The Retirements of Sharon Meyer and Tom Messner Forecast the End of an Era in Vermont Media | Media | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Retirements of Sharon Meyer and Tom Messner Forecast the End of an Era in Vermont Media

By

MARC NADEL
  • Marc Nadel

Tom Messner and Ben Frechette couldn't quite agree on Saturday's weather. Seated before a bank of large-screen monitors in the weather office of the NBC5 news studio in South Burlington, the two TV meteorologists went back and forth over a small detail in the weekend forecast for the Thursday evening broadcasts.

Both men predicted rain. But Frechette's outlook was sunnier — or at least partly sunny. Saturday's weather icon in his forecast was a rain cloud obscuring a peek of sun that suggested late-day clearing.

"You really think we're gonna get sun?" Messner asked dubiously. Again they checked the computer forecast model, in which a blob of green oozed its way across northern New York, Vermont and New Hampshire to indicate wet weather throughout the region — but maybe not all day. Messner ran the model a few more times before leaning back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, and turning to his younger colleague.

"You got a coin?" he asked.

Frechette is a relatively new member of the NBC5 First Warning Weather Team. He joined in 2019, the year after his graduation from Northern Vermont University-Lyndon with a bachelor's degree in atmospheric sciences and meteorology.

Messner is ... well, he's Tom effin' Messner.

For 31 years, Messner has been the face not just of NBC5 but also of local TV weather in northern New York and Vermont. Hell, for some he's practically the face of weather itself, perpetually grinning from ear to ear. After Grace Potter and Bernie Sanders, Messner is perhaps the region's most recognizable public personality.

So when Messner, 60, announced his impending retirement in a broadcast last month, he was forecasting a major shift in the weather of Vermont media. Messner's final broadcast is scheduled for Friday, November 26, the day after Thanksgiving. He will broadcast live, one last time, from the tree-lighting ceremony on Burlington's Church Street Marketplace.

Messner's announcement came just months after the retirement of his counterpart at the local CBS affiliate. In June, Sharon Meyer ended her 42-year career at Burlington's WCAX Channel 3.

Meyer, now 64, started behind the scenes at WCAX in 1979 and joined the weather desk in 1986. She replaced original WCAX weather anchor Stuart Hall when he retired in 1990 — the same year Messner joined NBC5, then known as WPTZ NewsChannel 5.

Despite a stark contrast in styles, Messner and Meyer have enjoyed oddly parallel careers covering Vermont's always interesting but rarely life-threatening weather. Just a couple clicks apart on the TV dial, they're two of the most prominent media personalities in the region. They arrived together, will leave together, call each other friends and were inducted into the Vermont Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in the same 2016 ceremony.

Sharon Meyer and Tom Messner - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Sharon Meyer and Tom Messner

"Having a Sharon Meyer and a Tom Messner ... two people with such followings, who are so talented and who stay at their stations for so long, is so rare," said former NBC5 anchor Stephanie Gorin, who retired from broadcasting last year after 26 years. "We got spoiled," she continued. "I don't know of any other market that has had such luck."

Messner's announcement made headlines on both sides of Lake Champlain and even across the U.S. border. In a September 21 piece for the Montréal Gazette lamenting the weatherman's departure, columnist Bill Brownstein dubbed the relentlessly positive Messner "the Ted Lasso of meteorology."

Meyer's farewell occasioned similar and perhaps even more heartfelt fanfare. In a WCAX tribute aired on June 4, she received video messages from a chorus of prominent locals. Among them were Gov. Phil Scott and three former Vermont governors, the state's entire U.S. congressional delegation, WCAX colleagues past and present, actor Rusty DeWees, and, yes, Messner himself.

"Sharon is Vermont," WCAX anchor Darren Perron told Seven Days.

What, then, will Vermont and its TV landscape be without Meyer and Messner?

Colleagues say the pair's departures signal the end of an era in local media.

"They're giants," WCAX news director Roger Garrity said of Meyer and Messner. "I kind of look at them as the last of the breed in small-market television, where people were around for decades at a time."

