Behind the scenes of the very public life of Columbus' favorite forecaster
Behind the scenes of the very public life of Columbus' favorite forecaster
It was a morning like any other morning. It was the late 1980s and life was good for Channel 4's longtime weatherman Jym Ganahl and his fellow news team members, including anchors Doug Adair and Mona Scott and legendary sportscaster Jimmy Crum. His station, WCMH, was ruling the airwaves, and Ganahl was enjoying the feeling of success as he gazed into the mirror that morning, reflecting on his incredible fortune.
Suddenly, he says, he heard a voice-as clear as if someone was standing next to him. The voice told Ganahl that his celebrity status was not for his benefit. "[People] are going to come to you because they feel like they know you," the voice told Ganahl, "and I want you to do everything you can for everybody that comes to you, no matter what, and you will be taken care of."
Ganahl admits the story might sound "loony tunes," as he puts it, but now, some 30 years later, the man who says he once briefly considered entering the priesthood sees the moment as life-changing, an awakening that shaped the rest of his life and career. "I took that to heart," says Ganahl.
There's a good reason for Ganahl's contemplative mood. In a matter of hours, he'll be on the air, giving his final broadcast as a full-time meteorologist. He hesitates to use the word "retiring"-after all, you don't just close the book on a 50-year career in television, 37 of which have been spent in Columbus. But he knows this too is another life-changing event. And this time, an entire city is sharing the moment with him.
"We're not letting him retire"
It's a fall-like 74 degrees on Sept. 1, perfect for high school football, when Jym Ganahl's last official broadcast as chief meteorologist for NBC4 begins. The jovial weatherman comes across on TV like an old friend, and that's just how he thinks of his Columbus viewers after being in their lives for nearly four decades. As the saying goes, Ganahl never met a stranger, so instead of goodbye, the tone on this night is one of celebration. Ganahl doesn't like to dwell on unpleasant things.
The words "Celebrating 50 years of forecasts! Congratulations Jym!" flash on screen. (His mother named him Jym-with a "y"-because she didn't want him to be called James. The nuns in Catholic school still called him James.) Ganahl's last weather broadcast is timed to the 50th anniversary of his first, when he was just a 17-year-old weather wonk in Iowa. Through retrospectives and well-wishes, gifts and cake, nobody talks about not having Ganahl around-at least not until Dave Maetzold shows up. The former sports director was let go by WCMH in 2004, but he appears at the 11 p.m. broadcast looking like the kid who snuck past security (which he kind of did; the station bosses are all home at this late hour). Assessing the retirement gift-hockey skates-that Ganahl received from his coworkers, Maetzold says: "We're going to have to skate a lot now that we're both retired."
News anchor Colleen Marshall corrects him: "We're not letting him retire! He's going to be back tomorrow night!"
Which is true. Ganahl has agreed to continue to appear on "Football Friday Night" with sports director Jerod Smalley for the rest of the high school season, as well as make periodic station appearances and occasionally pinch-hit for Ben Gelber or any of the station's other meteorologists when they need a night off. You just don't get rid of Jym Ganahl that easily.
But it is, as Marshall says later, the end of an era, one that has at times defined Columbus local news and has included some very public ups and downs. Not that you'd know it, the way Ganahl tells it. Call it relentless optimism or selective memory, but for Jym Ganahl, the forecast is always sunny.
Grandpa on TV
Despite knowing for months that his last broadcast was coming and having 50 years of practice, Ganahl appears unprepared for the occasion. There's no rehearsed speech, no emotive soliloquy. When he first takes to the air at 5:07 p.m., Dave Mazza, who joined Storm Team 4 in 2012, asks Ganahl how weather forecasting has changed in 50 years. Nostalgia and weather are Ganahl's perfect storm. "I'm going to sound like the grandpa on the front porch in a rocking chair," he says before launching into, "When I was a young guy doing weather on TV … we didn't have radar, we didn't have satellite. We only had an AP report twice a day of what was going on in the country."
