Monday, September 17, 2012
The Hits from Coast to Coast: A Tribute to American Top 40
There are many, many things that make the weekend better than weekdays. One of those, for me at least, is radio countdown shows. I love them, and always have. They are fewer and further between on the air these days, but if you know where to look, you can still find them.
Radio, for those of you under age 30, is a device from which music, voices and other sounds being broadcast from a remote location are emitted for entertainment or information purposes. It’s like an iPod, only you can’t control the programs, and there are commercials. Sounds crazy, I know. Ask any of us senior citizens born before the Reagan administration if you want to know more.
Radio has always played a large part in my life. As soon as I got my first transistor radio (another term you young-uns will have to Google) around age 6, I always had it on when I could. I actually worked as a professional announcer and board operator for eleven of the most formative years of my life, from age 15 to age 26. While I only worked part time in radio, I had offers to go full time on numerous occasions once I graduated high school. I chose instead to go another career path, but radio is always going to be the “road not travelled” in my life. It made an indelible impact on me.
My earliest radio memories involve a radio countdown show, American Top 40, with legendary host Casey Kasem. American Top 40 made its debut in the world just a few months after I did, in the summer of 1970. As with most things, it started small, but it caught on quickly. Casey’s engaging personality, the interesting anecdotes and facts about the songs and artists, long-distance dedications, and of course the countdown of the music itself, propelled the show to worldwide popularity within a few years. At one point, it was heard on over 500 stations worldwide.
Casey Kasem (photo from Premiere Radio Networks)
I remember being very young, probably around five years old, and playing outside at my house one Saturday afternoon while my parents were doing some kind of work in the yard with the radio on in the background. Our local radio station had been a real “Heinz 57” jumble of all sorts of programming for many years, but it had just begun to smooth out into a more consistent format of pop music, interspersed with news, sports and weather. Young people like my parents were beginning to listen for longer periods of time. I think American Top 40 was new to the station at that time, maybe even making its local debut, which may have been why my parents were listening to it that day. For some reason, Casey Kasem’s voice caught my ear. Most likely, the fact that he was also the voice of Shaggy on my favorite cartoon Scooby Doo Where Are You? played a part in it. But the music intrigued me too. I vaguely recall an Eagles song playing, I think it was One of These Nights, and really digging it. It’s all a jumbled haze of memories, but I’m pretty sure that’s the moment when I got hooked on radio. If the radio wasn’t playing in the house or car after that, I was often urging my parents to turn it on, especially on the weekends for Casey’s show.
By the time I was eleven, my weekly ritual was to listen to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem every Sunday night from 5:00 to 9:00. I’d disappear into my bedroom, turn on the radio, and just absorb it every week. Few things before or since then held my short attention span quite like that. If I had to be somewhere during those hours, I made sure to bring a portable radio to keep up with the countdown. I didn’t want to miss out on even a few songs. At school the next day, American Top 40 was always a major topic amongst us kids.
At age 15, I was old enough to work, and I got a part time job at that local radio station. Starting out, I was to work two shifts on the weekends, one on Saturday afternoons, where I would host my own show, playing pop music and reading the news and weather, and another on Sunday evenings, where I was to engineer the broadcast of American Top 40. Little did my boss at the time realize that, as far as my Sunday shift was concerned, he was paying me to do what I would be doing on my own at home anyway. At that time, American Top 40 was supplied to radio stations on four long playing records (another one to Google, kids!). My job was to put the records on the turntables in the correct order, and to insert local commercials during the breaks. And to listen. It was a great situation, and I loved it.
1988 was a time of change for both me and American Top 40. I was graduating from high school and going on to the University of Maine, and Casey Kasem was leaving the American Top 40 that same summer. Unable to work out a contract agreement with the company that produced American Top 40, Casey was offered a lucrative deal to do a new but similar countdown show for a competing company. Even though Casey was going to return to the air at the start of 1989, I knew it just wasn’t going to be the same, and it wasn’t. The new show, Casey’s Top 40, was too similar in some ways to American Top 40 and too different in others (if that makes any sense). It ran for nearly 10 years, but never really established its own place in the hearts of many listeners. Casey’s replacement on American Top 40, Shadoe Stevens, was very good, with a deep, resonant voice, but he just wasn’t Casey. Many others must have felt the same way, because the show struggled after Casey Kasem left. 1988 marked the end of what might be considered the “golden age of radio countdowns”.
I still listened to the weekend countdown shows after that, though not as faithfully. Radio programmers smelled blood in the water after the hosting turmoil at American Top 40. In addition to Casey and Shadoe, Rick Dees and Dick Clark were also hosting popular countdown programs in the late 80s. After a while, when I started working full time in education, I drifted away from the weekend countdown shows entirely.
As for Casey himself, he returned to his original seat at American Top 40 in 1998, and remained there until he retired in 2004. The show never really returned to its original form though, partly because the popular music of the day, which was increasingly rap and hip-hop oriented, just didn’t mesh as well with Casey’s voice and personality. He was then in his late 60s and early 70s, and hearing him introduce songs like Move Bitch by Ludacris featuring Mystikal & Infamous 2.0 (it’s a actual song, really!) was rather jarring. It was time for it to end. American Top 40 is still on the air, now hosted by the ubiquitous Ryan Seacrest, about whom I will refrain from comment or ridicule (for now).
In recent years, I have come back to radio countdown shows, thanks to the internet and satellite radio. While the music and personalities on the current version of American Top 40 are not my cup of tea, rebroadcasts of Casey Kasem’s original programs from the 70s are on satellite radio every weekend, and his 80s countdowns are streamed on the internet and broadcast by some local stations. In addition, several satellite radio stations broadcast countdowns of the hits from this week in a given year from the 1980s or 90s, closely emulating the format that Casey Kasem pioneered. I can’t get enough of them.
On weekends, when I have time to relax, I like to hop in my car and ride the back roads of this beautiful part of the state, reliving the old days with the countdown shows on satellite radio. Or sometimes I’ll fire up the laptop, take it to the back deck or the living room, kick back, open a cold one, and listen to Casey count down the hits from the old days once again.
Casey is 80 years old now, and living in quiet retirement. Apart from an interview on his daughter’s podcast in 2009, he has stayed out of the spotlight. As a huge fan of radio in general and countdown shows in particular, I will always be grateful for the hours and hours of enjoyment and inspiration Casey’s programs gave me. They still do for that matter.
He ended every show with the same line, which also seems like a darn nice way to end this post:
“Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”