If you were to poll Westchesterites, a good many of them would agree that on the Mount Rushmore (or in our case, the Palisades) of county-based media personalities, longtime News 12 chief meteorologist Joe Rao would have a lithic perch reserved just for him. In fact, the City College graduate logged 41 consecutive years doing the worked he loved before Verizon pulled the plug on Fios1 News (Boo!).
During that time, Rao has provided his expertise to more than 200 radio markets across the U.S. and Canada, as well as to LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports, and yes, even to the Yankees and Mets. In addition to his 21 high-flying years at News 12, the eight-time Emmy nominee once had a column in The New York Times and remains a columnist for Natural History Magazine and Space.com.
We caught up with Rao recently, to take his temperature on the past, present, and future of Westchester’s best fair- and foul-weather friend.
Tell us about your academic background and career.
I am a graduate of The City College of New York. From June 1978 through October 1995, I worked for a private weather forecasting service, preparing and providing syndicated weather forecasts for over 200 radio markets across the eastern U.S. and eastern Canada. In addition to broadcasting, I also provided customized forecasts for dozens of municipal clients, including LaGuardia and Newark Liberty Airports, NYC Department of Sanitation (for snow removal), as well daily game-day outlooks for both the New York Mets and the New York Yankees.
In 1986, I joined the teaching staff at the Hayden Planetarium. I continue to serve as a guest lecturer in their Space Theater, as well as interacting with the general public and answering questions on space and astronomy on behalf of the planetarium. I taught courses in introductory meteorology there from 1986 to 1994.
From October 1995 through December 2016 I was chief meteorologist at News 12 Westchester. I was nominated eight times for an Emmy and built up a solid reputation as a credible and reliable source for the latest weather forecasts covering the Hudson Valley. Then, from January 2017 through November 2019, I was an on-camera meteorologist for Verizon FiOS1 News, providing forecasts for the Lower Hudson Valley, Long Island, and New Jersey.
In terms of publications, I have a weekly column for the online news service Space.com and a monthly astronomy column for Natural History magazine. I’m a consultant for The Farmers’ Almanac, on astronomy and weather, and a former columnist (1998-2013) for The New York Times.
When did you know you wanted to be a professional meteorologist?
When I was in junior high school, I used to put the weather forecasts up on the blackboard of my homeroom. On Friday, February 7th, 1969, I used fat chalk in bright pastel colors and said that there was a chance that Monday could be a “snow day,” because I felt we were going to get a lot of snow on Sunday. The word spread like wildfire all over the school (“Rao says we’re not going to have school on Monday because of snow!”). As it turned out, Sunday was the day of the “Lindsay Snowstorm,” which was forecast to be chiefly rain, not snow. New York City got 15 inches; Mayor Lindsay was blamed for not getting the city streets plowed; schools were closed for almost a week. When my school finally reopened, both teachers and students kept telling me that I ought to become a weatherman.
What do you regard as the best period of your career, when you were having the most fun and enjoyed going to work the most every day, and who was your best boss?
That’s easy. Working at News 12 Westchester. Those 21 years were the best years for me career-wise. And my best boss, by far, was Janine Rose. She was not only my boss, but was, and still is, a very good friend.
Unlike the rest of us, do you, because of your vocation, actually get psyched about nasty, crappy weather?
In my younger days, the possibility of an impending storm was a real turn-on for me. But I guess I’ve mellowed with the passage of time. Today, if a big storm is a possibility, I get concerned about my home and possible property damage and the safety of my wife and kids. Also, I have seen enough stormy scenarios that have allowed me to make a fair and balanced decision as to exactly what I need to forecast. In a word, it’s empiricism.
For you — or perhaps meteorologists in general — what is the most fascinatingly perplexing aspect of weather? In other words, what’s the white whale for you guys?
We just had one! The first snowfall of the season, on December 1st and 2nd. We knew that we would see a significant snowfall, but the problem was, who would get the really heavy accumulations? The computer models we use to make such assessments have a lot of problems in depicting exactly where localized bands of heavy snow will set up. So, places in Westchester saw only a few inches, while just across the river, in Orange County, some communities got over a foot! Hopefully, in the future, the technology will improve enough to allow us to better pin-down in advance who will be specifically affected by a localized heavy snow.
Was there ever a local weather event that freaked you out because of its unanticipated intensity or severity?