"Longevity builds familiarity, and familiarity builds trust," said Garrity, who himself has been at WCAX for 34 years. "The trust builds loyalty, and that's what we want: people coming back every day."

In weather as in news, the best way to build a dedicated audience is to tell it like it is. That's something Meyer and Messner have spent decades doing, on screen and off.

Back in the NBC5 studio, Messner and Frechette ultimately opted for a rainy Saturday forecast with no sun.

"That's enough of a difference to affect people's plans," Frechette explained to a reporter. Then, turning to Messner, he asked, "What should it say? 'Scattered showers'?"

Messner smirked and, without skipping a beat, quipped, "How about 'Rain like hell'?"




An Imperfect Storm

Tom Messner - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Tom Messner

Boyishly charming, always upbeat and seemingly ageless, Messner could be Vermont's answer to the late TV icon Dick Clark. Like "America's oldest teenager," he got his start in broadcasting on the radio.

"I don't have a great story about how I got into this like so many weather geeks do, like, 'Oh, I'll never forget the blizzard of '78,'" Messner said in a recent interview at NBC5 studios. "I got into this whole thing completely by accident."

Messner grew up in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., the middle child of five. While attending the College of Wooster in Ohio, he got involved with the campus radio station, first as a disc jockey, then as program director and finally, in his senior year, as general manager.

He graduated with a degree in business economics but took a series of radio jobs after school, eventually landing at a Top 40 station back in Rochester. While there, he noticed an unusual help-wanted ad.

"There was a local TV station that was the dog of the market, just a bad TV station," Messner recalled. "But they needed a weekend weather forecaster."

From left: Tom Messner, Erin Clark, Bob Solarski and Blaine Applegate in the early 1990s - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • From left: Tom Messner, Erin Clark, Bob Solarski and Blaine Applegate in the early 1990s

The station, WROC Channel 8, was so desperate to find a weatherperson that it did something Messner had never seen before: "They held open auditions," he said. "And I got the job."

Messner quickly realized that "I had no idea what I was talking about," he said. Back to school he went, this time for meteorology.

He left the station to study at the State University of New York, Oswego and took a job as the weatherman at what was then WFYF Channel 50, now WWTI, in nearby Watertown, N.Y. There he also wrote, produced and hosted a train-centric children's program called "The TV-50 Kaboose Club."

"The show actually became quite popular," Messner said.

In 1990, "The TV-50 Kaboose Club" won a New York State Broadcasters Association Award. At the ceremony in Saratoga Springs, Messner hobnobbed with the delegation from WPTZ Channel 5, now NBC5, which was then based in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Soon after, he saw that the station was hiring a chief meteorologist. He interviewed and got the job — and, as he put it, "The rest is history."

Well, sort of.

"In fact, he wasn't our first choice," NBC5 anchor and reporter Stewart Ledbetter revealed.

At the time, Ledbetter was WPTZ's news director. Messner was his second-ever hire, he recalled, but only after it became clear that another candidate wouldn't work out.

"We agonized over filling that position," Ledbetter said. "Because ... then and now, it's a critical staff position. It's high-profile, and you hope to build your brand with help from the chief meteorologist. They're super-visible, and we knew it was important. We had to get it right."

Thirty-one years and countless forecasts later, it's safe to say they did. Messner is ubiquitous in Vermont living rooms, whether he's delivering the weather in the studio or, almost as frequently, from state fairs, car shows, music festivals and parades from Burlington to Brattleboro. In one memorable instance, he gave the forecast while standing waist-deep in a ball pit.

For the past three decades, Messner's presence at an event meant it was a big deal — or at least helped it seem like one.

Said Ledbetter, "To call [hiring Messner] a home run would be diminishing the success of it."




Front Woman

Sharon Meyer - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Sharon Meyer

Meyer's route to the WCAX weather desk was similarly fortuitous.

"It doesn't happen this way anymore," she said in an interview near her home in Williston.

