One of WFAN’s most popular on-air personalities does not follow sports.
"Oh, no," Karen Stewart said. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m not a sports person."
Fortunately, that is not her role. Her job concerns a matter more urgent than whom the Mets should sign next or whether Robert Saleh will turn around the Jets.
Stewart does traffic reports, twice an hour on WFAN on weekday mornings in addition to her six-times-an-hour updates on WFAN’s corporate sister station, WINS.
But what makes her stand out is her style, which "cuts through all the clutter," said Mark Chernoff, senior vice president of WFAN’s parent company, Entercom New York.
That is thanks to an approach straight out of her Flatbush upbringing: blunt, cynical and bitingly funny. Most of all, it is the fact she feels listeners’ pain.
"I’m from the city," she said. "I work in the city. I’ve been stuck in all the delays that all these people are stuck in in the morning. And it’s just very frustrating stuff. It’s really just plain old disgust, is what it is.
"There is a lot of needless nonsense and delays that go on in the morning for various reasons, and it sucks."
The more you listen to Stewart talk traffic, the more evident it is that this is no shtick. She really, truly hates it and wants to help people navigate it.
"I’ve always tried to approach it from, ‘Look, I got you, I see you, and it sucks and I’m sorry and here’s the best thing you can do about it,’ " she said. "It’s genuine. I really do feel for them. I mean, some of these people are stuck in traffic for two hours. It is out of hand.
"Anybody who can look at a two-hour Cross Bronx [Expressway] delay and not feel empathy for the people stuck on that is pretty darn cold . . . I’m constantly shaking my head, like, ‘This is unreal.’ So I tell people how I feel about it."
Stewart delivers the bad news in the dulcet tones of a radio pro, which adds to the jarring effect of her words. The late WFAN morning host Don Imus noted her "great voice" during a fill-in news shift she did in 2002 that can be seen on YouTube.
She more than held her own that day in an indelicate give-and-take with Imus and his crew. "It was a boys club, but it was interesting," she recalled. "I’m not a wallflower, that’s for sure."
Fans on Twitter have quoted her reports, such as, "Avoid the inbound GWB like it’s the plague that it is," and "Just forget that the Throgs Neck Bridge exists. It’s that bad," and "Look, we are backed up everywhere for over an hour. Just stay home today."
One person tweeted her reports "are incredible. You can feel the frustration as if she is sitting in the traffic with you." Another suggested she handle color commentary for Jets games.
"Every morning I’m in awe of Karen’s ability to describe a horrendous situation on the roads in a way that makes people laugh," WFAN co-host Gregg Giannotti said. "It takes a lot to make a frustrated New York driver who is stuck in traffic smile about their situation. Karen can do that. It’s a gift."
Although she grew up in Brooklyn and lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, Michael (who does like sports and listens to WFAN), and two daughters, ages 19 and 12, her first job was at WLIR on Long Island.
She had been an avid listener while in high school and interned at the station when she attended Kingsborough Community College. Then she got her shot on the air.
"It was like movie-star stuff at that point," he said. "I was so beyond exhilarated . . . That LIR stint was awesome; it was great."
Stewart has been heard on WINS on and off since 1991, as well as many other area stations, including WFAN. She became a full-time Entercom employee in 2017 and has been a WFAN morning regular since then.
Chernoff said he has "always admired her talent, quick wit, comedic style when called for, and her great voice. She gets it when doing traffic reports on the ‘Boomer and Gio’ show, as she adds some humor and color rather than just the straight traffic."
Last spring, during the worst of the COVID-19 shutdown, Stewart was a traffic reporter with almost no traffic on which to report, but there still were developments to follow.
"It could be apocalyptic times, and New York City will always be able to fill a minute of traffic," she said. "There’s always, always, something. It was just different."
Traffic is back now, but still nowhere near normal.
"That’s what makes the traffic delays now seem reprehensible to me, because it’s not about volume, usually, that’s causing some of these major backups," she said.
"It’s late-running construction, people not paying attention, rubber-necking delays, the kind of stuff that when you’re driving in and pass it you get really [ticked] off about. So yeah, there’s always somebody to shame."
Stewart has been working from home during the pandemic, so for now she is not personally experiencing her listeners’ pain. But she empathizes, as always.
"These are rugged people we’re dealing with in the morning." she said. "These are not beginners as far as rush hour, so they really need somebody who’s going to feel what they feel . . . I’ve been doing this for over 30 years. You grow a lot of sympathy.
"All you have to do is put yourself in people’s shoes and what they go through every morning. I just basically tell it like I know they’re thinking it. Like, ‘Look, it’s a hopeless cause. You have to get out of here.’ I feel like they appreciate that."