Billboard had existed for more than 75 years before Casey Kasem counted down the first “American Top 40” on the weekend of July 4, 1970, but it was then that he gave Billboard its most memorable voice.
Certainly the star of the show each week was the music, but while the intent was to showcase the most popular songs in the U.S., Kasem became an icon himself, and put Billboard in the ears and minds of music fans like never before.
From that first show through mid-summer 1988, Casey unveiled the Billboard Hot 100’s top 40, a syndicated radio show that often aired on Sunday mornings. That means it was pre-Internet, when the only ways to find out the week’s biggest hits were to listen to the countdown, easily by tuning in your local top 40 station, or not so easily by seeking out a print issue of Billboard in a local cigar shop, one of the few types of retailers that seemed to sell it back then.
(And it was a risk to try and read it cover-to-cover, with pencil and paper in hand, trying to write down the Hot 100’s ranks while being eyed suspiciously by the owner. For most aspiring music and chart geeks, the cost of the magazine was too prohibitive, so we bravely found our ways to capture the chart’s highlights.)
“Casey Kasem was a shared experience, back when national radio was rare and an upgrade over what it replaced,” recalls longtime Billboard contributor Sean Ross.
In July 1970, the Hot 100 was just about to turn 12 years old, having launched in August 1958. Much history had already been written: the Beatles, in fact, had already logged all their 20 No. 1s, a record that still stands 44 years later.
But Casey made the chart come alive like never before. “American Top 40” also reversed the order; if you read the chart in print, you likely started at No. 1 and worked your way down. Kasem, Tom Rounds (who, sadly, passed away recently as well), Don Bustany and the entire team that created the program hit upon a key concept: by counting toward the biggest song each week, suspense was naturally built in.
You had to keep listening unless you could somehow turn off the radio without finding out what was No. 1. “As the numbers get smaller, the hits get bigger,” Casey would tease. It wasn’t a hard sell, and it didn’t need to be, since it was a simple, tantalizing truth.
And that’s surely what’s at the heart of what made Casey Kasem so likable, and, in turn, grew Billboard and the Hot 100 to immeasurably greater heights. He was a classic case of substance over style. He was warm and friendly and humanized the charts with interesting anecdotes about artists. And, of course, his long-distance dedications gave anyone with the right story that struck an emotional chord an international audience long before Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.
In 1988, a contract dispute with ABC Radio sent Casey from “AT40” to his own spin-off, “Casey’s Top 40,” and Shadoe Stevens took over the former, and the honor of counting down the Hot 100 from No. 40 to No. 1.
Was it daunting for Stevens?
“Of course. Casey had become iconic and his style was indelibly etched into the minds of listeners for almost two full decades,” Stevens told Billboard in 2010, when “AT40” celebrated its namesake 40th anniversary. “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 1,100 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,” Stevens remembered. “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.”
From that point, Stevens forged a successful run as host through 1995, but the media landscape was changing. Cable had blossomed, relaxation of radio ownership rules meant national radio programming was becoming more prevalent and, thus, less unique, and the Internet was about to remake the way we consume information. Basically, you didn’t need to wait until Sunday morning anymore to find out the top songs in the country.
Casey will probably be remembered for his imprint on radio as Johnny Carson is in the realm of late-night TV. Both were the main entertainment choices when there was little competition, so they’re who we remember so fondly. Of course, had there been other options, it’s doubtful how much they would’ve been challenged. Their longevity wasn’t an accident, and you don’t become an icon simply for showing up. Kasem gave a gift of communicating genuinely and unhurriedly, traits that seem increasingly endearing and valuable in an era of largely disposable social media messages.
“It’s a sad day for radio listeners around the world,” said Ryan Seacrest, the current host of “AT40,” of Kasem’s passing at age 82 on Sunday. It’s yet another sign of Kasem’s influence that today’s most visible media personality also hosts the show that, more than four decades after its launch, still brings music fans worldwide the top hits each week, with that same formula of built-in suspense.
Not only have all music and chart fans lost a radio legend, and, in many ways, a friend, but Billboard has lost perhaps the greatest voice that ever gave the charts a voice and personality. For that, Billboard can always be indebted and grateful.