Belinda Jensen feels your pain. The KARE 11 meteorologist has a lot of outdoorsy interests — tennis, scuba diving, downhill skiing — so she knows what it’s like to have your plans spoiled by an inaccurate weather prediction. She can speak from personal experience about having kids or dogs get jittery when storm clouds approach. She even knows what it’s like to get blue during an extended stretch of gloomy skies.
“I’ve figured out over the years that, ironically, I totally have seasonal affective disorder. Like I’m totally affected by sky cover. I take a ton of vitamin D in the winter to get through it,” Jensen says. “Not only do I have to deal with it, but I also have to be the messenger of the information. Whatever the forecast is, I gotta sell it. I gotta believe it, and I gotta sell it.”
Jensen has been believing and selling the weather at the Twin Cities NBC affiliate for 25 years now, first as a weekend forecaster and now as chief meteorologist. She’s also been the station’s Saturday morning news show host, co-hosted the “Grow With KARE” gardening show, worked as a reporter on the “Minnesota Bound” outdoors show — and she’s won five regional Emmys.
“I’ve been able to do a number of really wonderful things here beyond talking about the clouds,” says Jensen, who lives in Edina with her husband, two kids and a Bernese mountain dog. Jensen, 50, was born in St. Paul and grew up in Prescott, Wis. As a kid, she thought she wanted to be a veterinarian, and then maybe a social studies teacher. But a high school physics teacher encouraged her to do something with science and suggested meteorology as a subject. As a 10th-grader, she wrote a term paper by interviewing meteorologist Paul Douglas, who was then working at KARE and would later become her mentor.
When she got a degree in meteorology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she was the first in her family to go to a four-year college, and one of the few women studying the subject at her school. While in college, she called Douglas again to land an internship. “A great experience. I learned a lot. And I realized this wasn’t for me,” she says of television. “I knew it wasn’t my cup of tea.”
Instead, she thought she was going to be an earth sciences teacher after she got a graduate degree in meteorology at the University of Utah. Jensen describes what happened next in an interview that we’ve edited for clarity and space.
You called the television station in Utah while you were going to school there?
I did. It was funny. The summer before my first year of grad school, I actually worked for the National Weather Service. I started watching all the channels. The ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City, KTVX, had this weather guy named Dave. He was good looking, but he just had no idea of what he was talking about — according to me. I was pretty ballsy and called him and said, “I’m a meteorologist.” And I had been a meteorologist for about three minutes. I said, “I am in grad school at the University of Utah, and I interned at KARE 11.” And I said, “I wonder if you need an assistant.” And he said, “Oh my gosh, yes.”
And it turned out he was a wannabe game show host waiting to get on the Game Show Network, which he currently is on. He didn’t want to do any of the work. He just wanted somebody to make the maps and tell him what to say and he did a good job of saying it. So I went there and I got a job and I was making all of his maps, and helping him. I had a full-ride scholarship at the University of Utah. Technically I wasn’t supposed to have a job. But I needed some money. And I was interested in helping him.
So they were about to launch this morning show and they hired another weather guy. His name was Steve. And they asked me to train him and I did. And they launched the show. Two weeks into it, he skipped town. I was in the back. Literally in the back with sweats on making maps for Dave. And this news director named John said, “Hey, come here, can you stand in front of this green board? Do you know anything about this?”
And that’s how I got onto television. They were desperate. John, this news director, he saw something in me. I started practicing. I would tape all the practices and let him watch them and took the feedback. He sent me to theater classes in Salt Lake. And he let me start. I started on Dec. 1, 1990, in Salt Lake City, in the 41st market. So I called Paul Douglas and I said, “Oh my gosh, what do you think about this? There’s no contract, but I have to give back my scholarship because I’m not supposed to have a job.” Paul said, “That’s the 41st market. That’s amazing.” And I said, “Yeah, I know, but it just could last a month.”
And he said, “You could always go back to college, Belinda. You’re not going to have this opportunity again.” So I took it.
And what happened then? How did you end up at KARE 11?
I did that morning show for three years, and I learned a lot. There’s a lot of weather in Salt Lake. Lots of snow. Lots of heat. And then Paul called. He’s like, “Hey, this weekend show just opened up.” The weekend meteorologist was going back to Boston. He said, “Do you want to audition?” I said, “I am just getting settled in this market. I got my first contract. And they like me here. I’m not ready to come to such a big market.” He goes, “Belinda, just come. It’s a free flight. You can see some friends. It’ll be great for you to audition.” I asked my news director. He was the same way: “Oh, it’ll be a great opportunity for you to practice doing this.” And I came here. It was June 13, 1993.
And I auditioned. That summer we were getting incessant rain. So they put me in front of the (green screen) and they left me a couple of maps, like a couple, and they said, “Go.” And I started explaining why it keeps raining. I did the best I could with just a couple of maps. And it turned out, in the control room, there was a news director and the general manager and the executive producer, but there was no one in the studio. They’d gone to lunch. I was miked up, but no (earpiece). And they said, “Does she have an (earpiece) on?” They just sat and watched, and said, “Let’s just see how long she goes.” No one told me to stop. So 13 minutes later, I got the job.
Weather is important everywhere, but is it more important here?
Yeah. This is the Super Bowl of weather. The seasons, the temperature range, and the differences in humidity and the potential for blizzards in April and tornadoes in October. You have to be on your toes. And with the 24/7 news cycle, and the immediate gratification that everyone wants, you have to be on it. Here at KARE it’s been great. I still get three minutes and 15 seconds to do the weather. They still believe in having that bit of science in every newscast. I get to have that nugget of information in there. I get to show them a surface map, dew points. Some markets, it’s just like, “Get it done, you have a minute.”
