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Carl Kasell, who has been a cornerstone of NPR morning programming for 30 years, retired as a newscaster on Dec. 30. (NPR)

Carl Kasell: After 30 Years, A Chance To Sleep In

Dec 30, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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Carl Kasell, a cornerstone for NPR's morning listeners for 30 years, is leaving his newscaster chair Carl Kasell, a cornerstone for NPR's morning listeners for 30 years, is leaving his newscaster chair

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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."

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