Kasem Retires After Nearly 40 Years Of Top 40s Thirty-nine years to the day after his first American Top 40 broadcast, radio host Casey Kasem signed off on his final broadcast and entered retirement. Kasem's countdowns aired across the U.S., peppered with his signature dedications and bits of music trivia.
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Kasem Retires After Nearly 40 Years Of Top 40s

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Kasem Retires After Nearly 40 Years Of Top 40s

Kasem Retires After Nearly 40 Years Of Top 40s

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If you're like me and grew up listening to the radio, you almost certainly heard this voice.

Mr. CASEY KASEM (Radio Host, "American Top 40"): I'm Casey Kasem. Now, one more time, the words I've ended my show with since 1970: Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.

CONAN: Casey Kasem counted down the hits for 39 years to the day. He signed off with no fanfare this past Saturday. Starting in July 1970, "American Top 40" nationalized the rock and roll business. For the first time, kids in Vermont and New Mexico heard the same hits as L.A. and New York, and the same corny dedications and weird nuggets of information.

What song did you hear for the first time on "American Top 40?" Did you ever send or receive a dedication? Tell us your story. Our number: 800-989-8255. You can send us an email: talk@npr.org. And join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi joins us now from the Post's studios. He covers the media business.

Nice to have you on the program again.

Mr. PAUL FARHI (Staff Writer, Washington Post): Thanks very much, Neal.

CONAN: And your memory of Casey Kasem?

Mr. FARHI: Oh, it goes back so far. I think everybody's memory of him is driving around somewhere and listening to the radio and listening to the top 40 and wanting to stay in the car until you got to number one. Tell me who's going to be number one this week. And I can remember driving the freeways of Southern California, sitting in the driveway after some driving, and just waiting to hear what was going to be number one.

CONAN: And there will be young people in the audience. Their jaws will be dropping. What do you mean? You just go to the Web site and find out what's number one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FARHI: No, but it - the whole thing was the anticipation. You know, okay, we're at number 10 now. We're in the top 10 now. We're in the top five. Ooh, my favorite song is number four this week. That's great.

And you develop this sort of weird rooting interest in your favorite song, and Casey was kind of there to kind of tease it out and bring it along and, you know, develop that anticipation. It was sort of a dramatic presentation as much as it was just plain old songs and entertainment.

CONAN: And when you got to the ultimate moment, there was that drum roll literally, a drum roll.

Mr. FARHI: Yes, number one.

CONAN: And the odd thing, as you said, to this rooting interest, not merely, oh, my song is all the way up to number four, but how can they vote that song number three?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FARHI: Yeah. It was kind of one of those things that made you wonder about the taste of your fellow Americans at times. Like, you know, your song was a reflection of you. And if it was going up that week, you felt like, well, I've got the right taste. And then you would hear a song that you just hated, and Casey would be doing his weird nugget of information about it, you go, no, Casey. No. That's a terrible song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FARHI: And so, you kind of became invested in this, and you reflected on what other people liked in a way that, you know, just listening to the song without this ranking and without these little factoids that he would throw in -would not give you the same kind of emotional investment. And, you know, it's like any kind of countdown, a moon shot or whatever, that great anticipation kept coming back into every single time.

CONAN: And it's hard to believe that as late as the 1970s, music business was a very much regional business for various reasons. If you lived in one market or another, you might never hear a song that was number, you know, five across the rest of the country.

Mr. FARHI: That's right. There were songs that would only be popular in certain regions. And, for instance, the 1960s, the Kingsmen had a song called "Louie Louie," which�

CONAN: Of some renown, yes.

Mr. FARHI: But it was a huge hit in the Seattle area for a long time before it broke out nationally. And there were these regional songs. I defy anybody now, in this day in age, to really come up with a regional hit. It just doesn't happen anymore.

Casey did sort of bring about this nationalization. It was already occurring in the '60s, because the record companies distributed their biggest songs, their most popular songs nationally. But he really sort of sped up that process. And, you know, you could drive across the country now and hear the same exact songs in Maine as you'll hear in Portland, Oregon. It's pretty much - there are no regional hits anymore.

CONAN: But if the program director at the Top 40 station where you happen to live thought one song was salacious, like "Louie Louie," and didn't want to play it or didn't want to play "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud," you didn't hear it.

Mr. FARHI: That's right. And you know, there were - it took a certain amount of pressure from local listeners, some part of the community, some local favorite to get a record like that on the air. And sometimes, as I say, like with the Kingsmen and �Louie Louie,� it would break out nationally. But now songs are instantaneous nationally. There is no sort of working up the chain of radio stations. You know, every station pretty much has access to the same material all at once.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on the conversation. What song do you remember from �American Top 40,� brought to you by Casey Kasem? 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org.

Lois joins us on the line from Cleveland.

LOIS (Caller): Hi there. How are you, guys?

CONAN: Well. Thank you.

LOIS: Okay. Great. Well, I have memory not so much of the specific song as the whole experience of listening to the countdowns with my mom. We would write down the countdowns every week when I was 10, 11, 12, 13, as many weeks as we could. Now I'm 46 years old and there's a local station playing countdowns from the �70s on Sunday night and I'm as excited at age 46 to listen. And I don't write them down anymore but it just takes me back in time.