He teases Mazza about forecasting today as Tropical Storm Hermine plays out live on the Vipir Radar screen behind them. "You can see the swirl of the storm; you can see the watches and the warnings! This is easy for you," Ganahl says to his younger cohort.
Ganahl's notorious lack of polish and pretense, both on-air and off, and the not-insignificant fact that he obviously loves his job and is very good at it, has helped the 67-year-old achieve both viewer loyalty and remarkable longevity in a business that casts off talent with the vagaries of ratings, Q Scores and changes in ownership. At WCMH, he has outlasted nine general managers, 33 news directors and countless rounds of firings and layoffs. WCMH has been good to him. Station management in the early '90s very publicly stood by him as he overcame legal problems and an addiction to painkillers. He signed a six-year contract in 2012, but began to reassess after developing congestive heart failure three years ago. The chronic condition causes him to retain fluid, and, at times, he clearly labors to breathe.
If you're a regular viewer of Jym Ganahl, and more to the point, even if you're not, you probably already know Ganahl's story. At the age of 17, he wasn't happy with his local weatherman in Waterloo, Iowa, so with the confidence of youth, he went to the station and said he could do better-and they let him. After 13 years as KWWL weatherman in Waterloo, a job he kept through college, he came to Columbus in 1979 and was joined two years later by Ben Gelber, his weather brother from another mother. They've been comparing themselves to a certain dynamic duo for years. "[Now] we're just an older version of Batman and Robin," says Gelber, the Boy Wonder of the tandem.
They take pride in their predictive prowess, boasting that they've been rated as the most accurate TV weather team by WeatheRate.com, an online independent weather forecast verification company, six of the last seven years. "They hired me that other year," jokes Mazza.
When Ganahl started in weather broadcasting 50 years ago, it was so primitive it probably shouldn't even have been on the air. They stuck magnets on a map of the country and made educated guesses based on barely more than a wet finger in the air. "I just read the national weather service weather observations every hour to my west. If Des Moines had something, I figured out we might get something, too," he says.
It wasn't until two decades later that Ganahl first got the benefit of radar in Columbus. To compile a forecast now, he studies more stats than a fantasy football enthusiast. He consults computer models of clouds, wind speeds, changes in barometric pressure and potential energy, among other things. It's a routine he even repeats at home on his days off. Ganahl can't get enough of this stuff. "High pressure is like a bubble: Clouds fall away from it, so it's fair weather. Low pressure is a bowl: Clouds fill it up, so it's stormy weather. Weather just alternates bubbles and bowls," he explains, sounding like the middle school science teacher that he plans to soon become. With his new free time, he hopes to teach math and science at St. Agatha in Upper Arlington.
"People know exactly who I am"
Ganahl starts his final forecast at 5:44 p.m., in his element, making small talk at the main news desk with 5 p.m. co-anchors Ellie Merritt and Mike Jackson. "Everybody in this town is like a family friend to me, and I know everybody and I appreciate how everybody's treated me so very well," Ganahl says.
He continues talking as he makes his way off-camera to his next shot, telling a folksy story about buying "Frozen" and "Spider-Man" fishing poles for two of his nine grandkids. He is slightly out of breath when he reappears on-camera in front of the weather green screen. TV news today requires that broadcasters hustle to different backdrops on the cramped newsroom floor between shots. The women, with no suit jackets to hide their microphone packs, hold them in place on their thighs with Ace bandages, like really unsexy garters.
During commercial breaks, Ganahl and his co-workers chit-chat like it's any other day. Merritt grabs a selfie with Ganahl. Besides the broadcasters, there is no one else on the station floor. Camera operators and directors have been replaced by robotic cameras the team calls the "Storm Troopers." They pivot silently and without warning between shots. They also contain the anchors' teleprompters. Ganahl laughs, recalling times the cameras turned too soon, leaving anchors craning for their scripts. It's one more reason he's glad that weathermen ad-lib.
There is no audible countdown to going on-air, or any ambient noise of any kind. For a TV set, it's eerily quiet. The control room communicates through the team's earpieces to give the countdown to air or, in Ganahl's case, tell him to wrap up an anecdote.
