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Carl Kasell, NPR Newsman Who Discovered Laughs, Dies at 84

Robert D. McFadden

Carl Kasell, an NPR newscaster who, late in his career, cast off his anchorman gravitas once a week and for years became an absurdist comedian on the popular satirical quiz show "Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me!," died on Tuesday in Potomac, Md. He was 84.

His wife, Mary Ann Foster, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer's disease.

To anyone who ever wondered what a radio personality was really like behind the disembodied baritone dignity, Mr. Kasell (pronounced KASS-uhl), gave it away in 1998 when he suddenly dropped the rock-steady mid-Atlantic voice of authority that millions had come to know over his decades as an éminence grise on public radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition."

National Public Radio's Carl Kasell delivers one of his last newscasts during the Morning Edition program at NPR December 30, 2009 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

In its place was a whimsical, charming North Carolina comic doing goofy impressions of Henry A. Kissinger, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and others in the news. A voice that had been likened to that of America's most trusted broadcaster, Walter Cronkite, was now concocting puns, singing falsetto jingles and joking about his comedown — from a radio kingpin to a comic making up voice-mail greetings as game-show prizes.

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Mr. Kasell's improbable second career, as "official judge and scorekeeper" of the news-related, call-in comedy hour "Wait Wait," began when he was 64 and still working as an NPR newscaster. In what he regarded as his weekend gig, he played a sly, deadpan straight man to the show's host, Peter Sagal, who quizzed contestants on the week's dumbest events and most misguided newsmakers.

After a slow start — attributable to a lack of live audiences in the broadcast studio, where it was hard to know if a joke landed or fell flat (a phenomenon some comedians compare to telling gags underwater) — the show went before live studio audiences and took off, eventually reaching six million listeners.

On a segment called "Who's Carl This Time?" Mr. Sagal, prodded by the ad-libs of a rotating panel of three "slightly famous" humorists, asked callers to identify the person-in-the-news Mr. Kasell was impersonating. Many Kasell portrayals were highly dubious, but for anyone paying a modicum of attention to the news, the answers were fairly obvious.

On "Bluff the Listener," callers were asked to distinguish real news stories from those invented by the show's madcap writers. (Has the Pentagon developed human cannonball technology? Did Keith Richards fall out of a palm tree? Did the president have sex with an intern in the Oval Office?)

On "Not My Job," guest celebrities were badgered about topics they presumably knew nothing about. Salman Rushdie was asked to explain the history of Pez Candy, and Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, was interrogated about Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine.

On "Fill in the Blank," questions were posed to guest panelists:

"Legislators should be banned from voting when they are: What?

"Drunk," Roxanne Roberts, the Washington Post style writer and a frequent panelist, replied correctly.

Mr. Kasell, who read the news-related clues and kept track of points won by the panelists and call-in contestants, selected the winners and rewarded them with his own custom-made voice-mail or answering machine recordings, usable on personal devices. Over 16 years on the show, he awarded more than 2,200 such recordings. Some may be heard online at npr.org.

The greetings included "Jennifer and I eloped," "I feel cheap," "Would you like to hear our jingle?" "I can't reach them either," "Thanks for your contribution" and "Trapped in the basement."

One, called "Get a Life," went:

"Hello. You've reached the voice mail of Amy, Michael and Helen. And, yes, all you NPR listeners, this is Carl Kasell. Now, surely you're not calling just to hear the dulcet tones of my voice. But if you are, get a life! Otherwise leave a message for the Salvadores.

"Wait, wait … don't tell me till you hear the beep. Imagine a professional of my caliber making voice-mail messages as a game show prize. You never hear of a big shot like Bob Edwards asked to stoop so low. Oh, well. I guess it's not such a bad gig, all things considered. You still there? Uh, have a nice day."

The show, which spun off record albums and audiobooks, was recorded before live audiences, usually in Chicago, and broadcast over hundreds of NPR stations. The production often traveled to other cities for sold-out performances as well.