And I remember the most obscure tidbits would come out. He would tell these stories like the name of Meat Loaf, for example, the performer Meat Loaf is Marvin Lee Aday, and I never would have dreamt of it, thought about it. I just thought it was a weird nickname. You know, and you'd get all this weird information. But he's so gentle and had just a kind, sweet way of telling stories and that was always real engaging and a real treat for me.

Mr. FARHI: I love that too about this. And the thing about the radio, and this is true going way back, is it even today doesn't even tell you who the artist is or the name of the song. There's a DJ there but they're basically there to tell you the name of the radio station rather than the name of the artist.

Casey, from a long time ago, was telling you a lot about the music in an age when that information was not terribly accessible. There was no Internet to look up who Meat Loaf is and what his name was.

CONAN: I thought his name was Mr. Loaf.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FARHI: Mr. Loaf, yes.

LOIS: I did too.

Mr. FARHI: But, you know, he would actually add a great amount of knowledge to your understanding of that music just through those little factoids.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Lois.

LOIS: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Jason. Jason with us from Chico, California.

JASON (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.

JASON: I remember hearing Weird Al Yankovic, not for the first time, but hearing him on the �American Top 40� was kind of a weird experience because I had heard him on Dr. Demento previously. And so it kind of gave Weird Al that, I don't know, national credibility, I guess.

CONAN: Strange legitimacy. Which was it, �Another One Rides The Bus,� or something like that?

JASON: I think it was either that or �Eat It.� I can't remember.

CONAN: Could have been �Eat It,� yes.

Mr. FARHI: Right.

CONAN: His parody of Michael Jackson. Again...

JASON: Also, he was involved in a - Casey Kasem was partially involved in a big lawsuit between Negativland and U2. There was this weird kind of single where Casey Kasem went ballistic in the studio and...

CONAN: Yes. That's a famous incident. In fact, there's a number of famous incidents. And Paul Farhi, he's been described as a perfectionist. And when he was recording the show, if something went wrong or somebody - I think this was coming out of a Pointer Sisters tune and he was supposed to then read a dedication to a dying dog. And...

JASON: Cuddles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yes, I think Cuddles. And well, it's a famous YouTube incident.

Mr. FARHI: He thought the Pointer Sisters song was way too upbeat to lead into this description of this dead dog. And I guess he was right, but he threw a tantrum and of course it was all captured on the air and it got out somehow, I guess, and it did become part of his legacy.

CONAN: Never yell at the recording engineer, they will get back at you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jason.

JASON: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Chris. Chris calling from Clinton Township in Michigan.

CHRIS (Caller): Yes. Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hello.

CHRIS: Hello. It's a real pleasure talking to you. I regard you as a consummate professional.

CONAN: Oh, well, that's very nice of you to say. Nice of you to call.

CHRIS: Thank you. Casey Kasem - I think you rather gathered perhaps I'm English.


CHRIS: Although I live in Michigan. Casey Kasem to me is just a mind-blowing disc jockey personified. I was living and working in Germany throughout the �80s, working in the boring (unintelligible) design engineering game. And I used to work in a job shop quite close to Frankfurt. And I used to listen to him every Sunday afternoon with my English colleagues.

CONAN: On Armed Forces Radio?

CHRIS: And we all thought he was just mind-blowingly good.

CONAN: On Armed Forces Radio?

CHRIS: Yes, indeed. On AFN. Yeah. American Forces Network. And it wasn't so much the music that he played, although when I first started listening to him, I think it was 1980, it was the classic - and I guess it's because it's sort of on the radio and talking to you, I can't recall it. As soon as I stop talking to you I'll bring it back. It was a Christopher Cross classic number one record that I remember him playing.

But it wasn't so much his - the music that he played. It was just the guy that he was. He was just, as I called you, the consummate professional. I loved him to bits, and sorry that he's retired.

CONAN: We're all sorry he's retired. Interesting that he did this. And thanks very much for the call, Chris, and for your kind words.

CHRIS: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And Paul Farhi, that he did this characteristically with absolutely no fanfare. He could have gotten a lot of publicity going out after all these years.

Mr. FARHI: It took all of us in the newsroom by surprise because, you know, actually the July 4th weekend was - is now in the radio business sort of the traditional countdown weekend. Everybody's doing their top 500 songs.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FARHI: It's sort of almost like the legacy of Casey Kasem. So the fact that he chose that weekend to retire and absolutely without fanfare was a bit shocking, because he is legendary. I mean, he is of the same ilk as, say, a Paul Harvey. Just one of those people who's, you know, in the Hall of Fame and on the Mount Rushmore of broadcasting.

CONAN: A lot of people read that he'd signed off for the last time said, he was still doing this? There's a little disconnect after all these years. But it's interesting, the countdown format there was many years ago, long before Casey Kasem, �America's Top 10,� and that was a throwback to the days of old network radio.