You spend a lot of time outdoors. Are there times you’ve predicted something, and the weather spoiled your plans because you were wrong?
Oh, big time. Big time. We do a lot of wake surfing. We’re out on the lake a lot, so that really does affect you. I remember a day in June, like three years ago. It just happened to be Father’s Day weekend. And June is a really important month. Because Minnesotans are so hungry to get outside. In the beginning of the summer, they’ll give you a little breathing room until Memorial Day. But after Memorial Day, man, it’s game on. The weekends better be good. Or you at least better have told them that it’s not going to be good, or Saturday is going to be better than Sunday.
But it was Father’s Day, there was a big Twins doubleheader, I believe, and there were all these weddings. And I did the Saturday show and the forecast just got blown, and it was pouring and my parents were down, and we were driving around, and I kind of ran into all these different wedding parties out in the mud with their beautiful dresses. And I literally had to go home. I had to just go home. It was so upsetting to me. Oh my god. I just feel bad. Bad. I do take it very personally.
Appearance is a big part of being on television, but what is it like to be on the receiving end of that scrutiny?
A number of people before me just taught me to take it with a grain of salt and just believe in yourself. That’s not the fun part of the business, that’s for sure. But I think in this market, all the stations, that we’re all here for so long, a lot of us are, that it’s almost like people do know us and they’re like, “That’s just Belinda. She usually is right, and she usually looks really nice, just not tonight. We’re not going to give her any crap about that.” I’m in their bedroom every night. We understand the power of that.
When we’re at the fair for 12 days, it’s unbelievable. People walk up to you, and they know you. I’ve never met these people, and they know you. Julie (Nelson) and I were walking around doing a bunch of stories on the first day and we ran into a whole bunch of people. And they look you up and down and they’re like, “Wow. You’re really not fat at all. You’re pretty thin.” And that is something that happens. Because the camera puts on weight. And I have these big coats on and I’m outside and I’m cold and even though you wear things that fit you, it doesn’t matter, you look as big as your clothes. And they’ll say that. They’re really not being mean. It’s like a backward compliment. I just sit there and say, “Well, tell your friends. Tell your friends.”
Julie is like, “Oh my god, if that happens again.” Like it happened three times in one day. She’s just as a big as a minute. So she looks normal on TV. I’m not as big as a minute. I’m a normal-sized girl.
Is there pressure to hype the weather? I’m thinking of that meme with the weatherman at Hurricane Florence, leaning into the wind.
Oh, my goodness, that’s so terrible. No. Not here. I mean really, not here. It’s always been the case. Really the calm before the storm is a big part of what we do. Our bosses, our news directors, they come and ask us: What should we do here? Is this a lead? Is this not a lead? How much time do you need? Do we break in? Do we not break in? That’s really important here. Really important.
My saying when I talk to adults is, if I get excited, then you should get excited. If I am serious about something, you need to be serious. That’s the truth, and that’s how we do it here.
How important is it when you’re doing a forecast not just to be right, but to be entertaining?
I don’t know. In some markets, the weather persons are models and comedians. I think the most important thing is to leave them with a nugget, leave them with something they didn’t think about, leave them with an image, or a little factoid: Did you see that cloud today? Or did you notice this today? Or did you know this is going to happen tomorrow and you should look at this with your kids?
Leave them with something beyond the seven-day forecast. That was another thing Paul Douglas taught me because he thought that was really important. We call them nuggets. Like, “What’s the nugget for 5? What’s the nugget for 6?” What are you going to tell people that maybe they didn’t know?
Most memorable experience in the past 25 years?
I loved being at the Olympics (in 2002) in Salt Lake City. It was an honor being a part of that crew. It was really, really fun and we had a lot of people watching back then. Storywise, probably the coolest story I had a chance to do was actually a “Minnesota Bound” story, but we aired it on KARE. I had a chance to release a sea turtle that had lived at the Minnesota Zoo. I was there in Oahu when they let it go out to sea. And it was a really fantastic moment. They did this whole Hawaiian ceremony on the beach. So the sea turtle went out to sea and then it came back, and then it went out to sea and it came back. I think it was looking for the wall because it had grown up at the Apple Valley zoo its whole life. And then finally the fourth time it left and just went out to sea. It was super cool.
How about most memorable weather experience?
The winter of 2013-2014, that horrific winter. People almost left. We had 59 mornings below zero. Eighty-six inches of snow. The average temperature between Dec. 1 and the end of February was 9 degrees. It was horrible. And then it snowed in May. I remember I was out here in April, in a big storm, a snowstorm, and there was snow all around me. To be the communicator of that news, it was so horrific.
Tell me about the series of children’s books you’re writing.
For years I’ve been able to get into schools and talk to kids, typically second-graders, 7- to 8-year-olds, about weather. Over the years, the stories I would tell to explain things like thunder and hail and blizzards and hurricanes, these stories, if they worked, and I could see the light bulbs coming on in the classroom, I would retell that story. Those stories ended up being the books. Kids have always been enthralled by the weather.
But now there is a lot of weather anxiety and I do believe it’s because of the 24/7 news cycle and because images are available to kids of every age way too much, images of large tornadoes and images of hurricane damage. I had lots of parents and teachers calling me, saying, can you talk to my son, he won’t put down the radar, he’s watching the Weather Channel incessantly, or every time there’s a dark cloud, he thinks there’s a tornado.
And I was living it and breathing it at home, because my 11-year-old now, when she was younger, she had a lot of weather anxiety. She would get very scared. So I wrote these books to keep kids interested and explain it to them, but also to help them through it.