That Casey Kasem Show Was More Than Just Reaching for Stars
Mike Hale
New York Times

The Casey Kasem we know was a creation of the baby boom: “American Top 40,” his signature show, went on the air in 1970, and Mr. Kasem had his biggest impact in the ’70s and early ’80s, counting down hits by Grand Funk Railroad and the Bay City Rollers. The ratings were sagging when Mr. Kasem first left the show in 1988 (he would return a decade later), and when he announced his sudden retirement this weekend from the radio franchise he helped create, it felt like the end of an era that had actually ended 10 or 20 years ago.

The funny thing was, Casey Kasem sounded old-fashioned from the start. In the mid-’70s, when I was an “American Top 40” devotee, you already could be mocked for listening to him. His this-land-is-your-land patriotism and weekly shout-outs to Armed Forces Radio were out of tune with the times; his practiced sincerity and his adherence to the Billboard pop charts were uncool; and couldn’t he have made up a better name? (That last part, of course, was unfair to the man born Kemal Amin Kasem.)

After Mr. Kasem’s departure from the countdown business, it would be easy to say that he was always comfort food, that his popularity was based on nostalgia and an appeal to Middle -American values.

That might have been true in recent years. But back in the day — before the Internet, even before “Entertainment Tonight” — there were better reasons to listen to Casey Kasem. For one thing: as bizarre as it now seems, millions of people didn’t know what the No. 1 song was each week until they heard that drumroll on “American Top 40.” It was appointment listening, as much of a weekly communal experience as “All in the Family” or “M*A*S*H.”

And the show stood out for other reasons. As square as it was, by playing the entire Top 40 it gave many people a greater variety of music than they could get from listening to their local radio stations for a week.

It also pioneered a genre that wouldn’t come into its own for another decade or two: celebrity gossip. The tidbits of biography and trivia that Mr. Kasem and his team, including the writer Don Bustany, sprinkled through the show might have been corny, but at the time there was practically nowhere else to hear them. (To my mind, they helped make up for the excruciating dedication letters Mr. Kasem read every week, though I’m sure those had their fans, too.)

All of these functions became less important, or even irrelevant, with the advent of nightly entertainment news and then the Internet. The profile of “American Top 40” shrank, though it benefited from a burst of publicity when Ryan Seacrest took over as host in 2004. (Mr. Kasem continued to preside over several spinoffs.) The show now has an odd double life, as a going concern with Mr. Seacrest and as a nostalgist’s curio: Mr. Kasem’s original 1970s and ’80s countdowns are available in syndication.

So what kept Mr. Kasem counting down the hits for nearly 40 years and continues to keep his creation on the air? Mr. Kasem is known for being a perfectionist — clips of his profane outbursts when things didn’t go right in the studio are popular on YouTube — and I suspect that a related feeling, a demand for order, may explain his show’s longevity. The welter of information and choices we now confront, a condition that has affected the music and radio industries more profoundly than most, may be democratizing, but it can also be demoralizing, and the Top 40 is something to hold on to — a life preserver in the digital sea.

Which was true even in the show’s heyday. A college friend of mine — who went on to become a world-champion video-game player when video games were still six feet tall — listened to Mr. Kasem each weekend and wrote down the Top 40 songs, in longhand. We all thought this was incredibly nerdy and weird. We were also jealous: we wished we had that set of notebooks with every Top 40 list for the last 10 years. It was so weird it was cool.

It was also valuable information. As Mr. Kasem might say, it was something that would help you keep your feet on the ground while you were reaching for the stars.


grasshopper said...

Kasem had a really unique radio voice; he'll be missed

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