The Wait is Over

Carl Kasell November-December 2001

After 51 years of playing the straight newsman, National Public Radio’s Carl Kasell ’56 is tuning in his inner ham.

The most important piece of information you need to remember about Carl Kasell ’56 is that he does not drink caffeine.

It seems like a trivial fact, but if you listen to National Public Radio in the mornings, you understand. If you have a job, you understand. If you have ever been forced beyond your will to rise from your slumber while crickets are chirping – whether to feed a crying baby, blow a stuffy nose or embark on a trip – you understand.

Carl Kasell is a newsman. For the NPR Uninitiated, Kasell has done one thing and done it with near perfect aplomb since 1979. He has delivered the world and the nation’s headlines seven times a day at the top of the hour to a “Morning Edition” listening audience that is larger than NBC’s “Today Show” viewing audience. Like a Pavlovian response, when you hear the Goldsboro native’s voice, you know you’re about to get your news straight up, with nary a twist.

But listen to the man’s schedule. He starts his day at 1:05 a.m. – the extra five minutes, he said, are because he likes to “sleep in.” Then he drives from his townhouse in Washington, D.C., to the NPR studios downtown, arriving at 2 a.m. to prepare for his first newscast at 5 a.m. About nine hours later, he goes home to nap. He does this every weekday, and he accomplishes this task by filling a 20-ounce gray Carolina Tar Heels thermos (complete with dried brown shellacking on the blue lid) with decaffeinated coffee.

So, yes, there are other things to know about Carl Kasell. But pretty much all of them can be traced to the fact that he is the hardest working man in radio.

What it was, was prophetic

In the cereal bowl of America’s morning hours, Kasell (pronounced “Castle”) is indeed the Raisin Bran: a regular, dependable guy doing a necessary job for more than 10 million listeners. It helps that he perpetually sounds like a 1950s sitcom-dad.

But these days, change is afoot in Kasell’s career and his life. He has tacked three extra hours to his Friday schedule – voluntarily. These days, you might call up your sister’s answering machine and find Kasell telling you that he’s your “boogie man, your boogie boogie boogie man” – which is not something Ward is known ever to have said to June Cleaver.

The source of all this wackiness, which seems more befitting the Car Talk guys than a straight-laced 67-year-old from Wayne County, is NPR’s three-year-old news quiz show, Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! The one-hour program recreates the days when film and television stars were second fiddle to performers on radio dramas such as Gunsmoke. Peter Sagal, the show’s Chicago-based host, directs a panel of three revolving celebrity guests (and on Wait, Wait…, that’s usually defined as journalists and funny guys who keep up with the news) and a collection of civilian contestants from across the country who call in to compete. Among other things, they try to guess Kasell’s newsmaker quotes – which is how he got to pretend to be the late punk singer Joey Ramone last spring with this clue:

“Now I guess I’ll have to tell ’em
That I got no cerebellum.
Gonna get my PhD.
I’m a teenage lobotomy.”

The prize for guessing Kasell’s quotes? Having him record a custom-made home answering machine message.

Kasell has pretended he’s everyone from Charlton Heston (reportedly his best impression) to President Bush. The company line for what he does on Wait, Wait… reads: “sidekick, judge and official scorekeeper.” But his real role on the show is more like that of the uncle in every family who seems so serious most of the time that when he does say something funny, he’s the last to know.

Kasell’s voice doesn’t change measurably with any of his famous-person clues; mainly, it’s the idea that the most authoritative newscaster at NPR would allow punk-rock lyrics to leave his lips that makes listeners giggle and has made Kasell the show’s much-beloved mascot. A cerebral Ed McMahon, if you will.

“Don’t you think he could be your dad?” asked Bob Edwards, host of Morning Edition. “I mean, a really good dad, who’d be square with you. A straight-shooter. That’s what his voice is to me. But there’s also this other side of him, this performer. He’d give up the newscast in a second if he had to in order to continue his role on Wait, Wait… That’s just a side of him that’s always been there, the show biz side.”

But Kasell never sought out his part on the show. Rather, the show sought him. When Kasell took the podium three years ago at the Public Radio Program Director’s meeting to introduce a gaggle of NPR stars in attendance, he outshone them all. He cracked a few jokes – no big deal, he thought – but his timing and performance were impressive enough to cause NPR’s then-cultural programming director, Sandra Rattley-Lewis, to approach him about a quiz show she was developing.

