“American Top 40,” the syndicated program currently heard worldwide on hundreds of radio stations, has been around so long that it’s easy to assume all countdowns began with the show co-created and hosted by Casey Kasem starting in 1970.
Kasem, who died today at 82 after a long battle with Parkinson’s and dementia, changed Sunday listening habits with his weekly review of the nation’s top hits, which were originally taken from the Billboard Hot 100. But while “AT40” was the first national countdown show, it was far from the first radio countdown.
While reviews-in-reverse of the week’s hits may date back to the 1940s (the network radio show “Your Hit Parade” didn’t necessarily count down songs, but always closed with Number One), it wasn’t until the rise of the top 40 format that the countdown became a regular feature, with local hosts running down the list of the biggest-selling singles for several hours weekly, or on some stations, such as New York’s WMCA and WMGM, every day.
During the 1950s and 60s, a station’s countdown was not only its centerpiece but a frame of reference for all live programming, as DJs usually preceded or followed a song by telling listeners what number the song was that week. The Number One song was nearly always introduced by a fanfare-type jingle.
As a result, in the pre-“American Top 40” era, although reviews of the top songs from a national standpoint were part of network television shows such as “American Bandstand,” listeners were generally focused on their local stations’ top 30, 40 or 50, especially since many records did not impact every part of the country at the same time. As far more record companies - including many independent labels - were promoting their wares to top 40 stations less likely to be centrally owned or programmed, this led to significant differences in what the hits were from one region of the U.S. to another.
When it premiered in July 1970 on just seven stations, Kasem’s “American Top 40” - which emphasized its national nature with jingles such as “Casey’s Coast-to-Coast” - was the antithesis to local top 40, as the countdown included many songs either not or never played by affiliate stations, or those that had already fallen off the station’s own list. Kasem recorded promos for stations such as WMEX Boston where he had to explain that “here…hits just happen faster.” It probably didn’t help that the first song played on that first AT40 was Marvin Gaye's “End Of Our Road."
“When we came up with the idea for ‘American Top 40’ we paid no attention to the pop picture,” says Don Bustany, who created the show with Kasem and Tom Rounds. “We just thought it’d be a good idea. We thought top 40 was on the way out when we came in."
As it turned out, the balance shifted in favor of “American Top 40” over the next decade, as the format became less countdown-centric (and more album-oriented), and label and station conglomerates increased. It didn’t hurt that Kasem’s friendly, informative delivery and “American Top 40’s” focus on artist-based stories and “long distance dedications” made it stand out from other radio fare.
By this day in 1988, the nationalization of not only the weekly countdown but all of top 40 radio - which primarily happened on Kasem’s watch - was virtually complete, as several other similarly-formatted syndicated shows shared airtime with “American Top 40.” As there were few differences left between local airplay and the national charts, there was little reason for the station countdown to exist anymore. As an aside, the No. 1 song introduced by Kasem on today’s AT40 in 1988 was Rick Astley’s “Together Forever”: ironic as seven weeks later, Kasem would leave the show to host yet another countdown, for syndicator Westwood One (Kasem and “American Top 40” would eventually reunite in 1998).
While Casey Kasem will surely be remembered as a radio legend and for pioneering the national countdown, it’s also worth noting that “American Top 40” has basically evolved into being the format, to the point where the program, now hosted by Ryan Seacrest, sounds much like any mainstream top 40 station in America and vice versa.