Meteorologist James Spann utilizes social media and digital platforms to stay constantly connected to his followers

Weather is a full-time job

James Spann is the chief meteorologist at WBMA in Birmingham, Alabama, and he’s got something that a lot of social media users can only dream about — his actual name on Twitter.

His handle is @spann. No hyphens, no numbers, nothing.

People always ask him how he managed to get a handle like that. His response: “I’m an early adopter.” Twitter launched in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2008 that it really took off. That’s exactly when Spann joined the platform.

It’s not just Twitter though. He’s been on Facebook since 2009 — the year the social media company saw its first positive revenue — and he’s had a podcast since 2006 — almost a decade before popular podcasts like Serial became a viral sensation.

Spann now has over 550k followers on Facebook, and not just passive followers that like his posts and move on. He has dedicated followers that converse with him, share content and actually engage on his page.

Severe weather is an area where Spann has seen a huge benefit from his followers’ high engagement levels.

Alabama is part of ‘Tornado Alley’ — named for the sheer number of tornadoes that hit the area — so Spann has frequent practice communicating about severe weather to his followers. A few days before, when they know there will be a chance for severe weather, Spann begins pushing out additional content to his viewers, especially through Facebook.

He also gets flooded with images and videos so he is constantly retweeting and sharing relevant content among his followers.

“We know that people don’t do anything when they see radar,” Spann said. “Even as clearly as we can communicate the danger. But if they actually see video of a tornado, of damage, they can see it and go do something.”

Spann and his team use technology to bring the content from social media directly to the air as well. “I’m the only guy that understands what needs to be shown up there,” he said. “We don’t send it over to news to put in some kind of nice graphic system with a little name and all that. It is urgent what I’m doing.”

Severe storm coverage including 6+ hours of live TV coverage with images brought in from social media. (Screenshots from ABC 33/40 Weather on YouTube)

He has such a large following on social media that Spann will even get submissions that are not remotely related to weather. “They send me everything,” he said, fires, crashes everything. “It [is] stunning how much content I get every day not related to weather.”

Spann doesn’t have any training in journalism, so he sends what he can on to the news department. The most difficult platform for him to navigate is Twitter. Without journalism training it is hard to know what to retweet or not — especially when the information is related to sensitive issues like police investigations. “I just try to ask questions of the people I work with to make good decisions,” Spann said.

Spann has also utilized other digital platforms to spread his creative weather wings. He hosts a podcast called Weather Brains, as well as a daily weather vlog, the Weather Xtreme Video, which has become very popular among farmers in Alabama who depend on weather patterns for their livelihood.

He doesn’t pretend to be an expert in social media. In fact Spann willingly admits that he’s constantly learning about how best to utilize the platforms. He does have advice for anyone trying to best use social media in the news.

It’s about more than an eight-hour workday. You have to realize that being successful on social media requires hard work, he said. “To successfully work these social platforms, you’ve got to be there for them all the time,” Spann said. “So I honestly think that’s the trick for me is I’m always there and [my followers] know that. That’s why they send this stuff to me. You know you don’t sleep a lot, but I just think it’s important.”

Do you know an anchor, reporter or meteorologist who is using social media to engage with his or her viewers in an interesting way and deserves to be our next Social Media Spotlight? If so, email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu and we’ll check them out.

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