When it comes to weather, Tony Petrarca is a household name in Rhode Island. The Channel 12/Fox Providence meteorologist has been on air since 1987 and is celebrating his 25th year at the East Providence-based television station.
Last month, Petrarca was recognized for his career and contributions to the community. On Nov. 28 Petrarca was inducted into the New England Chapter of the National Television Academy’s Silver Circle. Inductees to the Silver Circle are those who have made significant contributions to television for 25 years or more.
“He’s an outstanding meteorologist and highly valued member of our team,” said Karen Rezendes, News Director at WPRI in a statement. “We’re pleased the Academy has recognized Tony for his contributions to the industry.”
Petrarca grew up in Warwick and graduated from Toll Gate High School. But it was his experience during the Blizzard of ’78, when Petrarca was still at Winman Junior High, that spurred him on to his career in meteorology.
Petrarca said when he was younger he would watch the 6 and 11 p.m. news, gather facts about the weather, and map significant events out on his Rand McNally map. He called it his “Weather Wall.”
Today, Petrarca stands in front of a different kind of “Weather Wall,” a green screen.
“A lot of people don’t realize there’s nothing on the wall behind me,” he said.
In the studio, Petrarca stands in front of a plain green wall. Though the audience at home can see the computerized images behind him as he gives the forecast, Petrarca has to look out of the corner of his eye at the monitor to determine what’s being displayed and where to point.
In the past, meteorologists stood in front of actual maps, but advances in technology eliminated static images in favor of more colorful, moving graphics.
In addition to the advent of green screens, Petrarca said he has seen prediction methods, like satellite and Doppler radar, change over the years, too.
Petrarca said the public reception of his forecasts is typically positive, even when he gets something wrong.
“It’s good-natured ribbing,” he said with a laugh. “There’s this perception that meteorologists are always wrong, but that’s not true. It’s not a perfect science.”
Though predicting the weather accurately is a major part of his job, delivering his predictions on air is just as important. During major weather events, Petrarca can spend long days in the studio, ensuring that people can tune in at any time and receive an accurate, up-to-the-minute forecast.
During Hurricane Sandy, Petrarca spent 13 hours on air. By the end of the night Petrarca had lost his voice entirely and had to cut away to a commercial break in the middle of his forecast to drink water and attempt to regain his voice.
“It was embarrassing,” he said, but it comes with the territory.
Petrarca said he has had a few on-air bloopers throughout his career, including a fit of the giggles, a few dozen technical difficulties and one stubborn case of the hiccups.
“It shows your human side,” said Petrarca.
Though most people know him as a television weatherman, Petrarca prides himself on giving back to the community in other ways. He’s actively involved with the Meeting Street School and their annual telethon, as well as Crossroads. He’s also hosted the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon and served on the board of directors for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. It’s his community service that, in part, contributed to his induction into the Silver Circle.
“I’m very honored and surprised,” said Petrarca of the award.
This March Petrarca will celebrate 26 years at WPRI.
“My roots run deep here,” said Petrarca, who said he has declined offers from larger job markets to stay close to his family and friends. “I’ve always been comfortable here at Channel 12.”
His position at WPRI was Petrarca’s first job out of college, though he did work part time at a television station during his senior year at Lyndon State in Vermont. Petrarca said Lyndon State is a relatively prestigious school for meteorologists; one of his classmates in college was The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore.
Petrarca remembers attending class during the harsh winters in Vermont. But the chilly weather didn’t bother him too much – Petrarca’s a big fan of snow and the outdoor activities that go along with it.
For Petrarca, working in his home state isn’t just great for his roots, it’s great for his career, too.
“We get everything from A to Z,” said Petrarca about the meteorological possibilities for Rhode Island.
The state’s geographical location makes it susceptible to pretty much any weather event. Pair that with the small size of the state, and Petrarca said things get even more complicated. For example, during large storms like Nor’easters, Petrarca must attempt to accurately determine where snow will fall, where it will rain instead and how much precipitation each area will get.
“It’s challenging,” he said.
But it’s the challenge that makes his job even more rewarding. For Petrarca, getting a big forecast right is the best part of his job. During Sandy, for example, Petrarca said he knew people’s property and lives depended upon an accurate forecast. Getting it right when it really matters, said Petrarca, is extremely fulfilling.
Today, Petrarca resides in West Warwick and has two children. He said he spends a lot of time visiting area elementary schools, educating children about the weather and telling them about his career on TV. Sometimes, the students themselves are inspired to go into meteorology.
“That’s as rewarding as making an accurate forecast,” he said.