Justin Berk is distracted. Though he's being interviewed in the back of a Timonium Panera Bread, he keeps stealing glances at his MacBook Pro and his iPhone, which lies on the table buzzing and ringing frequently.
His preoccupation, as always, is the weather. A storm system is headed for Maryland and is moving in faster than anticipated. Suddenly, snow that was scheduled for the following day might arrive as early as this afternoon, and Berk, the meteorologist of choice for many Baltimoreans, is worried about missing a chance to update his legion of social media followers on the latest projections.
"I'm sorry. I hate to be rude," he says in his rapid-fire patois that still retains a hint of his native "New Yawk" accent. "Oh my God, this is crazy. Look," he continues, turning his computer to reveal a radar map.
"This is where it's going to start as rain and go to heavy snow, probably a couple inches of accumulation, then to rain, then into snow tomorrow," he says, pointing to the pink smear on the map engulfing the greater Baltimore region. "Now how do you [explain] that without putting people to sleep?" he asks, his eyes alight with all the delight of a kid on a snow day.
He finds ways. With more than 200,000 followers on Facebook, nearly 30,000 on Twitter, and as many as hundreds of thousands of daily visitors to his website, JustinWeather.com, Berk's populist touch can't be denied. Almost certainly, a portion of his audience followed him over from his Baltimore TV gigs, first at WBAL from 1997 to 2003 and then at WMAR from 2003 to 2012. But since heading online-only in 2012, his following has, well, snowballed, and he now reaches about 1 million people a week on Facebook alone, and up to 5 million during storms.
But he has accumulated a small, vocal contingent of detractors, as well. A parody Twitter account (@NotJustinBerk) regularly mocks his forecasting skills, his catch phrases ("Faith in the Flakes," "stickage," et al.), and his general persona. And though he has won several "Best of" awards from local media (including Baltimore in 2000, 2006, and 2007), he has also taken plenty of hits for his denial of man-made climate change and his thin-skinned reactions to criticism.
Somehow, this self-described "weather nut" has touched a nerve, becoming one of Baltimore's most divisive media figures. The irony is that Berk comes across like an inveterate people-pleaser. When an elderly man needs a chair at the packed Panera, Berk grabs one for him. When the issue of climate change is raised, Berk begs off, saying he's trying to avoid the issue these days because it's "too polarizing." (Contrary to the vast majority of climate scientists, he believes that global warming is due solely to the Earth's natural temperature fluctuations.) And when Cool Kids Campaign, a Towson-based charity for pediatric cancer patients and their families, needed an emcee for one of its American Girl model search events this month, guess who agreed to host?
"He pretty much agrees to anything we throw at him," says Sharon Perfetti, the executive director and co-founder of Cool Kids Campaign. "[The model search] means interviewing hundreds of American Girl hopefuls on a Saturday on his own time. If he sets a goal or says he's going to do something, you can count on it being accomplished."
"People were dropping F-bombs on stage. I don't do that."
This includes visiting schools most weeks to teach lessons about weather and raise money, and hiking and biking across Maryland. Last August, Berk spent a week trekking 321 miles from Wisp to Ocean City to raise money for Cool Kids, a trip he plans to repeat this summer. He averaged dozens of miles per day and developed excruciating blisters. Despite this, he refused to cut corners. Because pedestrians and cyclists are not allowed on the Bay Bridge, he took a boat to the Eastern Shore. But rather than sit back and enjoy the breeze, he insisted on riding a stationary bike on the boat during the crossing.
What's the source of this almost maniacal drive? "I survived a lot," he says.
Berk was born in the Bronx in 1973. His parents split up when he was 3, and it got ugly. "I remember everything. It was not fun," he says, though he declines to elaborate. The resulting custody battle lasted two years, one of which Berk spent in and out of foster care. Finally, Berk's father was given full custody of Berk and his older brother. His father soon remarried, a welcome development that stabilized the family. "I got to see something not work, and then I got to see something that worked better than most," Berk reflects.
But money remained tight, and the family bounced between the Bronx, where both his parents were public-school teachers, and the suburbs, a more middle-class existence made possible by his father's willingness to work extra jobs. These included weekend shifts at Caldor department store and selling IRAs and bonds.
"He'd be out until 11:30 at night," Berk remembers. "We couldn't afford to live in a close suburb, so we had to live way far out to get to something better. So his commute was about an hour and a half each way. He is the most generous person I know—and I'm not just saying that because he's my dad."
Through it all, weather remained an abiding fascination. It started when he was 5 or 6 years old and a blizzard forced New York City schools to close. It continued out in the 'burbs when he noticed that the TV weather reports didn't match what was happening outside his door. "We were getting different weather," he recalls. "I really wanted to understand why."
