John Coleman was weatherman at Chicago's WLS-TV in the 1970s.
John Coleman was a household name in Chicago from 1968 to 1979 when “his outrageous on-air antics at WLS-Channel 7 — such as standing on his head or spritzing seltzer at news anchors Fahey Flynn and Joel Daly — came to epitomize the ABC-owned station’s happy talk era,” said one account. Photo via robertfeder.com

Two decades ago, John Coleman backed Texas billionaire Ross Perot and his bid for the presidency.

“I was co-chair of the Perot California Election Committee and very, very active in the Reform Party,” said Coleman, the now-retired KUSI weatherman.

He also put his mouth where his maverick politics were. Coleman used his short-lived KOGO radio talk show — airing in the same 9 a.m. to noon slot as Rush Limbaugh’s on KSDO — as a counterweight to that conservative icon.

Eyewitness News team in Chicago (1972) included Coleman, front left. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“On my program, I used the same theme song Limbaugh used and my theme was ‘Limbaugh isn’t always right,’” Coleman recalled recently. “I had a producer listening to the Limbaugh show and telling me in my ear what he was talking about, and I would explain how I agreed with him and how I disagreed and took different directions on some positions.”

But when the owner of KSDO bought KOGO in 1997, Coleman’s show was toast.

He also lost his end-of-week desserts.

“Every Friday for the last hour, I made up a story about a current person or couple or family in San Diego and what they were going through. A fictional family,” he says. “I’d place them maybe in La Mesa one week and Coronado another week,” he recalls, then recited an example:

“At this moment there’s a Chevy convertible driving down Interstate 5. And it’s just now passing through Carlsbad. The top is down, the driver seems like a very happy man. He seems to be smiling and proud of himself. … But the truth is this man’s hurting very deeply.”

And then Coleman would tell his audience why the driver was pained.

The radio fables always had a family angle, he says, and a political point.

“It was great fun composing those stories,” he says. “I don’t have a single one of them on recording, and that’s a deep regret. I must have done 60, 70, 80 of them.”

Even after they reached their destination, he says, motorist listeners got so absorbed in the story they couldn’t leave the vehicle. “They just sat in the car and waited for the story to end.”

Making owner McKinnon go nuts

Coleman recalls his brief stint as a “flamboyantly biased” radio talker as a “real conflict” with KUSI management, especially station owner Michael D. McKinnon.

“When McKinnon heard me on the radio, he went nuts,” Coleman said. “Even though we tried to maintain some neutrality in our news operation, [the Republican McKinnon] really encouraged a Fox-ification of his TV station.”

Since Coleman’s bread and butter was weather, “it probably worked out the best that the radio show was ended — not by me, but by them — because of a merger that put us into conflict where I could no longer run my show because they were going to put Rush Limbaugh on that station in that time slot.”

In a nearly two-hour phone chat with Times of San Diego, Coleman recalled highlights of his six-decade career, speaking frankly about many episodes. His stories were sun-shiny revealing and entertaining, cementing his place in TV weathercasting history.

But his biggest claim to fame — as founder of The Weather Channel in 1982 — is a dense fog.

“I don’t want to talk too much about that,” he told Times of San Diego. “I’m very proud to have created The Weather Channel and very proud of the people I hired and getting it going. And the format I established. And very disappointed in The Weather Channel today.”

Coleman noted how TWC eventually became two revenue streams — TV and the Web (weather.com).

“The digital now far outvalues the TV channel,” he says. “We spent $14 million starting the channel, and it eventually sold for $2.5 billion [reports in 2008 put the figure at nearly $3.5 billion]. So I guess I did all right for them. That’s all I have to say.”

Does Coleman have a financial stake in the channel?

“Next topic,” he replied.

In a 2012 biography of Coleman, KUSI filled in some blanks: “While appearing on ABC [on “Good Morning America”], he developed the concept and business plan for the cable network known as The Weather Channel. After a four-year search for financial backing, he convinced Landmark Communications to fund the startup.

“Coleman then served as CEO and president of the business as the pioneering cable service was built and staffed … Eventually, Landmark forced Coleman out of TWC.”

In 2002, Washington Monthly said: “The relationship between Coleman and Landmark soured quickly in the face of larger-than-projected losses and, in [co-founder Frank] Batten’s view, declining staff morale. The two parted ways just over a year later, but not before airing their dirty laundry in court, Coleman departing the venture entirely.”

TWC flooded with red ink

Interviewed in 2000 by Amy Blitz of the Harvard Business School, Batten recalled TWC’s first year as a rough experience: “We were literally hemorrhaging red ink” at the rate of $1 million a month. “We had assumed we could make it successful on advertising revenue alone.”

Unable to fetch expected ad revenue and getting no fees from cable systems, Batten had a “falling-out with the venturist [Coleman] who had brought us the idea and we had litigation over it and then that gave us a lot of publicity, on how much money we were losing and how badly we were doing.”

