‘Hurricane Helen’ Touches Down in Birmingham

It was only a matter of time before the severe weather found Helen Swenson in Birmingham, Ala. After all, she had covered Hurricane Andrew as a local news producer in Miami way back in 1992, had to dig out after Hurricane Wilma trashed her home in 2005 and dealt with storm stories of danger and devastation on a regular basis as head of live programming at The Weather Channel.

During a tornado outbreak in Alabama in late April, the new general manager of WIAT huddled the staff in the basement, with a skeleton crew in the control room and on set. It was Swenson’s first time tackling one of these situations as a station general manager, and by multiple accounts, she nailed it. “We did our best to get out in front of this storm early and often so we could save lives,” Swenson says. “We want to be competitive, but the most important thing is not who wins—it’s how many lives you saved.”

An old pal from her time at Weather Channel was in Birmingham for the storm, and he was impressed with, though not surprised by, WIAT’s coverage. “There was a new aggressiveness, a new go-get-it-iveness, that was not there before,” says Al Roker, Today show coanchor. “Helen was really in her element.”

Severe weather is never to be taken lightly, but when you’ve had the kind of life Swenson has—born to heroinaddicted parents, property of the state until she was adopted at 10—no hurdle is too high. “If I ever have a crappy day, I remember where I came from,” says Swenson. “And everything is fine.”

The Battle of Birmingham

Taking on her first general manager job in October, Swenson has a high hurdle to surmount in Birmingham. She inherited, says one market observer, a “mess.” Since day one, the fiercely competitive GM has brainstormed a new identity for LIN Media’s CBS affiliate. In May, she introduced a Coverage You Can Count On tagline, a promise to deliver high-quality journalism and a reinvigorated focus on weather.

Jay Howell, LIN VP of television, says he’s got the right person to turn WIAT around. “It’s all about winning for Helen every day,” he says. “People flock to her personality. They want to work with her and they want to win.”

Swenson was born in Manhattan, and speaks openly about a childhood spent in foster care as her addicted birth parents fought for custody. It wasn’t until both died of overdoses, she says, that Swenson was adopted by her longtime foster family. “I’m very grateful for every opportunity that’s ever been given to me both professionally and personally,” she says. “The fact of the matter is, I kind of shouldn’t even be here.”

A Real Self-Starter

After her family relocated to Florida, the self-starting Swenson became friends with a Tampa Tribune sports reporter as a teen, first keeping score for him, then penning articles. She attended college on a softball scholarship and supported herself with three jobs: local NPR correspondent, rock radio DJ and producer at WCJB Gainesville. “I said, hmmm, I have to pick one,” Swenson says. “That’s when I gave up radio and stuck with TV.”

After several news-producing jobs post college, Swenson was assistant news director at WPXI Pittsburgh from 1996 to 2000, where John Howell, father of LIN’s TV chief Jay, was general manager. News director posts followed at WPEC West Palm Beach and KIRO Seattle.

Swenson shifted to Weather Channel in 2009, where her high-energy ways earned her the nickname “Hurricane Helen.” Besides overseeing all aspects of live programming, Swenson shaped Roker’s daily program, Wake Up With Al. “Unlike a lot of executives in news and information, what you see is what you get with Helen,” Roker says. “If you suck, she’ll tell you you suck. If you’re good, she’ll tell you you’re good.”

It didn’t take long for her WIAT colleagues to begin calling her Hurricane Helen too. And it’s just a matter of time before she puts those well-honed storm coverage skills to use again. “For whatever reason,” says Swenson, “the severe weather tends to follow me.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.