Episode Preview with Transportation Journalist Bernie Wagenblast (audio, 48 s):
Full Episode (audio):
May 9, 2023Episode 57. For Bernie Wagenblast, both career and life have been all about transition.
FEATURING: Bernie Wagenblast
As a transportation journalist, Bernie Wagenblast has been weaving narratives of a professional sort for more than 40 years. As it turns out, one of her most recent stories is more personal.
About Our Guest
Transportation Journalist, Voice Actor
Bernie Wagenblast is a transportation journalist and voice actor. She was introduced to the transportation world as a traffic reporter in NYC in 1979. In addition to her radio work, she also worked for over a decade for the New York City Department of Transportation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the traffic operations field. She’s currently one of the voices of the NYC subways as well as the AirTrain at Newark Airport and the Port Authority Transit Corporation Speedline. She hosts transportation podcasts for American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and edits several transportation newsletters, including the 25-year old Transportation Communications Newsletter.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello again, and welcome to Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Many of us know Bernie Wagenblast as the founder and editor of the Transportation Communications Newsletter. Bernie’s daily chronicle of all things mobility is now in its 25th year. Noteworthy as that is, it barely begins to illustrate her diverse career as a transportation storyteller. After landing a radio job at age 23 in New York — America’s biggest media market — Bernie progressed from one new work adventure to another, each one in transportation, navigating a decades-long series of professional transitions. And after more than 40 years, at the end of 2022, she shared the news of another transition. This one more personal. Welcome, Bernie, and thank you so much for sharing your time with us.
Bernie Wagenblast (guest) (01:23):
Great to be here, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (01:26):
Okay. You really have quite an impressive resume. I’m just going to hit some of the main points here for folks who may not be as familiar with your background as I have become — yours is one of the voices that we hear on the New York Subway announcements. Same for JFK Airport, editor of two newsletters, host of three podcasts, owner of your own business, and multiple volunteer service commitments. Did I get all of that right?
Bernie Wagenblast (01:57):
The only thing I would change is I was at JFK Airport, but now I’m only at Newark Liberty International Airport. They replaced me with a computer at JFK Airport. <Laugh>
Bernie Fette (02:08):
<laugh>. Okay. Well, you know, I have a question that I was going to ask about artificial intelligence, but I’ll, I’ll just hold that until a little bit later in our conversation, <laugh>. Okay. But clearly you enjoy staying busy.
Bernie Wagenblast (02:21):
Yeah. Yeah. I consider myself semi-retired these days. I do these various tasks, but it also gives me some free time to enjoy the rest of life.
Bernie Fette (02:32):
Okay. Where does that all come from? How busy you stay, even as someone who claims to be semi-retired, where does that come from?
Bernie Wagenblast (02:41):
Oh, I think part of it is I wanted to work in radio for when I was a little kid, so this is as close to radio as I can get these days, but it’s on my own schedule and doing the things that I want to do. So that is kind of why I stay as busy as I do, because it’s, it’s something I enjoy. It’s not work at this point.
Bernie Fette (03:03):
Okay. You’ve been in transportation communications for more than 40 years. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Got your start at age 23 in the nation’s biggest media market. At age 23, the biggest market. Can you take a couple minutes just to tell us about those early years, if you would?
