Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Thursday, 15 October 2009 16:37 UK

The forecast is... changeable

By Tamsyn Kent
BBC News Magazine

The BBC is trying out a new format for its radio weather bulletins, based on the shipping forecast. As ever, the tweaked forecast has had bouquets and brickbats. But why does it matter so much?

PM weather map
Forecast will be broken into areas shown in map above
Area named first, then forecast given
Order of areas will be same in each bulletin

"Tyne, Dogger, German Bight" - the poetic rhythm of the shipping forecast is not only loved by the sailing fraternity.

Where any of these areas actually are matters little to fans who lack nautical knowledge. It is part of the collective consciousness, regarded with huge affection by listeners.

And while the BBC's shipping forecast has hardly changed since it was first broadcast in 1924, its method of breaking the forecast into geographical areas is the model for a shake-up of the corporation's other radio forecasts.

After listeners' complaints that forecasts are neither memorable or useful, Radio 4's PM programme, with meteorologist Peter Gibbs, is experimenting with a new format.

The first went out on Monday to much fanfare, with coverage in the national newspapers and a special map on the PM website.

The new format divides the UK into regions - similar to the sea areas used in the shipping forecast - and the forecast for each will be given in the same order in every bulletin.

"It will be very precisely signposted so you won't have to listen to the whole of the forecast to catch the bit that's relevant to you," says Mr Gibbs.

"Generally we'll start in the south and work northwards."

So far, reactions are mixed. But this is a nation not known for its willingness to embrace changes to the weather forecast.

Don't go changing

In 2005, when the BBC introduced a computer-generated map for its TV forecasts, the complaints flooded in. About the drab colours, the loss of the isobars, and even motion-sickness as the camera panned across the British Isles.

Michael Fish reads the weather
That was then...

Is this an unwillingness to accept change, or is it indicative of the British obsession with the weather?

"The weather is incredibly influential in how we live our lives. Historically it was something that could be talked about that caused little offence. Religion and politics were deemed too inflammatory," says sociologist Dr Chris Thorpe.

"There's an almost subconscious element to our obsession with the weather. In the 18th Century, forecasting was something the aristocracy did to prove they were different from vulgar elements who believed it was a divine force. Maybe at some level we still internalise this, forecasting as a way of distinguishing ourselves."

2005 change to TV weather map
... and this is how TV weather maps look now

When newspapers stopped listing temperatures in the UK's holiday resorts two years ago, there was further outrage.

"It had been going for 120 years, but the Met Office decided it was antiquated and expensive," says Philip Eden, former vice president of the Royal Meteorological Society.

"Thousands of people wrote in to complain. It was simply a break in their routine, they felt it was their local weather report."

He is not convinced that Britons are alone in being emotionally attached to the weather.

"In Europe people talk about the weather just like we do. I wonder if it's a bit of British whimsy that we're obsessed with the weather."

Otherwise fine

But it undoubtedly influences the way Britons live and, for some, it goes a long way to explaining the national character.

Storm on Whitley Bay beach
The UK's weather is so changeable it is always in people's consciousness

"We're not really just talking about the weather, we're talking about lots of things like intelligence, or status," says Dr Thorpe. "That might explain why we get so angry when the weather forecast is wrong - we feel as if our intelligence has been insulted in some way."

The new format is an experiment but, if successful, it will be rolled out across Radio 4.

It is a move away from the "storytelling" style of forecasting, complete with chatty asides. This can work on TV, as viewers can see the graphics, but it can be hard to decipher on the radio.

"Radio presentation got stuck in a cul-de-sac," says Mr Eden. "I presented for 30 years and the style we were told to follow was telling a story."

"It was Ronnie Corbett style, going on and on for ages without getting anywhere. This new system actually goes back to what I was originally taught, to follow a structure with clear geographical signposts."

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