You can divide the world into two kinds of people: Those whose hearts cracked a little bit last weekend at the news that Casey Kasem was doing his final radio countdown of the hits, and those who said, “Casey who?” OK, there’s probably a third group, maybe the largest of all — the ones who said, “What’s radio?”
For those of us who grew up listening to Kasem play the top 40 records in America every weekend, the only thing sadder than his departure is that he outlived his own medium. When it comes to music, radio is a desiccated shell of its old self.
But back when radio mattered, nobody on it mattered more than Kasem, whose “American Top 40” was ubiquitous — and I’m not using the word lightly. In 1998, while live on the air in Los Angeles, Kasem called information for a telephone number. After he’d gotten it, his co-host asked the operator if she knew who she’d been talking to. “Sure!” she chirped. “Casey Kasem!”
Kasem’s supple, mellifluous voice was unmistakable. But he was much more than just a talented set of vocal cords. The first rock ‘n’ roll jock to knit together a national radio audience, he was a major force in creating a national pop-music culture and documenting its history.
Before “American Top 40” came along on July 4, 1970 — 39 years to the day before Kasem signed off for the last time — rock ‘n’ roll radio was strictly a local affair. There was no way for a kid in, say, Albuquerque, N.M., to know what the kids in New York and Los Angeles were listening to. In those days before digital shape-shifting, there was no Internet, no MTV and practically no pop-culture coverage in newspapers.
Rock ‘n’ roll consisted of the 25 or 30 records your local station was willing to play at any given moment. If a local program director decided to ban a record — out of racial impulses (in Albuquerque, we never heard James Brown’s “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud”) or unease at risque lyrics (“Let It All Hang Out” by the Hombres never made our local airwaves) or even just personal taste (Barry McGuire’s pounding, apocalyptic “Eve of Destruction”) — it simply didn’t exist.
All that changed with “American Top 40.” Kasem played Billboard magazine’s top 40 records each week, and unless a local program director was willing to start hacking up the reel-to-reel tapes on which the show was distributed, there was no way to censor it. Politically incendiary records like “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills Nash & Young’s anguished shriek about the National Guard shootings at Kent State, and lascivious, erotic wallows like Sylvia’s “Pillow Talk” could suddenly be heard on stations that had shied away from “Wake Up Little Susie.” Even when “American Top 40” started providing warning notes to program directors with instructions on how to edit songs out of the show, most found it not worth the trouble.
Along with allowing kids from coast to coast to hear one another’s favorite records, “American Top 40” gave them a sense of their own history. Rock ‘n’ roll had always been a disposable culture; records climbed the charts and then dropped off into the mists of late-night oldies shows; teenagers grew up and were replaced by new audiences.
But Kasem studded his show with anecdotes and chart information from years gone by that both quantified and personalized the music’s history. When he announced, during the opening moments of the first American Top 40, “This week at No. 32, a song that’s been a hit four different times in 19 years,” I was inextricably hooked. (It was the Four Tops version of “All in the Game,” if you’re interested ... which if you’ve read this far in a story about Casey Kasem, I know you are.)
These days, with the wealth of information available with a few keystrokes to the wireless generation, “American Top 40” had lost much of its impact. The show, which once aired on more than 500 stations, an astonishing number in the pre-satellite age, had dwindled as technology and microtargeted radio formats ate away at Kasem’s audience. It was more than a little weird to hear Kasem, 77, introducing heavy metal headbangers and gangsta rappers to his original audience’s grandchildren.
Ironically for somebody who did so much to pry open rock ‘n’ roll culture, Kasem may be best known in today’s Internet culture for an act of self-censorship. One of his much-loved Long Distance Dedications — which usually reunited long-lost friends or lovers — went disastrously awry in 1985, when his scriptwriters had him read a forlorn letter about a late beloved dog named Snuggles coming out of a sizzling Pointer Sisters dance record.
Instead of a song to Snuggles, Kasem dedicated a volcanic stream of four-letter words to the writers, while the tape was still rolling. The outtake, which has circulated endlessly on the Web, is so astonishing that when I met Kasem a few years ago, I asked if it was really him.
“Oh, that’s me for sure,” he acknowledged with a pained smile. “No fake. I just blew up. It was a bad day.”
No matter. As someone once said — every week for 39 years — keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.
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