Friday, April 20, 2018

Kasell’s On The Air – What Radio Voices Mean to Us

The passing of former First Lady (and presidential mother) Barbara Bush has got me thinking. Mrs. Bush was not among my favorite First Ladies, but I still have a vivid picture of her: the “silver fox” hair, the sensible blue dresses, the three strands of faux pearls. For a politician (or perhaps especially a politician’s wife), a distinctive look is all-important. Just think of Mamie Eisenhower pink, Nancy Reagan red, Hillary Clinton’s pants suits, Michelle Obama’s toned arms, or – I suppose – Milania’s cheekbones and stilettos. 

Another person we lost this week is unforgettable to me, but until now I hadn’t the slightest idea what he looked like. I’m talking about Carl Kasell, the public radio newscaster who just died at the age of 84. That’s the thing about radio personalities. It’s the voice, not the face, that makes all the difference. Which leads, of course, to the familiar adage that some talented performers have “a great face for radio.” Surely Garrison Keillor, who looks to me something like a bullfrog with a gland disorder, could have built his career in no other medium. Once we all grew accustomed to his sonorous voice and the whimsical way he delivered the news of Lake Woebegon, we were ready to accept his appearance and find it endearing. (At least, we did until the #MeToo movement gave us another picture to consider.)

I guess in the old days of Top 40 radio, DJ’s made enough personal appearances that their faces became known. Some ended up on TV: Bob Crane (before his bizarre and tragic end) moved from a top-rated L.A. radio station to the starring role in a popular TV sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes. And one storyline in 1973’s American Graffiti involves a teenage boy barging in on his DJ hero, the real-life platter-spinner Wolfman Jack. Successful sports announcers like the great Vince Scully start out as friendly radio voices, but then segue into TV broadcasting. A few years back, I had to visit a dental specialist. When I emerged into the waiting room, I saw a seated man. He looked familiar, but it was not until he answered his ringing cell phone that I knew I was in Scully’s legendary presence. (He winked at me, obviously quite familiar with getting gasps of recognition as soon as he opened his mouth.) 

As a devoted NPR listener, I have my vocal favorites. Among them are Susan Stamberg and Terry Gross, but it was years before I knew what either of these ladies looked like. I also love to hear Sylvia Poggioli reporting from Rome. Is she a looker? I have absolutely no idea.
Starting in 1977,  Carl Kasell was the dignified disembodied baritone voice of authority that announced top news headlines on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Then in 1998 he unleashed his inner comedian when he became the official announcer and scorekeeper for a brainy but goofy NPR quiz show, Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! On a broadcast whose centerpiece is the celebrity-centric “Not My Job,” it was Carl’s job to amuse listeners with outrageous impersonations of voices in the news. He also read limericks, smugly bantered with host Peter Sagal, and provided each segment with its top prize: “Carl’s voice on your home answering machine.” What I didn’t realize until now is that those answering-machine messages were impish comic gems. Here’s a quick sample: “Hello, I’m Carl Kasell from NPR. Jennifer and I have eloped. Please leave your message at the beep.” 

Peter Sagal insists that “Carl has always been the heart of this show.” And, of course, its voice. 

Here are some samples of Carl Kasell’s personalized voice-mail messages
Some "Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" cast members, with Carl on the left.

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