In the late 1970s, Meyer was studying to be a veterinarian at the University of Vermont. As part of a senior class, she came to the WCAX studio for a taping of "Across the Fence," the long-running farm and home program that the station coproduces with UVM.

"This light bulb went on, like, Wow, you can actually make a living doing TV," she recalled.

In 1979, Meyer joined the WCAX production department, from which Hall plucked her in 1984 to join the weather desk. Meyer succeeded Hall after he retired six years later and became the station's second-ever weather anchor.

She was also, according to WCAX vice president and general manager Jay Barton, the first woman to lead a Vermont network's weather team. TV news was particularly male-dominated in the 1980s and '90s, he noted.

"So to have the first person in the marketplace who's a female weather leader — and in the most prominent newscasts on our station — that made her stand out," Barton said. But, he added, "She probably would have anyway."

Sharon Meyer at WCAX in 1979 - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Sharon Meyer at WCAX in 1979

Meyer, who grew up outside Boston, described herself as "always a science kid." Her father was a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "So, if I was going to do any reporting, it was always going to be weather," she said.

Unlike Messner, Meyer is not a meteorologist — a title that, according to the American Meteorological Society, requires a specialized bachelor's degree. She did, however, take meteorology courses and has been a member of the AMS since 1988.

Meyer explained that, when she joined the weather team in the 1980s, very few TV weather reporters were actual meteorologists. Local weather reporters would go to the National Weather Service at Burlington International Airport for daily briefs, which they transformed into TV forecasts.

"When I started, you just had a map that you would stick these plastic numbers on," she recalled, chuckling. "I was lucky that I was able to evolve with the technology."

There's an old joke about weather forecasting: It's the rare profession that allows you to be wrong half the time and still get paid. That gag has dated, though, as technological advancements increase the accuracy of forecasting, at least in the short term.

Now, instead of people complaining that the forecast is wrong, Meyer said she tends to hear from people who are upset that the weather isn't what they wanted it to be, as if it were her fault.

"I may look like Mother Nature, but I'm not her," she joked.

Messner noted the same trend. Even in a region with notoriously fickle weather and an array of microclimates, advanced radar and computer algorithms now make it possible to predict, almost to the minute, when and where weather will change. 

"In 1990, the weather [forecast] for the next day was pretty good, and you started to lose quite a bit by day two, day three," he recalled. "Now we can look at a map and say, 'That rain over there will be over here by noon.'

"Things have improved so much," Messner said, "that when it's wrong, you can really get burned."

He remembers the days before green screens and high-tech gizmos such as NBC5's Doppler radar-powered StormTracker system — originally branded as the StormTracker 5000 — ushered in an era of more sophisticated forecasts and presentation. "I was literally using a metal map with magnets: little warm fronts, little cold fronts; Hs for high, Ls for low," he said. "It was really a different time."




High-Pressure System

Stephanie Gorin and Tom Messner - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Stephanie Gorin and Tom Messner

In recent years, WCAX and NBC5 have gone back and forth as the region's most-watched local news outlet, routinely swapping first and second place in the Nielsen ratings. But in 1990, with anchor Marselis Parsons in charge, WCAX was the undisputed king of Vermont's TV news, as it had been for decades.

In staff meetings at Channel 5, "we used to joke that we were Avis," Ledbetter recalled, citing the car rental company's famous "We Try Harder" ad campaigns from the 1970s. "When you're only No. 2, you try harder.

"We tried to have a front line of anchor talent who were engaging and dynamic and likable and different from what viewers saw on Channel 3," Ledbetter continued.

"At the time, Channel 3's slogan was 'Vermont's own,'" Gorin said. "So we were up against a tried-and-true station that people really liked. We were the scrappy underdogs who were not going to settle for No. 2."

"We were trying to figure out a strategy to eat into Channel 3's historic lead," Ledbetter said. "Tom was key to that."

One factor that led Ledbetter to hire Messner was the weatherman's charisma and willingness to do almost anything, on screen or off.

