Meteorology, mixology and meritorious service

WCCO meteorologist Mike Augustyniak prepares to mix a Gin Gin at Mercy Bar inside Le Méridien Chambers Hotel. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.

Clouds in a coup glass

I was eager to see how Mike Augustyniak, WCCO’s top weather guy, “Saturday Morning Show” host and initiator of the show’s popular “Mike’s Mix” segments, would respond to a challenge. He had selected his favorite bar, The Library, tucked beneath the Mercy Bar of Le Méridien Chambers Hotel, for its privacy.

In good fun, and to break the ice, I ambushed him with a droll request: “Would you be willing to mix one of your personal favorite cocktails for the photo shoot?”

“Sure, why not?” he replies in his characteristic easygoing style.

Next, I upped the challenge for this thirtysomething Rotterdam, New York native with another small dare in the form of a gift in a bottle: “Could you innovate your favorite mix by using an ingredient I’ve brought along?”

Without missing a beat, we engaged in an impromptu discussion about the properties of the small container of 100 percent pure concentrated organic ginger juice (a secret in many of my own alcoholic concoctions). Foremost, Augustyniak is a true scientist — he knows how chemical properties of fruits and distillations combine — so he went to work.

Sidling behind the backlit bar, our meteorologist morphed into mixologist, shaking up a minor storm he named the “Gin Gin Gimlet” and pouring the resultant pungent frothiness into a coup glass. (It was divine!) He even graciously granted permission for us to post a short video clip of this performance. It turns the tables on his “Mike’s Mix” format, where his crew does the filming and local Minneapolis mix masters create the brew.

Intelligent and unpretentious

So how did a Phi Beta Kappa, a self-proclaimed science geek, get the idea to start a segment on craft cocktails for one of the Twin Cities’ top-rated network stations?

“‘Mike’s Mix’ is essentially a cooking segment but with liquid ingredients,” he confesses. “Eating and drinking is a big part of how people socialize and build communities of their own. I really love the idea of a single shared interest like cocktails bringing together a group of people from diverse backgrounds, experiences and viewpoints to share conversation and learn from each other.”

In fact, Augustyniak started the segment at a time when “you could count the number of craft cocktail bars in the Twin Cities on one hand.” Today the Twin Cities enjoy a true craft cocktail culture —which Augustyniak tracked well ahead of the curve.

There aren’t many instances of such career crossover combinations in the mainstream broadcast weather world. Augustyniak’s first news director at WCCO, Scott Libin, now senior fellow of the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication and chair of the Radio Television Digital News Association, remains impressed by just what Augustyniak brings to the table.

“Mike is as highly qualified as an on-air meteorologist can be, yet he isn’t one-dimensional,” states Libin. “His feature franchise, ‘Mike’s Mix,’ clearly demonstrates his interest in other elements of life, and his contributions to news programs aren’t limited to weather. Mike comes across as informed, thoughtful and interesting — because he actually is. His passion for and knowledge of serious subjects like climate science have become even more valuable over his years at WCCO.”

Indeed, his astuteness on multiple subjects poured forth as smoothly as the ginger-gin drink, tempered with a humility and warm sense of humor that marks the television host as genuine and approachable — not typical celebrity qualities.

“Mike’s just a good guy,” Libin continues. “Of the many on-air people I’ve worked with, Mike is one of the most responsive to coaching. When he asks for feedback, he doesn’t mean he just wants compliments. He is always looking for ways to learn, improve and grow. How can you not like that?

“He spoke recently with a group of students whom I brought to the station. They found him instantly ‘relatable’ — the highest praise a college student can give. He spoke to them with respect, candor and clarity. That’s the way he treats his viewers, too.”

This mixture of intellect and authenticity extends to Augustyniak’s other extra-curricular activities. He’s known and respected for paying it forward in his contributions to young people and various social justice issues. His work for causes like PACER’s anti-bullying campaign and GiveOUT Day’s LGBTQ initiatives are recognized and valued. He’s particularly active working to help young people in his field.

