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Cool Job: Transportation communicator creates the voice of the NYC Subway

If you've ever ridden a subway in New York City or traveled through the JFK or Newark International Airports, chances are you've heard Bernie Wagenblast's voice. Here, the veteran transportation communicator shares how he got into the business and how he uses online tools every day.

What made you get into recording, and transportation recording specifically?

My initial interest was working in radio. That was something I wanted to do since about fifth grade. I was fortunate to actually fulfill that dream and spent the first part of my career as a broadcaster. My big break was being hired as one of the original reporters for Shadow Traffic when they came to New York City in 1979. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was my introduction to my second career field: transportation. I worked for several different transportation organizations for the next two decades but I still kept my hand in broadcasting by doing voice recordings for some of the various transportation agencies. For example, I was the voice of the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and provided voice recordings for highways such as the New York State Thruway and the New Jersey Turnpike.

Describe a recent day at work.

I have my own business now and split my time between being an editor of eight transportation newsletters and voice recording work. A typical day sees me scanning dozens of websites looking for news items for my newsletters and also doing voice recordings. The voice recordings are not as steady as the newsletter work, so there are days, or sometimes even weeks, when I don't record.

What education did you pursue to get into voice recording?

Since my early interest was radio, I wanted to go to a school that had a real broadcast station where I could get practical experience. I graduated from Seton Hall University with a degree in communications. While I was at Seton Hall I spent almost all of my free time (as well as time I should have been in class) at the school's radio station, WSOU. There I did everything from news and sports reporting to being a DJ. The experience of being behind a mic day-in and day-out gave me the most valuable experience for working as a voiceover artist.

Have online tools or learning come into play in any way in your career progression?

Very much so. Today, with the Internet and digital technology, I can make a recording from home and service a client anywhere in the world. Almost all of my voice work today is recorded from home and sent online to the client. When I started I worked with recording tape and had to record in a studio. If I wanted to edit the recording I had to use a razor blade to cut out what I didn't want. Now, I can just edit everything electronically.

How do you take care of your voice?

The biggest lesson I learned is to not shout. It might make going to a baseball game a little less exciting, but that way I don't stress my vocal cords. Before I go on the air or have a recording session I try to warm up my voice and loosen my mouth muscles by doing tongue-twisters.

Have you ever had a moment where you are surprised by your own voice on a subway or similar?

I wouldn't say I've been surprised by hearing my own voice but it is interesting to watch the other people in the station or on the train and see what they do. I like to see if they appear to have difficulty understanding my announcements.

Do people ever recognize your voice in public?

Not just from speaking, but if I'm at an event where I have to introduce myself I sometimes will recite a portion of one of my announcements and there's usually a flash or recognition then.

Do you ever work from home?

I usually work from home unless the recordings I have to do are complex. For the recordings I did for the New York City subways I did most of the recordings in a studio because there were close to a thousand words or phrases I had to record.

Are you an audiophile with a music collection?

Believe it or not, I'm not an audiophile. I tried to be at one point, but I don't have an ear to appreciate the finer qualities of great audio. Even as a teenager I owned less than 20 albums. I enjoyed listening to the radio because it was a more complete experience. Not only was there a mix of music, but you had the friendly disc jockey as well as news and weather to keep you informed.

You've been a transportation communicator for over 30 years. Any advice for daily commuters?

The best advice is to learn alternate routes before you need them. Most people take the same route to work every day and when a problem develops they get stuck. By knowing a few different alternates and by checking conditions before you leave and while en route, you can often get around a problem rather than sitting in stopped traffic.

More about Bernie Wagenblast

What did you eat for breakfast? A bowl of cream of celery soup. (not my usual breakfast)

Which day of the week is your favorite? It's a toss up between Sunday and Monday. I like Sunday because it's the one day when I'm usually not working and can spend time with my family. I also like Mondays because I really do enjoy my work and each week usually has a few adventures.

Which day of the week is your least favorite? Probably Tuesdays. That's the deadline day for several of my newsletters and it can be a rush to get everything done.

What was the first job you ever had? I was a newspaper carrier for the Suburban News.

What makes you angry? When people accept something as fact simply because it's in line with their preconceived beliefs. I think there's value to hearing differing viewpoints and trying to determine what is correct based on that information.

What makes you joyful? A year and a half ago I had my first grandchild. Spending time with him is a real joy.

If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? While it's somewhat related to what I do, I think it would be fun to be an actor, especially in a television sitcom.

If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would you choose? I enjoy local history. I find it fascinating to learn about what things were like in areas I often see.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Going way back to when I was six years old, my first interest was being a Good Humor man. By the time I was ten, I knew I wanted to be on the radio. It was (and still is) magical to speak into a microphone and have your voice come out of speakers in cars, homes and offices throughout the region.

Can money bring you happiness? I don't believe so. For me, having a sense of accomplishment and purpose has been more important to being happy. Of course, I realize it can be very difficult to be happy if you don't have enough money for life's basic necessities, but money alone can't bring happiness.