NPR Newscaster Carl Kasell Dies At 84, After A Lifelong Career On-Air

Apr 17, 2018
Originally published on April 19, 2018 11:01 am

Every weekday for more than three decades, his baritone steadied our mornings. Even in moments of chaos and crisis, Carl Kasell brought unflappable authority to the news. But behind that hid a lively sense of humor, revealed to listeners late in his career, when he became the beloved judge and official scorekeeper for Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! NPR's news quiz show.

Kasell died Tuesday from complications from Alzheimer's disease in Potomac, Md. He was 84.

He started preparing for the role of newscaster as a child. "I sometimes would hide behind the radio and pretend I was on the air," he said in 2009, remembering his boyhood in Goldsboro, N.C.

He also used to play with his grandmother's windup Victrola and her collection of records. "I would sit there sometimes and play those records, and I'd put in commercials between them," he recalled. "And I would do a newscast just like the guy on the radio did."

Kasell became a real guy on the radio at age 16, DJ-ing a late-night music show on his local station.

At the University of North Carolina, Kasell was, unsurprisingly, one of the very first students to work at its brand-new station, WUNC. After graduation he served in the military. But a job was waiting for him back home at his old station in Goldsboro. He moved to Northern Virginia to spin records but a friend persuaded him to take a job at an all-news station.

"I kind of left the records behind," Kasell said. "It came at a time when so much was happening; we had the Vietnam War, the demonstrations downtown in Washington, the [Martin Luther King] and Bobby Kennedy assassinations. And so it was a great learning period even though [there were] bad times in there."

In 1975, Kasell joined NPR as a part-time employee. Four years later, he announced the news for the first broadcast of a new show called Morning Edition. Over three decades, he became one of the network's most recognized voices.

Bob Edwards, Morning Edition's former host, says he relied on Kasell, especially on days such as Sept. 11, when news broke early. "That morning and a thousand others, awful things happened in the morning," Edwards says.

Sure, Edwards was the morning host, but he says Kasell was — in every way — its anchor. "Seven newscasts, every morning ... nobody in the business does that," Edwards said. "That is incredible."

And then came a surprise second act; after decades of being super-serious, Kasell got a chance to let his hair down as the official judge and scorekeeper for Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!

Host Peter Sagal says no one could have guessed that Kasell would be so funny. "The greatest thing about Carl was anything we came up with, he was game," Sagal says. "When we were in Las Vegas, we had him come onstage in a showgirl's headdress. No matter what we asked him to do — silly voices, or weird stunts; we had him jump out of a cake once to make his entrance onstage — he did it [with] such joy and such dignity."

At the beginning, Wait Wait didn't have a budget for actual prizes, so the "prize" for listeners was to have Kasell record the outgoing message on their answering machines. He ended up recording more than 2,000 messages. (You can hear some favorites below.)

Kasell may have been known for his measured, on-air newscast persona, but behind the scenes, the kind, witty newsman had plenty of surprises. He loved magic tricks, and at one memorable company holiday party, he sawed Nina Totenberg in half.

"We laid her out on the table, got out that saw and grrrr ... ran it straight through her midsection," he recalled. "She said it tickled and she got up and walked away in one piece."

In all that he did, Carl Kasell was magic.

This story was adapted for the Web by longtime Wait Wait Web guru Beth Novey.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It is a sad day here at NPR. Carl Kasell has died at the age of 84. He was an NPR newscaster for more than 30 years and a judge and official scorekeeper for the NPR program Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! He died of complications from Alzheimer's disease in Potomac, Md. NPR's Neda Ulaby has our remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Even as a child Carl Kasell liked to play newscaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CARL KASELL: I sometimes would hide behind the radio and pretend that I was on the air.

ULABY: That's Kasell in 2009 remembering his boyhood in Goldsboro, N.C. He said he also used to play with his grandmother's windup Victrola and her collection of records.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KASELL: And I would sit there sometimes and play those records, and I'd put in commercials between them. And I would do a newscast just like the guy on the radio did.

