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One last countdown for Casey Kasem

Posted: June 13, 2014 11:55 a.m.
Updated: June 16, 2014 5:00 a.m.

(Editor Martin L. Cahn is on vacation, recuperating from surgery. This column first ran on June 13, 2009, and is republished here at his request in light of recent news that Kasem’s daughters were planning to remove him from life support during the last few days.)

How ironic that I mentioned Casey Kasem in my last column.

I had mentioned that, as part of the musical soundtrack of my life, I worked in radio for 14 years. When I started, way back in the dark ages of December 1980, I emulated myself after Kasem -- America’s Top 40 DJ, counting down the hits to that drum roll at No. 1.

Last weekend, hardly noticed by anyone, including me, Kasem, 77, signed off the air for the last time.

Seventy-seven?? Surely, like Dick Clark, Kasem is ageless. Even seeing pictures of him last week on ABC News’ and the New York Times’ Web sites, he couldn’t possibly be 77, could he?

But then I read the truth: American Top 40 "began the weekend of July 4, 1970, and after 39 years, this will be our final countdown" Kasem was quoted as saying at the top of his last show.

Thirty-nine years. I’m 44, and I think I must have started listening to Kasem in my early teens or even earlier. His low-key, yet supremely professional manner on the air was something I thought every on-air personality should aspire to.

I got into radio in my mid-teens after moving to Saipan, the principal island of the Northern Mariana Islands north of Guam. Once I got the job, I listened even more intently to Kasem, taking notes and practiced to sound just a little bit like him.

I doubt I succeeded until much, much later.

And, much, much later, I was glad that I finally did succeed at doing so -- with my own flavor, of course -- because of what was happening in radio by the time I had whatever modicum (and believe me, it was small) of success I enjoyed.

I preferred Kasem, and perhaps Wolfman Jack, to the Howard Sterns and Don Imuses of the industry. Becoming a shock jock held no interest for me. Perhaps I was being square, but I’ve felt that -- while there were certainly times I could sound excited about a particular song, album or artist -- quietly playing people’s favorite songs, maybe even educating them about the music, was the way to go. That was the case whether I played pop music or jazz, the two primary formats I worked in.

Of course, the other thing I liked about Casey Kasem had nothing to do with popular music: Shaggy. For decades, Kasem voiced Scooby-Doo’s fast friend, solving ghastly cover-ups with the rest of Mystery Inc. It was always a wonder to me that the same man who, almost dispassionately, played the biggest hits in the land, was playing the hippiest (yes, I know that’s not a word) crime-solver cartoon TV has ever known.

Kasem, I knew, had stepped down as being the host of American Top 40 several years ago, ceding that spot to American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest, who, the few times I’ve heard him, seemed to be doing a good job. What I had forgotten was, the New York Times reminded me, that Kasem had left the show once before -- for 10 years! -- in 1988. Shadoe Stevens, who I didn’t like as much, took over for that decade, Kasem returning in 1998.

And while I knew that Kasem had turned things over to Seacrest five years ago, I hadn’t realized he had continued doing smaller version of the show: American Top 20 and American Top 10, based on Billboard magazine’s Adult Contemporary chart, rather than the Hot/Pop chart Seacrest uses.

That’s why his signing off last weekend was such a surprise. I hadn’t listened to Kasem in so long, I figured he had completely retired when Seacrest took over. And, as a former radio guy myself, that’s a painful admission that I just don’t listen to the radio anymore.

In the age of the Internet and iPod, is Kasem relevant anymore? Perhaps he could have turned to podcasting, where listeners can subscribe to audio (or video) downloads of people’s shows. I think it could have worked, even if the audience had turned out smaller.

One of the things I always liked about Kasem, and one of the primary things I emulated, was the fact that he always included little "tidbits," as ABC News put it, of information about the artists and the music. That especially served me well when I did my jazz shows in college or standards and show tunes in Columbia.

As it turns out, while Kasem will now be devoting himself to other things, including a memoir, he wife claims, there’s still a chance to hear the Kasem of old. Some stations across the country are already rebroadcasting his classic American Top 40 countdowns of the 1970s and 1980s.

There’s still a chance for us to keep our feet on the ground while reaching for the stars -- listening to some great -- and, sometimes, not so great -- blasts from the past.

The biggest blast would be Kasem himself.

(Martin L. Cahn is the editor of the Chronicle-Independent, Camden, S.C. E-mail comments to mcahn@chronicle-independent.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/martin.l.cahn.)

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