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Out Of The Sounds Of Jersey, A Familiar Voice Makes A Mosaic

Jul 4, 2014
Originally published on July 6, 2014 4:27 pm

If you've ridden the subway in New York City, you know Bernie Wagenblast's voice: He's the one making the subway announcements. But Wagenblast's true love lies in the sounds of his home state, New Jersey. He's been on a mission to visit every New Jersey town, collecting the sounds that define each one. Emma Jacobs of WHYY speaks to Wagenblast about his project.

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What are the sounds that the define where you live or where you grew up? That's something one resident of New Jersey has been thinking a lot about, and in the last year, he has been assembling an audio portrait of the state. He wants people to hear that there's more to the garden state than meets the Turnpike. And as Emma Jacobs reports, this project comes from someone whose voice is a defining sound.


BERNIE WAGENBLAST: There is an uptown local one train to Brooklyn Park.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: That voice is Bernie Wagenblast. He's the announcer on New York City's subway platforms, but he's a Jersey boy at heart, and for the last year, the semiretired broadcaster has been on a mission to record unique audio sounds from every Township in his beloved state.

WAGENBLAST: I don't want to sound, necessarily, over refinery that somebody says, oh, I see that all the time as I drive through on the turnpike - or just the sound of the seashore, but what is a unique sound from the seashore that people may not necessarily associate with New Jersey?

JACOBS: So he started last July 4 at this Independence Day parade in Milltown, which is the central part of the state. Further west in Delaware Township is New Jersey's last covered bridge. So Wagenblast waded into a creek below to record the sound of cars driving over its wooden planks.


JACOBS: Many times, he didn't actually visit places but found sounds that defined them.


JACOBS: That's the noise of M&Ms being manufactured in Hackettstown. The chocolate factory is the North American headquarters of the candy company Mars. Then, there's West Windsor where Martians landed in 1938.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen - well, I hardly know where to begin - paint for you a word picture of the strange scene before my eyes but something out of a modern Arabian Knights.

JACOBS: The year before Orson Welles' famous War of the Worlds radio hoax, there had been a real disaster above Hanover Township. The airship Hindenburg burst into flames, killing 36 people. Wagenblast chose a clip from the famous broadcast by Herbert Morrison, the only radio reporter on the scene.


HERBERT MORRISON: It's a terrific crisis, lady and gentlemen. There's smoke, and there's flames now - the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast - oh, the humanity.

JACOBS: The next sound comes from a place where one of the New Jersey's most famous sons recorded his first music album.


JACOBS: It's a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Stone Pony, a tiny music venue in the city of Asbury Park. But out of all his sounds, one of Wagenblast's favorites is a relic of New Jersey's industrial past. It's from Rahway, where a factory once produced metal disks used inside music boxes.

WAGENBLAST: In the days before radio - in the days before phonographs, this was the entertainment that people used. So I think that was one of the more fun things, finding something that I didn't realize existed and hopefully then sharing it with a larger community.

JACOBS: Wagenblast considers these metal plates with their raised pegs the ancestor of the digital recordings he collects today. So far, he's collected sounds from more than 100 places. He posts them to a page on the social media site Pinterest.

WAGENBLAST: I've lived in New Jersey all of my life. So this is - to go someplace that you wouldn't normally go. You know, we all go places and tourist places and things like that, but you don't go to some of these lesser-known spots unless you have an excuse and this is my excuse to go to those.

JACOBS: His goal is to record sounds from all 565 cities and townships in New Jersey. And that could take another five or six years. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.