“So the cable operators realized that we were on our last legs and were about to fail and, in fact, we had decided to close The Weather Channel,” said Batten, who died in 2009. “We settled this lawsuit with John Coleman by giving him a 30-day option to buy The Weather Channel, which we felt was dead anyway then.

“He could not raise the capital to do that, but in the meantime a number of cable operators came to us and said: ‘We really need this service.’ … We opened our books to the cable operators…. And so within three months about 80 percent of the cable operators had agreed to pay us fees.”

The son of a communist college professor father and math teacher mother, Coleman was a high school musician — playing string bass in a little band and trumpet and trombone in the school band — in Illinois.

“I was in the madrigal group,” he says. “I sang. I had a lot of fun. Did all that. But I let all that go to take a full-time job on the radio station my sophomore year in high school. … Started wearing a coat and tie my sophomore year.”

By his freshman year at the University of Illinois, he was a full-time weatherman on WCIA in Champaign. He decided to take some classes.

“I went over to the Introduction to Meteorology class, so I could learn what I was talking about. And I … sat in the front row,” Coleman begins. “And the professor said: ‘I watched you on TV last night, giving your weather forecast.’”

The professor asked: “What are you doing here?”

Young Coleman replied: “Isn’t it a good idea to try to figure out what’s going on?”

At the foot of Wyndham Jack Roberts

He married at school and had a child, and eventually become a meteorologist “by doing a lot of self-study” and learning from Wyndham Jack Roberts, a Ph.D. meteorologist who “taught Air Force people in World War II.”

Passing a test from the American Meteorological Society “made me a professional meteorologist. But it was very tough. Changing jobs. Moving city to city. Trying to work my way up to the big time. I was totally focused on being a TV weatherman on the network.”

After stints in Peoria, Omaha and Milwaukee, he eventually made it to WBBM-TV in Chicago. There he came under the tutelage of P.J. Hoff.

“He was the original TV weatherman in Chicago,” Coleman says. “And he taught me that the job was more than giving the weather information. It was mixing information and entertainment. And he was a master of the entertainment part. He had been a cartoonist for his local newspaper.”

Before computer-generated graphics, it was “all done with cartoons. He drew them live while he was on the air.”

At that CBS station, Hoff made Coleman “vice president in charge of looking out the window to see what the weather was.”

At ABC affiliate WLS-TV, Coleman applied the “secret of success on television: mixing meteorology and entertainment” — reputedly the first to use the “happy talk” format of banter between anchors.

After color TV debuted, Coleman is credited with being the first weatherman to use chroma-key technology — where maps and graphics are displayed on screen behind the weathercaster. The year was 1972, said one account.

“I may have been the very first. I don’t know,” he says. “But we actually started with a blue screen. We didn’t know any better. … Two or three people were doing the same thing very soon.”

Bluffing his way to New York City

Coleman’s jump to network TV was based on a fib — and “raising hell” to be hired for the launch of ABC’s “Good Morning America” in 1975.

“I had been the top weatherman in Chicago for a decade for the ABC-owned station there…. And ABC announced they were going to start a morning program to compete with the ‘Today’ show, which had been running for a decade.”

Coleman was aware of studies that said the No. 1 thing people wanted on a morning show was weather — “back in the day before your phone gave you the weather.”

When the president of ABC came to Chicago for an affiliate visit, Coleman made his move at a cocktail party in the exec’s honor.

“I just went right up to him and I said: ‘I got six months to go in my contract. And I’m going to jump to CBS.’ He said: ‘What?!’”

Coleman had no plans to defect.

When told “You can’t do that, John,” Coleman replied: “Well, yeah, I can — unless you put me on ‘Good Morning America’ when it starts up. I see weather is the No. 1 thing people want. I’m your No. 1 weatherman. So I guess you ought to put me on that show. And if you do that, then I won’t go to CBS.”

The exec “gulped and said, Hmm. OK.”

Coleman landed in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where at 3:30 a.m. he could drive to ABC studios in midtown Manhattan in 20 minutes. His address was an albatross, however.

“I remember going to a cocktail party once and this lady kind of liked me and all. She asked: ‘Where do you live?’ I said: I live in Jersey. She said: ‘What?’ I said I live in Ridgewood, N.J. She said, ‘Oh.’ Turned around and walked away,” he recalls.

“To New Yorkers, that’s kind of a slum, I guess.”

After leaving The Weather Channel — and winning the Broadcast Meteorologist of the Year Award in 1983 — Coleman worked at WCBS-TV in New York and WMAQ-TV in Chicago.

In 1994, he joined KUSI, living in El Cajon and Alpine before moving to Rancho Bernardo with his second wife, Linda. But he also lived a muzzled life — as a skeptic of manmade climate change and global warming.

“All the time that I worked for CBS and ABC and NBC, I certainly had to stay in the closet,” he says. “I certainly didn’t talk about it on the air. And I certainly didn’t talk about it in the newsroom. So yes, I guess I was in the closet. It was 1992 or ’93 before I could even begin to talk about it.”

Second of three parts.

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