Lights, Camera, 'Audition'

Jeff Wald, veteran news director of Tribune Broadcasting's KTLA Los Angeles, had a brainstorm. Weary of screening hundreds of audition reels to find his next on-camera weathercaster, he got creative.

Inspired by The Apprentice and Survivor, Wald and his news team took a page from reality television. They concocted The Audition, an on-air contest to discover someone with enough poise and pizzazz to inject life into Los Angeles' endlessly clear and sunny forecasts.

The result? Some 300 tapes poured in from around the country, and 16 semifinalists were chosen to try their luck this month in front of the KTLA Morning News audience. The public gets to weigh in over the Internet, but in the end, the only vote that counts is Wald's.

B&C's Deborah Starr Seibel spoke to him about the groundbreaking audition—and the fine print.

How did you decide to make the job opening a contest?

The idea was not to go the conventional route. I spend a good deal of my time—and so does my assistant news director, Marcia Brandwynne—going through audition tapes that are either sent by individuals or by agents nationwide. You literally go through hundreds of these tapes. So, number one, we thought this would be fun. Number two, we thought we might find that diamond in the rough.

Did you have to ask permission of Tribune Co.?

No. It was a station decision.

What were the specifications for the job? Age cut-offs? Job experience?

There were no age cut-offs, and, believe it or not, no experience was necessary.

So you don't have to know the difference between cirrus and cumulous clouds?

No, you don't. We can teach that. I've been living in Los Angeles for a long time, and believe me, credibility is very important. But to be honest, a lot of the information—the mechanics of this job—is really learned on the job. I would never do this for a news reporter. I would probably never do it for an entertainment reporter, because there's a lot of journalism required. With weather, if you have someone who can interpret the information from all this wonderful equipment and has a terrific personality, it's pretty easy.

What about the problem of credibility?

At our station, we have a reputation for breaking news. If we have weather like we had recently, with two major storms coming through, it's the lead story. And it's usually handled by our news reporters.

There was a time in TV news when the coin of the realm was to be a meteorologist. Is that over?

In Los Angeles, it probably is. This is a personality-driven market and has been for quite some time. But the meteorology comes in with all the weather systems we purchase. That information is digested by our weatherpeople and then disseminated to the public.

Your KTLA Morning News executive producer Richard Goldner said that one of the contestants “had the look” of a Los Angeles weathercaster. What did he mean?

It's called “it.” You almost can't describe what “it” is, but, for me, it's someone who has the communicative skills and the personality to be natural on television.

Sometimes you see a tape and the person looks great, but you bring that person in for a personal interview and you're talking to someone completely different. The people who really excel in this business are natural and real. If you look at this market, the newscasters, sportscasters and weatherpeople who have lasted are the ones who have three qualities: They are honest, natural and real to the people at home.

Are you looking for someone who is funny?

No, but I want someone who is interesting. You have to be interesting if you're going to survive in Los Angeles, where the weather doesn't change much.

How did Survivor and The Apprentice inspire you to do this?

In this business, there's a little bit of Survivor, in that you need to survive, and there's some of The Apprentice in it, too. This is a business, and we have to look at things in light of how successful we think they'll be because that will have a direct correlation to our ratings.

Why not let the audience decide who the winner will be?

They kind of are. It's connected to our Web site, and people are voicing their opinions there. But you have to take those things with a grain of salt. You don't know if people are voting more than once. It's very unscientific.

Marcia Brandwynne watched a young female contestant and said, “Could you listen to that voice for very long?” Is it over for her?


On Dec. 1, the winner will be announced. What happens then?

We decide whether that person is going to become a permanent member of the KTLA staff. We'll know in the first month, during December, if the person is going to fit in. We will put them on the air for a month. That we have committed to.

So he or she can win the audition but not necessarily get the job?

That is correct.