“You’re funny,” she said, poking a finger in his direction. “We may be able to use you.”

When Rattley-Lewis asked if he’d like to do the pilot show for Wait, Wait…, Kasell needed no convincing. It was the kind of thing he’d wanted to do from a young age, when he listened to dramas and comedy programs on the radio.

In truth, Kasell always has been a stage performer. As a teenager, he performed in theater, to the point that a young Andy Griffith ’49 urged his Goldsboro High School drama pupil to pursue a career in theater. Kasell performed in The Lost Colony one summer and credits those early years of stage work for helping develop the voice that seems to come from the center of the earth.

“We didn’t have the audio devices and gauging systems that they have now,” recalled Kasell. “So you had to depend upon your own voice and projection on the stage. The experience on stage of thinking on your feet, reacting to an audience, helped with radio.”

Kasell loved the stage, but radio was his true fascination. He told Griffith that he was “going to be a radio star.” He was 16 when he first took to the airwaves – and where there was radio, there was an early-morning shift. Even then, he seemed destined to make friends with sunrises.

“I started in high school, where I worked at a station in Goldsboro during my senior year,” said Kasell, who spun records back then and celebrated his 51st year in radio in June. “I signed on early in the morning at 6 a.m., worked until about 8:30 and then went to school.”

Carl’s brother Jackie remembers the magic radio created back then. “It was a small town. To be on the radio was the greatest thing in the world at that time. People admired him back then, and they still remember that time and look up to him.”

When he reached UNC, Kasell studied English but lived radio. He rarely ventured far beyond the studios of WUNC, then run by students, in Swain Hall.

“It was educational radio in the beginning,” said Kasell. “We were a member of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. If you think that public radio operates on a sort of shoestring nowadays – we didn’t have a shoestring back then. We didn’t have a budget. We were on the air just four hours in the evening.”

Charles Kuralt ’55, a contemporary of Kasell’s at UNC, also lent his talents to the station while in school. Kasell remembers that he was “very good, even back then. His voice was the same as it was with CBS.

“It was a lot of classical music, a lot of musical programming and programs we got from elsewhere. I’m not sure how many listeners we had, but we did it. I loved it. For me, it was great training ground,” said Kasell, who frequently returns to Chapel Hill for WUNC fundraisers. “I made my early mistakes and I was able to correct them and improve. I owe that station a lot. I really do.”

Kasell finished four years at Carolina (but wasn’t able to complete his degree) before leaving for the Army. When he returned from his stint, with a wife to support, and then a son, he also returned to broadcasting. After working as the morning deejay and newscaster at WGBR-AM in Goldsboro, he moved to Alexandria, Va., in 1965.

“I was never all that fascinated with the news back in those days,” Kasell said, wrinkling his nose at the memory. “News sounded so boring. I was playing records in the morning at a station in Alexandria, and I had an opportunity to do some part-time and weekend work at an all news station in Arlington. It was like having two full-time jobs – but we needed the money.”

Eventually, WAVA in Arlington matched his combined salary and made him the full-time news director. “I just didn’t think too much about it. It was broadcasting. It was what I wanted to do, so I went over.”

While he loved entertainment and performing, Kasell also was infused with a sense of responsibility and a certain quietude that often outpaced his inner clown.

“Growing up, I was kind of wild,” said brother Jackie Kasell, “and let’s just say Carl wasn’t. He was very, very smart. Very articulate and bookish.”

That’s why his second chance – some might even say second career – doing entertainment radio is so delightful. Kasell also returned to his stage roots about five years ago, performing in a bimonthly live radio show called Radio from Downtown in Easton, Md., put together by Van Williamson, another NPR producer. Other NPR staples such as Susan Stamberg also perform in the 90-minute variety program that mixes musical numbers with interviews and dramatic skits. Tickets to the shows at the 400-seat Avalon Theater on the Eastern Shore have become hard to get.

“He’s having more fun now,” said Edwards, who as one of Kasell’s closest friends easily embarks on a tongue-in-cheek, woe-is-me riff. “Here I’m still the family guy in the ‘burbs. The best I get are dance recitals. I’m a little bit jealous. I don’t understand why he continues to work. I guess he really enjoys the newscasting. I mean, the guy is drawing Social Security. I should hit him up for a loan. We’re talking mammoth discretionary income.”