"I still remember the recommendation we received from one of his employers," Ledbetter recalled. "It said, 'Hire this guy. He does it all.'"

The foundation of Messner's celebrity is his drive not just to inform his community but also to engage with it. There's probably not a corner of the region from which Messner hasn't broadcast, and not a major event or good cause that he hasn't publicized by showing up.

"When I think of the two sides of being everywhere, I think two positives come out of it," Messner said. "I like to be able to help out with the community. And here, if you do have a name, you can make a difference. Because it's small, and people are accessible and ... very nice.

"That's always been really important to me," he continued. "So it's been good for whatever organization I've been working with or broadcasting from, and it's also good for the TV station and me, to be perfectly honest."

Tom Messner with Willie Nelson - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Tom Messner with Willie Nelson

"He's worked his butt off," Ledbetter said. "And what you don't see is how many years he would come in early and go to a school that might have been an hour-and-a-half drive away and talk to a fourth-grade class for an hour and get back in his car, go back to the station, put on a suit, and do his five, six, 10 and 11 o'clock shows. That's a level of commitment that you don't find in everyone."

"With Tom, what you see is what you get. He really does smile that much," said Gorin, who succeeded Messner on the weather desk at Channel 50 in Watertown before joining him at Channel 5. "But he also has a serious side. And he took the business of broadcast journalism and television news and meteorology very seriously."

According to Gorin, Messner's years of school visits offer evidence of both his genuine desire to connect with people and his shrewd strategy for building viewership.

"He knew that if you could win the hearts of the kids, you would win the hearts of their parents," she said.




A Warm Spell

Darren Perron and Sharon Meyer - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Darren Perron and Sharon Meyer

If the ever-sunny Messner is Vermont's Dick Clark — or Ted Lasso — the elegant, even-keeled Meyer brings another celebrity to mind.

"I often call her the Martha Stewart of Vermont," said Perron, the WCAX anchor. "Without the jail."

Where Messner commands attention with energy and enthusiasm, Meyer draws in viewers with subtlety and warmth.

"Weather sometimes can be a little in your face," WCAX's Garrity observed. "And Sharon never believed that's what it was all about. She really thought that It's just my job to tell you what's going on, and I'm going to do it as clearly and concisely and accurately as possible."

"I remember the old man, Red Martin, used to say, 'Who, what, when, why and where, and then get off the air,'" Meyer said, referring to Stuart "Red" Martin, who cofounded WCAX in 1954. The Martin family owned the station until 2017, when Atlanta-based Gray Television acquired it.

"She just has that ability to connect with people, that 'Oh, she's like a friend or a sister or a mother,'" Garrity continued of Meyer. "People really have an affection for her."

"Just about every place I go, someone brings up Sharon," Perron agreed. A viewer recently approached him at his gym to chat about Meyer. "He talked to me for probably 15 minutes about everything he remembered about her," he said, "how he loved her and had a crush on her."

From left: Sharon Meyer, Alexandra Marks and Brad Wright, circa 1990 - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • From left: Sharon Meyer, Alexandra Marks and Brad Wright, circa 1990

Like Messner, Meyer cultivated her fan base through a mix of studio work and venturing into the community. In addition to reporting the weather, she regularly produced field segments, including creemee tours, nature highlights and gardening tips in the summer, and foliage treks in the fall. She still does postretirement gardening spots for WCAX with master gardener Charlie Nardozzi.

Meyer credited her predecessor, Hall, with teaching her the weather. "He was the most gracious man ever," she said.

But it was Parsons, she said, who encouraged her to branch out. "He took over as my mentor and added the other part of it, the stories, the features ... that show how people are enjoying the weather or how the weather is affecting them."

While Meyer and Messner have been direct competitors for almost their entire careers, they are also friends. Or at least Messner thinks so.

"It's like two quarterbacks after the game," Messner said. "They hug or shake hands."

"Tom who?" Meyer joked.

Because it's a small market with only so many TV broadcasters, Meyer explained, it's natural to become close with the competition, "because they're the only ones who understand ... what your life is like."