Bernie Wagenblast (03:21):
Sure. I never anticipated working in the transportation field. It kind of happened by accident, if you will. I always knew I wanted to work in radio, and I had had some jobs in radio before that opportunity came up in New York City where I was doing things like covering city council meetings and board of education meetings for a local radio station. And then I had a job at a New York City radio station, but it was off the air. I was working in the, the newsroom doing pretty much everything a reporter does except actually being on the air. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> and I had gone out to Indiana to a station in New Albany, Indiana, which was a news talk radio station just across the Ohio River from Louisville, and I wanted to be back on the air. So that was a great opportunity to do that. But it was clear that that radio station wasn’t going to be around for the long haul. So after my six-month lease in my apartment was up, I headed back home to New Jersey and was looking for a job. And fortunately I got a call that this new company, at least new to New York, called Shadow Traffic, was going to be opening up in New York. They had already been open in Chicago and in the city where they started, Philadelphia. And the idea behind this was they were going to provide traffic reports for many of the different radio stations in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, And they said, would you like to come in for an audition? Well, I’ve always been a fan of maps, so I had a pretty good lay of the land when it came to the geography of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. And I passed the audition, and at 23 years old in 1979, I had this opportunity to be on the air doing traffic reports on two of the biggest radio stations in the country, WABC, which was still a music station back then, and 1010 WINS which was one of the first all-news radio stations in the country. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So here I was at this early age on the air, not just on the air in New York, but on the air during drive time, which is the morning and afternoon peak periods for my engineering friends that is the most listened to time of day if you’re on the radio to be on. So it was, it was wonderful. And like I say, I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my introduction to the world of transportation.
Bernie Fette (05:43):
That would, again, last more than four decades. That’s, that’s amazing. What a wonderful story.
Bernie Wagenblast (05:50):
Bernie Fette (05:50):
You’ve seen a lot of change in your time as a professional. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, moving from, again, just hitting some high points here, moving from radio to the New York City Department of Transportation, then to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, back to radio. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, somewhere along the line, you started your own company, Bernie Wagrenblast Communications. So you’ve been through a number of transitions in your working life. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, and now going through another transition, this one in your personal life. Yes. Please tell us more about that.
Bernie Wagenblast (06:27):
Well, this, I would have to say, has been the biggest transition. At the end of December of 2022. I shared with the world that I was going to be transitioning to living as a woman. It is something that I knew about myself from my earliest memories. I have memories of wanting to be a girl when I was four years old, and it was something that was always with me. But growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, that was just something that couldn’t be shared, I felt, safely with anyone, and I pretty much kept it a secret for most of my life, except for those who were closest to me. But finally, as 2022 was winding down, I decided that I wanted to finally live the way I always felt inside. So I shared that, and as of January 1st, I made what was one of the biggest New Year’s resolutions I suppose you can make, and that was to start living my life in public as a female. And I’ve been doing that ever since.
Bernie Fette (07:36):
I really appreciated in listening to your Cranford podcast, where the tables were turned and you were the interviewee, instead of being the interviewer for that particular episode, and you explained things for listeners by using the right hand – left hand analogy. Can you review that just a little bit? Because I thought it was really, really helpful to the listeners.
Bernie Wagenblast (08:02):
Sure. I think unless you are trans, it’s very difficult to understand why someone would want to live in a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And it’s very difficult to explain it to someone else. So the easiest way for me to make an analogy was something I had heard from other people, and that’s being right-handed or left-handed. Most of us were born right-handed or left-handed, and that was just naturally what we did. When you watch little babies and toddlers and you start seeing which, which arm and which leg is dominant. Well, if you try to change that person, say when they’re a teenager, and say, okay, well, you always write and throw and kick right-handed, left-footed, or right-footed. Now we’re going to ask you to switch and you’re gonna have to do everything from your left side. It would feel very unnatural for you to do that. It would be a struggle. You would not do it as well as you do on your dominant side. And that’s kind of like what being trans is. It’s a little more in your head than being right-handed or left-handed may be, but it’s very similar to try to understand, asking someone to use the side of their body that is not the dominant side of their body.
Bernie Fette (09:35):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, You’ve said that you have enjoyed a lot of support from friends and family.
Bernie Wagenblast (09:42):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yes.
Bernie Fette (09:44):
Have you had any concerns about whether your transition might adversely affect the professional relationships, relationships that in many cases you’ve built over so many years of working in transportation?
