our website is the seven-day planner, and the video weather forecast. Those are updated at least four times a day.
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We watch Channel 4 every morning and Jesse does a great job! What a cool job....you only have to say there's a 50% chance of anything....rain...snow...sun...clouds....and you have it covered.
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