We’ve heard it on the radio, the NYC subway, or on the AirTrain at the Newark Airport. We’ve heard the voice of Bernie Wagenblast, that is. But who is the artist and person behind that voice?
A New Jersey native, who has lived most of her life in Cranford, Wagenblast fell in love with radio at a young age. “I would listen to the radio all the time and knew I wanted to work in radio,” she recalls. “I would take The Star-Ledger and read it out loud to try to develop my voice, and then anytime the teacher would ask for volunteers to read something in class, my hand would go up [to answer and] get to practice my voice.”
When it came time for college, she decided to study radio broadcasting at Seton Hall University. “It has a good radio station that broadcasts to a large area, and so it [offers] a real chance to get experience. [And] radio broadcasting is one of those things you can only learn by doing.”
While in college, when not in the classroom, she’d spend most of her time at the radio station. “The radio station was my everything,” she comments. “My intention was to work in radio after graduation.”
She got recommended for a news assistant job at a New York City radio station. As a news assistant, she could do pretty much everything a reporter did, except being on air. Therefore, she started looking for other jobs. Aware that she might not get the job that she really wanted in New York City right out of college, once she graduated, she found a job at a news talk radio station in New Albany, Ind.
“These were the days before the Internet,” Wagenblast recalls, “when you couldn’t easily check out jobs, especially if they were far away, and so when I got there, I realized [right away] that I would not stay for very long. I got a six-month lease on an apartment, and at the end of that lease, I quit.
“The radio station was in an old funeral home. The desk where you prepped your work was in the room where they prepped the bodies, so it had tiles all over and drains in the floor…it was quite an experience, but it was a good experience, you know.”
Once back in New Jersey, Wagenblast discovered that a new company called Shadow Traffic was opening up its New York office and reaching out to colleges, looking for students and former students interested in working on-air jobs. She auditioned and got hired.
“It was the best starting job [for me] because I was on the air in New York City doing traffic during the morning and afternoon rush hours. It was a fantastic experience,” Wagenblast said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my introduction to the world of transportation, reporting traffic.”
About five years later, she left Shadow Traffic and took on a job at a radio station in Hackettstown. It was the kind of radio station she dreamed of owning one day, and figured she’d learn a lot from it, especially about the sales side of broadcasting. “Well, the main thing I learned was that I was not a salesperson. That was not my personality. So, again I left, and by this point, I had been married [and had a family] to support.”
Then it just happened that her former boss from Shadow Traffic was hired by the New York City Department of Transportation to start a new center in the city. And he asked if she’d be interested in joining him. It meant working with someone she liked, her former boss, and doing something she loved. So, she took the job.
Then, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey established a new organization called TRANSCOM. Wagenblast was hired and then became the operations manager, overseeing the 24-hour Operations Information Center and helping coordinate information among all the transportation agencies in the tri-state area.
“From there on, it was clear that transportation was going to be my calling,” she says. Having media experience, she became the public face of the organization, which at the time was brand new and needed a lot of media attention. And so, Wagenblast did interviews on Good Morning America, with The New York Times, and many radio stations and local newspapers. “I was very comfortable doing that,” she says, “because, being on the radio, I wasn’t intimidated by having a microphone or camera in my face, and that’s how that all came about.”
About 25 years ago, in June 1998, she started the Transportation Communications Newsletter, which nowadays can be found online in blog form. Then in 2014, when podcasting came along, she started two podcasts. Her Cranford Radio podcast continues to this day. Her Transportation Radio podcast evolved into the podcasts she now does for two clients — the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). “I cross-post these to my Transportation Radio podcast site, but I rarely do new podcasts for Transportation Radio alone,” she says.
Then, in 2017, Wagenblast noticed a new app called FaceApp, which showed how a person would look like a different gender. “And, you know, having always felt myself to be trans, I [thought] that this [app] would be good for a good laugh, and gave it a try. And it hit me like nothing else had ever hit me,” she comments. “For the first time I saw myself realistically how I would like as a female, and felt that I needed to explore it further.”
Then, toward the end of last year, a support group that Wagenblast belonged to held an award ceremony also attended by trans individuals. And as the event was approaching, she reached out to a trans friend from the support group and mentioned that she’d like “to add some feminine flair” to her usual “jacket and tie” attire.
And her friend said, “we’ll do better than that,” and told Wagenblast to buy herself “a pair of heels” and “a cheap wig,” and lent her one of her dresses. “She did my makeup and nails. Another friend donated this wig that [I’m wearing now], so I wore it instead. And I went to the event.
“And it was magical in so many ways. It was a perfect place to have my first public outing as my female self because I was with a friend who had helped me, and was going to a place where I knew I’d be surrounded by other supportive [individuals]. The way I described it afterward was ‘it was like Cinderella’…because just like Cinderella, after that event, I had to change back into my [male] clothes and [resume] living my life as a [man].”
And yet, that award ceremony experience made it clear to Wagenblast that there was more to it “than just the picture” she’d seen in 2017, making her realize that she needed to do something about it.
And so, she started experimenting with clothing and makeup. “You don’t realize until you start transitioning how much is different, not just your voice but your mannerisms and having to learn things like clothing and makeup. Not that every woman needs to do makeup or stuff like that, but I think for many trans women, especially those of us who transitioned later in life, there is a desire to be a little more traditionally feminine in how we present because all of our lives we’ve had to wear guy clothes and it’s nice now if I have an opportunity to put on a dress or skirt, because I had longed to do that for so long.”
She also started coming out to more and more people — first to her family, then close friends, and then a few others — and received near-universal support. By that time, it was already December. And being a person who likes exact start dates, Wagenblast decided that her coming out would be her New Year’s resolution, one like no other.
“When I started coming out, I did concentric circles,” she reiterates. “And in each one of these circles, [there were] people supportive of me.” And when very few people she didn’t know posted negative comments about her on social media, it didn’t affect her much. Plus, she knew she had ten times as many individuals who supported her and had her back. And that was what truly mattered.
But Wagenblast also cared about other trans individuals who might be hesitant about coming out or have questions and seemingly nowhere to turn. Directly addressing these trans individuals, she advises them to learn as much as possible about themselves and about “that letter that [they] identify with,” and also to start building their [own] circles of support. “The Internet can be a place where you can find a lot of information and even connections,” she says, “but I think it’s [important] to find not just names on a screen but real flesh and blood people you trust and [who] can support you during difficult times. If you have that person you can turn to,” she reiterates, “to help you through those difficult times, that’s invaluable.”
And considering those invaluable individuals, Wagenblast has one more “Jersey story” to share. “In the early 1970s, New Jersey was not an accepting place for trans people,” she begins. “But there was a teacher who transitioned and then ended up being fired. I was [a young teenager at the time]. I [remember I] looked up her address in the phone book — we had phone books back then — and sent her a letter. I didn’t use the word [trans] because it wasn’t commonly used back then. I rode my bike up to a payphone outside a gas station at a prearranged time [to wait for her call]. And she called me. She was the first trans person I had ever spoken to knowingly. [I felt] I could share my struggles with her and also learn a little bit about her [own] struggles.
“[Looking back] I give her a lot of credit because she was taking a risk talking to a minor, especially at that time, but it meant so much to me to find someone who knew what I felt inside. [Because] I felt that nobody else other than another trans person could really understand what that was like. Because I didn’t know [anybody] who was out [gay or trans] back then, and there was nobody to talk to. And [thus] talking with her was wonderful. That’s a Jersey story that I wanted to share.”