Bernie Wagenblast (10:00):
I had some concern, but they weren’t deep concerns. I have a couple of clients that I do podcasts for. One is ITE, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and the other is AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. And I also do some newsletters for AASHTO. And before anything was publicly announced, this goes back to June, I think, I reached out to both organizations and shared with them who I was, and the fact that I anticipated that this was going to become public information. I wasn’t sure at that point if I was going to socially transition to present in public as a woman, but the information that I was trans was going to be out there, and I wanted them to be aware of that. I also shared it with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the MTA in New York, which operates the subways where I do the voice, as well as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, uh, because I do the voice for the Air Train and a few other places at the Port Authority. And all of them were a hundred percent supportive, had absolutely no problem with it, and let me know that they would be behind me. So that was wonderful. That was just absolutely wonderful to have that happen.
Bernie Fette (11:21):
When you first started out professionally, transportation was very much a male-dominated industry. Still is in many ways. And men have generally enjoyed certain advantages in the workplace, not just in transportation, but in many workplaces, while many times women have had to struggle for fair and equal treatment. For almost your whole career, you presented yourself as a man.
Bernie Wagenblast (11:49):
Bernie Fette (11:50):
But privately knew yourself as a woman.
Bernie Wagenblast (11:53):
Bernie Fette (11:56):
I’m curious to know what your thoughts were before and what they are now, in terms of what we refer to as male privilege.
Bernie Wagenblast (12:06):
Without a doubt, I have benefited from male privilege. It’s true that in the transportation world, there was much more male domination, but my initial experience was in the broadcasting world where it was much more a 50-50 split between men and women, at least in the on-air positions where I was involved. Maybe not up at the executive level, but certainly in the on-air position. So, okay. Even just transitioning from broadcasting to working in government was a little bit of a change for me. Like I say, I benefited from male privilege, and even though I knew myself to be female inside, I’m sure that there were times that being seen as a guy benefited me in my career. But I also had the unusual situation of working in the transportation world. And most of my colleagues had been trained in transportation. That was what their degrees were in, whether they were engineers or planners or some other field where they had formal training and education in transportation. I had none of that. And so I was always, in some ways, a little bit of the odd person when it came to being with my colleagues that I came from a different world than they did, and they were much more comfortable with numbers and formulas, something that I’m totally uncomfortable with. And I was able to use the areas that I was strong in to create a, a niche for myself in terms of what my career would look like. So I was able to use those communication skills in a unique way that maybe some of my colleagues in the transportation world weren’t as comfortable using and weren’t as comfortable being involved with.
Bernie Fette (14:07):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So did that realization that you had been benefiting from male privilege, did that cause any hesitation on your part in terms of the time that you chose to make your announcement?
Bernie Wagenblast (14:21):
Not significantly. I certainly acknowledged that when I shared in a post on both LinkedIn and Facebook about my coming out, that I have enjoyed male privilege, and I think the fact that I did this after I was semi-retired and not working day to day, Monday through Friday, nine to five, so to speak. May have helped, but I think at least here in this part of the country where I live, that even if I were still working full-time for the organizations that I had worked for, that I would’ve been in a welcoming environment. And I don’t think it would have necessarily harmed any future that I had in those industries, but if I had transitioned back in my twenties, I think my career would’ve looked much different for a variety of reasons, both because back in the 1970s, the world was generally not accepting anywhere of trans folks, and because I would not have been able to take advantage of that male privilege that I’ve enjoyed throughout my career.
Bernie Fette (15:30):
Right, right. You mentioned going back to a time in your twenties. I know that you invest a lot of your time now and have in recent years as a mentor.
Bernie Wagenblast (15:42):
Bernie Fette (15:42):
Uh, for students who are pursuing a career in broadcasting. So it seems fair to say that you are a role model for those young people who you can share your experience with and help them in their own processes of making early career decisions of planning their job hunts, and whatever else they may be able to benefit from in terms of knowing your experience. .Des that calling of being a mentor to young people, extend to young students who are facing the same sort of gender identity challenges that you have faced?