Ganahl finishes his last forecast talking about bugs. "The overnight low tonight is 56, and I get the benefit of my loud insects that I love: the katydids, the cicadas and the crickets."
Marshall rejoins the team that evening to introduce a retrospective of Ganahl's career that is full of affection and retro fashion. "For 37 years, he kept us informed and entertained. He loves science, he loves weather, and he loves to tell the weather story, and we have all benefited from that," she narrates.
Next to Gelber, Marshall has worked with Ganahl the longest, joining the station in 1984 as a general assignment reporter. Marshall says Ganahl sees the good in everybody and is always happy. "It's almost odd," she says.
"It's not an image. It's not a persona. It's like you're sitting in a diner. If he's in front of a thousand people or having a conversation with two people, he's that down-home, avuncular guy that you want him to be," she says.
Ganahl agrees with this assessment, saying: "I think people know exactly who I am." At commercial breaks, all the other broadcasters visibly relax a little. Not Ganahl; he's already relaxed. He calls Colleen Marshall "Pumpkin."
"There have been celebrities that I've met over the years where I've been disappointed, but you're never disappointed when you walk away from a conversation with Jym Ganahl," Marshall says.
Over the years, some people have taken their sense of familiarity with Ganahl too far. When one fan kept waiting outside the station for him, Ganahl says law enforcement got involved. But Ganahl, who admits he can be naïve, says some of these super fans (some might call them stalkers) have been good. Among the items he's received in the mail are lingerie, $500 in cash and a half-carat diamond.
Ganahl's openness extends to discussing his addiction to painkillers in the early '90s with other addicts when they come to him for advice. He tries to offer support and warn of relapse signs. He keeps a clipping of an Associated Press story in his scrapbook: "TV meteorologist pleads guilty to drug charges." It was just something he had to go through, he says.
"I can't imagine not doing ?the weather"
After Marshall concludes the scripted retrospective of Ganahl's career, Mike Jackson prompts him for comment. "I can't imagine not doing the weather," Ganahl says, warning that he'll likely keep providing forecasts for his followers on social media. ?It's just what he does. "I'm sure I've got the forecast for winter coming up because you know how much I love winter!" he says. (Somehow, everything with Ganahl, who famously builds an ice rink in his Plain Township backyard each winter, comes back to snow.)
Despite his seemingly cheery interactions with fans on social media, he offers a blunt assessment of the social media revolution. "I honestly think it's the anti-Christ," he says.
Ganahl doesn't mind when a fan interrupts him out at dinner, but he has no tolerance for online trolls. Sometimes, he could use his own filter as well. Something he wrote in 2012 got him in a mess of trouble with his co-worker, morning weatherman Bob Nunnally, who took the extreme step of filing a libel lawsuit in response to the statement, which was never publicly revealed. The suit eventually was settled, and neither man will discuss the kerfuffle now. Nunnally didn't respond to a request for comment. Ganahl says they're close now and hugged recently.
For the 6 p.m. broadcast, Ganahl is presented with a lemon winter wonderland cake made by former NBC4 reporter Tricia Gale. "Holy cow, there's an ice rink on that!" Ganahl notices.
He told his colleagues that he didn't want a retirement watch, so instead they got him a pair of ice skates signed by members of the Blue Jackets. "Now I can't wear them," Ganahl exclaims upon noticing they're autographed.
At 6:27 p.m., Ganahl signs off the air to a round of applause. His colleagues gather around him, waiting for him to make a few remarks. Marshall says quietly: "This is heartbreaking."
Ganahl looks at the small group of staffers and broadcasters and shuffles his feet. "This is wonderful. I don't know what to say … Go do some work."
Before the 11 o'clock news, Ganahl visits a friend in the hospital and takes the cake home to share with his grandchildren. Despite his mugging for the camera about cake, he doesn't eat sweets. He seems to know that viewers would enjoy watching him ask about cake like a kid begging for Halloween candy. Sugar cravings and struggles with his weight-not helped by the 90 pounds of fluid his heart troubles caused him to retain at one point-only make Ganahl more relatable to his viewers. But he doesn't share everything. He is fiercely protective of his family's privacy. And then there's the work prompted by that life-changing voice from so long ago-deeds done, not for publicity, but because, as former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes once said, you pay it forward.
