'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."Radio has never left your veins, as, among your many multi-media positions, you followed "American Top 40" by hosting the syndicated radio program, "Top of the World." Please describe the show and its origins.

"Top of the World" was on the air for about five years. It was the offspring of my previous company, "RhythmRadio: The Sound of the World in a Good Mood." RhythmRadio was the world's first global music network. It was represented by the biggest advertising agency in the world, McCann Erickson, and title sponsorship was sold worldwide for both terrestrial and Internet to Nescafe of Switzerland.

The network was on the air with "nationwide coverage" on terrestrial radio in 30 countries. It was one of the most successful radio networks in the world in the first decade of Internet Radio, on the air worldwide in seven languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Japanese and Chinese Mandarin.

It couldn't be sustained after the dotcom crash and, in its ashes, "Top of the World" was born. The idea was simple: "top of the pop, top of the rock, top of the hip-hop, at the top of the world" ... a weekly review of the most popular music in the world. We couldn't get syndication in the U.S. but it was very successful in Europe and South America.

People may not realize that you are widely credited with inventing the alternative radio format, launching KROQ/Los Angeles, still one of the genre's leading stations. Please recount your spearheading the birth of the station and its subsequent far-ranging influences.

My first success at programming happened after I left KHJ at the height of its popularity. Because I was doing television ("The Steve Allen Show"), KHJ wouldn't promote me, saying, "We don't know whether you want to be in radio or television." I quit and went to KRLA, where I was made program director.

I created a new and exciting format based on the ground-breaking notion that rock "album cuts" and a lot of theater-of-the-mind would work. For the first time in about eight years, KRLA beat KHJ in the ratings and, within a year, I was offered a chance to go to work for KROQ-AM for more money, a new Porsche and the promise that I would create a new format when they got their FM signal within months.

When we got FM, I designed an even more radical format best described as "all cutting-edge music, all the time." This would be the place where people would hear the hottest new music in the world first and it would always be a party. It wouldn't sound like any other radio station on Earth. It would be new music played with enough repetition to make it familiar and that sound would become the sound of the station. And, the energy would always be up.

I signed the station on the air the very first broadcast, designed the studio, created marketing materials, including artwork, and branded it "Mother Rock, AM and FM, World-Famous KROQ." The "World Famous" part was actually a joke. In the beginning, we had no listeners. But, the station jumped out of the radio and took off like a rocket. In the history of the station, there have only been four program directors and every era has been sensational. It's still a great station.

From movies to TV, including the "Steve Allen Show," "Hollywood Squares" and "Dave's World," you've been fairly ubiquitous on-screen. You're also heard nightly as the voice of CBS' "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson." What have you enjoyed most about your career in front of the camera?

Although my four years with "Dave's World" were amazing and my years with Hollywood Squares were incredibly exciting and rewarding working with great people, I never enjoyed being in front of the camera more than my six years with five guys creating the 1,100 "Fred Rated for Federated" commercials. These guys - Chuck Cirino, Dave Nichols, Michael Hill, Chris Culverhouse and Ed Freeman - are still some of my favorite people in the world. I've never worked with more creative people and never had more fun.

I've been in a number of movies and guest starred on everything from "Baywatch" to "The Larry Sanders Show" to "Beverly Hills 90210" and nothing compares to the days with Federated for sheer originality and the joy of the process.

You've even written children's books, including "The Big Galoot." How did you venture into composing literature, and for that specific audience?

I woke up one morning 20 years ago saying "button-sided hooey" out loud. I didn't know what it meant and wrote it down. It sounded like Dr. Seuss. My children were very young at the time and I thought I should try my hand at writing something for them. The "Button-Sided Hooey" turned into an epic, "Alice in Wonderland"-like adventure, written in verse, that was so long it turned into a trilogy and was a chapter book. Clearly, no one would ever publish it, so I set out to write something simple and linear that would surely get published and it would pave the way for my epic adventure. I wrote "The Big Galoot," published in 2006.

Since then, I've written numerous others but so far I haven't become known as the 21st century's version of Dr. Seuss. Meanwhile, my children are 23 and 19. More will be revealed.

Your daughter Amber stars in "Greek" on the ABC Family network. Are you worried that she's followed your footsteps into the potentially volatile entertainment business? (Not that you could voice your displeasure in her career choice without sounding hypocritical ...)

Amber was born to be in the entertainment business. She's Beyonce-beautiful, has my wife's outgoing personality, is a terrific actor and an amazing singer. My other daughter, Chyna is equally beautiful but has no interest whatsoever. I'm not worried. It would do no good to push either of them in any direction. I want them to be happy following their dreams.

What other projects of yours are in the works?

I always have a half-dozen projects that I'm passionate about. Right now, I've created several television shows that are quite original in various stages of development, I've been in discussions about possibly working with another major radio station, and biggest of all is a partnership with skateboard legend Tony Hawk on a large-scale project I created for television, film, graphic novels and video games.

Bonus question: Born Terry Ingstad, how did you choose your famous and well-loved nickname, "Shadoe"?

God gave it to me. It's God's baffling and incomprehensible sense of humor.(The following is a letter recently sent from a fan to Shadoe Stevens, who shares it with billboard.com on the 40th anniversary of the first episode of "American Top 40").

"Hello Shadoe,

I'm a journalist from Spain, writing from South Africa. I've been here for nearly one month now, on a special live coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

I came here with some CDs of old 'AT40' shows from the Shadoe Stevens era to play while working at the International Broadcasting Center (where radio stations and TV networks from around the world have studios from which to send information to their home countries).

Some days ago, while I was preparing our show, I played in my studio one of those CDs. It was an 'American Top 40' year-end special, the top 100 songs of 1991. I played it loud, and kept the doors open, so that the music could be heard outside. After a few minutes, journalists from different countries began coming in, asking me about the show I was blasting, because it was bringing back so many great memories for them.

There was music by Natural Selection, Amy Grant, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Whitney Houston, Bette Midler, Vanessa Williams, Bryan Adams ... and there was Shadoe Stevens, one of the most recognizable voices in the world.

Reporters came in from stations from Portugal, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan, Australia. They remembered listening to 'AT40' in their countries in the '80s and '90s. I've got the feeling that, from 1988 through 1995, you didn't get to fully comprehend the power of the 'AT40' brand.

I just wanted you to know that even though you ceased production on 'AT40' more than 15 years ago, today, if you put a CD of a Shadoe Stevens show in the International Broadcasting Center, people from countries around the world remember you, remember the music and remember the magic."


The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.

To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.