On With the Countdown: Happy 50th Birthday to the ‘American Top 40’ Program

Casey Kasem
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Casey Kasem 

The hits from coast to coast.

If you were listening to radio station KDEO (now KECR) in El Cajon, Calif. on the evening of July 3, 1970, you were one of the first people to hear the very first episode of American Top 40, a show that would become a pop-culture classic, and that would turn many people (including me) on to popular music in general and the Billboard charts in particular.

Casey Kasem kicked off that first countdown with this welcome: “Here we go with the top 40 hits of the nation this week on American Top 40 -- the best-selling and most-played songs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood, and in the next three hours, we'll count down the 40 most popular hits in the United States this week, hot off the record charts of Billboard magazine for the week ending July 11, 1970. In this hour at No. 32 in the countdown, a song that's been a hit four different times in 19 years! And we're just one tune away from the singer with the $10,000 gold hubcaps on his car! Now, on with the countdown!”

Before we go any further, I should pay off Casey’s trademark “teases.” The song that had been a hit four different times was “It’s All in the Game,” then being revived by Motown’s Four Tops. The singer with way too much money to spend was Mark Lindsay, the lead singer of Paul Revere & The Raiders, who had a solo hit at the time, “Silver Bird.”

The top 10 on that first countdown included hits by Elvis Presley, the biggest act of the 1950s, and The Beatles, the biggest act of the ‘60s. Also in the top 10: The Jackson 5’s “The Love You Save,” which would become their third No. 1 in a row, Carpenters' breakthrough hit, “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” and a politically-charged hit by The Temptations, “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today).” Not a bad top 10.

Kasem was one of four creators of American Top 40, along with Don Bustany, Tom Rounds and Ron Jacobs. All four men lived to see the show become legendary, though none made it to the 50th anniversary. They all died between 2014 and 2018.

Every generation, it seems, has had a show focused on letting people know which songs were most popular. Your Hit Parade was broadcast from 1935-53 on radio, and from 1950-59 on television. Dick Clark hosted American Bandstand from 1956 to 1989. TRL was a generation-defining show on MTV from 1988-98. (It was revived in 2017 and is co-hosted by former Billboard reporter Kevan Kenney.)

AT40 boosted and celebrated AM pop radio just as that format was being seriously challenged by album-oriented FM stations. While millions of us were glued to AT40 wondering if Three Dog Night would land a fourth No. 1 hit with “Shambala” (they didn’t -- that 1973 smash peaked at No. 3), millions more had moved on to free-form album-rock stations, which played such artists as Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd and Little Feat. These FM fans wouldn’t know Blue Swede from Blue Magic. Jigsaw may have blown it all “Sky High,” but these fans were focused on the new Patti Smith album.

If you’re a little hazy on your countdown lore, here’s AT40 101. The first show aired on seven radio stations. At its peak, the show was heard on more than 1,000 radio stations in 50 countries. At the start, the show was recorded in mono and distributed on vinyl disks. It upgraded to stereo in February 1973. It started as a tight, three-hour show. As hit records got longer, it expanded to a somewhat padded four hours in October 1978.

Casey hosted AT40 continuously through Aug. 6, 1988, after which Shadoe Stevens took over. A TV version, America’s Top 10, launched in 1980 and ran through 1992, with Casey as host for all but two years.

AT40 counted down the top 40 hits from the Billboard Hot 100 for its first 21 years. The show switched to Hot 100 Airplay (now called Radio Songs) in November 1991 and switched again to another Billboard airplay chart, the mainstream top 40-based Pop Songs survey, in January 1993. The show's rationale for the change was to have more “mainstream” hits and fewer urban, dance and rap songs. The 2 Live Crew’s 1989 single “Me So Horny,” which reached No. 26 on the Hot 100 with relatively little pop radio play, is often cited as the type of record that vexed AT40 listeners.

The show ended a continuous, 24-year run, with Stevens still in the host’s chair, on Jan. 28, 1995.

The show was off-the-air for a little more than three years, but on March 28, 1998, it was back—and with Casey as host (but no longer with Billboard as its chart source). Kasem, who had been hosting his own countdown, Casey’s Top 40, for Westwood One for nine years, returned to the AT40 hotseat and stayed for nearly six years. Ryan Seacrest took over on Jan. 10, 2004, just before the start of the third season of American Idol, which made him a household name. He hosts AT40 to this day -- an impressive, 16-year run that probably doesn’t get enough credit.

Premiere Networks, which currently syndicates the show, is planning a year-long celebration of AT40’s 50th anniversary. Seacrest will highlight an iconic artist moment from the show’s archives every weekend. Listeners will also have the opportunity to win prizes throughout the year.

“Over the past five decades, American Top 40 has become a cultural touchpoint for millions of people around the globe,” said Julie Talbott, president of Premiere Networks, in a statement. “Casey Kasem created the gold standard that we carry on today, and we’re so proud of how Ryan has expanded that legacy.”

So why did the show become an institution? Casey was a master at telling the stories behind the hits. Like Arthur Godfrey and Clark before him, Casey excelled at the art of communicating one-to-one with his listener.

