By Roz Hamlett, Portfolio Editor
Bernie Wagenblast is like the Siri of public transportation in the New York/New Jersey region, sort of. Except he doesn’t live inside iphones, he lives in Cranford, NJ. And most importantly, he never gets a snarky attitude.
When Wagenblast started out as a traffic reporter on radio, he never dreamed that one day thousands of people moving through the region’s transportation network would hear his sonorous, but disembodied voice through loudspeakers inside some of the region’s major transportation infrastructure.
The Port Authority (PA) was the first agency to discover Wagenblast’s cheerful voice. In fact, he still answers the Port Authority’s main switchboard and the PATH customer service line. He’s a regular on AirTrain JFK and AirTrain Newark. He’s the upbeat voice heard inside South Jersey trains and NYC subway cars. He identifies the station and how long the wait will be between trains inside Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) stations between South Jersey and Philadelphia. Portfolio was curious about Wagenblast and recently put a few questions to him.
First the obvious question: The surname Wagenblast is very unique. Do you like your name?
Answer: In German, Wagenblast translates as a hothead who is quick to fight, which would’ve been useful to know when I was a kid. Early in my radio career, I gave some thought to changing it because I didn’t think it sounded like a radio name.
I’m glad I didn’t though. It’s memorable. A couple years ago, I competed in the “Name of the Year (NOTY)” contest. But I was knocked out in the first round by Bufus Dewberry. The 2016 NOTY winner was Pope McCorkle III and past winners have included Steele Sidebottom and Barkevious Mingo. The competition is fierce.
Question: You are a former PA employee. What did you do at the agency?
Answer: Most of my PA career was spent at TRANSCOM during its formative years. I was very proud of what we created with TRANSCOM because nothing like it had ever been done before. The PA took the lead in trying to get a host of agencies in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to share information on a regular basis for the first time. It was a difficult thing to achieve, but pleasant persistence eventually won the day and now the entire region benefits.
It was created originally to enable its member agencies to share road construction information and resolve schedule conflicts. This turned into a round-the-clock control room, set up to communicate information about major traffic occurrences in the region. Whenever a major incident happens, among the most important agencies to travelers is TRANSCOM.
Question: Have you ever heard yourself on a public loud speaker and nudged the person next to you and identified yourself as the “Voice?”
Answer: No. But once when I was at Newark Liberty International Airport, I did embarrass one of my daughters. We were riding AirTrain Newark, and as we traveled between terminals, I recall telling her: “I bet I can imitate this guy’s voice and I proceeded to say out loud the same words I was saying over the speakers. There were strangers on the train, and she became so mortified that she was ready to crawl under the seat unless I stopped.
Question: What it’s like to be a voice-over artist? Do you have ambitions beyond transportation?
Answer: I love doing it because even though it’s been 20 years since I left the PA, I’ve had the opportunity to continue as part of the agency every day. I try to keep a smile in my voice when I do the recordings because I realize that people listening to me may be stressed or confused. In the case of airports, I may be one of the first voices they hear upon arriving here, and I want to give them a positive impression.