All kidding aside, Edwards and other friends and family who know Kasell agreed that the changes in his life of late – the gig on Wait, Wait…, the community theater, and his move from northern Virginia to downtown Washington – signal a welcome new happiness after what had been an agonizing patch of time.

A love lost, then joy found

Change comes in increments, and bliss often is preceded by grief. Kasell knows that well.

Kasell, one of four children born to working-class parents and the only one of his siblings to attend college, relishes his roots. Until his mother died four years ago, he often returned to visit her in Goldsboro.

“Nobody made a banana pudding like she did,” said Carl. “Nobody.”

But somebody did try. Clara Kasell stood over her mother-in-law’s shoulder and watched with the eyes of a natural-born cook. She tried to match her. She couldn’t do it.

But she could cook circles around everyone else. Edwards and other NPR colleagues still seem to salivate when they talk of the treats Carl’s wife made – and of her sweet manner, the way she always had a cheerful word.

“It’s a wonder Carl wasn’t 400 pounds,” said Edwards. “She was always busy feeding us – cookies and cakes and pies. She was old school. It had butter, this stuff.”

Kasell met Clara DeZorzi while stationed in Italy with the Army. She lived in Padua, with a family larger than the largest of Southern ones, full of warmth and closeness. They met, fittingly, at a restaurant. He visited every weekend, hitting it off with his future mother-in-law. And when it was time to go back to the States, he asked Clara to come with him.

She said yes. But it took a year and a half. She spent five weeks in Mexico City, alone, waiting for her visa to the United States while her fiancé found radio work in Goldsboro. In 1959, they were married, and she settled down in a Southern town where accents and daily lives were strange and only the sun was familiar. He still becomes tearful when he recalls what she gave up.

“She was 100 percent solid, pure Italian. She was very close to her family,” he said. “The sacrifice she made to leave them. … I miss her. I really do.”

In 1997, Carl lost Clara to liver cancer. They had been married 37 years.

Their son, Joe, married after Clara passed away, so she never knew the granddaughter born a little more than a year ago. “It was eight, nine, maybe 10 months,” he said of his mother’s slide. “It was all kind of a blur, and it affected her physically and emotionally and was so draining. I know he loved her dearly and still does.”

Friends say it took Kasell awhile to regain the joy that Clara had brought to his world. Then two years ago, he attended a wedding and was seated next to Mary Ann Foster, who had a psychotherapy practice in Maryland. They hit it off immediately and have been together ever since. It’s been a Renaissance period for Kasell, who travels more than ever, attends area plays and made a jump last spring in which he takes childlike pride: At 67, he moved from the house in which he raised his family in the Virginia suburbs to a bachelor’s townhouse in downtown D.C.

“My mom was old country Italian – which meant that men didn’t do anything in the kitchen,” said Joe. “It was as simple as that. But my dad. … It’s the darnedest thing. I noticed the other day that he went into his kitchen and started mixing up some frothy, coffee-mocha-type-thing, and I said to myself, ‘What else could he be doing over here in this new house? Does he have some new toys?'”

Coming to terms with his wife’s death and the rebuilding and reshaping of his own life has left Kasell at peace with all around him. Indeed, he moves with a grace and a mirth that no sour-and-serious newsman could.

“Ah, after 50 years, nothing much gets to me anymore on the air,” said Kasell. Fellow newscaster Jean Cochrane, a dead-ringer for UNC women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell, corroborates: “He never, ever has a sour word for anyone.”

“And off the air …,” said Kasell, “I got to the point two years ago where I decided life was just too short. Nothing much rattles me.”

Theater of the imagination

An irregular heartbeat is the reason he no longer drinks caffeine. Doctor’s orders. But when you love what you do as much as Kasell does, you don’t need chemically enhanced liquid.

“The thing I get a kick out of is that, when you work in radio, you never look like the image listeners have of you in their minds,” said Kasell. “They always think that Bob Edwards would be older than he is [54], and that I would be younger.”

Maybe listeners confuse the two because Kasell and Edwards are the only remaining members of the original Morning Edition staff. Kasell made the leap from the Arlington station (where he trained intern Katie Couric) to NPR when it began in 1975, two years before ME came to be.

Ironically, although Kasell has become something of an icon for the daily news routine – there are poems and short stories scattered on the Web containing references to his voice – he’s uncomfortable when he’s asked to speak to college journalism classes.

