Calgary meteorologist David Spence admits he’s probably well known in the city.
Just don’t call him a celebrity.
“I hate that word,” Spence said.
“I consider myself well known. Let’s put it that way.”
Despite the fact David Spence is one of the go-to television weather forecasters in Calgary, he downplayed his popularity. He’s said celebrity implies being “above the ordinary guy.”
“So yes, I’m well known, but I don’t want to be thought of as a celebrity,” he said.
Spence just celebrated 40 years in broadcasting, most with CTV Calgary (CFCN). He made a quiet mention of it on Twitter.
But Spence hasn’t always been a meteorologist. Like many broadcast beginnings, Spence started spinning records and worked his way up from there.
David Spence: The Early Years
Back in the late 1970s, Spence had become disillusioned with his time at the University of Victoria. He reached out to a high school teacher with experience in broadcasting who suggested he might give that career a shot.
Spence, with the help of his former teacher, produced a handful of demo tapes and sent them to radio stations on Vancouver Island and soon he landed his first gig.
On Aug. 13, 1979, Spence flipped the switch at 2 p.m. and played Sister Golden Hair by America at a station in Campbell River, British Columbia.
“That’s how it started,” Spence said.
Spence was a radio DJ for about eight months before tiring of swapping vinyl on a daily basis. He wanted to switch over to news.
“So, the company I was working for gave me an opportunity to do that,” he said.
It meant a move to Courtenay, B.C. Spence would stay there only for a couple months before Kamloops came calling in 1980. He only stayed there for a few months, too.
“Somebody in Calgary had heard me in Kamloops and said, ‘why don’t you come to Calgary?’”
Calgary lands David Spence
Spence started off at CJAY92 in 1981 doing news. At that time CJAY, CFCN TV (now CTV) and CFCN radio were all in the same building (they are once again today.)
That’s where the weather journey began.
“They needed someone to fill in on weather. In a hurry,” Spence said, adding that the “backup guy” had just taken a job in Edmonton and then-weatherman Don Wood was going on vacation.
“So, the news director just basically pointed at me and said, ‘you’re doing it.’”
Spence said he had to get a haircut and a couple new suits to fill in for a couple weeks while Wood was on leave.
He would continue to fill in for a couple years. Then Spence left for Winnipeg for another couple years.
When he returned to Calgary, CTV had launched an 11 a.m. show and they needed someone to do weather every day. He got that job. Then it eventually turned into the 6 p.m. broadcast.
That was back in 1991.
Weatherman, but not yet a meteorologist
Spence remembered the biggest change between being a DJ and moving into news was being overwhelmed with information.
“And at that time, there was one teletype, you know, and it would just constantly turn out stuff and in. And you would have to take it and rewrite it,” Spence said. They had a couple of community reporters, too.
“I went from being a guy who said this is the time and temperature to all of a sudden having to deal with this incredible amount of information with very little experience in doing so. I found it overwhelming for a while.”
In making the switch to weather, Spence admits it wasn’t his initial intention.
“But I grew to love it pretty fast. I found it very interesting,” he said.
Spence explained that initially you were essentially a weather reporter – not a meteorologist. You’d make the phone call to the Environment Canada weather office and they would tell you what was happening.
“And you pretty much repeated what they said on the air,” he said.
LISTEN BELOW FOR DAVID SPENCE’S MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT FROM THE PAST 40 YEARS
Spence said he’d made a handful of friends who were in weather and they began teaching him the basics. It made him more interested in forecasting.
It wasn’t until 2000, when he’d received word that Environment Canada was shutting down its Calgary office in 2004. It was replaced by a 900 line that cost $2.15 per minute for a forecast generated in Rimouski, Quebec, Spence said.
Spence saw an opportunity, so he enrolled at Mississippi State University and studied meteorology.
“Ever since, been pretty much doing our own forecasts, reporting our own findings, instead of repeating other people’s stuff,” he said.
Evolution of weather forecasting and delivery
Spence begins the construction of his weather forecast during the day, from home. He looks at 10 different models and finds a consensus of what they’re telling him. Then, he determines if that’s realistic given current conditions. Spence also takes into consideration Calgary’s terrain.
Terrain influence is one of many things that have changed since Spence first started delivering the weather back in the 1990s.
As he mentioned, the first forecasts he delivered were essentially just regurgitation of the Environment Canada forecast from the Calgary office.
He called those forecasts and weather reporting “primitive” compared to today.
Spence said the technology that’s available today helps them deliver weather forecasts with exceptional accuracy. Today they’re able to take into consideration things like: air pressure, ground temperature, temperature at all levels of the atmosphere, wind direction at all levels, water vapour in the air – and the terrain.
“So, there’s a lot to consider. And yes, there are a lot of different models,” he said.
When he first started, the resolution of the models broke areas into 100 kilometre squares, which means that it would divide the atmosphere and forecast for those areas. Now that’s down to four-kilometre resolutions.
“I think within a year we’re going to see two-and-a-half kilometre resolutions done on a routine basis. So the tighter those resolutions, the better the forecast is going to be,” Spence said.
Social media’s role in telling the weather story
Sure, there are advances in the technology of weather forecasting, but Spence said that doesn’t mean you’re delivering the best story.
“The bottom line is whether you have today’s technology or the technology from 1981, you’re telling the story. And if you can tell that story effectively,” Spence said.
“That’s all that matters really, as long as people understand what you’re talking about and what they can expect with the weather.”
Spence forecasting extends beyond his newscasts. He’s a popular Twitter figure in Calgary, not only delivering the up-to-the-second weather for Calgary and southern Alberta, but also to connect with people who are interested in every passing storm, or sharing the size of their hail.
“It used to be, when it was television pretty much all by itself, you put your message out there and people came to you,” he said.
“People don’t come to you any more, you have to go to where they are. So, they’re on here.”
Spence raised his smartphone.
“This is my biggest competitor. Now, Paul Dunphy (Global) is not my biggest competitor. This is my biggest competitor.”
Spence said not everyone uses it as well as they could, but it’s important in reaching people to give them the information they need to prepare themselves for the weather that’s ahead.
Delivering Calgary’s weather: “I’m not done yet”
David Spence said he has a retirement date in mind, but he won’t share it. He did say he’s not leaving any time soon.
He’s already been delivering the weather to Calgarians for nearly 30 years and he enjoys the challenge.
“I like the challenge of getting it right. I love the challenge of getting it right when other people get it wrong. I’m competitive that way,” Spence said.
It helps that Calgary’s weather audience is a good one to work for, too.
“I think they recognize the fact that it can be difficult to do this, and they have tremendous patience when you don’t necessarily nail it every day. People understand that. So, I appreciate that very much,” he said.
Still, he takes it seriously. Delivering an accurate forecast is critical to Spence. He knows that people base daily decisions on it.
“What you say on TV affects everybody. That’s the one thing in a newscast that affects every single viewer. Not every story affects every single viewer. the weather does,” Spence said.
“And people base their decisions on the weather forecast. It might be a simple decision, like, do I wear a jacket to my 10 o’clock LiveWire interview or not? Or it could be something more serious? Like, do I make that trip on the highway with a snowstorm?
“So yeah, there’s a huge responsibility.”