ULABY: Kasell became a real guy on the radio when he was only 16 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KASELL: The magic hour of midnight fast approaches, and the shadows of the night lengthen and close in.

ULABY: Carl Kasell DJ-ing making a late-night music show on his local station around 1950.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KASELL: Our starlight symphony fades and slowly dies away.

ULABY: At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Kasell was unsurprisingly one of the very first students to work at its brand-new station, WUNC. After graduation, he served in the military, but a job was waiting for him back home at his old station in Goldsboro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) It's the Carl Kasell show.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) With tops in tunes on Goldsboro radio.

ULABY: It's funny to think of Carl Kasell as a music guy, but he was. He moved to northern Virginia to spin records, but a friend convinced him to take a job at an all-news station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KASELL: And I kind of left the records behind. And it came at a time when so much was happening. We had the Vietnam War, the demonstrations downtown in Washington, the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations. It was a great learning period even though there were some bad times in there.

ULABY: In 1975, Kasell joined NPR as a part-time employee. Four years later, he announced the news for the first broadcast of a new show, Morning Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KASELL: Good morning, I'm Carl Kasell. Two men have pleaded innocent to murdering Earl Mountbatten of Burma, a cousin of Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

ULABY: When one of the most recognized voices of NPR stepped down three decades later, the show Talk of the Nation dedicated a full hour to his career. Morning Edition's former host, Bob Edwards, remembered relying on Kasell during, for example, 9/11.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KASELL: Details are sketchy, but it appears that a plane has crashed into the upper floors of the World Trade Center in New York City.

BOB EDWARDS: That morning and a thousand others. Awful things happened in the morning.

ULABY: Edwards said, sure, he was the morning host, but Carl Kasell was in every way its anchor.

EDWARDS: Seven newscasts every morning - what? - nine minutes long.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

EDWARDS: Nobody in this business does that. That is incredible.

ULABY: Then the surprise second act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KASELL: From NPR and WBEZ Chicago, this is Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, the NPR News quiz. I'm Carl Kasell.

ULABY: After years of being super serious, Kasell got a chance to let down his hair.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KASELL: (Screaming).

PETER SAGAL, BYLINE: That was the radio version...

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: ...Of a famous painting that...

ULABY: Host Peter Sagal says no one could have guessed that Carl Kasell would be so funny.

SAGAL: The greatest thing about Carl was anything we came up with he was game for. When we were in Las Vegas, we had him come onstage wearing a showgirl's headdress. No matter what we asked him to do, no matter how many silly voices or weird stunts - we had him jump out of a cake once to make his entrance onstage. He did it with such joy but such dignity.

ULABY: Carl Kasell delivered both when he got one of the highest honors in popular culture - a cameo on "The Simpsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) It's so much fun to finally have a friend who likes the NPR show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! as much as I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SAGAL: So, Carl Kasell, how did the House minority whip do on our news quiz?

KASELL: Well, Peter, he got two out of three right, so he wins me recording his outgoing message.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, that's OK. Really. No, no, no, please don't.

KASELL: It's not optional.

ULABY: Kasell recorded people's outgoing messages on their answering machines because at the beginning, Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! did not have the budget for real prizes. Eventually he recorded more than 2,000 of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KASELL: This is Carl Kasell of National Public Radio News. Reliable sources report that both Mike and Carla are not available to answer the phone right now.

ULABY: Many of those messages are archived on the Wait Wait website.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KASELL: We have verified that they do not need siding, windows or a hot tub, and their carpets are clean.

ULABY: One of the great backstage stories about Carl Kasell involves his interest in magic tricks. In 2009, he told NPR's Renee Montagne about a company holiday party where he sawed Nina Totenberg in half.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KASELL: We laid her out on the table, picked up that saw and (imitating sawing) right through her middle section.

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Whoa.

KASELL: And she said it tickled.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter).

KASELL: And (laughter) - and she got up and walked away in one piece.

ULABY: Carl Kasell was magic. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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