Weatherman Kevin Benson to mark 25 years at WPXI-TV
When newly arrived news director Mike Goldrick told a store employee a few years ago that he worked at WPXI, he was surprised by the immediate follow-up question: “Do you know Kevin Benson?”
It's rare that the first person someone asks about is the weekend weather guy, Goldrick says. ”It's usually the main anchors or the sports guy. That told me how Kevin resonates with the Pittsburgh viewer,” he says.
Benson is celebrating 25 years at Pittsburgh's NBC affiliate in September.
After working virtually all of those years in marathon weekend shifts that found him cramming four days into two with morning and evening show duties and filling in during the week, Benson, 53, was named the station's regular weekday morning meteorologist in April.
“Everywhere I go, people tell me they love Kevin. No one knows Pittsburgh better than Kevin,” Goldrick says. “For years (1987 to 1999), he had a second full-time job in sales and marketing in the beer industry, traveling to every bar, tavern and restaurant in the Pittsburgh area. He knows every little town around.”
In June 1990, with co-anchor Lori Savitch, Benson pioneered local Saturday-morning news programming in the Pittsburgh market. Sundays were added after the experiment was deemed a success. “I remember when we first went on the air, people called and said, ‘Hey, put the cartoons back on,' ” Benson recalls.
“He has this wonderful ability to make the weather both interesting and easy to understand. He's a great story teller,” says WPXI's chief meteorologist Stephen Cropper.
Benson says that's his favorite part of television.
“I think people have always had a high interest in weather. It has an impact on everyone's life every day,” says the Cecil resident who grew up in Brockway, Jefferson County. “Doing a weathercast live, on-air with no written script, just spontaneous ad-libbing, keeps me on my toes. It's exciting.”
He is proud of being able to warn viewers of many severe events over the years “so they were able to keep loved ones safe and perhaps prevent damage to their property.”
The mobile mayor
Benson believes Pittsburgh-area viewers respect longevity and experience. He has been at the same station in virtually the same time slot since 1987.
“People get used to you and begin to feel comfortable with you over time. They know that you will provide a reliable, accurate forecast, that's how you become dependable, and I think they also realize that I really know this area pretty well,” he says.
Former WPXI writer-producer-host Suzanne Brozek Scott of Hampton refers to him as “The mobile mayor of Pittsburgh.”
“Literally, everywhere you go, everybody knows Kevin, not just from seeing him on TV, but they actually have interacted with him,” she says. “People like him. He'd get re-elected. I'd vote for him!”
Morning news anchor Jennifer Abney, recalling the most recent promotional shoot the staff did Downtown, agrees. “We all felt like we were with a real celebrity,” she says. “I think, at last count, 50 people stopped to chat with Kevin, and he knew every single person's name.”
When former Steeler Hines Ward stopped by WPXI recently, he was unintentionally over-shadowed by Benson when the weatherman walked into the studio, says traffic reporter Trisha Pittman.
“Everyone shouted ‘Big Guy,' as we call Kevin, and in seconds, the attention was taken off the NFL star and focused on Kevin,” she says. “He's the only guy I know who can upstage a future Hall of Famer, and that says a lot.”
Benson is “full of life and bigger than life all at the same time,” says station meteorologist Scott Harbaugh, who views him as a throwback to the TV news days of the '70s and '80s — “always ready to be on camera and ready to greet people.”
Hard at work
Chances are good that whenever he talks about a storm sweeping toward a community, that he can visualize that town from his days selling beer there.
“I became familiar with local communities and met tavern and restaurant operators and their customers and made relationships that remain to this day,” Benson says.
From 1984 to 1987, Benson was an Iron City Beer brand manager. During that time, Benson also was weekend-afternoon DJ on WTAE Radio, Pittsburgh, a job he loved.
He spent time in the 1980s working for the Stroh Brewing Co. out of offices in Erie, where he earlier began his broadcasting career in radio and television. He would drive to Pittsburgh weekends, at first, to do his radio show on WTAE and later to work at WPXI.
Then from the late '80s to late '90s, he worked on the sales staff at an Anheuser Busch wholesale distributor in Canonsburg in addition to his work at WPXI.
“He helped turn a fledgling distributorship on the verge of losing its franchise to one of the more respected in Pennsylvania,” says Bob Sullivan of Burgettstown who worked with Benson for seven years at Anheuser Busch.
Balancing two careers worked, Benson says, because he really did enjoy both jobs. “To me, selling beer during the week and doing television on weekends was great. I never pushed the station to move me from weekends,” he says.
Almost everyone on both the television side and beer operations thought it was a great arrangement, he says. “Whenever we had a get together, co-workers would always point at me and say, ‘and you bring the beer!' ” he recalls. And, he says, some of his contacts in the beer industry would say, “ ‘Hey, turn on Channel 11, we know the weather guy!' ”
In the beer industry, he made presentations to customers directly, and that's how he tries to speak to viewers. “I try to talk one-on-one like I was making a sales call,” he says. “When someone tunes in to Channel 11, they have entered our store, they become our customer.”
Making a choice
As his responsibilities grew in both careers, he knew he would have to make a choice, and broadcasting was a lifelong passion.
Friend Perry Franco, a former roommate at Gannon College, Erie, and now a vice president of a company in Michigan, saw Benson build a solid foundation for success.
“He was raised with strong, humble, family roots. Family and friends are of the utmost importance to him,” he says. “You know you can always rely on him. He strives to give his best and be the best at what he does.”
Benson certainly was called on to give his all in a defining moment in his television career — his marathon coverage, with co-anchor Lori Savitch, of the “Blizzard of '93” weekend that, he says, “really put me on the map.” They were on the air almost non-stop from early Saturday morning until Sunday night.
“People couldn't get to the station to relieve us because the roads were just too snow-covered,” he recalls. “We had a huge audience, and we did our best to keep people informed throughout one of the biggest weather events in local history.”
Food in the studio ran out by Sunday, recalls Savitch, who now works in healthcare communications in Morgantown, W.Va., “and we were starved.”
“Kevin put out a call for pizza and the next thing you know we had more pizza in the newsroom than we could ever eat. Some of the kind folks in the Fineview neighborhood came by with a few covered dishes, as well,” she says.
Throughout the weekend, Benson trudged through the fast-falling snow in the parking lot, measuring drifts with a yardstick on camera.
“It was great television, because Kev could be informative and laugh, at the situation and at himself, all at the same time,” Savitch says. “There was no pretense. Not everyone could pull that off. That's Kev's special talent.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or email@example.com.