Wait, wait … NPR’s Kasell to speak at the Bing

Carl Kasell’s warm-as-honey voice is well-known to National Public Radio listeners. But here’s something they probably don’t know: He was once a country-music DJ.

“We gave country music a bit of class,” joked Kasell, by phone from his Washington, D.C. office. “None of this hokey stuff. We treated country music with respect.”

Today, Kasell is identified with a different brand of radio, as a longtime NPR news announcer and mainstay of the quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

He’s also a “roaming ambassador for NPR,” in which capacity he will give a talk on Monday at the Bing Crosby Theater to benefit Spokane Public Radio.

Yet back in the 1960s, pre-public radio, he found himself spinning Hank Williams Jr. platters when his Alexandria, Va., station went through a format change.

He didn’t mind a bit. In fact, it fit right in with his original career goal.

“I wanted to be an entertainer,” said Kasell, 77. “News had no appeal to me whatsoever.”

He had fallen in love with radio as a kid in North Carolina, cueing up records on his grandma’s Victrola and making up newscasts in between.

Kasell began working in radio as a sophomore in high school. By the 1950s, he was skilled at reading commercials, playing Sinatra records and taking meter readings on the transmitter.

Yet it wasn’t until the late ’60s that he found his true calling when he was hired by an Arlington, Va., all-news station.

“I went full-time with news and left the records behind,” said Kasell.

He quickly grew to love it. It was a heady time to be a news broadcaster in the D.C. area, amid all the turmoil of the Vietnam War era.

By 1977, Kasell was working full time at NPR, where he delivered the news on “Morning Edition” for 33 years.

He gave up news announcing last year and took on the roaming ambassadorship. Yet you’ll still find him most days at his NPR office.

In fact, he said that in his Monday talk he’ll probably “delve into what happened (last Sunday) in Pakistan” and give some insight into how NPR handled that story.

Meanwhile, he’s still a key part of “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” He’s the official judge and scorekeeper for this popular show and he’s also part of the prize package: Lucky listeners win Kasell’s voice on their answering machines.

“I think I’m approaching 3,000 messages,” he said.

He landed the job after the show’s producer heard him deliver a laugh line when he was speaking at a conference. Somebody in the audience asked him how early he had to get up to do his “Morning Edition” gig.

“I said, ‘I get up at five minutes after 1 a.m.,’ ” recounted Kasell. “And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you get up at 1 itself?’ And I said, ‘Well, I like to sleep in.’ ”

The show was not an immediate hit.

“It was a bad, bad program,” said Kasell. “We had stations telling us they would never carry it. It was that awful.”

NPR made a switch and brought in current host Peter Sagal. It tinkered with the format until it had a show that worked.

“Those stations that said they wouldn’t carry us?” said Kasell. “They carry us now.”

By the way, Kasell is also an amateur magician. He’ll probably do a few tricks for the crowd on Monday.

In other words, he’s still pursuing his lifelong ambition: to be an entertainer.

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