Sunday, June 15, 2014

Memories of Casey Kasem: A Tribute to My Childhood Idol

Casey Kasem
Me with Casey Kasem at the Radio Hall of Fame awards in Chicago, fall 1995

One of the greatest perks of my job? Meeting my idol, Casey Kasem.

I got to meet Casey twice: Once, as you see above, was when I was straight out of college and working as an editorial assistant at Electronic Media. I got to attend the Radio Hall of Fame awards -- and smartly brought along my camera to grab a pic.

The other time: Midway through my lengthy stint at Variety (I believe around 2003), I sought out a lunch with Casey. He was still doing cartoon voices at the time (specifically, Shaggy, for "What's New Scooby Doo"), so it was easy to set up under those circumstances. But I really just wanted to break bread with the man and hear all about his amazing career. I brought along my colleague, Joe Adalian, but for some reason neither of us can remember the specifics of what we talked about. Yet I still remember vividly the table we sat at (at the Beverly Wilshire hotel). And at the end, Casey gave me his phone number, just in case I ever needed to call him. I still have it. Trust me, I considered dialing it during the recent unfortunate turn of events with his family.

Casey Kasem

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The story of my fascination with Casey Kasem goes back as far as I can remember. As an Air Force brat, I moved around a handful of times growing up. The places were all different, but Casey Kasem was a constant. I still remember hearing Casey on the radio in the late 1970s as a 5-year-old in Wichita, Kansas, as my dad taped songs off the radio (including "American Top 40") to listen on 8-track tapes in the car. I also have a vivid memory of lying on my bed and listening to Casey count down the top 100 songs of 1979 -- Donna Summer, I recall, was quite big that year.

Then, moving to Clark Air Base, Philippines, in 1980, "American Top 40" taught me the joys of "countin' em down" via Armed Forces Radio (FEN -- the Far East Network, Philippines -- would air it weekly both on AM and FM) and also on one of the radio stations I could tune in from Manila. American Top 40, Casey used to say, could be heard on radio stations across the nation and around the world. Casey not only played "the hits from coast to coast" but helped bring American pop music to the entire planet.

Casey Kasem

I also fondly remember coming home on Saturday evenings and flipping on FEN/Channel 17 to catch Casey on "America's Top 10" (above). FEN would air it Saturday nights at 6:30 -- and it was a weekly insight into what was happening musically back in the States. (Watch a clip below.)

I was 8 years old, and I got my first tape recorder, a tiny machine with a built-in microphone. It was then that I started trying to impersonate Casey on this rudimentary device. In my head, I could hear Casey's voice -- even though what came out of my mouth was still the high-pitched sounds of a young boy.

Casey Kasem

When I moved from the Philippines to Oklahoma at the age of 10, it was 1983 -- and the 1980s music scene was starting to take off. Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen -- I became OBSESSED with the Billboard charts. And Casey's AT40 was the home of the official Billboard countdown. (AT40 is where I first learned of Madonna, when the then-unknown singer's first hit "Holiday" first entered the chart.) I'd listen to all four hours, jotting down every song, every artist, and every chart position. I'd sneak a transistor radio with me as my family went to Sunday lunch, so that I wouldn't miss a song. And when the local radio station started giving away their weekly 4-album copy of AT40 once they were done with it, I frequently would win -- since I was the only one at home jotting down every position! I still have several copies of AT40 on vinyl from 1984 and 1985.

Casey Kasem

During that 2003 lunch, I had Casey sign one of the albums. I'm still amused that he put my name in quote marks.

In the mid-1980s I even created my own music chart, a Top 30 countdown to go alongside the official Billboard Top 40 from AT40. I'd type both up each week on my little typewriter, noting the position changes (moving up or down "notches," in Casey-speak).

Casey's delivery was so smooth, so authoritative and so what I wanted to do when I grew up. With a much better stereo system/tape deck, my early (and even later) teenage years were spent taping my own radio shows and countdowns.

As I headed into high school, we moved to Hawaii -- where Casey's AT40 aired on Saturday mornings (on KIKI "Hot I-94"). I'd wake up at 6 am every Saturday morning and, half-asleep in bed, would start jotting down the chart. I'd usually miss No. 38 or 36 as I dozed off. But Casey was there, yet again as I moved to a new city.

Until... that moment in August 1988 when, due to a dispute with the-AT40 owner ABC Watermark, he left the show. Casey launched a new countdown, "Casey's Top 40," the following year with Westwood One.

Casey Kasem

Without Casey, AT40 with Shadoe Stevens faltered -- and was canceled in 1995. After ABC Watermark failed to keep the AT40 trademark active, the rights reverted to Casey -- and he launched a new AT40 in 1998. Casey (sigh) handed the show to Ryan Seacrest in 2004, but kept hosting the adult contemporary version ("American Top 20"). He signed off for good in 2009.

Reruns of Casey's 1970s and 1980s countdowns continue to air on SiriusXM radio and on some radio stations across the country. He's also immortalized in movies such as "Ghostbusters," and of course, Shaggy will live on forever.

Casey Kasem

I'm going to have to dust off one of those old AT40 album sets in my collection and listen in tribute. Forget about all the tragic drama that marked the end of his life: Casey led a good one. I promise to always keep my feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.

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