Jessica Faith joined WPXI-TV in June 2020. She’s the first Black woman to appear regularly and for an extended period of time on-air for a Pittsburgh TV news station.
by Marcia Liggett
For New Pittsburgh Courier
Before most people leave home for the day, they typically check the local weather report, enabling them to prepare for the elements and avoid potentially dangerous weather. For decades, White male meteorologists have dominated the Pittsburgh airwaves, such as the late Joe DeNardo and Bob Kudzma, and Dennis Bowman.
But in June 2020, there was a shake up. Meteorologist Jessica Faith joined WPXI-TV’s “Severe Weather Team,” making her the first known Black woman meteorologist on Pittsburgh TV news. It took 70 years, but finally, it has happened.
“Ever since I was a young girl, I loved storms. I loved hearing the thunder and lightning. I even loved hearing the severe thunderstorm sirens,” Faith recalled in an exclusive interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier. She shared how she and her brother, Josiah, would rush to the TV as kids to watch their local meteorologist, James Spann. Spann is an institution in the weather industry, as he still provides reports in Faith’s home state of Alabama.
“We would say, ‘James Spann’s the man!’ and thought it was so cool,” Faith recalled. “I actually didn’t think about making it (meteorology) a career until I was a senior in high school. I didn’t see any Black meteorologists or even any women meteorologists so it didn’t occur to me that it was something I could do.”
Faith, who was born in Montgomery and raised in Clanton, Ala., decided to pursue that dream of meteorology. Meteorologist Reynolds Wolf (who was employed by CNN at the time) spoke at Faith’s high school, and she later talked with him one-on-one, where he provided her guidance and direction.
She followed his suggestions, and was on her way to meteorological success.
Faith, the southern belle, graduated from Alabama A&M University with a degree in communication. She later completed her Broadcast Meteorology degree from Mississippi State University. Faith told the Courier she enjoyed her time at Alabama A&M, a historically Black college. In fact, Faith’s parents, Dwight and Madeline Swindle, also graduated from HBCUs. Faith highly recommends for Black people to attend HBCUs. She said those colleges are the only institutions which have not discriminated against people because of their race, while producing extremely successful African Americans such as Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse), John Lewis (American Baptist, Fisk) and Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State).
The hands-on experience and training that Faith received from completing multiple internships prepared her for an on-air meteorology career post-college. In December 2016, she landed a position as a meteorologist at KLTV-TV (7 News) in Tyler, Tex. Next, she joined the First Alert Weather Team at WAFF-TV (48) in Huntsville, Ala., where she was a former intern. She was then sought out by the powers at WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh, and in June 2020, made the big move to the big city, Pittsburgh.
But before she came to Pittsburgh, she was married in what she described as a “pandemic wedding” to Renaldo Pearson, an award-winning social engineer, back in Alabama. Due to restrictions, they only had 10 guests at their wedding, while other guests joined virtually.
BRIAN HUTTON JR. is a meteorologist for WTAE-TV (4).
Although the field of meteorology is dominated by White men, most sizable markets employ Black meteorologists. Al Roker comes to mind when it comes to Black male meteorologists known on a national level — he’s the chief meteorologist on NBC’s “Today” show. It took Pittsburgh until the mid ‘90s to get its first full-time Black weather forecaster — C.S. Keys, who starred on KDKA-TV, although it was for a brief period. He also worked at WPXI. Demetrious Ivory’s tall stature manned the WTAE-TV airwaves from 2005 until 2013, when he left for Chicago, the country’s third-largest TV market. In 2015, Ron Smiley made his mark on KDKA-TV as a meteorologist, where he still stands today on the morning show. The newest African American on-air weather forecaster in Pittsburgh is Brian Hutton Jr., who came to WTAE-TV in April 2021. That makes each local TV station in Pittsburgh currently with one African American meteorologist; Faith is the only woman.
RON SMILEY is a meteorologist for KDKA-TV (2)
Faith is not only paving the way for Black female advancement, but for all women, as did June Bacon-Bercey, America’s first female meteorologist, who was African American. In 1968, Bacon-Bercey broke barriers by debuting as an on-air meteorologist in Buffalo. She later became a chief meteorologist, which was practically unheard of for a woman (or a Black woman) at the time.
