Karen DeWitt’s first assignment as a reporter was to interview two members of the John Birch Society. As challenging as it was, it was also a lot of fun.
Now, as she begins her fourth decade covering politics for New York Public Radio, DeWitt is still asking questions of politicians to the right, left and center, doing her best to keep New Yorkers informed. She remains enthusiastic about her profession as ever, although in these trying times a little bit of the fun has gone out of the job.
“This is certainly the most intense time in my career, because since COVID hit us you felt like you were suddenly thrust into a national reality TV show every day,” said DeWitt, a Glenville native and 1978 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake graduate. “Usually when you ask a question during a press conference it seldom gets magnified. Now, I’ll have friends and family across the country tell me that they heard me ask Governor Cuomo a question. You feel like your questions had to be perfect because I knew everyone was watching.”
But more important, DeWitt will tell you, is the sad story she is covering.
“It was devastating to hear Governor Cuomo say, ‘799 people died yesterday,’” said DeWitt. “It was really hard to absorb, and I don’t think I’ve quite absorbed it yet.”
It was an English elective taught by a former teacher, Gazette film critic and Emmy Award-winning commentator Dan DiNicola, that got DeWitt interested in journalism when she was a junior at BH-BL. She spent a year at SUNY-Plattsburgh but then transferred to SUNY-Geneseo and graduated from there in 1982 with a degree in journalism.
She returned home to Glenville and started out writing for Adirondack Life Magazine and Metroland. She got into radio with a Schenectady station, 3WD, and soon began working for WINS Radio in New York City. While there she actually spent most of her time in Albany covering the Capitol for that station before landing her current gig in 1990 with New York State Public Radio, a consortium of 10 public radio stations across New York.
Along with serving as the Capitol Bureau Chief for that group, she is a regular contributor to “New York Now,” a television news magazine put together by WMHT-Channel 13 in collaboration with the Albany Times Union.
Recipient of the 2009 Walter T. Brown Award for excellence in journalism and the Media Person of the Year for 2009 by the Women’s Press Club of New York State, DeWitt lives in the Albany suburbs with her husband. She spoke with The Gazette about her long career in radio journalism last week.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
A: I think I was a classic underachiever in high school, directionless as are many people in high school, and I really wasn’t interested in anything that was going on. But I took a television class with the late-great Dan DiNicola and he really inspired me. He walked into class one day and threw down a Gazette article on my desk about the John Birch Society. I don’t remember the topic specifically, but they were taking issue with something and Dan says, “I called the guy up, he’s coming in after school and you’re going to interview him.” So I did what I was taught in class. I got prepared, I had a list of questions, and Dan wasn’t even there with me for the interview. I was alone in the classroom and this man walks in with a friend. Two adult men with one little high school girl.
Q: So how did it go?
A: I asked the guy a question, and he went into this long-winded response, and at the end I realized he hadn’t answered my question. I didn’t know what the right thing to do was. So I asked him the same question by saying, “Well, what then is it?” or something like that, and I remember the next day watching my interview in class — somebody had a camera and we had taped it — Dan was laughing and slapping his knee, loving it. But he was telling me how I had done a good job. I had re-asked the question. It was all challenging but quite fun. I was hooked. I guess my path was set right there.
Q: So, when you headed to college you knew you wanted to be a journalist.
A: Growing up in Burnt Hills, everybody’s father was a scientist or an engineer and worked for General Electric. The idea that someone from upstate suburbia would be connected to the world of media didn’t sound possible to me. But Dan changed all that for me, and that was before he worked for Channel 6. I did find that in print journalism people will say more to you when you don’t stick a microphone in their face, but there was something about radio and television, the broadcast performance aspect of it, that I really liked.
Q: What was working at 3WD in Schenectady and WINS 1010 in New York like?
A: It was a great training ground for me. A great start. I didn’t know anything, and they put me on the air every day. I think we ended up re-writing things from The Gazette. I hope we gave them credit. But I do remember doing some interviews myself. I did interview the mayor, Frank Duci, and we had a collaboration with Proctors.
At WINS 1010 I made the jump to political reporter. I was always interested in politics, and Mario Cuomo was a fascinating character with a national reputation. WINS was like the New York Post of radio journalism. I was a stringer for them covering the Capitol, and they would call me up at all hours and have me try and chase down all kinds of scandalous stories and rumors.
Q: What are some of your favorite stories from the past 30 years working for New York State Public Radio?
A: It wasn’t fun, but one of the more interesting times was when Elliot Spitzer had to resign in March of 2008. We were all shocked because everybody thought he was a good guy. He had a bit of a temper, but none of us thought he was in the trouble he was in. But then when David Paterson took over it was a really happy time. He became the first African-American governor of New York, and people were crying in the assembly chamber. It felt like a real great moment. Paterson had a hard time once he was in office, but when he became governor that was a happy day.
The other great story was when same-sex marriage was passed late on a Friday night. I was the only reporter covering it for NPR. There was nobody else around so I felt like I kind of had that story all to myself.
Q: What is a typical day for a radio journalist covering the Capitol?
A: Well, it wasn’t the Trump Era that changed my job, it was COVID. Until recently, my job involved showing up, checking on the lawmakers that were there, their staff, the lobbyists. You were a reporter just walking around the halls, an observer. You’d find out who is meeting who, who just went into that closed door meeting with the governor, who’s having coffee with who in the cafeteria. I still go to the governor’s press briefings about the virus because people want to hear that information. In the past sometimes I would do a story, maybe about redistricting, the budget or the political infighting that goes on in Albany, and I would think to myself, “Do people really care about this?” But with the pandemic reporting I’ve done, I know that people care. You also really see the importance of journalism. It’s tougher because you have to do a lot on the phone and Zoom, but it’s very important because in this kind of situation politicians can hide a lot from the public if they want to. So it’s important to get the news out as quickly and as simply as possible. People do really care.
Q: Do you have a favorite personality that you covered?
A: Joe Bruno. Maybe he didn’t do everything by the letter of the law, but somehow he would just charm you into forgiving him. I remember going to Saratoga and he had a press conference at the track. It was just a few reporters, but then this huge crowd gathered around and were cheering him. He was that kind of character. He was what you might imagine the perfect television or movie version of what a senator would be.
Q: Can you tell us about your experience with “New York Now”?
A: I got pulled into that by another Burnt Hills grad, Michael Carrese, in the mid 1990s when it was called “New York Week in Review.” Being on the radio you’re a little under the radar. I used to hear things on the elevator that I would use, but when I got the TV work that kind of stopped. It’s been a lot of fun to work on. It’s had different iterations, but I’ll usually do an interview and then be a part of the reporters’ roundtable. It was great working with Matt [Ryan] and Casey [Seiler], and it’s great now working with Dan Clark. There are a lot of younger people taking over and I think that’s making for a good transition.”
Q: What do you think of Twitter, and how the president uses it?
A: I do love Twitter. I like how it’s a back channel for a different kind of communication. As for the president, he’s certainly taken it beyond any limits anyone thought Twitter had. But I do love looking at it.
Q: How free are you with your personal opinion on politics and the people you cover?
A: It depends on who I’m with. If I trust people, I’ll say something. If somebody says something about someone that’s kind of true, I might smile. But I certainly wouldn’t give my opinion to a stranger.