“Most of the opportunities I’ve had in my career have come thanks to the help of a more-experienced or well-connected colleague,” he attests. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I have finished paying forward my good fortune or the help I’ve received along the way, so I focus most of my energy in helping others in my field.”

He recently ended a three-year appointment to the American Meteorological Society’s Board for Private Sector Meteorologists, where he served as board chair. The society helps students and early career professionals “with the stuff they don’t teach in college — mentoring, resume writing, job hunting and developing extra-curricular skills for the work world,” he explains.

Additionally, he teaches broadcast meteorology as an adjunct at St. Cloud State University.

One of his significant contributions is in the area of climate change, where he is a known and respected speaker, working with academics, national organizations and local business leaders “to inform the community, by talking and listening, about workable solutions our planet so desperately needs,” he emphasizes.

He’s constantly attending weather and space-related conferences to keep up-to-date in his field and is fascinated by the science of communicating science. He acknowledges that “many academics are very smart but admittedly bad at communicating complex science to the general public. With my schooling and master’s degree in atmospheric science, and 25 years of public speaking experience, I’m fortunate to be in a position to bridge the gap.”

Nerdy beginnings, astronomical outcomes

An only child, Augustyniak terms himself an “outgoing introvert” who was a quiet kid, not athletic, and didn’t need a ton of friends or to be the center of attention.

“I was lucky,” he reminisces. “There was no drama in my family life and my parents were around a lot.”

He attributes his sense of humor, passionate speaking style and more outgoing traits to his mom, Donna, and his quiet, science side to his dad, Ed, who was a lab technician for a worldwide chemical manufacturer headquartered in nearby Schenectady, New York and fixed avionics in the Air Force during Vietnam.

“I loved the lab stuff as a kid,” he says. “I remember my dad bringing home test tubes and beakers for me to play with and helping me to set up my first amateur weather station.”

He recalls that his dad always had a lot of questions about the weather, and that “I got the flying bug from him.” Augustyniak still cherishes airports and airshows: “Like almost all meteorologists, I have a great interest in space and flight.”

Augustyniak still enjoys a very close relationship with his mom and dad, who was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in early 2017 and underwent a bone marrow transplant in September.

“Today he’s completely healthy,” Augustyniak gratefully concedes, expressing much appreciation to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston for their help and support. He also credits Dr. Aref Al-Kali from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, “who took the time graciously, and with nothing to gain, to answer my questions as we decided what course of treatment to was best for my dad.”

Understandably, Augustyniak is actively promoting Be The Match, headquartered right here in Minneapolis, for doing the great work that they do. He is registered to be a bone marrow donor and hopes that many others will consider it, too.

Creative relationship building

The broadcast industry is listed as one of the top growing professions in the Minneapolis Creative Vitality Index. But unlike makers in many of the other creative arts, on-air talent often face a stark reality of having to move from market to market in order to advance. This, plus the obvious on-air notoriety, can make building long-term, authentic relationships a bit dicey. When does fandom end and true friendship begin?

Branching out with “Mike’s Mix” has bridged that gap to a certain extent for the affable introvert, who has squarely settled into the Minneapolis scene since his move here ten years ago.

“There’s a renewed sense of connection within the Twin Cities bartending community,” Augustyniak remarks while sipping his Gin Gin. “The expansion of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild, of which I’m a member, into the market has brought more educational opportunities to our bartenders, as well as a sense that bartending is a hard but respectable white-collar profession (as it was regarded prior to Prohibition),” he adds.

A plus for Augustyniak is that he’s made more friendships within the bartending community than anywhere else, “and I value that.”

Augustyniak currently enjoys living in Mill City with his partner, and his Boston terrier, Lola, whose likeness he proudly wears on his tee shirt for our photo shoot.

His “Mike’s Mix” segment takes him to all corners of our crafty cocktail city. Chances are he’s already visited your favorite bar. If not, suggest they contact him with their special brew, and he just might show up.

Bet they can’t beat a Gin Gin, though.