Today, you can find Black female meteorologists in many cities, like Somara Theodore of NBC Washington (D.C.), Janice Huff of NBC New York, Markina Brown in Los Angeles and Betty Davis in Miami. Brown, Huff and Davis are labeled “chief meteorologists,” with Brown having the distinction of being the first Black female chief meteorologist in Southern California’s history.
Other Black female meteorologists can be found on NBC’s “Early Today” show with Janessa Webb (who formerly worked in Cleveland), and Philadelphia meteorologist Brittney Shipp (NBC 10).
On a national level, The Weather Channel, now owned by a Black man, Byron Allen, currently showcases three Black male on-air meteorologists (Paul Goodloe, Alex Wallace, Tevin Wooten). You may recall the influential Vivian Brown, who spent 29 years at The Weather Channel (27 years on-air) before departing in 2015.
Of the 14 meteorologists on Weather Nation, another national weather outlet, Jesse Kelley serves as the only on-air Black meteorologist. And on AccuWeather, there were no on-air Black meteorologists listed on its website.
In summary, finding Black women meteorologists on a national TV level is, well, hard to find.
The first Black president of the National Weather Association and Emmy award-winning national severe weather expert, Alan Sealls of WPMI-TV in Mobile, Ala., noticed how the weather field is evolving. He estimated based on previous American Meteorological Society (AMS) surveys and word-of-mouth discussions that about 100 of the nearly 2,000 weather presenters across the nation are Black. That number could get up to 150 if you include the smallest TV markets.
“For women of any ethnicity, the latest percentage for those on-air is about 29 percent (of the 2,000),” Sealls suggested to the Courier, “with at least 40 Black female weather presenters. I’d guess it’s closer to 50 or 60, with many young women entering the field, but in small markets.”
Sealls noted that there are TV markets that currently have no Black on-air weathercasters. Specifically about Pittsburgh and Faith breaking barriers, Sealls said: “Decades overdue, but congrats, Pittsburgh! Show the rest of the country how to do diversity.”
Jessica Faith was crowned Chilton County Miss Peach in 2010.
Having Faith in Pittsburgh also means there’s a pageant winner in town. Faith was the first Black woman to be crowned “Miss Peach,” in 2010. It’s a huge deal in Chilton County, Alabama, a pageant that’s a lifelong dream for many young women in that part of the country.
“It was my dream to be Miss Peach, but to believe I could win I had to set my own reality instead of going by the world’s negative reality,” Faith told the Mississippi State University student newspaper, The Reflector, in 2014. “I started by saying that this wasn’t too big for me. Every time I looked in the mirror, I said, ‘I am 2010 Miss Peach.’ I thought about what my reaction would be when I won. Then I spoke it into existence. I visualized. But to win was inexplicable.”
Faith later became “Miss Alabama A&M University,” while a student there. She’s also competed in the Miss Mississippi and Miss Alabama pageants.
As Faith’s TV career grew, she learned to be commanding and calm, mastering the ability to accurately convey life-saving information in a confident manner to the public. Faith explained that she works hard to perfect her craft and there is always something new to learn in the field of meteorology, especially with technology.
“Jessica cares deeply about getting her forecasts right. She knows the impact weather has on people’s lives and she wants to help people make the right choices for their days,” said Scott Trabandt, WPXI news director. “She is studious and focused, but quick with a smile or a kind word.”
“Forecasting is almost like a puzzle and it’s a lot of fun,” Faith told the Courier. “You have to take a ‘top-to-bottom’ approach with winter weather forecasting. It is a delicate process to get a snowflake from the top of the atmosphere to the bottom. I have fallen in love with snow and winter weather forecasting.”
She’s in the right city. Pittsburgh is known for its snowstorms, though the area hasn’t been engulfed in one of those true blizzards so far this winter. A few inches recently in the area was just an appetizer.
Faith told the Courier she serves as an example and proof that anyone, especially Black children and young women, can become, say, a meteorologist, and that dreams do come true. She encourages youth to always continue learning and remember that there’s always room for growth.
(Editor’s note, Jan. 19, 2022: This article refers to Black women meteorologists fully employed and who appeared regularly on a Pittsburgh TV news station for a period of at least six months. This article does not take into account spot or fill-in instances.)