The weather report
By, Sergio Burns
Waiting on the sun. Time spent wrapped up against winter’s icy cold, our hair flattened by spring showers, bathed in sunshine in summer or, more often, disappointed, consoling ourselves with the subtle colours of autumn…
May and June 2018 have been – let’s say it – sun-kissed. We’ve been drinking in clear blue skies beneath a huge orange wheel of heat. A prolonged spell of glorious warm weather, heavens streaked crimson and mimosa against charcoal at sunset.
We are obsessed, for good reason, by the weather in Ayrshire.
But, if you want to know what is going to happen, climatically, day to day, ask an expert. Kilmarnock-born weather presenter, and meteorological broadcaster Kirsty McCabe, for example. Throwing warm fronts and heatwaves at us like rose petals… hopefully…
“The weather is not an exact science,” Kirsty warned when she spoke to Ayrshire Magazine. “So, we have to make sure we are across it as best we can. I mean over the past few decades we’re now good at saying what is going to happen in the next four or five days, it used to be what is going to be happening over the next one or two days, we are getting better.”
At the other end of the telephone line I can hear the new addition to the family, a girl, born on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2018. The sound of ‘snuffling’, Kirsty insists, is not her and laughs. Married to South African architect Renato Marchio, McCabe and her husband now have two boys, Ethan and Logan, and a girl, Ava.
“Over the years, I have worked for pretty much every TV channel, managed to get through all the national broadcasters and a few international ones,”She revealed when I asked how difficult it was to juggle family with work commitments? “When I joined, BBC weather was… 24/7, you were doing hourly nights, weekends, Christmas, and that was part of the reason…I changed. When I worked for GMTV, although I was always doing early shifts… it was only during the week, and it was always an early. That really helped. But, you are doing shift work, and there is no…strict pattern to it. You’ll feel a little bit jet-lagged. So, it is quite nice to be doing more of a fixed pattern although setting an alarm clock for half three in the morning – not fun. We do a lot of early (shifts). The other problem was when I worked at ITV we did a lot of outside broadcasts. So a lot more travel involved at short notice. You’ve got : ‘Oh could you be up there at Fort William tomorrow’, and all this stuff, which is lovely when you don’t have a family.”
There are more baby sounds, and Kirsty’s gentle voice soothing her child as she nurses and feeds her…
“But once you have a family,” She continues. “It is quite hard to fit that in, so that was when I went freelance and, and that’s when I started working for Channel 5 and Sky. Then for a while I worked at the weather channel. We had a UK branch for a while and that was brilliant because that was Monday to Friday, nine till five. But unfortunately they closed down their London office. Back to a bit of freelancing, and now I am a sort of staff member at Sky, which is lovely because I get to present the weather and also work as weather producer, so it is a little bit behind the scenes.”
Raised in Kilmarnock, Kirsty attended Annanhill Primary school and Grange Academy (have you noticed the high calibre of people who are former students of Grange Academy? Imagine a smiling emoji). From here she secured a place at Edinburgh University, where she was awarded a first class honours in Geophysics.
“I remember sitting in the school library and looking through books on possible careers,” She explained her subject choice. “It just really stuck out, partly because I didn’t know what it meant, and I quite liked the fact that no one did either. It had real life implications. I didn’t want to do medicine or law but I wanted to do something science-based, with this you could look at earthquakes, volcanoes or the oil industry. But I had environmental aspirations when I was younger… I wanted to save the world, so I thought… I could learn something that would come in useful. I haven’t yet got round to saving the world…”
I suggest there is still time. Her laughter is engaging and she is quick to add:
“I was only around 12, & I thought yeah, that’s what I want to do, that’s what I want to study.”
Geophysics proved to be an excellent choice and having excelled at Edinburgh she then spent an ‘exciting’ summer at NASA before continuing her studies at Oxford University. Here she became involved in a climatic project in Santorini, the largest island of a small circular archipelago about 200 km or 120 miles southeast of mainland Greece.
“I was reading New Scientist magazine and they were looking for editorial interns,” she explained her next move. “I always really loved studying English at school as well. I saw that, and I thought you know actually I am not sure what I am doing with the science side of things, I will go and spend a few months in London at the New Scientist, see what I think. I went there and I absolutely loved it. At the end of the three months they offered me a job as a sub-editor,… so I got in touch with Oxford and said I am not coming back. I think you know deep down whether or not what you want to do, and at that point I knew I didn’t want to stay in academia anymore, that I was enjoying working in the media.”
The link with the New Scientist soon led to another opportunity, and Kirsty McCabe’s journey into weather presenting and meteorological broadcasting was underway.
“There was an advert in the New Scientist, in their job section,” She explained. “It was actually the Met Office with the BBC who were looking for some broadcast meteorologists. Up until that point you either were a meteorologist who wanted to become a presenter, or a presenter who wanted to get the meteorological training to become a weather presenter. This was the first time they were looking for people who had either skill sets, you weren’t a presenter, you weren’t a meteorologist, but you did have to have a strong science background. Obviously you had to have physics and maths to quite a high level because when you are studying meteorology there is a lot of thermodynamics, it is not for the faint hearted. I applied for it, went along and my interview was actually on camera as an audition. I had to, there on the spot, do a weather forecast without any knowledge of what I was talking about. Obviously, did well enough that they could see the potential.”
