In Memoriam: Carl Kasell

Growing up, Carl Kasell ’56 wasn’t interested in the news, but he was fascinated by the little box that transmitted it to the world — a wondrous thing called a radio. At 16, while his peers slept, the Goldsboro native rode the local airwaves on WGBR, putting in two and a half hours as a disc jockey before heading to school. At Carolina, he rarely left Swain Hall, where in 1953 he inaugurated the new student-run station, WUNC, with Charles Kuralt ’55.

Kasell lived every day in awe of radio’s romance —its mystery, its humor and its magic.
His high school drama teacher, Andy Griffith ’49, spotted a budding stage actor in Kasell, but even the future sheriff of Mayberry couldn’t persuade the kid with the center-of-the-earth voice to consider any other future.

“I’m going to be a radio star,” Kasell told him.

And so he was. Kasell, who died April 17 at age 84 after battling Alzheimer’s disease, created one of the most respected and surprising careers in radio across more than six decades, bringing steady gravitas to National Public Radio news broadcasts and endearing impishness to its entertainment programming.

In 1975, NPR plucked Kasell from his position as news director at an Arlington, Va., radio station to read the daily headlines. The man who once thought “news sounded so boring,” who had given up spinning records to support his wife and son, became an institution at NPR. For 34 years, his authoritative news delivery fed Americans the meat-and-potatoes of their lives seven times a day, spanning the organization’s signature programs, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” He shared a Peabody Award for broadcasting excellence with the “Morning Edition” staff in 1999.

But if his role as a newsreader earned him respect, it was Kasell’s second act, beginning in 1998, that made him a true radio star. As the little box Kasell first fell in love with edged into its digital future, NPR created a radio quiz show with a nostalgic feel, one that borrowed from the sort of vintage variety hours Kasell grew up with. “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” needed a straight man to anchor the program with a playful wink, and Kasell unwittingly auditioned when he cracked a few jokes from the podium during a corporate meeting.

“You’re funny,” then-NPR program director Sandra Rattley-Lewis told him afterward. “We may be able to use you.”

At 64, Kasell became the weekend show’s official judge and scorekeeper — and its unofficial heart.
As he helped present current events questions to a studio panel and to callers at home, Kasell imitated newsworthy celebrities like Britney Spears, playing with that avuncular baritone of his. Listeners were so charmed by Kasell’s performances that he became the reason many fans tuned in — that, and the chance to win a personalized outgoing voicemail message recorded by Kasell. He created more than 2,000 cheeky, irreverent messages for fans, including this one:

“Hello, I’m Carl Kasell from NPR. Jennifer and I have eloped. Please leave your message at the beep.”

An amateur magician with a hidden flair for show-biz, Kasell returned to the stage many years after Griffith predicted a future for him there. In the latter of Kasell’s 16 years with “Wait, Wait “, the show often was performed before live audiences at venues across the country. Kasell shared another Peabody Award with the “Wait, Wait …” cast in 2007, was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2010 and earned a lasting place in the hearts and funny bones of NPR listeners everywhere.

“Alistair Cooke put it very well,” Kasell told the Review over lunch at Sutton’s Drugstore in 2001. “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.”

For 64 years, Kasell indeed did it well.

Copyright 2018 UNC General Alumni Association

Click here to read the 2001 profile of Carl Kasell, “The Wait is Over.”