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End of an era: Karen DeWitt retires after nearly 40 years covering NYS government

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul talks to Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio on March 30, 2023.
Peter Wendler
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul talks to Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio on March 30, 2023.

After covering New York state politics for nearly four decades for New York's public radio stations, Karen DeWitt is retiring at the end of this week. WRVO's Jason Smith talked with Karen about her long career and her decision to retire.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jason Smith: Well, I want to try to go back to the beginning when you started working in the Capitol, and that was all the way back in 1986. What was it like walking into the state capitol as a 20-something journalist back then? Was it intimidating?
Karen DeWitt: Actually, it was pretty intimidating. First of all, I didn't know anything. I thought I knew quite a few things. But I think I was humble enough to know that there was a lot I didn't know. And remember, this was before the internet. So young people, especially like me, were a lot less informed. And you couldn't just Google things to look them up. In fact, my first assignment was for the great all news radio station, New York City. 1010 wins. And they said, We want you to start in January, we want you to cover Governor Mario Cuomo State of the State speech. And I thought, Oh, that's easy. I can do that. And I said, Sure. So I'll cover the speech. And I'll give you good sound bites from that. And they said, No, we want you to go around and interview the New York City lawmakers for their reaction. Remember, Jason pre-internet? So I was like, I don't know any of the New York City lawmakers. I don't know any of the senators and assembly members, how am I going to find them? And I had one of those little tiny booklets they used to give out with real teensy tiny black and white photographs of the lawmakers. And I just scraped by through luck and through knowing a couple people there, and managed to get the people I needed for reaction and get them on the air. And that's kind of been the story of my career ever since you just got to sink or swim, sometimes nearly every day in this beat

JS: Were there any reporters back then who you kind of looked up to as a mentor who helped you out along the way? I know a lot of reporters can be very competitive about their stories.

KD: Well, yes. And certainly the newspaper people at that time, they kind of looked down on the broadcast people. And they weren't always that much of a help. But there were actually a couple people at CBS Radio, and the old days, while Wheeler and Art Athens and they were super helpful to me, they were very generous with their time and with giving me pointers. And that helped me a lot along the way.

JS: And at the same time, I mean, you were a 25-year-old in an industry that was really still largely dominated by men back then. So as you retire, you're now one of many women in the Albany press corps. Was it hard at times for you in the beginning being one of the few women journalists in the Capitol?

KD: Well, yeah, you know, it has completely changed. And there were a generation of women maybe 10 years older than me, that did come before me and some of them were heads of UPI, if you remember what that was, United Press International arrival to AP. The bureau chief of the Knickerbocker News, the local Albany paper. So there were women there before me. I feel like they had to be really hard-edged to get by. And I didn't really have to do that quite as much because I was kind of the second generation. But there were years where there'd only be two, three women in the entire press corps. And there was lots of newspaper reporters then. So there'd be maybe 40 men. And that just was really quite a dynamic, I had to get used to living in a man's world. It's kind of interesting, the culture when it's mostly men, nobody talks about anything too personal. People, you know, mock the politicians make jokes are very cynical, but I have to say I kind of got used to it and kind of liked it. Because, you know, I wanted to keep the job. And I had to learn how to function, you know, in that environment. It's just very different now with the women and I really like it. It's really nice having a lot of the younger women there to interact with, and just, you know, see them develop their careers.

JS: You have covered so many significant events in your career. You've covered six governors, the resignations of two of them. You've covered the arrests of a lot of important figures in state government like Joe Bruno and Sheldon Silver, Dean Skelos and more, and you've covered a worldwide pandemic that really put Andrew Cuomo on the map nationwide and got the rumor mill churning of whether or not he would run for president before his ultimate downfall. So if you had to think back, is there a story, or is there an event or a moment that kind of sticks out in your mind as being one of the more memorable and all the years that you've covered Albany?

KD: Oh, that's a hard question. Jason. There's so many that you mentioned, the rampant corruption and seeing so many state legislative leaders go down and get convicted of federal crimes go to prison. Seeing a couple of governors resigned abruptly leaving chaos behind them. The Senate coup that we had where a group of rival senators took over the Senate and we had two competing Senate sessions every single day for a month in June of 2009. I guess what sticks out to me and what I still feel like I'm kind of recovering from is really the rise and fall of former Governor Andrew Cuomo, when he had his daily briefings on COVID. All of a sudden, I felt like I was part of this daily national, even international reality TV show when I was playing a bit part by the questions that I would ask that would be amplified by everybody watching them. And at the same time, at the height of the pandemic, you had up to 700 people dying a day. So it was really pretty devastating time of everybody's lives. And then to see Andrew Cuomo fall so far, just a little bit a year after he stopped those briefings, he was out, he had to resign over multiple multiple scandals. So that was a credible rise and fall probably the most dramatic of all the many dramatic things I've seen here.

JS: As you move on, there will ultimately be someone to take your place as the Capitol Bureau correspondent for New York State’s public radio stations. So if you had some advice to give to the next Capitol Bureau correspondent, what do you think it would be?

KD: Ok, I think it would be dig deeper. Always make that extra phone call, that sometimes I didn't. If you kind of feel in your gut that you should talk to somebody or ask that question, then ask it. And just show up for things. Even if they seem like they're going to be boring, or you're not sure it's the best thing to do. It's just a matter of showing up being places interacting with people, calling people keeping regular contact, and you know, you find out all kinds of amazing things. If you just put the work in, which I didn't always do. I feel like I did 99% of the time, but it's always that 1% of the one time I didn't make the phone call that that's the part I regret, you know?

JS: Well you've covered state politics for nearly 40 years now. And I guess my last question is, is it going to be hard to give up? There's a primary next week, Karen, what are you gonna be doing on Tuesday, what are you gonna be doing in November?

KD: Well, Tuesday will be a day before I leave on a trip to Finland. So that will take that a little bit out of my mind. You know, I don't know, I may have a second act in me. I just feel like 40 years of the daily beat of the Capitol maybe is enough. I'd like to quit while I’m ahead, which I feel like I still basically am. And, you know, I think that maybe there's one election cycle in my entire adult life that I could take off from, that's what I'm thinking. I don't have to cover every single one of them. So it'll be a transition into something new. Not really sure what, and I'm just trying to kind of be okay with that.

Jason has served as WRVO's news director in some capacity since August 2017. As news director, Jason produces hourly newscasts, and helps direct local news coverage and special programming. Before that, Jason hosted Morning Edition on WRVO from 2009-2019. Jason came to WRVO in January of 2008 as a producer/reporter. Before that, he spent two years as an anchor/reporter at WSYR Radio in Syracuse.