Carl Kasell has been delivering the news on Morning Edition since its very first broadcast. After 30 years, he's stepping away from the newscast to focus on other duties at NPR.
Talking with NPR's Renee Montagne, Kasell looked back on a career that has included stints as a local DJ; the announcer of game show Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me! and as the magician who dared to saw Nina Totenberg in half.
Kasell anchored the first newscast on Morning Edition, back in 1979. He's been a constant ever since — for many listeners, the voice coming through the radio at first light.
"I look out the window in the morning sometimes, and the sun is rising, and the people are going to work," Kasell said. "I look at Washington as being that big, sleeping giant, just stretching and waking up, and going about its business. And to know that I'm working in the capital of the most powerful nation in the world — I feel good about that."
His mornings will be changing — and starting much later, for one thing. But that's not to say Kasell won't be busy during the rest of the day.
"Actually, I hear the word 'retirement' a lot concerning my situation," Kasell said, "and the only thing I'm retiring is my alarm clock. No more will I hear that clock go off at 1 in the morning — or 5 after 1, as I like to say, because I like to sleep in. But I will be at NPR full time. I will be working as a roving ambassador for the network. And I will also keep my job on Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!"
In fact, thanks to a long-standing prize on that current-affairs game show, some 2,000 people have Kasell's voice greeting callers to their answering machines.
Born To Be On The Radio
Kasell chose his lifelong career at an early age.
"Before I even started to school," he said, "I sometimes would hide behind the radio, which would be sitting on a table, and pretend that I was on the air, and try to fool people that came by to listen."
By the age of 7, Kasell was playing his grandmother's records on a wind-up Victrola, taking commercial breaks and announcing the day's news, along with the current time.
"Just like the guy on the radio did," Kasell said. "I loved doing it."
His father would take Kasell down to the local station — WGBR, in Goldsboro, N.C. — to watch the broadcasters at work on Sunday afternoons. And he was also fascinated with the station's Teletype machine, which printed out a live feed from the wire services.
"Boy," he recalls thinking, "there comes the latest news. Can you believe that?"
Learning The Business, On-Air
Kasell helped inaugurate a news program at the University of North Carolina's WUNC station. But he wasn't alone on the air — after all, his classmates included Charles Kuralt, who would go on to become a legendary newsman at CBS.
"WUNC went on the air in '53, and I auditioned, and Charlie went over and helped out, too," Kasell said. "He was so good that I really began to realize I did not know that much about the radio."
With the Korean War being waged when he finished college, Kasell was drafted into the Army. But by the end of the 1950s he was back in the broadcast booth, taking over the morning program at WGBR, his hometown station.
In the 1960s, when Kasell was working as a disk jockey in Alexandria, Va., he got a call from a friend at WAVA, an all-news station in nearby Arlington.
The station had a weekend news shift available. "And I kind of left the records behind," Kasell said.
Kasell began his news career in one of the most turbulent decades in American history.
"We had the Vietnam War," Kasell said, "the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations; the Middle East war; Watergate came along. And so it was a great learning period, even though there were some bad times in there."
"It got into my blood," he said, "and I wound up being the news director at the station."
A Magician, Even Away From The Studio
Kasell's tenure at NPR has also included several off-air gigs as a magician. In two of his most memorable appearances, he entertained audiences at a public radio conference and a staff party.
But he refuses to admit to being good at it.
"Well, competent, let's say, in some illusions," is how he describes his abilities.
Those illusions have included one stunt in which Kasell appeared to have cut the body of legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg in half.
"I have a saw," he said. "This was during one of our holiday parties. And she volunteered."
Totenberg was laid out on a table, and Kasell sawed through her midsection.
"She said it tickled," he said.
"And she got up and walked away in one piece."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
Think of this next story as a love song to radio. We're saying goodbye, this morning, to a beloved colleague who's made his life on our air. Since 1979, Americans have been able to set their watches by this sound.
CARL KASELL: From NPR News in Washington, I'm Carl Kasell.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Just to be clear, it is not exactly one minute past the start of the hour. It is the moment when we hear Carl sit down with Renee Montagne.
RENEE MONTAGNE: So, we invited Carl Kasell in for a Longview, our occasional chats with people of long experience. Good morning, Carl.
