The silly side of Carl Kasell


So many people know the voice. So few know the man.

Carl Kasell is the man behind the voice millions listen to over their morning coffee or on their commute to work. He's a fixture at National Public Radio, the serious broadcast journalist who has done the hourly news updates for "Morning Edition" since the show went on air back in 1979.

But for almost three years now, Kasell has had another gig at NPR, one where he gets to loosen up a little, have some fun, even let the actor in him come out to play.

"Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" is where Kasell's alter ego gets to shine. The weekly news trivia game show, which comes to Baltimore for a taping this week, tests just how closely NPR listeners are paying attention to current events.

The prize for callers who demonstrate they are on the ball with their news knowledge? Carl Kasell's voice on their answering machine. It's a prize that's come to be much coveted by listeners across the country.

"My son says, 'Why would anyone want to have your voice on their answering machine?' " Kasell says.

But many plainly do. Some speak as if having the announcer's voice on their home answering machines ranks right up there with winning a million dollars on that other game show.

One recent caller to "Wait, Wait" said he would be "a hero" to his family if he managed to play the game well and win Kasell's voice. He won the grand prize -- the custom-made tape. Another said she had been waiting a long, long time for the honor.

The easy going Kasell, 66, laughs at the idea. Who would have figured a man raised in a working-class North Carolina household would become a national vocal icon?

Glued to his radio

Kasell, though, would have bet he'd end up with a career in radio broadcasting. "I used to listen to it all the time," he says, sitting in an empty NPR studio minutes after finishing his morning news shift. For a kid growing up in the small town of Goldsboro, radio was king.

"They had to drag me out of the house to play," he says.

Kasell grew up the eldest of four children in the Southern town. "My parents were not professionals," he says. "They were products of the Depression."

His childhood is filled with memories of shows from the Golden Age of radio. "There was 'The Lone Ranger,' 'The House of Mystery,' " he says, ticking off some of his favorites. "They had one on right behind the other. I was spellbound by it."

At Goldsboro High School, Kasell took acting and radio classes. One of his teachers and mentors was actor Andy Griffith, who encouraged Kasell to develop his skills.

In his senior year of high school, he got a part-time job at a commercial radio station in town. He did a little bit of everything at the station, but was mostly a deejay.

"I really didn't want to do news," he says. "I wanted to play records. I wanted to have fun."

Still a teen-ager, Kasell worked a 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. shift before school. "Then someone came to pick me up for school. But I usually found my way back there after school," he says.

Being so young with an audience, Kasell says, he got a little cocky. "I was a radio star!" he laughs. Graduation brought a reality check. At the University of North Carolina, he discovered he was one of many stars. In fact, the late Charles Kuralt (whom Kasell says was "really good even back then") was one of his classmates.

Kasell took as many different courses as he could, majored in English and worked at the college radio station. A stint in the Army followed graduation, then it was back home to Goldsboro as the morning deejay and newscaster at WGBR-AM.

The move to D.C.

In 1965, Kasell moved to the Washington area and worked for 10 years at station WAVA in Arlington, Va., as morning anchor and then news director. He joined NPR in 1975.

Kasell, who is married with one child and one grandchild, has a rigid daily schedule. He arises about 1 a.m. to get to the station at about 2 a.m., is on the air hourly from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and finishes up by 11:30. Except for Fridays, that is, when the taping of "Wait, Wait" takes place. (In Baltimore, the hourlong show airs at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and repeats Sundays at 1 p.m. on WJHU-FM.)

"I take a nap in the afternoons and I'm in bed at 9 p.m.," he says. "It's a struggle sometimes."

The Washington resident -- an amateur magician -- loves the humor involved in the weekly game show, which has writer Peter Sagal as the host and includes panelists from the worlds of journalism and politics.

" 'Wait, Wait' has been great. The humor is there and we get to do a lot of action," says Kasell, whose title on the show is "official judge and scorekeeper." Besides announcing, Kasell's duties also include reading limericks and attempting to impersonate newsmakers, which might range from Bill Clinton to Britney Spears.

"Sometimes we bowl over laughing," Kasell says.

On tape

So far, Kasell estimates, he has made a few hundred answering machine tapes for lucky listeners. "Maybe even more than that," he says. Most often, the lucky listener suggests exactly what they want him to say. A few, he says, stand out.

One went like this: "Hello, this is [fellow NPR newscaster] Ann Taylor. My voice has been surgically altered to sound like Carl Kasell."

Another he found especially clever: "With this call, $10 has just been deducted from your checking account."

"I've done a rap with rhythm!" he says, as well as "the 'meow, meow, meow,' " song from the cat food commercial. He's even done a little K.C. and the Sunshine Band, he says, singing: 'I'm your boogieman. Boogie, boogie, boogie man.' "

With nearly 50 years in radio, Kasell says he's having fun and has no intention of quitting. That's good news to his co-workers, including Bob Edwards, longtime host of "Morning Edition."

"I think he is absolutely the best at what he does," Edwards says. "He does it seven times every day and he works harder than anyone here. A lot of people here cannot count two mistakes he has ever made."

Just what one would want in a newsman -- or the "official judge" of a news trivia game show.

'Wait, Wait' no more

NPR's "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" comes to Baltimore this week for a taping and a benefit dinner for WJHU-FM.

The schedule:

Wednesday: Dinner and drinks with Carl Kasell and Peter Sagal, 6:30 p.m.-9 p.m. at the Peabody Library.

Thursday: "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" taping, 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., United Methodist Church, 10 East Mount Vernon Place.

Tickets: $30 for the taping, $125 for taping and dinner; availability is limited. Call WJHU at 410-516-9548.

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