She added that, because she and Messner approached TV with their own distinctive styles, they always had room to be colleagues and competitors.

"I could never out-Messner Messner," she said. "Why would I even try?"

While Messner embraces his public persona — WCAX's Barton called him the "charismatic center of Channel 5" — Meyer tends to be more reserved. You can see the contrast, Meyer suggested, on those occasions when both stations are broadcasting from the same location.

"When we're in public together and people are coming to Tom, he's right there," she said. "And I'd be hiding behind him.

"We just have different personalities," she continued. "He's got the personality for getting out there, and I'm more of a one-on-one person."

"I think we both ended up right where we belonged," Messner said.




The Extended Forecast

Tom Messner - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • Tom Messner

Over the years, both Meyer and Messner have had opportunities to move on to larger markets. In small-market media, that's the typical circle of life: Young talent comes in, hones its chops and moves on to bigger cities after a few years — or burns out.

That pattern makes it all the more remarkable when folks like Meyer and Messner stick around.

"TV is kind of like baseball," said WCAX weather reporter Gary Sadowsky, who's been at the station for 30 years. "You've got the major leagues, and then you've got the minor leagues. We're like a minor league team."

Some years ago, Messner was wooed by a station in Pittsburgh, which is currently the 24th-largest market in the U.S., according to Nielsen. By comparison, Burlington-Plattsburgh is ranked 96.

Messner and his wife, Kate, traveled to the Steel City, where they were wined and dined. On the flight home, Kate posed a question to her husband.

"She asked me, 'Is this your dream job?'" Messner recalled. "And the answer was obvious."

To understand why Messner stayed, you need only see him on a live shoot.

From left: Gib Brown, Willard Scott and Tom Messner - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • From left: Gib Brown, Willard Scott and Tom Messner

On September 29, he was broadcasting from Switchback Brewing in Burlington for an event hosted by Feeding Chittenden, a local nonprofit that works to combat food insecurity in Chittenden County. Between segments, Messner was setting up shots, coordinating impromptu on-air interviews and mingling with the crowd.

He had made his retirement announcement the previous week, so it was a hot topic among attendees. Throughout the two-hour shoot, people approached him constantly, whether they knew him personally or not, as if he were an old friend — which, in many ways, he was.

As Messner struggled under an imbalanced armload of Feeding Chittenden merch that he needed for his next segment, a beer drinker shouted a question to him across the patio: Did he still bike around Plattsburgh? Another excited fan interrupted Messner mid-conversation to say that he'd been watching him since he moved to Vermont 20 years ago.

One woman, chagrined to hear of the weatherman's impending departure from NBC5, offered retirement advice.

"Don't commit to anything for the first year," she suggested. "At first you won't know what to do with your free time, so you'll go overboard trying to fill it up."

Messner handled each interaction, even the awkward ones, with graciousness and his trademark smile.

"My favorite part of the job has always been the community aspect of it," he said later. "I've had a few opportunities to leave, but we sort of looked at the big picture. And it's just better here."

So why step back now?

Particularly on TV, Messner looks like he hasn't changed much since 1990. Some of that is a product of his youthful energy. But, he conceded, it's also partly the magic of television.

"I've got wrinkles, too — lines on my face," he said, chuckling.

"Thirty-one years is a long time," he went on, noting that he'll turn 61 in November. "Especially during the last year or so with the pandemic, like a lot of people, I've just realized there are other things I'd like to do, too."

His wife is a New York Times best-selling children's author who's penned some 50 books. Pre-pandemic, Kate traveled frequently for speaking engagements. Messner plans to join her as those opportunities return.

"I definitely married up," he joked.

Fun fact: The Messners, who live on the lake just south of Plattsburgh, met when Kate worked at Channel 5 as a reporter.

Messner has also long been active as an investor in the local startup community. He declined to go into detail, citing potential conflicts with his current position at NBC5. But his LinkedIn page lists a number of familiar local endeavors under the banner of Messner Investments.

