Casey Kasem turned 77 last April. If you’ve heard him lately, you know that legendary voice isn’t as sharp and clear as it used to be—a contrast made all the more noticeable when you hear repeats of his older shows. Nevertheless, the little item that turned up on a couple of broadcasting websites last Friday was a bit of a surprise: “Premiere Radio Networks has informed its affiliates that they [sic] will stop producing new American Top 10 and American Top 20 countdown shows as of the July 4th weekend. PRN will continue with Casey Kasem’s 70s & 80s-based countdown shows.” With his apparent retirement, one of the most extraordinary careers in voiceover history is coming to an end. You heard him on dozens of commercials. You heard him as the voice of Shaggy in the original Scooby-Doo cartoons, and on many other cartoon series. You heard him as the voice of NBC-TV for a while. But the radio countdowns are what we will remember best, from “This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood” to “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”
American Top 40 premiered on the weekend of July 4, 1970, on a network of seven stations. At its peak in the early 80s, it was on 520 stations in the States and aired in 50 other countries around the world. Competing shows came and went—Casey himself came and went, leaving AT40 in 1988 and returning in 1998 for another six-year run—but Casey’s AT40 shows remain the standard against which radio countdown shows are judged. His “teaser” introductions of records, going into a commercial break by saying something like, “Coming up next, the current hit by the artist who played on more Number One songs than any other left-handed bassist in history,” became famous. (Practically every jock who’s ever strapped on headphones has done a variation on that technique.) His long-distance dedications remain memorable precisely because they were so cheesy. His explorations of chart history were fascinating to geeks such as I, especially during the era before chart books were widely available. But what kept you listening each week, and brought you back the next week, was the undeniable momentum inherent in a countdown show—you wanted to know where your favorites ranked. I’d frequently listen to the show with pencil and paper close by to write down the song titles. And when I became a program director in the 80s, one of the first things I did was to get American Top 40 for my station.
The earliest editions of AT40 were in mono—the program didn’t go stereo until 1972. In 1978, the original show expanded from three hours to four,
but rebroadcast countdowns from 1978 and 1979 are edited down to three, so the long-distance dedications and chart extras are omitted. (The American Top 40 Wikipedia entry is full of fascinating facts about the show.) Back in the day, the shows were delivered to radio stations on vinyl albums, one hour of the show per disc, so somebody, generally a low-paid part-time jock, would have to sit there in the studio and play ’em each weekend. Thus thousands of radio people got their start in the biz engineering Casey’s show. Now, of course, the 70s and 80s rebroadcasts are digitally remastered, and most stations can automate the show so nobody has to hang around.
For someone as ubiquitous as Casey once was, he gave us few opportunities to glimpse his real, away-from-the-microphone personality. People like Dick Clark and Howard Stern are much fuller characters to us. The most unguarded moment of Casey Kasem’s career was that famously obscene off-air rant about an inappropriate long-distance dedication. He never seemed to give many interviews, and although he was politically active, he didn’t seek publicity in doing so. He was simply a voice—but to many of us, his voice was as familiar as the voices in our own families.