KASELL: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So, it's sort of unusual, us talking like this, when we're not in the hallway drinking coffee together - 2:30 in the morning.
KASELL: Yeah, that's early, isn't it?
MONTAGNE: Yeah. Well, it's not so much longer for you.
KASELL: Nope. Just another, you know, well, it's finished.
MONTAGNE: Well, we're not really finished, Carl. In fact, you're barely letting up.
KASELL: But I will be at NPR full time. I will be working for as a roving ambassador for the network and I will also keep my job on WAIT, WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
MONTAGNE: Which, of course, at this point in time, is how a whole lot of people know you.
KASELL: This is true. As a matter of fact, they know me so well that many of them have my voice on their home answering machine - about 2,000, as a matter of fact.
MONTAGNE: Take us back to how you began as a newscaster. Because in fact you actually wanted to be on radio as a little kid.
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. I would tell jokes and I would tell the time, just like the guy on the radio did. I loved doing it.
MONTAGNE: And I gather that your father knew you were so taken with radio that he took you down to the station there in Goldsboro.
KASELL: He did, usually on a Sunday afternoon and I could look through the plate glass windows and see these people working. But the thing that really had fascinated me was to go to that little room off the lobby and see that teletype machine working. Boy, there comes the latest news. Can you believe that?
MONTAGNE: I think there might be a lot of people who will be sort of delighted to know that when you went to the University of North Carolina you worked with someone who did pretty well himself, Charles Kuralt.
KASELL: Yeah, Charlie was a student, as I was. We were both 18 years old when we entered the school. And WUNC went on the air in '53, and I auditioned and Charlie went over and helped out too. But I don't think his sound changed that much. He was so good that I really began to realize I didn't know that much about radio.
MONTAGNE: Well, we have an opportunity to judge for ourselves because we have a clip of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)
KASELL: This is a show about a man who wants to broadcast over the air - about any man, about every man, about all men who have ever dedicated a program, inaugurated a show, gone on the air for the first time. Everything's ready, Mr. Paulson.
CHARLES KURALT: Thanks Ed. I suppose I better get him then. Somehow this is the part I always hate.
MONTAGNE: So, that is the young Carl Kasell.
KASELL: That's was the dedication program for WUNC, runs about a half hour. But it's a little drama and Charlie's on there. The first voice you hear is mine and then Charlie comes in.
MONTAGNE: Unidentified Woman: (Singing) The Carl Kasell Show.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KASELL: How you like that, huh?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MONTAGNE: Now, that was late 1950s, right?
KASELL: I guess it was that late 1950s, because after college I was drafted into the Army. And when I came back, that theme was waiting for me as I took over the morning program and did it for several years.
MONTAGNE: So, jump ahead and tell us how you ended up in news.
KASELL: And so it was a great learning period even though there was some bad times in there, and it got into my blood. And I wound up being the news director at the station.
MONTAGNE: You know, you and I appear together at a conference of folks who do development work for stations, that is raise money. And you had to say a little something except you actually didn't say too much. You came up, you did something, I was so surprised. You did magic jokes.
KASELL: Um-hum, yeah.
MONTAGNE: And you were really good at it.
KASELL: Well, competent, let's say, in some illusions. Not completely. But I had fun with it, yeah.
MONTAGNE: And I've actually heard that you cut Nina, Nina Totenberg, in half?
KASELL: Exactly, yep. I have a saw - and this is during one of our holiday parties - and she volunteered. We laid her out on the table, we got that saw and (makes sounds) through her middle section. And she said it tickled. And...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KASELL: ...and she got up and walked away in one piece.
MONTAGNE: 'Cause I, well, then in a way it all seems as if you were destined for WAIT, WAIT...DON'T TELL ME. That this whole newscasting thing - just one big stepping stone.
KASELL: And to know that I'm working in the capital of the most powerful nation of the world, I feel good about that.
MONTAGNE: I, like so many listeners of MORNING EDITION, will miss you delivering the newscast in the morning. All the best to you and we'll hear you and see you.
KASELL: That's right. And I'll be on WAIT, WAIT.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
KASELL: It's been a pleasure, Renee.
INSKEEP: Unidentified Woman: (Singing) The Carl Kasell Show.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.