Maybe “freaked-out” is not the term to use, but certainly from time to time over the years, I’ve experienced a few “Gomer Pyles.” These are cases when I might have called for one thing, but something totally unexpected happened instead. As an example: One night I might have said on the air to expect no more than a dusting or a coating of snow, then I wake up the next morning and find four inches outside my window. I call these “Gomer Pyles” because the first thing that comes into my head is Gomer’s voice, saying, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”
Hey, it happens.
Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever met in connection with your job?
When I was doing weather on the radio, there was one guy whom I interacted with several times a day during the morning drive. He was known as “The Dean of Southern New England Talk Radio,” and his name was Sherm Strickhauser. He was on WHJJ Radio in Providence, Rhode Island, and we would always have lots of fun, chatting both on and off the air. He was about 25 years older than me, and in a way, he was like my pseudo-uncle. Sherm passed away in 1992. I was on his show for 10 years, talking with him over a Comrex phone line, but we never met in person. I always regretted that.
What’s the most memorable encounter you had with a fan or someone in public — either good or bad?
I’ve had many interesting encounters at [Westchester Magazine’s] Best of Westchester events.
The Bad: A woman came up to our News 12 booth and straight out asked me if my hair was natural or a wig. I remembered in the movie Miracle on 34th Street, when little Susan, played by Natalie Wood, asked Kris Kringle, played by Edmund Gwenn, if his beard was real. “Oh, go ahead, pull it!” Says Gwenn. She did, but hard, which causes Gwenn to painfully utter, “Ouch!”
So, I said to the woman: “Oh, go ahead, pull it!” Whereupon she grabbed a big hunk of my hair and really pulled it — hard! Ouch!
The Good: A rather attractive woman came up to me and said, “Would you be put off if I told you that I’m in love with you?” When she uttered those words, my wife was standing about 10 feet to my right. I said, “Well, I wouldn’t be put off, but my wife might have a different opinion.” I then pointed to Renate. The woman walked over to Renate and says: “I’m in love with your husband,” to which my wife deadpanned, “That’s what all of his girlfriends say.”
Has anything exceptionally weird or hysterical ever happened on-set or during a broadcast that you were there to witness?
One night, on News 12, our news anchor, Tim Cassidy, read a story about a rooster named Roger. I don’t remember what the story was specifically about, but Tim started to giggle toward the end of the story. Now it was time to throw it to me, to do the weather, except I started to giggle, too. And before long, the giggles turned into hysterical laughter, and that’s the way it went right through my entire weathercast and all the way to my journey back to the anchor desk, where Tim was still laughing.
To this day, when either one of us connects on Facebook, I always end the conversation with, “Roger says hello.”
Which was a bigger thrill, seeing your image splashed across the Jumbotron at Met Life Stadium during a Giants game or having your own bobblehead?
Oh, hands down it was the bobblehead. That was almost as good as winning an Emmy. But don’t get me wrong: The Jumbotron was pretty cool, too!
At WM, we’ve often commented on your impeccably coiffed hair. Do you have someone special who does it for you?
There is a place in Cortlandt Manor where I get my hair cut about once a month. A young lady named Lori usually does it. However, at home, my personal hair groomer is my wife, Renate.
If you could have any five people, living or dead, at a dinner party you’re hosting, whom would they be?
Tom Hanks: He seems to love to connect with people, and he sounds like a pretty awesome guy.
Tom Seaver: I’m a lifelong Met fan and idolized him since I was a kid.
Neil Armstrong: First man to walk on the moon and a true American hero.
President John F. Kennedy: A charismatic leader who, in his life and in his death, served as a symbol of purpose and hope.
Karen Carpenter: My favorite vocalist. Such a beautiful voice. I’d ask her to sing at the dinner party.
Anything in particular that you’ll miss most from your multi-decade career in TV news?
Being able to step in front of a camera and do my weather shows every night. I derived so much pleasure in talking about weather in front of hundreds of thousands of people every night. Right now, I really miss not being able to do that, and from what I read from Facebook and Twitter, a lot of people feel the same way.
Where do you want to be a year from now?
I’m really not ready to retire. I would love to get another chance to be back on television again. Perhaps there might be a few broadcast executives reading this story right now who can make that happen. Certainly, I would bring a large viewing audience with me from Westchester and the Lower Hudson Valley, and that’s what executives want to see: an increase in viewership. If television doesn’t work out, then maybe I can land a position at one of the local colleges as an adjunct, teaching meteorology or astronomy. Both of my kids are teachers, so maybe I can follow in their footsteps.