Published: December 13. 2010 1:05AM in GoErie.com
By GERRY WEISS
It had the appearance of a practical joke, or a moment in some strange alternate universe.
There was Joey Stevens, a broadcasting staple in Erie since the late 1970s, delivering the weather as the region was getting blasted by a major lake-effect storm. It's snowing so hard, the drifts reaching several feet in some spots, that the Weather Channel sent meteorologist Mike Seidel here to file live reports on the "Today" show.
But Stevens is not huddled under a hooded coat or being battered by frigid temperatures, high winds and piles of white winter.
He's inside the WSEE-TV studios at 3514 State St., wearing a short-sleeved tropical shirt, belting out forecasts of 85-degree weather in between singing and dancing, and talking to a parrot named Bob, a puppet he bought in a toy store for about $40.
Yes, you would be right to see this as a prank or local twist on "The Twilight Zone."
That is, if it weren't for Stevens being beamed out via satellite every day to more than 30 countries and islands in the Caribbean and across Central America, the face of Lilly Broadcasting's increasingly popular and potentially lucrative 24-hour-a-day channel, One Caribbean Weather.
Viewers of WSEE, Erie's CBS affiliate, do not see these "weathertainment" broadcasts, producers say, which began in 2005 in Puerto Rico but ramped up around the globe in the summer of 2009.
And most people throughout the Erie area likely don't know the broadcasts even exist.
But from Guyana to Guadeloupe, from Belize to the Bahamas, Stevens -- WSEE's chief forecaster -- has quickly reached a level of international fame and celebrity that has eclipsed anything the 61-year-old has seen in the 34 years he's delivered weather reports here.
"They go crazy when they see him. They honk car horns and yell out of windows. They love Joey," said John Christianson, general manager of WSEE and One Caribbean Weather.
Stevens and several other on-camera and behind-the-scenes employees of WSEE and WICU-TV, both owned by Lilly, have traveled to numerous countries and islands over the past five years, Christianson said, invited by tourism agencies and chambers of commerce to make promotional appearances at local festivals and carnivals.
The expensive trips are completely paid for by these national departments, Christianson said, who foot the airfare, hotel and food bills in exchange for potential spikes in tourism after Stevens broadcasts from their country.
"People in airports run up to me, they take my picture. It's very humbling," Stevens said. "I'm in the Miami airport, and this guy says, 'Are you the weatherman with the parrot? We love you. We watch you all the time.' I mean, I'm just a regular guy. I'm very blessed to be able to do this."
The parrot, as Stevens puts it, is a fixture on the broadcasts and the star of the channel. Stevens will talk to and joke with "Bob" during the reports. Often, Bob will talk back, making Stevens part weatherman, part stand-up comic, part ventriloquist.
"Bob's our brand. He's on our shirts, our marketing materials, he's all over our website," Stevens said. "I know it sounds silly, and it sounds crazy, but it works. People love him. They love the parrot."
Fans, both in person and in e-mails from around the world, ask Stevens about Bob.
Custom agents at Caribbean airports ask the Erie weatherman where the parrot is.
Even dignitaries want to get close to the red and yellow bird.
"Give Bob whatever he wants. And I want to meet him," Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo told the Chronicle newspaper when Stevens and his colorful friend visited recently.
The idea for the Caribbean forecasts came from Brian Lilly, of Lilly Broadcasting, after he saw a lack of local English-language programming while vacationing on the islands several years ago. The media company purchased computer data, extra maps and graphics packages to give accurate forecasts, and receive some of their Caribbean weather content from the National Weather Service and other weather radar outlets.
Officials at Lilly now hope they can capitalize on what they believe is the Caribbean's and Central America's untapped market for weather forecasts and other original programming -- a market that for One Caribbean Weather currently has a combined population of more than 30 million people.
"It has so much potential," said Bob Misulich, a former news videographer at WSEE who is now the sales consultant and content producer for One Caribbean Weather.
"We're getting real estate shows. We have independent filmmakers showing interest. We're looking into sports, food, fashion. It can grow from just weather into whatever you can imagine."
Christianson said the channel is "close to being profitable. Hopefully in 2011 and beyond."
The general manager said WSEE and WICU, Erie's NBC affiliate, are still the core of Lilly Broadcasting's operation here.
"But this is a great way to expand. It's a niche we have that is growing and that people have embraced," Christianson said.
"The pie in Erie is getting smaller. Cable and satellite TV and the Internet diminishes our viewers. This is an opportunity for us to improve our place in the market."
GERRY WEISS can be reached at 870-1884 or by e-mail.