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Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Him!

Five questions with NPR's Carl Kasell.

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Carl Kasell has been a part of my life for at least 25 years. He wakes me each weekday morning and makes me laugh on Sunday afternoons. Kasell occupies a sort of “other significant other” role as the voice of the weekday morning news on National Public Radio's “Morning Edition” and the judge and scorekeeper on my favorite quiz show, “Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me!” both aired on WCVE Public Radio in Richmond. Kasell came to Richmond to read at “Virginia Arts and Letters Live,” an event hosted by James River Writers and Barksdale Theatre in support of the Read Center.

Here's how he answered five questions from the newsroom at NPR via telephone one recent morning:

Style: You studied theater in high school under Andy Griffith and he encouraged you to pursue acting. What made you decide to go into radio instead?
Kasell: I had a decision, I guess, because I was quite active in the high school drama department. But I love radio. As far back as I can remember I was listening to it all the time. My mama had to run me out of the house to play. … The high school had a radio studio in the drama department and I took a course in it. The students had built a studio back in the projection booth of the old auditorium and connected it to the local radio station. I auditioned and I got to read the news and that summer they [the radio station] offered me a full time job. ... I played the lead in “Father of the Bride” and [Barbara and Andy Griffith] thought I should go into acting. I thanked them for their advice but I was having a lot of fun with radio and I've been having a lot of fun ever since.

You have more than 50 years of experience in the radio business. What was the most difficult story for you to deliver on air?
I've never thought of them as being that difficult to deliver until I got to NPR, in fact until I got to All News Radio in Arlington. I was a DJ and played records in the morning… It was like learning a new career with all the things happening back then. The Martin Luther King assassination, Bobby Kennedy assassination, we had Watergate, the Vietnam War, anti-war demonstrations happening in Washington every week, man on the moon, things like that. It was an exciting time. With a job like this, people ask me all the time if you ever get caught up in the emotion of something. Well, not on the air. You do feel something away from it, of course.

Your voice recorded on someone's answering machine has been the prize on “Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me!” since the show's inception in 1998 and you have been part of that show since the beginning. How did that show come about? Whose idea was it and how did you get involved?
I'm very happy to tell you that I've been a part of the beginning for two big shows at NPR, one is “Morning Edition,” I was there the first day it went on the air, and of course there is “Wait Wait.” How did I get into this thing? At that time NPR was really focusing on its two big programs, “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” and we had nothing, really, on the weekends for the stations to use. We came up with a bunch of ideas and one of them was to do a quiz program. And they gave the job to Doug Berman, who produces “Car Talk” … So he began putting it together. One night, we had a meeting of program directors in Boston and a bunch of NPR on-air people were there just to schmooze, you know. And I was there with them and I was asked to provide a little meeting of program directors and introduce to them the “glitterati” (I called them) of NPR. And I did and I cracked a few jokes and that led me to get on “Wait, Wait.”

What was the most memorable moment for you on “Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me!”?
There've been a lot of memorable moments but when I think back to the people we've had on the show… we found out that a lot of people we didn't know were listening were listening and one day, this was about four or five years ago, four years ago, in Chicago we began doing the show about that time before an audience. This young senator from Illinois called up and he heard something on the show the week before, Peter Sagal made fun of his name a little bit... And so he wanted to know if he could come on board and set the record straight. So Senator Barack Obama appeared on our show. They loved him. They loved him. We never told the audience he was gonna be there until we introduced him. He came walking down the isle and the place went crazy. But he was only a senator then and he said he was out of a hundred senators he was number 98 on the list. But he was so charming and so good and funny. He really was funny and as he left and walked out the door, Peter turned to the audience and said, “One day that man is gonna be President.”

If you could have anyone's voice on your home answering machine, who would it be and what would they say?
(Chuckling) That's a good question. People ask me a lot as to who's doing mine. It's not me, it's my wife. You know it's a funny thing there, Mary, I have a brother and two sisters and they're not interested. And my son says “If I want to hear you, I'll call you up.” So that's about it. I'm satisfied with my wife, Mary Anne. She does a pretty good job and she has a nice sweet voice too.

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