“I didn’t study journalism, and I never wanted to be a journalist,” he said. “It just happened out of necessity. I don’t see myself as an expert on this stuff.”

But, as Kasell knows, he came of age in an era when education often took the form of apprenticeships, of doing rather than studying. His longevity in early morning news radio speaks to the success of his career and to his talent as a broadcaster.

“He’s so solid and so good that he makes the rest of us sound better,” said Edwards. “It’s done a lot for the program to have him stay around this long. There’s something about getting up in the morning, and rolling out of bed when you feel groggy, and then you turn on the radio and there’s this voice – no matter if it’s me or him – that you’re happy to hear. ‘Oh, it’s those guys again.’

“We share a love for radio and an exasperation at training young people.”

“Only the strong survive,” said Kasell, echoing the battle-worn pride of an early morning warrior. “We’ve seen a lot of the younger ones come dragging themselves in in the morning, and dragging themselves right back out.”

That includes his own son.

“It’s all I ever knew,” said Joe of his father’s nocturnal career. He remembers that, even when his father worked two jobs, he always made an effort to get to his Little League games by planning his naps accordingly. “From the days when we were living in Goldsboro, when he was doing the morning program there, through high school, I got up, had breakfast with my mom and listened to my dad on the radio. It seemed odd when he was in the house in the mornings.”

Once while at George Mason University, Joe decided to go into work with his father and see what this was all about. “Awakening at 1:30 a.m. – which, in college, is quite a shock – and riding in with him, passing by bars in Georgetown as people were closing up and going home…” Joe recalls, “boy, that was a long day.”

“By mid-morning,” said his father, “his ear was slumped to his shoulder. Gone. So I don’t know if that killed his interest or not, but he eventually went to law school. And now he’s in computers. Makes sense, right?”

Simply put, in a world of flashy images, it ain’t easy to be a radio man. But when it works, there’s nothing better.

“Alistair Cooke put it very well,” Kasell said. “He told a story about a little girl who loved radio. He asked her why, and she said, ‘Because the pictures are better.’ It’s the theater of the imagination. That’s what old-time radio was about: creating visions, images of what you see in your mind. That is the power of radio, when it is done well.”

And when it’s done well, as with Wait, Wait…, suddenly having a semi-well-known newscaster from public radio record your home answering machine message gives you cache at dinner parties. Kasell records about a dozen messages each Thursday, including this favorite: “With this call, $10 has just been deducted from your checking account.”

It’s a shame that fans of the show don’t each have an opportunity to pull up a chair and listen to the taping. The 60 minutes that air – funny as they are – are but a whittling of the some two hours of hysterical banter that often comprises the program’s making. Not a bad way to make a living, laughing. Kasell hopes that taking Wait, Wait… and shows like it on the road to perform them before live audiences will spur a rebirth in radio’s popularity and in how people use their imaginations.

“Lots of times, people will say, ‘Can you believe a serious newsman is doing all this stuff?'” said Kasell, who also brings out his amateur magician’s wand at NPR fundraisers. “But they like it. It gets them to see another side of you, rather than the serious” – deep voice – “side.

“I could get up there and be quite boring for a half-hour. But why? You know? Why?” he said, trailing a smile off his lips. “And I’ve only really had one or two people come up to me and be critical of my appearance on Wait, Wait… They thought it was ‘beneath my dignity’ as a newsman to go on a show like that.”

At this idea, Kasell lets out a muffled chuckle of disbelief. After all, he’s not reading The New York Times or trading stocks in between newscasts. He’s surfing and complaining about Joe Forte’s early exit. Yeah, you’d think you knew a guy when you’ve woken up with him in your ear for 20-odd years. But that’s the beauty of radio. All you know is a voice. Everything else is just assumption.

As for Edwards’ jealousy over his friend’s “mammoth discretionary income,” it seems he’s going to have to get used to it. Kasell plans to keep giving folks the news seven times a day on the hour for as long as that old Tar Heels thermos holds out – and as long as Edwards, a Louisville graduate, can take his good-natured ribbing during college basketball season.

“You can’t retire from something you don’t consider to be work,” said Kasell, quoting a line he borrowed from the Smothers Brothers. “I don’t even think about it. I still feel like I’m in my 40s. As long as I can get up in the morning at 1 a.m., I’ll keep doing it.”

Copyright 2001 UNC General Alumni Association