Berk's curiosity extended to cutting out the weather sections from various newspapers, leaving playtime with friends to watch the weather forecast on the TV news, and, of course, watching lots of the then-nascent Weather Channel. "It got to the point where, sometimes, I'd go into the bathroom in front of the mirror and pretend I'm pointing to a weather map and doing the forecast," he says sheepishly.
A shy kid, weather became a source of confidence for Berk. "My friends would be calling me up saying, 'Do we have to study for the test tomorrow?' The first time I [correctly predicted the weather] I was like, 'This is pretty cool. I'm helping people out, but it's nice to know what's going to happen ahead of time.'"
But another crisis loomed. At the end of eighth grade, Berk was hospitalized for what some doctors thought was cancer but turned out to be a staph infection. After surgery, Berk spiked a fever and his leg swelled, leading one doctor to suggest amputation. Though the doctor reconsidered, Berk wasn't out of the woods. He developed an allergy to penicillin and was forced to try a relatively new drug, which he thinks "fried" his thyroid and stunted his growth. It took a few years before Berk felt back to his old self.
"I was told by my doctor they weren't sure if I'd fully recover. I think I did."
It is because of this experience that Berk is so devoted to the Cool Kids Campaign, and, perhaps, why he reacts the way he does to adversity. "I think it's a good example for anybody. You can hear 'No,' and still go," he says.
And go he did, first to Cornell University, where he earned a degree in meteorology, and then to stations in Syracuse and Binghamton, NY, before landing in Baltimore at WBAL and then WMAR.
His tenure at WMAR ended abruptly in January 2012 when contract negotiations broke down forcing his departure. According to Berk, the major sticking point was his Facebook page. He had created a page to "explain weather as I wanted to, when I wanted to, not just when I was at work," but management wanted the ability to access and change it at will.
"It's a good example for anybody. You can hear 'No,' and still go."
"They could remove me from my own page, and then I'd turn into Steve Jobs version 1.0—kicked out of my own company," he says.
His Facebook page had about 5,200 followers at that point. But the harder the station pushed for access, the more he resisted. "Honestly, I doubled down," he says, figuring, "I must have something more valuable than I realize."
Though leaving television after nearly 20 years for social media was a massive change, it was not wholly unwelcome. Berk was tired of the early mornings and wanted more flexibility in his schedule.
He can now spend more time with his two sons, ages 9 and 5. (He is currently separated, but he and his wife live near each other north of Baltimore and plan to share custody.) In fact, it was his oldest son who pointed the way forward with an idea for a kid-friendly weather app that was released in November 2012. Called Kid Weather, it has been downloaded in 55 countries. Berk has another app, WUSUP: Weather You See, in development that will offer "crowd-sourced" weather updates. And, of course, he's working on further monetizing his website.
But social media can be a double-edged sword. And though Berk remains largely unscathed, the few nicks he has sustained continue to sting. Chief among them is that parody Twitter account, which, though only followed by 195 people, counts many of his old TV colleagues as fans.
The account's "bio" reads in part: "Even when it rains and I'm calling for snow, I am always 100% the man." When asked to explain the motive for the snark, the anonymous poster behind the account said, "EGO. [It is] larger than Maryland's population."
Berk sees the account as cyberbullying at best and litigious at worst. He claims current WMAR employees who have retweeted the account are in violation of the station's social-media policy. But he also says to sue would "not be my style." (WMAR general manager Bill Hooper had no comment.)
Berk's frustrations boiled over publicly last fall at the Mobbies, The Baltimore Sun's annual online media awards. Accepting one of two awards he won that night, he accused some members of the audience of helping "to propagate" the parody account. "I actually had to hire an attorney because it got so bad," he continued as the crowd murmured and tittered. "I'm sitting on such a tremendous amount of information that, if I went public, would actually be extremely detrimental, if not destroying some careers."
Then, changing tack, he said: "I've decided to take the high road. I decided to focus on the good stuff." He finished by quoting lyrics to Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" and grabbing his crotch. A video of the speech was uploaded to YouTube and made a minor splash in local media with City Paper editor (and former Baltimore senior editor) Evan Serpick commenting that the account is "frankly something a C-list local celebrity like Berk should probably be honored to have."
But Berk remains defiant. "I was at a snarky event to begin with. People were dropping F-bombs on stage. I don't do that. . . . I briefly mentioned that with my award and many good things, my past year was not all fun and games," he explains.
And it is precisely this attitude that infuriates his detractors. What Berk sees as uncompromising and moral, his critics view as petty and egotistical.
Meanwhile, his fans are unaware—or at least uninterested—in this media tug of war.
Near the end of the interview, Berk is distracted once again, but this time not by the weather. A young blonde woman is staring at him, and he is sure he knows her from somewhere. As she approaches Berk asks, "Have we met before? You look really familiar."
"I don't think so," the woman admits. "I follow you on Facebook though, so maybe that's part of it."