She laughs in the face of danger – or at least tries not to think about it, as she reports from the sites of hurricanes, floods and other severe weather events. It’s all in a day’s work for this Rockford-area native.
If you’ve ever watched The Weather Channel, chances are you’ve seen Julie Martin, a petite, affable reporter who’s often leaning into the teeth of an East Coast hurricane, or standing smack dab in the middle of a flooded street in some Midwestern town.
Five years ago, Martin joined the national cable TV network based in Atlanta, which is seen in more than 100 million U.S. homes. She also happens to be a northern Illinois native who, during college, discovered a love of broadcast journalism that has taken her all across the country covering news and weather-related events.
“I definitely get an adrenaline rush,” she says of her fast-paced and sometimes hazardous career. “You’re thinking so much about the job, what’s going on around you, and what you should be telling viewers, that you don’t have time to get scared. But I do get scared later, when I think about some of the stories I’ve covered.”
The fact that she has a high-profile job which puts her in front of millions of viewers may come as a surprise to local viewers, who remember her as Julie Penticoff. “I was shy growing up,” she says. But Martin overcame her apprehension at an early age, so she could perform as a ballet dancer. She studied dance at the Helen Olson Dance Studio and at 15, joined the Rockford Dance Company. “I was serious about ballet and performing,” she says. “I was there every night after school.” She also joined the cheerleading squad at Winnebago High School, where she graduated in 1990.
Shyness wasn’t the only obstacle Martin faced as a young child. She was born with a birth defect called amniotic band syndrome, a congenital disorder that prevents fetal parts, usually a limb or fingers, from fully developing while in the womb. It affected both of Martin’s hands, but the defect is more pronounced on her left.
Over the years, she underwent many difficult surgeries, and endured occasional ribbing from other children. “It was tough as a kid,” says Martin, who has full use of both hands. “I didn’t understand why it was happening, or why I was different. It was something I had to work through. But it’s never stopped me from doing anything. In fact, it’s motivated me to do more.”
But not in television, at least not right away. Growing up, Martin was all too familiar with the business – her mother, Mona Penticoff, has worked in local television sales for years. One day during high school, Martin shadowed a reporter at a news station, only to discover she really didn’t like the work. Instead, when she graduated from Rock Valley College, she considered a career in art before moving on to Augustana College, where she graduated in 1994 with a degree in speech communications.
Martin’s career plans changed during her senior year at Augustana, when she accepted a public relations internship at CNN, in Atlanta. That experience led to a full-time job with the company, where she spent three years writing and helping to produce newscasts. CNN offered Martin a promotion, but what she really wanted to do was report news. With no on-camera jobs available, Martin decided to leave the network and find a reporter position. “Most people start out in a small market and then go to a network like CNN,” she says. “I did it backwards.”
Her first stop was Florence, S.C., where she worked for three years as a medical reporter and weekend anchor for a CBS affiliate. Eager to get closer to home, she moved to CLTV, a cable network in Chicago, where she freelanced for two years. Other stops along the way included Milwaukee and Los Angeles, where she covered everything from wildfires to a high-profile Michael Jackson trial. “I was there when M.J. jumped onto the SUV like it was a stage,” she says. “It was a circus-like atmosphere.”
It was during a freelancing stint at WGN-TV in Chicago that she got a call from The Weather Channel, which was looking for a reporter to handle feature-type stories. Despite not having a weather background, Martin was hired in 2006.
“Julie fit the bill perfectly,” says Howard Sappington, program director at The Weather Channel. “She’s a true pro and a seasoned journalist. She’s an excellent writer, she knows how to tell a story, and she knows how to relate the information to our audience and make people care. There’s nothing she can’t do.”
And that includes continuing her education. Martin recently earned her online meteorology degree from Mississippi State University, while working a full-time schedule.
Martin has covered many memorable stories for The Weather Channel, including two major hurricanes that hit the United States in 2008. She was in New Orleans over Labor Day that year to cover lethal Hurricane Gustav, the first post-Katrina hurricane to batter the Bayou State.
“It was a very eerie and strange place to be, when everyone else was leaving, and we were staying,” Martin says. “I remember we stayed at a hotel that had us sign a waiver that read, ‘If you die, we’re not responsible.’ But it all worked out OK.”
Days later, Martin traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to report on Hurricane Ike, an equally devastating storm that caused considerable damage along the Texas coast.
“I was reporting from the back of a minivan at the time,” she recalls. “We would hear a big plunk in the middle of the night, and we didn’t know what it was. It was sort of like Armageddon.”
More recently, Martin was on the scene in Joplin, Mo., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., reporting on the aftermath of several deadly tornadoes.
“It was tough to be there,” she says. “It looked like a war zone.”
On a lighter note, Martin returned to Rockford last April to report on thunderstorms that were threatening the Midwest. She and her crew spent an entire day reporting live from Beattie Park. While the storms turned out to be minor, she received a warm welcome from local well-wishers.
“There was a steady stream of people who came by,” says Martin, who returns home a couple of times a year to visit family and friends. “My mom was there, and my grandma brought food. Even the media came out to cover it. It was fun.”
When she’s not tracking storms, Martin spends her time with husband John, a senior producer at CNN. She also enjoys traveling and going out to dinner with friends. The couple is expecting their first child next spring. Until then, Martin will spend more time reporting from The Weather Channel’s studio.
Soon enough, Martin will be back on the road, following the hurricanes, floods and tornadoes that make headlines.
“It’s a job that you have to be completely committed to,” she says. “You have to be willing to drop everything and go. That’s the nature of weather, and I enjoy covering the big stories.”