'American Top 40' Flashback: Shadoe Stevens
'American Top 40' Flashback: Shadoe Stevens

Yesterday (July 6), Chart Beat marked the 40th anniversary of the first airing of "American Top 40" with Casey Kasem. The broadcasting legend hosted the show, which counted down the top 40 positions on the Billboard Hot 100, from the weekend of July 4, 1970, through Aug. 6, 1988.

After Kasem departed and signed with Westwood One (launching rival "Casey's Top 40" in early 1989), a new era in the history of "AT40" began. On Aug. 13, 1988, broadcaster/actor Shadoe Stevens stepped behind the mic and would host the program through January 1995. (As extremes in music, such as rap and grunge, began to impact the upper reaches of the Hot 100 due in large part to sales, the show began counting down the more pop-leaning Hot 100 Airplay chart in place of the Hot 100 in 1991 and, later, the Pop Songs survey).

As music and chart fans celebrate the landmark birthday of "American Top 40," the show's second host spoke with billboard.com via e-mail, offering insight into his storied career in multiple media, revealing the challenges and rewards of steering the world's most prominent radio countdown.

We'll get into your entire career involving TV, radio and more, but let's start with your taking over for Casey Kasem as host of "American Top 40" in 1988. Was it daunting replacing the show's co-creator and legendary host after 18 years?

Of course. Casey had become iconic and his style was indelibly etched into the minds of listeners for almost two full decades. His friendly, relaxed, folksy voice was synonymous with the show and I was coming in fresh from the bombastic, over-the-top style of "Hollywood Squares" and six years and 1,100 hilarious, Monty Python-like commercials as "Fred Rated for Federated." My entire personality was built on humor and tongue-in-cheek theater-of-the-mind.

The single most challenging aspect of replacing Casey was dealing with the rampant anxiety and paranoia of the producers and executives of ABC Radio. The show was written for Casey and I simply couldn't wrap my mouth around those words. Everything sounded phony and contrived. The first four-hour show took 18 hours to record. They were so afraid that I wouldn't be able to fill Casey's shoes that they sent me to three different vocal coaches up to five times a week and criticized every twist of phrase, every creative notion I had for making the show work for me. I sat with the writers and re-wrote stories and wrap-arounds, coming up with endless variations in search of what would work for my personality and still accommodate the demands of their expectations.

The first year was very difficult and I had to fight about things as silly as referring to myself as "your friend in the void." They would say, "it sounds so ... I don't know ... dark ..." I would reply, "It's the infinite, the unknown, the absolute ... and I am your friend ... Shadoe ... 'he who walks with the light' ... get it? ... your friend in the unknown? ... always there?" They didn't get it. I compromised with a kind of cheesy, "... And I'm your best friend, the Shadoe."

What are your favorite memories of hosting "AT40" for seven years?

I have a lot of great memories. I developed incredible friendships with everyone on the staff, especially Darryl Morden, Rod West, Brandon D'Amore and Matt Wilson. We had huge laughs and became very tight.

The other amazing memories were the visits and promotions in other countries. "AT40" mushroomed worldwide while I was there and we were huge in 110 countries. In fact, I just received a couple of e-mails from a fan in Spain who credits the show and me with changing his life. I'll include one at the end of these notes.

I enjoyed astonishing trips to Norway, the Netherlands, England, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Bali, two trips to Tokyo and a complete tour of South Africa. We were on the biggest station in South Africa, 5FM, a network that covered the country, and TV and radio opened the doors for us. We did promotions and events in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Sun City.

I even went on a safari in Mala Mala, where I almost died. I contracted salmonella poisoning from bad calamari in Cape Town and, by the time we were in the middle of the jungle, it took hold. I initially thought it was just regular food poisoning and would clear up. Several days later, my whole body began shaking and they flew me out to Johannesburg where I was so dehydrated that, according to doctors, I was about 30 minutes from death. I remained in the hospital recuperating for nearly a week. Ahh, the good times.

"American Top 40" continues going strong each week, now hosted by Ryan Seacrest. Why do you think it has remained so popular, in so many countries, 40 years after its launch?

It's a great, simple format based on two simple ideas: people like to hear the most popular music in the country and people like to hear the countdown of the biggest and best. People also get attached to certain songs and feel good when something they like is doing well. Ryan and his team are very good and have brought in fresh new approaches and features that work great. It's more engaging than ever and Ryan sounds like he really likes the music and enjoys talking about it. He's very good and the production is outstanding.

Your career in radio started at age 10, spurring an article in "Life" magazine about your career fast-track. How did you get bitten by the radio bug so early?

Radio seemed like magic to me. All that excitement happened in an invisible world that took place in your head. I loved the theater of it and couldn't wait to be a part of it and built a station in my bedroom that could broadcast a mile in every direction. I did shows every day after school and into the evening playing rock and roll. I was in heaven. About a year later, I was "discovered" by one of the local professional radio stations and given my own rock show on Saturday mornings, billed as "The World's Youngest Disc Jockey."

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