Bernie Wagenblast (16:20):
I think so. I have not had any of my mentoring opportunities come up since I transitioned in January. But just this past weekend, my college radio station where I do most of that mentoring, had a 75th anniversary celebration, and there were people there from all generations of the college radio station’s existence, and I received nothing but support from people both in my own generation as well as people who are students today. So certainly if there are opportunities for me to mentor younger people, I would welcome those opportunities to do that. In fact, one of the things that I’ve been involved with, not professionally, but in a support group that I’m a member of, is setting up a mentoring program for people who are trans, who are either contemplating or early in their transition, because there’s a lot of difficult things that go along with it. It’s not just the obvious ones, but you know, trying to figure out what your style is and trying to figure out clothing and legal changes like changing your name legally, or changing the gender that appears on your birth certificate. Those are all somewhat complicated things when you’re faced with that and it can seem overwhelming. And to have someone who has had some experience with that be there to kind of hold your hand and guide you and give you direction as to what you can do … that is very comforting. I know it’s something that I’ve benefited from, from people who have mentored me and I’m still early in my transition, so I don’t know that I can be a great mentor for a lot of those things, but in any way that I can help someone who is going through something similar, I wanna be there for them.
Bernie Fette (18:12):
You have been active as a transportation journalist in a variety of ways. In most of those cases, if not all of them, you’ve been calling the shots on the outlets that you own or manage, so to speak. But you have also been, I know, an observer of media outlets, well, I guess what we generally call mainstream media outlets for many years. That’s been central to the functions of your newsletter and your podcasts, of course. What sort of changes stand out for you that you’ve seen in traditional media outlets and how they cover transportation news? I’ll give you an example, just really briefly, if I may. I’ve noticed that more newspapers, for instance, no longer seem to have a reporter dedicated exclusively to the transportation beat.
Bernie Wagenblast (19:01):
Bernie Fette (19:02):
That’s just one, one that I happen to notice. What sort of things do you see from where you’re sitting?
Bernie Wagenblast (19:09):
Well, it’s not just having a reporter who’s dedicated to the transportation beat no longer being there in many cases, but the newsrooms themselves being decimated by cutbacks. So even the general reporters who maybe are covering a fire one day or a school issue the next day are spread thin, so they can’t give that same attention to transportation that they once were able to do. You get into areas like television, they, for the most part, did not have people who were dedicated to the transportation beat, although in some cases, I’ve noticed that some TV stations have been using their morning traffic reporter to cover some transportation-related stories. So that is one area that is a little bit different on a positive side, that you do have some people that are able to do that, but there just isn’t the same ability to be out there and seeing what’s going on and covering those stories. that was once there. And it’s particularly true in newspapers. Anybody that’s picked up a newspaper has seen how different they look and how much thinner they are than they once were, and that means those are stories that once were covered are no longer being covered, and they’re not necessarily being picked up by online media. That is a plus that we do have online sources now that are dedicated to transportation and maybe even a smaller niche like transit that they’re covering, and they can focus on that. So that has been a plus, but sometimes the coverage of that is not necessarily the way news coverage the way I was trained is that there’s more opinion in some of the online sources, and people are sharing a little bit of what they feel and not necessarily just reporting the facts, so to speak.
Bernie Fette (21:11):
Yeah. Yeah. You mentioned earlier in our conversation something about your voice being replaced by a computer.
Bernie Wagenblast (21:19):
Bernie Fette (21:20):
At one of the airports. What sort of thoughts might you have on what artificial intelligence might do to the news business? Uh, or the voice talent business?
