Tuesday was a big day for the University of Tennessee’s public radio station, WUOT-FM. In celebration of its 60th anniversary, the station brought in one of National Public Radio‘s most beloved personalities, Carl Kasell, and was feted at a cocktail reception hosted by another beloved personality, Howard H. Baker Jr.
Kasell, who will turn 76 next month, himself has been on the air as long as WUOT. He retired last year as the long-time newscaster on “Morning Edition,” an NPR radio show with more listeners than the three TV networks combined have viewers for their morning shows. But Kasell’s current claim to fame is his continuing role as co-host with Peter Sagal of “Wait Wait. . .Don’t Tell Me!” a popular news quiz show on NPR.
Kasell spoke during a sold-out brown bag lunch at the University Center and again at the reception at the Howard H. Baker, Jr. Center for Public Policy.
Here are highlights from the day:
- Kasell said he fell in love with radio as a child in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He would wind up his mother’s old Victrola and make up commercials or read the news between the records he would put on.
- He had Andy Griffith as a drama teacher in high school; he and Charles Kuralt started a public radio station, WUNC, at Chapel Hill when they both attended the University of North Carolina; he hired Katie Couric as an intern in Virginia when he was news director for an all news radio station.
- His first broadcast teacher told him to “create pictures and images with your voice and with sound.” He believes radio has a future. “Radio will never die,” he predicted. His advice to aspiring radio reporters: develop a special area of focus and become an expert in it.
- The most sought-after prize on “Wait Wait . . .Don’t Tell Me!” is having Kasell record the outgoing message on your phone answering system. He’s recorded more than 2,000 of those messages.
- NPR listeners are very discerning about facts and about grammar. “Make a mistake on NPR and you’ll get letters and e-mails,” Kasell said.
- When the commercial networks were eliminating foreign news bureaus, NPR was adding them. More than 800 people work for NPR.
- NPR turned down Garrison Keillor’s hugely popular “Prairie Home Companion” show. “They didn’t think it would work,” Kasell chuckled. Fortunately, Minnesota Public Radio picked it up and it is carried on many public radio stations across the country.
- Kasell says he is not into Twitter. He has a Facebook page, but he doesn’t touch it – someone at NPR handles it for him. He does, however, have an iPhone on which he reads the Wall Street Journal and New York Times when he is traveling.
Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker offered a warm welcome to Kasell following a reception at the Baker Center on campus. Baker told him that Baker’s wife, Nancy Kassebaum Baker, also a former U.S. Senator, is a devoted fan of Kasell. “Nancy listens to WUOT and she is one of your great admirers,” Baker said.
Baker himself has a history with public radio. When he was a student at the University of Tennessee, he ran for student body president with a plank calling for the establishment of WUOT. Here are some other remarks from Baker last night:
- The University of Tennessee has been co-educational since its establishment. “It’s not that we are so high-minded,” Baker explained. “It’s because Governor Blount wouldn’t sign the charter unless the new school would admit his daughter.”
- “The Baker Center is here to make sure we don’t forget that this government is a relatively new experiment – and we need to monitor it,” he said.
- Baker, who has been known through his career as “The Great Conciliator,” made a plea for civility in politics. “My dad, who was a Congressman, taught me that even in the midst of swirling controversy in American politics, our government can not survive unless people are willing at least to listen to another’s point of view,” he said.
- “I am fiercely partisan,” Baker said. “I’m a Republican. But we may not always be right. We need to at least listen to what the other fellow has to say.”
In other remarks throughout the day:
- Interim UT President Jan Simek said that when he moved from California in 1984 to take a faculty post at UT, his mother was concerned that he might not be exposed to “real” music if he moved to Tennessee. After a year, she visited him in Knoxville and he turned on WUOT for her. She was reassured that culture could exist here. She has since moved to Knoxville.
- WUOT Director Regina Dean said WUOT was the first public radio station in Tennessee, founded in 1949 with an annual budget of $40,000. It was a charter member of NPR when NPR was formed in 1971.
- Dean said the average WUOT listener tunes in to the station 400 hours per year meaning that WUOT listeners spend more time listening to WUOT than UT sports fans spend attending all UT sporting events combined. (The lunch crowd applauded at that line!)
Kasell, whose quiz show sold out Carnegie Hall in 90 minutes last year, said many discussions were held Tuesday about bringing “Wait Wait . . .Don’t Tell Me!” to Knoxville for a future live taping.