It was later on television where they would recreate the hits of the day, the studio band. And it sort of died when rock and roll started and you had the Studio band of the swing era-type musicians trying to do Stagger Lee and that sort of thing.

Mr. FARHI: Well, you know, �The Hit Parade� - excuse me - and that format does go back a long way. And Casey also picked up on a format that became - excuse me - extremely prominent in the �60s, which was Top 40 radio, 40 songs played in heavy rotation. And you know, �American's Top 40� was in fact sort of a legacy of that form.

Interestingly, there really isn't much - pardon me - much Top 40 to speak of now. It's just one format among the many, many formats that are on the radio.

CONAN: We're talking with Paul Farhi of the Washington Post about Casey Kasem and �American Top 40.� He signed off for the last time after 39 years to the day this past weekend. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see, we go to Chris. Chris with us from Valley Springs, California.

CHRIS (Caller): Hey, how you doing?

CONAN: All right.

CHRIS: Hey, my memories of Casey Kasem goes way back. This is 1956, 1957, we would have an old AM radio my parents gave us. This is in the Oakland Bay Area, San Francisco Bay Area, and he would come on at 9:00 at night, Casey at the mic. He was one of the best - and this is when DJs played stacks and stacks of wax and wax, and he was one of the - if you could get a recording from that time, you would know what DJ-ism is.

It's not one of these smooth, mellow crazies on the radio now. It was when DJs really knew how to put out their stuff.

CONAN: Spin the platters that make with the potter.

CHRIS: Yeah. We would listen to him - geez, 10, 9:00, 10:00, 11:00 at night, until we all fell asleep. But KEWB Channel 91, that was what he was on.

CONAN: All right, Chris. Thanks very much.

Mr. FARHI: I have to say that, you know, Casey wasn't just �America's Top 40.� He was a voice that was almost ubiquitous at certain points. I mean he did - he was the voice of NBC for a while. He was the voice, most famously, probably, of Shaggy on �Scooby Doo.� You can still see those reruns everywhere. He was on �Transformers,� �Sesame Street,� �Josie and the Pussycats,� he was one of the characters. So he was everywhere almost. And that voice is so familiar, it's almost, you know, iconic in its own way.

CONAN: Let's go to Trish. Trish with us from Reno in Nevada.

TRISH (Caller): Hi. I grew up listening to Casey Kasem. But when I got married, I found out that my sister-in-law, her name is Elena, when she was 15 she hugged George Harrison, and she wrote a letter to Casey Kasem about that story. He put it to music and it was Letter from Elena, and it was in one of the Billboard Top 43 or something, for something around '63 or '64.


Mr. FARHI: That is truly a long distance dedication from Casey.

TRISH: Well, she's passed on and he sent flowers to her funeral. And there's a picture of those two meeting. I mean, it was wonderful. He just was such an amazing man. But what a great heart, what a great man.

CONAN: Trish, thanks very much for the remembrance. Appreciate it.

Trish: Thanks.

CONAN: Now, let's go see if Roger is with us. Roger calling from Chapel Hill.

ROGER (Caller): My goodness. My regards to the Elena. What a story.

CONAN: Yeah.

ROGER: But I would like to say that I think I'm here today because my mother had to listen to eight prep students drive from Pennsylvania to the Virginia Beach singing all the songs that Casey Kasem was playing in the middle of the night�

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROGER: �because there is no way on God's Earth she could ever made it if we didn't irritate her that much. And to his credit, she actually enjoyed some of them.

CONAN: It's interesting, you could ride when Casey Kasem's show was on, you could ride down the highway, and if your head was bobbing to one of the tunes, you could see other people's heads bobbing to the same tune in their cars too.

ROGER: That's true. But guess what? At 3:00 in the morning going down I-70 through Richmond in the middle of the night down to see your mom's head bob, that means you're probably gonna be home for Christmas.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: More nodding than bobbing perhaps. Thanks very much, Roger. Let's see if we can get one last caller in. And this is Kevin with us from Oklahoma City. Kevin, are you there? Kevin, go ahead, please.

KEVIN (Caller): Yeah, hey. Well, I grew up in a little town in Western Oklahoma. And all the stations were country stations except this one AM station that only came in at certain times of the day, and one of those days happened to be a Saturday or Sunday afternoon as the Top 40 would come, you know, and me and my little brother would listen to it and at that time, that was before we got cable out there, so we didn't have MTV or anything. It was kind of our touch to the rest of the world beyond, you know, the wheat fields and the horizon, that there was something else out there.

CONAN: That was an important part of Casey Kasem's attraction. Yes, something else out there. Kevin, thank you so much for the call. And Paul Farhi, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. FARHI: Thank you, Neal. Enjoyed it.

CONAN: Paul Farhi is staff writer for the Washington Post. He joined us from the Post's studios in Washington. And let's go out with one of the number one hits from 1970, Shocking Blue and �Venus.�

(Soundbite of song �Venus�)

Mr. FRED DE WILDE (Singer): (Singing) She's got it. Yeah, baby, she's got it. Well, I'm your Venus, I'm your fire, at your desire.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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