When she accepted the job as chief meteorologist at WTSP-Ch. 10, Chicago forecaster Tammie Souza knew she faced a huge challenge — taking over a job held nearly 30 years by local legend Dick Fletcher until his death after a stroke in February.
What Souza and her new bosses at WTSP didn't know was that she would also be making local history by becoming the first female chief meteorologist in Tampa Bay area TV history.
"That's an amazing thing," said Souza, who will leave Fox affiliate WFLD in Chicago for WTSP, starting Oct. 27. "To have an opportunity to come in and help reshape (WTSP's) weather team and work in Tampa … I would be crazy not to take advantage of it."
Already, Souza is part of a select group. According to a recent poll of more than 1,200 TV stations by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Hofstra University, just 21.6 percent of weather forecasters at local stations nationwide are women.
Souza, whose sister Patty is chief meteorologist at KXTV in Sacramento, Calif., said she's seen a growing number of women interested in the field — a sentiment echoed by a woman who believes she was the second female meteorologist in Tampa Bay area TV, former WTSP forecaster Laura York.
"I think WTSP had to pull a McCain," said York, referring to the way GOP candidate John McCain changed the presidential race by tapping Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
"Dick Fletcher was an icon, so they needed to hire someone who could shake it up," added York, who worked at WFLA and WTSP from 1987 to 2000.
Still, officials at WTSP didn't realize the significance of their hire, focusing instead on trying to find the right person to connect with their viewers. Applicants from CNN and the Weather Channel were among those considered. Even as the station was settling on Souza, they tested her work before focus groups to see how viewers might react.
"As much as we hate hurricanes, good weather forecasters thrive on this stuff," said WTSP general manager Sam Rosenwasser, noting that Souza also has the highest certifications from the American Meteorological Society. "This is like the Super Bowl for meteorologists … and she can be part of helping set the direction for the weather department."
That's because WTSP has implemented several changes in its weather department in recent weeks, letting go of morning and noon forecaster Anna Allen and hiring Chris Suchan from North Carolina. Rosenwasser declined to comment, but forecaster Randy Rauch also expects to leave the station when his contract expires Sept, 29.
It's a lot of change for a small weather department while also working to cover emergencies such as Tropical Storm Fay and hurricanes Gustav and Ike. And although her experience doesn't include tropical weather — she worked in Wisconsin and California before joining Chicago's NBC's station WMAQ in 2000 and WFLD in 2006 — Souza expects to pick up on Florida's weather patterns quickly.
Former WTVT forecaster Roy Leep, considered the area's dean of meteorologists until his retirement in 1997, said neither he nor Fletcher had experience with tropical weather when they came to the state. "If you know meteorology, you'll be fine," he said. "But she's going to have some big shoes to fill."
Indeed, Souza's biggest hurdle may be introducing herself to area viewers who had grown used to Fletcher over the years — though the eight-month gap between his death and her arrival may help ease the transition.
"Nobody's going to fill Dick's shoes … he's a legend and rightly so," said Souza, who hopes to pay some tribute to her predecessor on air when she joins the newscast. "I'm here to pick up the torch and carry it forward. Hopefully, people will like your style and want to follow you."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.