Mr. Kasell, who retired in 2009 as the "Morning Edition" newscaster after 30 years, continued for another five years on "Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me!"

Mr. Kasell's retirement, at age 80, was announced in 2014. On his last show, ending 56 years in radio, there were taped tributes from Stephen Colbert, Tom Hanks, Katie Couric and President Barack Obama. More than 1,800 people packed the Warner Theatre in Washington for his finale.

"The crowd, as they say, went wild," Ms. Roberts wrote in The Post. "We aretalking public radio fans, so that meant standing ovations and loud applause, not underwear tossed onstage. At the end of the taping, they politely mobbed Carl like he was Springsteen or the pope, thrusting items both cute (a Carl plush doll) and mildly creepy (a Carl face pillow) at him for autographs. I'm pretty sure I saw a guy in the second row with Carl's name tattooed across his heart."

Succeeded by the television journalist Bill Kurtis, Mr. Kasell was named Scorekeeper Emeritus.

"Carl has always been the heart of this show," Mr. Sagal told The New York Times. During its early rocky years, he said, "we needed him because he was NPR in the same way that Walter Cronkite was TV news." Later, he added, "we found out that Carl is very hysterically funny."

Carl Ray Kasell was born in Goldsboro, N.C., on April 2, 1934, the oldest of four children of Eddie Kasell and the former Lela Mitchell. From childhood, Carl was fascinated with radio.

In a memoir, "Wait Wait … I'm Not Done Yet" (2014), he recalled hiding behind a floor-model radio and broadcasting make-believe programs.

"My grandmother had a Victrola with the big 78 r.p.m. records, and I would play disc jockey, talking in between songs," he wrote. "I'd tell jokes, give the time and temperature, make up commercials, just like the guy on the radio did. I fell in love with radio."

Carl and his siblings, Grace, Mary and Jack, attended local public schools. At Goldsboro High School, a young dramatics teacher, Andy Griffith, the future actor and comedian, befriended Carl and urged him to pursue a theatrical career. But the lure of radio was stronger. He worked part time for a local radio station and graduated in 1952.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mr. Kasell majored in English. He and Charles Kuralt, a fellow student who found fame as a CBS News correspondent, helped start a campus radio station, WUNC. A few credits short of graduation in 1956, Mr. Kasell was drafted by the Army and served for two years. He was posted to Verona, Italy, where he met his first wife.

Mr. Kasell married Clara de Zorzi in 1958. They had a son, Joseph. His wife died in 1997. In 2003 he married Mary Ann Foster, a Washington psychotherapist, who had a son, Brian Foster, by a previous marriage. In addition to Ms. Foster, his son and stepson, he is survived by a sister, Mary Groce; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Kasell was an announcer and disc jockey for WGBR-AM in Goldsboro from 1958 to 1965. He then became a morning anchor and later the news director of WAVA-FM, a pioneering all-news station in Arlington, Va., where he hired Katie Couric, then a University of Virginia student, as a summer intern, starting her broadcasting career.

Mr. Kasell joined NPR in Washington in 1975 as a part-time weekend news announcer for "All Things Considered." After WAVA switched to rock music, he quit the station in 1977 and became a full-time announcer for "All Things Considered," NPR's blend of news, analysis and features.

In 1979 he joined NPR's new "Morning Edition," the network's flagship weekday news program, and along with Bob Edwards, the principal anchor, became a familiar voice to Americans, delivering overnight and breaking news and features on science, arts, business, sports and politics.

He shared a George Foster Peabody Award given to "Morning Edition" in 1999 and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2010.

Mr. Kasell, who lived in Washington for many years, learned he had Alzheimer's disease in 2012, but continued to appear on the quiz show for two years. He moved to assisted living at Rebecca House in Potomac, Md., in 2017.

Once, taking questions from the quiz show audience, he was asked how early he got up to do "Morning Edition."

"1:05 a.m.," he said with a straight face.

After an awkward silence, someone asked, "Why not 1 a.m.?"

"Because," he said, "I like to sleep in."

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