Here’s a comment I found on YouTube that speaks to the show’s appeal: “AT40 was such an important part of my teenhood in the '70s. It was on Saturday mornings on KJR-95 in Seattle and, when I rolled over in bed on Saturday mornings and heard Casey say ‘on with the countdown!’, regardless of the amount of crap that went on at home or in school that week, I knew that everything was okay with the world.”

There’s a lot to that. AT40 launched just two months after the Kent State tragedy stunned America. The show, with Casey as host, was on throughout Watergate, the fall of Saigon, the Iranian hostage crisis, the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the Challenger disaster and much more tumult. But every week, you could count on Casey’s soothing tones and a certain orderliness. The song at No. 37, we were assured, was just a little more popular that week than the song we just heard at No. 38. Here, at least, things seemed to be under control.

In a 2011 essay in the New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker wrote that nowadays people can and do live in their own self-curated cocoons. “Surely we’ve gained something from the culture-slicing tech tools that give us so much control over the pop media we consume,” he noted. “But we’ve lost something too. Having an official and definitive gauge of the undisputed pop champion of the week was actually kind of a great thing. It was joyful to root for a song you liked as it climbed the charts and gratifying when it reached the pinnacle. And it was even more fun to be appalled at everyone else’s bad taste when the chart-topper was an irritating stinker.”

Nobody would call AT40 an educational program, but I learned a lot from it listening to it in the ‘70s. Occasionally, they did “special reports.” When Musical Youth was in the countdown in early 1983 with “Pass the Dutchie,” they did a report on the history of reggae music.

Some of their periodic special countdowns were fairly ambitious. “Top 40 Songs of the Rock Era 1955-1972” (July 1972) reached back for such ‘50s hits as Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” and Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind,” which were new to me at the time. The show may have gotten too ambitious for its own good with its Bicentennial special, “#1 July 4 Songs of the Past 40 Years” (July 1976). Nearly half of those songs predated the 1955 start of the rock era.

Casey and his team counted down the top 40 albums on the Billboard 200 for one special (August 1972). They spotlighted the top 10 producers of the 1970s (October 1974), giving four examples each producer’s work. “Top 40 Hits of The Beatles: Together and Apart” (July 1981) was another interesting concept. And they had at least two incarnations of the “AT40 Book of Records,” the reverent undertones in the title intended.

AT40 has always emphasized the positive, though surely no artist wants to be the subject of a “whatever happened to?” featurette or, even worse, be included in the “Top 40 Disappearing Acts” countdown, which they aired at least twice (in July 1973 and again in April 1975).

AT40 launched the same year that Joel Whitburn began publishing his series of research books chronicling the Billboard charts. These two events did much to raise Billboard’s profile with music fans. By 1970, Billboard had been publishing for more than 75 years, but AT40 and the Whitburn books went a long way toward making the magazine virtually as well known among the general public as it had long been in the music industry.

Kasem was inducted into the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1985 and the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1992. But not everything went his way. While fellow DJ (and future countdown rival) Rick Dees landed a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976 with the novelty smash “Disco Duck,” the closest Casey came to a hit was the spoken-word entry “Letter from Elaina,” which bubbled under the Hot 100 in 1964. While the theme from Don Cornelius’ Soul Train became a No. 1 Hot 100 hit in 1974 (as MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia”), the AT40 theme, the funky instrumental “Shuckatoom,” never charted.

This 50th birthday tribute wouldn’t be complete without some AT40 trivia.

The first song played on the first AT40 show (ironically, given its title): Marvin Gaye’s "The End of Our Road”

The first No. 1 song on the first show: Three Dog Night’s "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)”

The first "Long-Distance Dedication" (in 1978): Neil Diamond's "Desirée"

The longest-running No. 1 in the 21 years the show was based on the Billboard Hot 100: (a tie!) Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" and Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" (10 weeks each)

The most frequent guest host: Charlie Van Dyke (31 times at the mic in the ‘80s)

And here’s a second “AT40 extra” – something you may not know about each of the co-creators of AT40.

Kasem: Casey voiced Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo franchise from 1969-97 and again from 2002-09. In 1984, Casey had a voice-over cameo in the year’s top box office hit, Ghostbusters.

Bustany: In addition to writing and producing AT40 in the show’s early years, Bustany worked for MTM Productions. He was technical coordinator on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (You can spot his name in the end credits of every episode.)

Jacobs: The broadcasting giant was the program director of KHJ in Los Angeles during its market-dominating "Boss Radio" period (1965–69).

Rounds: TR (as everyone called him) was program director of KFRC in San Francisco in the mid-‘60s. He quit that job in the fall of 1967; his decision to leave was documented on the front cover of the very first issue of Rolling Stone.

A personal note: I worked part-time as a production assistant on AT40 for about a year in 1975-76 (while I was also breaking in at Billboard -- and finishing my last year of college). In 1975, Casey hired me to write a new press bio for him. He paid me the princely sum of $100. (I didn’t tell him, but I would have done it for free.)

I was and still am a huge fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. When Don learned that, he got me into two afternoon “run-throughs” of the show on the MTM lot in Studio City, Calif., a short drive from Watermark’s offices in Universal City. I am still grateful for that act of kindness.

Let’s all honor Casey by heeding the simple but sage advice he doled out at the end of every episode: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.

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