I’ll say it. I was a radio countdown geek, and Casey Kasem was the king of my world.
No, Casey did not invent the countdown. Since the 1940s, stations all over the U.S. reviewed the week’s most popular songs. One such program, titled “Make Believe Ballroom,” reportedly inspired a young Casey Kasem not only to pursue a radio career but host a national countdown show.
With its debut on only seven stations over Fourth of July weekend in 1970, “American Top 40” -- then syndicated by the small Watermark Inc. group run by Tom Rounds, who created AT40 with (and who we lost just two weeks before) Casey -- raised the bar for radio countdowns nationwide.
I was listening on WMEX in Boston, Massachusetts, but I may as well have been in Missouri, as I had that “Show Me” attitude about the new countdown show which took the cream off the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. I was already following a dozen weekly countdowns from any station whose signal I could hold onto long enough. Each list had its own local flavor, and New England was known for going on records weeks, sometimes months ahead of the rest of the country. What could a national top 40 show offer that the locals didn't?
The answer came as soon as Casey opened with a rapid-fire delivery (which he’d eventually tone down when the show expanded to four hours from just three) and right-to-the-post intros covering everything from where an artist came from (“Here are the Impressions, from Chicago!”) to a song’s upward movement on the top 40 (“Will you look at the chart action on this one?”).
“American Top 40’s” real advantage was a host who would -- to paraphrase a popular television series from around that time -- boldly go where no DJ had gone before. Who but Casey would talk up a hit by reciting its lyrics, as he did that first week over the opening of the Temptations’ precursor to rap “Ball Of Confusion”? Who else promised us the stories behind the songs or their performers, as he did at the start of that debut program, teasing an upcoming hit by "the singer with the $10,000 gold hubcaps on his car” (Paul Revere and the Raiders’ lead vocalist Mark Lindsay, who flew solo with a single on the countdown that week)? While all that was new to me and probably most of the lucky listeners of those seven stations that weekend, Casey had actually been doing that sort of thing for years as an air personality on stations like Los Angeles’s KRLA.
What really set AT40 apart from all other three-plus hour weekly countdowns -- which, by the way, you could hear any day of the week at the time -- was Casey’s way of making the show and himself larger than life, constantly reminding us that these were "the best selling and most played songs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico, hot off the record charts of Billboard Magazine.” And it wasn’t just Casey Kasem but “Casey Kasem in Hollywood” - you know, where they make all those movies. Even the jingles reminded us it was “Casey’s coast-to-coast.” No surprise from a guy whose early work included acting on “theater of the mind” radio dramas.
It took a few years, but “American Top 40” gradually became a weekly must-listen for millions worldwide, not just countdown geeks like myself. I guess Casey showed me after all.
And to think it all began on a summer Sunday much like this one, except now the man who for decades closed each AT40 with the words “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars” has truly reached them himself.
We’ll miss you, Casey. But at least that big radio syndicator in the sky will have a countdown show ready to go by this Fourth of July.