Keep Reaching for the Stars

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.

Top 5: More Hall-of-Famers

Whatever happened to all the famous DJs?  The best-known jock in America right now is probably Ryan Seacrest, although he’s less famous for being on the radio than for hosting American Idol. It used to be Howard Stern, but he’s been a talk show host for years, and he’s disappeared into the anonymity of satellite radio—a good move financially and for his freedom of speech, but not one that’s likely to build his fan base. True, there are lots of people doing solid work in cities across the country, and some of them end up with national gigs, but national gigs ain’t what they used be, given the number of stations, both terrestrial and Internet-based.

Take a look at this survey from WABC in New York dated April 20, 1963, and specifically at the jock lineup. Several of these guys became national radio celebrities, and three would be first-ballot choices in anybody’s Hall of Fame. A couple others would deserve consideration, too:

Dan Ingram would stay at WABC until 1982 (when it abandoned music for talk) and then work at WCBS-FM from 1991 to 2003. I’ve quoted a line of Ingram’s for years, one that I heard when he was on a panel at a radio convention attended, that the key to becoming a great DJ was to be able to go to the bathroom in three minutes or less, the length of a typical record. (Ingram’s version was a bit more scatological, however.)

Scott Muni followed Ingram every night, and would leave radio briefly in the mid-60s before returning as one of the pioneers of free-form “progressive” radio, spending three decades on afternoons at WNEW-FM. He hosted several nationally syndicated series and specials throughout his career.

Bruce Morrow, the legendary “Cousin Brucie,” would be on the air in New York daily until 1977 before hosting oldies shows locally in New York and in national syndication, most famously Cruisin’ America. He’s been on the Sirius/XM ’60s channel since 2005.

Herb Oscar Anderson was present at the creation of Top 40, working for Storz Broadcasting’s WDGY in Minneapolis. He joined WABC when it went Top 40 in 1960. “The Morning Mayor of New York” left WABC in 1968, claiming that he didn’t like the newer music he was being asked to play. (Anderson’s son is actor John James, a 1980s heartthrob on Dynasty.)

Sam Holman was the program director who put WABC’s Top 40 format on the air; he later did the same at WLS in Chicago, and worked on-air there as well. He eventually became the head of programming for all of ABC’s Top 40 stations during the 1960s, and is one of the genre’s forgotten pioneers.

As for the music on WABC this week in 1963, it was girl groups aplenty: the Chiffons, the Cookies, the Shirelles, and the Orlons (actually three girls and a guy), plus Little Peggy March and Ruby and the Romantics, were all in the Top 10. There was a liberal sprinkling of MOR singers: Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Jack Jones, Eydie Gorme, but also some rock ‘n’ roll pioneers, including the Beach Boys and Roy Orbison. And some classic hits, too: “Surfin’ USA,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “On Broadway,” “Da Doo Ron Ron.” It’s easy to say—and I’ve done it myself—that by 1963, the British Invasion had to happen, to shake American pop music out of its post-Elvis funk, but there’s plenty on this chart that’s still worth listening to 46 years later.