MARYLOU UTTERMOHLEN PHOTOGRAPH
After a long, hard day at work, sometimes you’re just not ready for the 6 p.m. news. Dinner, then some comedy or crime drama on TV, or perhaps a book and a nice martini – anything to help wind down from the day. Now, you’re ready to see what’s going on in New Orleans – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Bringing that news to you on weeknights at 10 p.m. on WWL-TV/Channel 4 is Karen Swensen. A familiar face to New Orleanians, Swensen has – with one interlude – been part of the news scene since 1993.
She isn’t a native New Orleanian: Her father’s job as an FBI agent entailed moving his family (which included her mother and two siblings) all over the United States, including Chicago, where as a child her neighbor across the street was someone she called “Vincent Vaughn,” now better known as actor Vince Vaughn. Her father eventually landed in New Orleans, where he headed the local FBI bureau. After college, Swensen came to visit her parents, fell in love with the city and stayed. She soon joined WWL-TV as a part-time assistant producer and worked her way up to becoming an anchor and reporter.
Covering a multitude of stories throughout the years, she has earned a number of accolades, including six Edward R. Murrow regional awards for investigative journalism, writing and feature reporting; two regional Emmys; and Associated Press and Press Club of New Orleans awards (including the Jim Metcalf Memorial Award for best broadcast writing), among others. She was part of the WWL-TV team that covered Hurricane Katrina, earning the station the George Foster Peabody, Edward R. Murrow and DuPont-Columbia awards.
In 2006, family considerations prompted Swenson, her husband and daughter to move to Boston, near her parents, and she became an anchor on New England Cable News in Boston. While working at the station, Swensen covered several stories pertaining to Louisiana and post-hurricane rebuilding. A die-hard New Orleans Saints fan, during the team’s Super Bowl season, on the sly she wore black-and-gold on Fridays while she was on-air; New England Patriots fans were none the wiser. Swensen was also able to cover the Super Bowl, and admits that when the Saints won, it was her “third-favorite day” (after her wedding and the birth of her daughter).
The siren call of New Orleans finally lured Swensen back last year – and to WWL. “I always made it clear that I wanted to come back to New Orleans if the right opportunity came along,” she says. But unlike her previous position at WWL, her current one allows her more flexibility – she can take her daughter to school and spend more time with her family. (She is currently trying to convince her mom and dad to move down here, at least part-time.) Her husband’s family has been in New Orleans since the 1700s, so it was also like coming home in another sense.
So even though they’re still looking for a house – “It seems like if we wait more than an hour to make a decision, it gets sold” – Swensen, her husband John and daughter Catherine are happily ensconced in New Orleans, rediscovering a city that remains constant, but is always evolving.
Your first broadcast TV job was at WWL-TV. What were your responsibilities? I started in May 1993, when I was a part-time assistant producer, 11 p.m.-8 a.m. It was me and a security guard at the station. I spent the night listening to scanners, would write the copy, type it into the teleprompter, position the camera and shoot the news updates that would go up at the top of the hour. I would also work on the morning show on Monday. I did that for nine months.
I always wanted to be a reporter, and this was a great foot in the door for that.
How did your job evolve after that? In February 1994, I started reporting part-time, and about a year after that I was made a full-time anchor and reporter. I was an anchor on the early morning show “Early Edition,” then weekends. I think I’ve had every shift.
What stories have you’ve worked on – other than Hurricane Katrina – that stuck out to you, made an impact? The first one is the investigation into local pain clinics. It led to significant changes and arrests. Another one is the “Operation Wrinkled Robe,” the FBI case that that helped convict District Judge Ronald Bodenheimer. One that I stumbled upon was the cluster of scleroderma cases just outside of Morgan City. I found another cluster just outside of Boston. I like to do stories that have a positive impact.
What stories are you developing now? I tend to like human-interest stories. Right now, what’s going on in the charter schools, education reform and what I’ve seen of it so far.
What are some of the biggest changes in New Orleans that you’ve seen since you’ve returned? The physical change – some places have made progress, others have not. Also, all the new restaurants.
What remained constant – or became stronger – is the heart and soul of New Orleanians. It’s the people who are what make this city so special – the depth of character … fortitude and faith.
What prompted your return? I had made a decision to be an active mother, so the move to Boston was the right decision at the time. I wanted to be around my family, who settled in that area. But I had always said if the right position came along, I would return. When Lucy Bustamante married and moved to Virginia, her position opened up.
What advice do you have to someone who’s interested in becoming an anchor/reporter on TV? Intern before graduating college. A student needs to decide before graduation if the pressure of deadlines [as in TV] is something that they can deal with.
True confession: Speaking in front of a camera is easy, but in front of a crowd it takes effort.
At a Glance
Age: 42 Profession: Anchor and reporter, WWL-TV. She is on the 10 p.m. newscast on Channel 4; 9 p.m. on WUP Resides: Lakeview Family: Husband, John Ronquillo; daughter, Catherine, who is 8. Born/raised: Tampa, Fla. But lived all over: Chicago, Virginia, Arizona. My father was in the FBI and my mother was a teacher. Education: Pennsylvania State: undergraduate degree in political science with a minor in Spanish [Swensen graduated Phi Beta Kappa]; master’s degree in journalism. Favorite book: It was Angela’s Ashes for a long time. Now it’s Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculée Ilibagiza. Favorite movie: A toss-up between Young Frankenstein, The Hangover and Christmas Vacation. Favorite TV show: Overall, I’d have to say “Seinfeld.” Favorite musician: Bruce Springsteen Favorite restaurant: Irene’s Cuisine Favorite dish: Oysters Irene Hobby: Running along Lake Pontchartrain Favorite vacation spot: The Caribbean