The relevancy of the Billboard Top 40 singles chart seems to have faded over time in concert with the splintering of genres and audiences, and so the final broadcast of Casey Kasem on American Top 20 this past weekend seemed to garner only the barest of media notices. Perhaps that’s because Kasem handed off the keys for his signature program, American Top 40, to Ryan Seacrest back in 2004.
I have very fond memories of listening to AT40 growing up in Toms River, NJ, hearing it on the slightly distant WJLK-FM out of Asbury Park (of Springsteen fame). As a ten-year-old I could get quite excited when my favorite single of the moment climbed up the chart. Even then I don’t think I ever had much of an emotional response to the schmaltzy Long-Distance Dedication Kasem ready every week. But I enjoyed learning the brief trivia and bio info of the top artists, which was more than I’d hear even from the DJs on the local stations.
Besides the thrill of the countdown, the joy of listening to Casey’s program was how it represented the diversity of the pop chart, from disco to soul, hard rock to country. While I might not have listened to a lot of these styles of music otherwise (especially country), many of those past hits stick with me to this day.
By the time I hit high school my music tastes had both broadened and narrowed, and I was much less interested in mainstream pop music. Aside from the occasional encounter while scanning the band on a road trip, I can’t say that I’ve tuned in to Casey since the 1980s. Although most of the time I’m a cynical indie music snob who snubs most of commercial music radio on principle, I do have a small little place in my cold, dark heart for Casey Kasem and AT40. Especially during a time when radio was locally programmed by default, the weekly countdown had more of a unifying effect rather than a homogenizing one. Sure, the 40 most popular songs in New Jersey were probably different than in Wyoming — heck, Toms River’s Top 40 was probably a lot different than Newark’s. Yet, the national diversity seemed to seep through at least a little bit. And, as an already avowed radio geek, I got to hear exciting national radio ads of the sort rarely heard on the comparatively podunk stations at the Jersey Shore.
Now when I think of Casey I can’t help but be reminded of Negativland’s ill-fated U2 single featuring outtakes of Casey losing it with expletive-laced tirades (NSFW YouTube link) while cutting voiceovers for the Top 40. Any mention of U2, Bono or the entire country of England spurs me to blurt out, “These guys are from England, and who gives a sh*t?” (Yes, it’s a problem, but I don’t want help — another NSFW YouTube link, BTW).
Although American Top 40 continues on, the retirement of Casey Kasem is still indicative of a real change in radio. In some ways the relevancy of the Top 40 has changed not just because of narrowcasting, but also due to the loss of localism. The Top 40 isn’t that different from most station’s whole playlists, only the order is different. And compared to many other national hosts–from Rush Limbaugh to Howard Stern–Casey was much more gentle on-air presence. In a lot of ways he was even a throwback when I was listening to him the 1980s.
I’m not sure Casey’s retirement is sad or even bittersweet. Perhaps it’s simply just worth noting, recognizing and paying due respect to a breed of broadcaster and a kind of radio that is already a very distant memory.
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