The Casey Cultists

In a recent post I mentioned that no other radio show inspires the kind of fan love that American Top 40 does. And one could just as well add a few letters to the word “fan.” You will learn this if you spend any time on a Facebook group or Internet message board devoted to the show. Some fans’ obsession with the show reaches Bieberesque levels, and soars beyond rationality straight to cultish adoration.

A vivid example of this involves the four-hour shows. Starting in October 1978, AT40 expanded to four hours from three, as records got longer and it got tougher to squeeze 40 of ’em in. For a while, the syndicator did not make the four-hour repeats available to affiliates in any form. Eventually they did, sending the last three hours, preceding the first hour with an announcement along the lines of, “because the original broadcast was a four-hour show, we’re picking up the countdown at the beginning of the second hour.”

Some among the message-board crowd promptly lost their shit, unable to understand how this abomination could have been permitted to occur. The explanation is fairly simple: radio stations need to be able to depend on consistent scheduling. It’s not especially practical to have the show run from 9:00 to midnight some of the time and 9:00 to 1AM (or 8 to midnight) some of the time. This explanation didn’t take with the true believers, and their consternation only increased when they became aware that some affiliates continued to run three-hour versions even when the four-hour shows were available to them. Now, fanatic reasoning went, the only explanation was malice. If a station really loved AT40 and/or Casey Kasem, it would carry the four-hour show, no questions asked.

Recently, the syndicator has begun offering two different shows to stations in some weeks. If, for example, your station’s library goes only as far back as 1977, three hours of hits from 1971 won’t fit, and you’d rather have a show from 1978 instead. This inevitably hacks off some of the fanatics, who really want to hear those 1971 shows, and who don’t want to be told that their local affiliate has bigger fish to fry than the one they like to eat.

The ultimate expression of the Casey cultist involves the AT40 extras. Each hour of the show contains one extra segment that runs about four minutes. It’s a song from approximately the same week being counted down, but it either hadn’t charted yet or had already fallen off. It’s meant to fill out an hour if a station doesn’t have enough commercials. Many, if not most, stations in larger markets don’t use them. This, of course, offends the fanatics, who want their damn extras along with the rest of the show—even though the extras are usually voiced not by Casey Kasem, but by Larry Morgan, the announcer who does the opening and closing of each week’s show.

It’s weird that the ire of the fanatics seems to be aimed largely at terrestrial radio affiliates and not so much at Sirius/XM. The network’s 70s on 7 channel was the first to air the old AT40 shows, but what you hear each weekend is nothing like an actual show. Casey is heard introducing and back-announcing songs, but most of the rest of his stuff is missing: the teasers, the chart trivia, the artist profiles, the extras, it’s all hacked out. Even the familiar “hits from coast to coast” jingle package is intercut with Sirius/XM’s remarkably terrible 70s on 7 jingles.

Perhaps the fanatics have simply given up on Sirius/XM’s AT40 presentation. I know I have.

Like other fundamentalisms, AT40 fundamentalism comes at a high psychological cost. You can’t just enjoy what you’ve got, you must always compare it with the idealized something you think you should have. It makes the perfect the enemy of the good. Don’t do that.

5 thoughts on “The Casey Cultists

  1. Chuck Small

    I agree with you entirely, Jim. I am a bit puzzled in my market, though, because our oldies station has both the ’70s three-hour show (on Sundays) and the ’80s four-hour show (on Saturdays). It would seem to me that if the station can program a four-hour block one weekend day, it could do so both days. But then, I’ll freely admit I’m not a radio programmer. … And it doesn’t really anger me as much as befuddle me.

    1. J.A. Bartlett

      Around our radio station, we’ve discussed the three-hour shows versus the four-hour ones, and there’s general agreement that the three-hour ones are better. Casey didn’t need a whole hour to accommodate the longer songs, so the four-hour shows are padded. This was the era in which the Long-Distance Dedication was born, plus the 80s shows sometimes recap the previous week’s #1, and occasionally #1, #2, and #3. That made sense in an era when Top 40 stations wouldn’t want to go several hours without broadcasting the top hits, but it’s format death to hear ’em twice in four hours now that the songs are oldies, and sometimes burnt crisp or now-obscure ones.

  2. I grew up after the shift to a four-hour show and grew up with it, but you’ll never hear me complain about what version they play. Besides, the people who populate those boards should be able to get the original versions — with all of the extras — pretty easily with a few keystrokes if they really wanted to.

    I think the shows offer a nice glimpse into the past…but I’ll readily admit that there are a few people out there who take their fandom a little too far.

  3. Walter

    It has almost become a job on the one AT40 board. The screaming and yelling by a select few has made the board borderline ridiculous. And god forbid you suggest some of these people have gone over the edge! No one in radio cares what we the readers and posters on that board think.

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