Tom Messner with Al Roker - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Tom Messner with Al Roker

Since 2017, he's had dealings with Mamava, which makes lactation pods; Bolton Valley Resort; EZ-Probate, which helps people file legal paperwork without a lawyer; and the spacecraft propulsion company Benchmark Space Systems. He also has rental property in Naples, Fla., and has made numerous business investments in California.

"I'm really interested in the startup community here and helping it grow," Messner said. "This is such a great place to start a company. Things are happening, and I'm hoping to be involved in that."

Messner will still make occasional appearances on NBC5, particularly for big events. And he'll continue to be involved in the community — for instance, with organizations such as Feeding Chittenden. A longtime supporter of the nonprofit, he's served as a member of its ambassador program since it launched last year.

"I won't be disappearing," Messner said.

Shortly after Messner's announcement, NBC5 named Tyler Jankoski the station's next chief meteorologist. A member of the First Warning Weather Team since 2017, the Penn State grad is a certified broadcast meteorologist and member of the American Meteorological Society.

"He's one of my favorite people in the industry," Jankoski said of Messner, describing him as a friend and a mentor. "And I know what he means to Vermont — which," he conceded, "is a little nerve-racking."

Messner noted that Jankoski and Frechette have helped keep him up on weather science and changes in tech. In turn, Messner has tutored his younger colleagues in more nuanced aspects of the job.

"The thing that has always struck me about him is his understanding of the business of TV and marketing in general," Jankoski said. "He just understands how people receive things ... and overall how to treat people." He added, "It's a lot more than weather."




Foliage Tour With Sharon Meyer

Sharon Meyer - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Matthew Thorsen ©️ Seven Days
  • Sharon Meyer

At WCAX, meteorologist Dan Dowling has replaced Meyer as the leader of the station's weather team. Meteorologist Jess Langlois showed up in June, joining fixtures Gary Sadowsky and Dave Busch.

Dowling has been at WCAX since 1998; he interned with Messner, whom he described as gracious and generous, at Channel 5. He described Meyer as a down-to-earth, team-focused leader — and a friend.

"Sharon was the glue that held our weather team together," he said.

Like Messner, Meyer found herself rethinking her life and career during the pandemic, during which she mostly delivered the weather from the Williston home she shares with her husband, Rene Bourne, who owns Bourne's Service Center in South Burlington. WCAX furnished her with a home studio setup, which gave her segments even more of a Martha Stewart feel.

"It's not like I was getting sick of the business," she said on a recent walk through the Mud Pond Country Park, a natural area in Williston. "It's just that there are a lot of other things I'd like to do. And I thought that it would be a good time to start having more time to do that."

While she's still enthusiastic about broadcasting and will remain a WCAX contributor, she conceded that the schedule demands of TV news can be burdensome. Particularly as local networks invest more in their news operations to counteract the audience-draining effects of streaming, the job requires long and unconventional hours with unforgiving deadlines.

"Six o'clock is six o'clock," Meyer said.

Like Messner, she places travel high on her retirement list — to the extent that the pandemic allows it. She also plans to indulge her love of animals, horses in particular. Earlier this summer, she served as the celebrity awards presenter at a horse show, something she hopes to do more often.

Beyond that, Meyer's goal, at least for the immediate future, is simply to enjoy the place she's spent her entire adult life covering. On a walk through the woods with a reporter in tow, she paused frequently to admire the surroundings, often interrupting herself to note changing leaves, birds and the occasional newt.

"Oh, look!" she exclaimed mid-sentence as a red eft scurried around the mossy base of a tree. "Isn't he cute?" She took a picture with her phone.

Asked about her and Messner's parallel careers, Meyer chalked most of the similarities up to coincidence. After all, she noted, Hall, her predecessor at Channel 3, and Bird Berdan, Messner's at Channel 5, left those stations around the same time.

"But what's not a coincidence is that this area kind of captures people," Meyer said. "If you find yourself in a job that you really like in a place you really like to be, you're gonna stick around."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Changing Weather"