“Wait, wait … Don’t Tell Me!” the host, Peter Sagal, begins. Why would the discerning listeners of National Public Radio pay up to $40 a head for seats at the Carolina Theatre in Durham–the place was a sell-out both Thursday and Friday nights–to see a radio program they could have heard at home for free?
For sure, part of the attraction is the avuncular Carl Kasell, the veteran NPR newsman who doubles as “Wait, Wait’s” official scorekeeper. Kasell’s been in radio 53 years, well after he and Charles Kuralt signed a then-brand-new WUNC onto the air for the first time. A native of Goldsboro, N.C., he insists there’s still some Southern in his accent, though early in his career he encased it in imitations of the best national broadcasters.
NPR listeners know him as the easy voice they awake to every day when he delivers the news–straight up–on “Morning Edition.” But there’s a dry, sly side to him, too, as he showed Friday night, when he walked onstage before the taping–moving silently, and holding hand-written signs.
“Hi, I’m Carl Kasell,” the first sign read. The crowd roared its approval.
“NPR bigwigs are listening,” said the second. Kasell put his finger to his lips.
“For $100,” said the third, “I’ll say your name on the air.”
“Wait, Wait“ is in its sixth year on NPR. A production of Chicago Public Radio, it airs on WUNC at noon Saturdays, for an hour. The subject is news, but the format is quiz-show spoof–as, for example, when Sagal defines politics as a combination of poli- (about the people) and ticks (horrible, bloodsucking creatures).
Callers-in who get enough correct answers win Kasell’s voice on their home answering machine, which–from the audience reaction–is highly prized. The best part is, within the bounds of good taste, he’ll say whatever you want.
Before the show, The Independent had a conversation with Kasell. An edited version follows.
The Independent: Which do you like better, Morning Edition or Wait, Wait?
Carl Kassel: I began with Morning Edition 24 years ago, and that’s been a big part of my life. But I harken back to when I first got in the business 53 years ago, they had a lot of quiz programs and entertainment shows like Wait, Wait, and it was one of the attractions that brought me into the business, wanting to do those things. So (when) I had the opportunity to do this six years ago, I grabbed it. But to say which is more important, I can’t say, really.
They say NPR’s gone soft. Is this the evidence of it?
This is not soft. Have you heard the program?
Well, light, perhaps? Lacking the hard edge we need in these troubled times?
It has an edge … But it’s also a way to relax, to take a look at the news and find some humor from it … We have a million and a half listeners, about 300 stations carry us–we have a pretty good following.
Why, do you think?
(Drily, slyly) It must be because it’s good.
But it must be serving some need?
I think people like to laugh. After 9/11, we did not do a program that following week. And when we came back we didn’t really know how to do it, and how the public would take it. But we did the show, and the response was: Thank you, we needed that. We do need to laugh.
Yes, we do. But with the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, are you willing to take some responsibility for Arnold Schwarzenneger?
(Laughs) Well, I think it is getting blurred in the mainstream media. I regret to see how personality news has been creeping in, and in some instances dominates what would be an evening newscast. Our industry–I’m not talking about NPR but the industry as a whole–kind of bypasses the news people should be getting, and they’re getting what they want, or so the networks say. And I believe we should be giving the public what they need to know.
How come California gets Arnold, and all we get is Jesse Helms?
… For our program, Arnold’s like a gift from heaven. When we first went on the air, Monica Lewinsky broke out, so that was great for our program. And then we had Jesse Ventura, and now Arnold Schwarzeneger.
Tell me about Chapel Hill. What kind of student were you?
I wasn’t a great student at all. I was a great high school student, but when I got here it was really over my head. I mean, I did fine, I passed my courses. But I got involved with the Radio, TV & Motion Picture department, as it was called in those days; WUNC went on the air when I was a freshman, in the fall of that year, and I just got so involved with that department and the station, I spent a lot of time in Swain Hall, and along with it I also got a job with the local radio station, WCHL, to help pay my bills. So my time was rather consumed with broadcasting.
What was WUNC like then?
When we were here we had the studios in the basement, and one of the faculty members built the board we used. We got the transmitter from WBT–they had an old one they were’t using. We had no budget, because we had no money. We were an all-volunteer staff, we were on the air four hours a night, and we had fun. Anybody who came to the campus to speak, or play a concert, we were there with a microphone. We provided a pretty good service.
We were called educational radio back then.
I like to think that public radio is educational, informative and entertaining. And if you listen to Morning Edition, you get all those things in there.
Tell us about Charles Kuralt.
We did a lot of work together. Especially radio plays. Charlie was a good actor, and I did some of it too, because I had a little acting background. He was good back then, very, very good. There are tapes of us around … and it’s like the Kuralt of later years.
How did you sound?
Younger. My voice was still maturing, I think.
Who was the real Kuralt–the newsman? Or the guy with a secret life and wife?
Charles, the rascally coot. That’s my first thought. But who knows, we all have our personal life … it did not take away from his ability as a newsman. He was one of the best writers we ever had.