Bernie Wagenblast (21:32):
I anticipate that it will mean some major changes, just as much as the internet has changed everything. I think AI is going to change everything in almost all fields, that the ability for artificial intelligence to write a news story, to voice a commercial. Even there’s experimentation going on where they’re using AI to be a DJ and host a show. Where they’re able to pull information like the current weather, and of course, the time and events that are going on in that community and have it sound as if it’s a live host are radically changing it. I know from various voiceover forums that I’m a part of, that’s a real concern of other people who work in the voiceover profession. That they will be replaced by artificial intelligence one day. I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning of my career, but if I were just starting out, that would be something I would have concerns about.
Bernie Fette (22:38):
Right, right. Kind of a final takeaway as we start to wrap things up. You’ve been doing this for more than 40 years, as we’ve mentioned a couple of times. What motivates you — even in semi-retired mode — what motivates you to keep showing up for work every day?
Bernie Wagenblast (22:59):
I think the same thing that motivated me for to get into this profession in the first place. I talked about wanting to work in radio for when I was a little kid, but I wasn’t interested in being a dee-jay. I was always interested in news, and part of that was I saw that as a way to give back, to make a positive change in the community by reporting on what was going on at the town council meeting, or the school boards, or wherever people were interested in. At one point, I wanted to own my own small town radio station so that I could really get involved with the community and be a member of the Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce and things like that, and really do a deep dive in terms of having my hands involved with all different aspects of the community. And I never got to own that small radio station, but doing what I do with my podcast, both in transportation and for my hometown of Cranford, New Jersey, I’ve had the opportunity to do many of those things, but in a different way by sharing information and things that in the transportation world, that people are involved with, new projects that they’re involved with, with a much wider audience than might be experienced otherwise. And the same thing with my hometown podcast, just sharing news of different individuals that are making a difference in the community that maybe don’t get noticed outside of that. I have a little bit of an audio bias because of my radio background, and I think with audio, you hear things that you don’t pick up if you’re reading it. And you don’t even necessarily pick up if you’re watching a video because with audio it’s just you and the listener. Chances are they may be driving or listening on headphones while they’re exercising, let’s say, and they’re having a chance to really have you in their head, so to speak, and you can hear emotion with audio that you don’t necessarily pick up if you’re reading the same words in print on a screen. So I think that that’s what motivates me, that I feel as if I’m still making a positive contribution to the field, and that it does make a difference. It’s not just something that I enjoy, which it is, but it’s also something that other people take value in.
Bernie Fette (25:33):
Right. I completely understand what you’re saying about dreaming of owning your own radio station. My dad started the weekly newspaper in my hometown of 1,400 people in 1936. So I noticed that there are a few more thorough ways to get connected with your community than to either start the newspaper or as you were describing, a voice-focused medium in your hometown. Uh, it sounds like what motivates you to keep coming in every day is connection.
Bernie Wagenblast (26:09):
Yeah. Oh, definitely. I very much value the feedback that I get from my readers of my newsletters as well as the listeners to my podcasts, and just seeing where people are listening to it. You know, the, the map comes up, that, that shows me where the listeners are and to realize that it’s, it’s not just even the United States, but people around the world are listening to this and I assume enjoying it.
Bernie Fette (26:36):
That’s great. Bernie Wagenblast — transportation journalist, writer, editor, podcaster, and more. Thank you for sharing your time and your story with us, Bernie. It’s really been a pleasure and an honor to visit with you. Thanks for what you do.
Bernie Wagenblast (26:53):
Thank you so much, Bernie, and thank you for your podcast as well.
Bernie Fette (26:58):
Transportation is one of those things that touches every one of us, in one manner or another, every day. Those who tell stories of transportation are doing more than just reporting on an industry. They’re weaving narratives, either directly or indirectly, about something central to our daily lives. That’s what Bernie Wagenblast has been doing for more than 40 years with no signs of slowing down. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode, and please join us again next time for a conversation with Tara Ramani, a research engineer at TTI and Deputy Director of the Center for Advancing Research in Transportation, Emissions, Energy and Health. We’ll hear from Tara about the latest work in electrified mobility, and its promise to eventually transform how we move people and goods throughout the world. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.