Jym Ganahl met Donald "Donny" Brown about 18 years ago when Lauren Mays, Ganahl's younger daughter, was singing with a group at Whetstone Gardens and Care Center. Brown was in his 40s then, suffering from cerebral palsy. Ganahl made it his mission to get Brown "life experiences." He moved him out of Whetstone, got him an apartment and paid for his care.
After learning what a huge fan of radio Brown was, Ganahl got his friend Joe Boxer at WCOL to give Brown a tour of the station and join them for dinners. Then one day Boxer got a call from Ganahl asking for a big favor. Brown was about to turn 50, and for his birthday he wanted to, as Boxer remembers Ganahl putting it, "see a woman."
And so the TV weatherman and the radio DJ took a disabled man to see his first naked lady at Kahoots. Boxer says it's not the kind of caper he'd agree to for just anyone. "Jym had been there for me, when I had my wisdom teeth pulled and through other hardships. I couldn't tell this amazing friend, 'No.' So I agreed and off we went!" Boxer wrote in an email.
At the club, Ganahl was immediately recognized. Boxer recalls: "From that point on, every time someone recognized Jym, he would deflect it to me and say, 'Oh hi, this is Boxer from 92.3 WCOL!' We laugh to this day because he totally went out of his way to let everyone know who I was so people wouldn't think he was the only media guy visiting a strip club."
Ganahl looks back at his years with Donny Brown as among the best of his life. Brown is now buried in a New Albany cemetery. When Ganahl dies, his final resting place will be next to Brown's.
Mays says this is the real Jym Ganahl. "I think the story of Donny, and Dad's care of him through the duration of his life, is a great illustration of who he is as a person," Mays wrote in an email.
Ganahl's benevolence doesn't end there. He bought a van for a janitor at the station when he learned he had no transportation. He arranged plastic surgery for a woman who was abused. He helped a retired police officer with his mortgage. And there was the family who needed furniture, and another who needed Christmas presents. He keeps his charity quiet-he says has never spoken about it publicly before-and has trusted "providence" to bring people in need to him. He doesn't remember names and says he hasn't kept in touch. "I was told to do it. People came to me, and I needed to be there for them," he says.
Ganahl's daughter says she's warned her father to be careful. She worries that he might be besieged by people looking for a handout. But he says his St. Ganahl days of charity are behind him. He is, after all, retired.
One month after leaving the weather desk, Ganahl admits it's been a hard adjustment. He sees his grandkids often but describes his life as "not very exciting." The bachelor lives alone with his large Maine Coon cat named Rellie. But friends are everywhere as soon as he leaves the house, as people instantly recognize him. "So that's wonderful and that has not changed," he says. "I expect that's going to be a very rewarding part of the rest of my life."
"It's been just wonderful"
After visiting his friend in the hospital, Ganahl is back on the set for his final round of celebration at 11 o'clock. During a second retrospective of his career, Marshall calls Ganahl a "go-to friend," then chides him to better care for his health. Ganahl knows he needs to take care of himself, noting that the average life expectancy for sufferers of congestive heart failure is five years, and he's at least three years in. "That was one of the things that made it OK to quit at 50 … I just have to concentrate more on me now," he says.
After the retrospective, Dave Maetzold pops out to re-gift him the skates. Ganahl's daughters appear on camera after some intense prodding from Marshall, whom they've known all their lives. Ganahl stands with his TV family and his real family and talks about his other family, the loyal viewers: "They've been so important to me, they're like family. I know a million back stories of everybody's life in Central Ohio. It's been just wonderful. Thank you all very, very much."
After the news wraps, there are a few more hugs, but it's late and everyone is ready to go home. Ganahl leaves the WCMH building and walks to the parking lot with his family and coworkers. It's a crisp 64 degrees when Jym Ganahl finally says goodbye. And winter will soon be here.