She pauses, I wait. This ambitious, strong-willed and talented woman, holding an interview while tending to her baby. An impressive feat of multi-tasking.
“At the same time,” She took up the story again. “Because I was officially employed by the Met Office, I was based at the BBC Weather Centre where I was training on screen, on how to present the weather. Start off on the red button, not many folk will see you, so then you get a little bit more confident, then you work up to News 24 as it was known at the time, BBC News channels and then doing BBC One and Countryfile. Working your way up through all the different channels as you get more experienced. You start off with recordings before they let you on live TV. You can get your startled rabbit expression out the way, and yeah that was a complete change. It was thanks to a friend at the New Scientist, held up the magazine and went : ‘Well look, you should do that’. I think he was half joking, but part of me thought do you know I would love to do that, so I did”
It is obvious Kirsty McCabe is a proud, loving mother of three, a wife who is both intelligent and pretty. But don’t let any of that fool you, she is a strong, smart lady, with a steely determination, ready and prepared to deal with any challenge thrown at her. And, if you thought presenting the weather was an easy two minutes…
“There is quite a lot of preparation going on, “She explains when I ask about what goes on behind the scenes. “One of the things is to get camera ready which unfortunately, for women, takes a wee bit longer than it does for men. Make up… and deciding what to wear… takes a good few minutes. If I am coming in in the morning, then you have got to get up to speed with what is happening with the weather. You’ll have a chat to whoever is coming off shift, have a look at the met office computer models, and see what is actually going on and basically get an idea what the weather has been doing, what the weather is going to be doing, (or) if anything significant has happened over night. Not just UK weather, we have the European and world weather, so we have to be on top of everything that is happening. Then basically putting together the graphics to help you.”
For a microsecond she falls silent, then reminds us that, unlike newsreaders, weather presenters have no auto-cues, there are no scripts to work from and continues:
“Making sure that you know what you want to say. Although there is not a script, you have to have a rough idea of what weather story you want to tell. So,you have to think about what graphics are going to help you get the message across. We do different broadcasts, though there will be live weather… we do a lot of recordings in between the live. There will be ski reports during the winter, pollen reports during summer, a whole load of other extra weather elements on Sky. For example, if you have a look, a whole load of broadcasts on digital services as well as the live ones in the morning. There is a lot going on and the ease of access through the interactive services as well, and on the website. Have to keep an eye on the actual weather, have a look at the observations, have a look at the rain, you know the rainfall.”
She goes on to tell me that while weather presenters (theoretically) start with around two minutes, if news reports overshoot you may have only 90 seconds to say everything you want to. In addition, you can have someone in your ear telling you you are running out of time, while simultaneously trying to speak to the camera and beyond that to your audience. Running over time is the dark dread of every meteorological broadcaster.
But she sounds content, despite the stress of the job, the shift patterns. With such a busy and successful career crammed into a relatively short space of time, I wanted to know what is left for Kirsty McCabe to do?
“I think I’ve still to find the perfect mix of being a parent and working,” She laughed again. “Still juggling that. It would be nice if I could combine weather and travel, if anyone is looking for somebody to visit lots of places around the world, and comment on the weather. A new travel programme, I would be up for that as well. Take the family with me. Friends that we met when I worked at the weather channel, we’ve got a little project in the pipeline at the moment which may include my acting and singing. Watch this space on that one. I have a few ideas up my sleeve at the moment. But at the moment I am on maternity leave, so focusing on enjoying the summer if we get some more nice weather like we have had recently. Enjoying summer with the family before going back to work in the office.”
For over a decade Kirsty McCabe has presented and produced national and international weather broadcasts for the UK’s major television, radio and digital platforms. She has worked for BBC, ITV, Channel 5 and Sky News. She was the Senior Meteorologist and presenter for the Weather Channel’s UK office. The Kilmarnock-born presenter and broadcaster also writes about the weather and science for publications such as the Huffington Post, and was the world’s first Meteorologist in Residence for the London-based, Marriot Hotel County Hall.
She was also keen to offer advice to those who aspired to follow her into the profession.
“I think you have to be passionate about the weather,” she told me thoughtfully. “There are a lot of people who just want to be on TV. I think you have to have a real passion for weather because that will come across. And, then the boring side of it is, you will need to do the sciences, you need to get physics especially to understand the thermodynamics of the atmosphere if you want to do a good job at it. I mean there are presenters out there who don’t have the meteorological background and there are those that do, and I think, often, you can tell the difference. It is good to have the grounding and the science and do the Met Office qualification, and then go for it. If you love the weather and you love communicating that to an audience then it’s a really great job. Get work experience if you can, it is quite tricky. I know that certainly when I worked at the BBC it is very hard to get work experience. If you can manage it then it really is, it’s a great career as long as you don’t mind the shift work, that is the other thing. Getting used to working all kinds of hours. Sometimes that kind of work is kind of nice, you can go to the shops when everyone else is a work.”
She admits to missing Ayrshire, and still refers to Kilmarnock as home. She gets back as often as possible and tells the story of one of her boys who refers to the sands at Irvine as ‘Grandma’s beach’. He also names Irvine as his favourite holiday destination, even though the family have travelled extensively.
Ayrshire’s weather presenter has worked hard for her career and deserves every recognition and accolade. She has ideas for travel shows which connect the weather with global destinations, and is also working on a project which may her involve her in acting and singing.
This, of course, is Kirsty McCabe, and, for her, anything is just about possible.