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Saturday, January 21, 2012

American Top 40 - A Weekend Tradition

Saturdays for me were a day of tradition.

As far back as I can remember, it dawned on me that every Saturday ended up beginning exactly the same way, and ended exactly the same way. To some on the outside world, it may be seen as being reluctant to change, or it could be seen as me being one of the most boring children in the entire world, but to me, it was just comforting that I had one day to myself where everything went the same.

I'd wake up on Saturday morning...usually quite early, as the best cartoon shows seemed to air before ten in the morning. I'd grab the sugary cereal du jour, and happily experience a sugar high as I watched cartoons until my brain turned to mush! After cartoons were over, I'd usually have to go out with my mother somewhere, as Saturday was a minor grocery shopping day at our household. When we got back home, I would probably then be asked to do any homework I had that was due Monday, and once that homework was finished (or mostly finished), I had the rest of the night to do whatever I wished.

Oh, how I wish I could go back to those Saturdays filled with bliss once more. Alas, they are but a fond memory.

Today's blog topic happens to be all about one of those fond Saturday memories that I hold so dear.

You see, when I was forced to do my homework (because let's face it, what kid actually WANTED to do homework?) on those lazy Saturday afternoons, I couldn't concentrate on it at all in silence. That was one of the reasons why I had a radio in my room at all times. So I could listen to the radio while I worked on my history essays, or my art projects, or that dreaded algebra I wanted to take a blowtorch to.

I can even remember the radio station that I used to listen to when I did my homework. It was PAC 93 (92.7 FM on the radio dial), which was based out of Upstate New York. The station has since been transformed to a classic rock station (at least it was last time I listened to it), but back in those days, it was your everyday Top 40 station. And on the weekends, they would air two countdown shows. One was the countdown show hosted by Rick 'Disco Duck' Dees, which was all right, if a little bit goofy.

And then there was this countdown show.

The show was called 'American Top 40', and the host of the show for much of its run was Casey Kasem.

I fondly remember doing my math homework while listening to the biggest chart hits of the week. It just wasn't a weekend without listening to Casey Kasem count down the hits. It helped me contain my stress levels when I couldn't figure out the square root of 268,324.

(The answer is 518, by the way...and yes, I used a calculator.)

The history of American Top 40 is one that I find absolutely fascinating, and the show managed to change quite a bit over the number of years it has aired. And this blog entry will look at some of the changes that took place over the years, and what the aftermath of those changes were.

First, let's take a look at how it all began.

It was the 4th of July weekend in 1970 when Casey Kasem kicked off the inaugural broadcast of American Top 40. At the time, he had just finished voice work with the Scooby-Doo cartoon series. I actually managed to find the very first opening of that first broadcast on Wikipedia, and here it is in all its glory, along with the theme song.

“Here we go with the Top 40 hits of the nation this week on 'American Top 40', the best-selling and most played songs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood, and in the next three hours, we'll count down the 40 most popular hits in the United States this week, hot off the record charts of 'Billboard' magazine for the week ending July 11, 1970. In this hour at #32 in the countdown, a song that's been a hit four different times in nineteen years! And, we're just one tune away from the singer with the $10,000 gold hubcaps on his car! Now, on with the countdown!”

Every edition of American Top 40 started off exactly the same way. Casey would introduce himself to the radio audience, explain what the countdown was, where the source of the countdown came from, and some little trivia bits about artists who had a hit on the countdown that week.

Originally broadcast in monaural sound, the show quickly switched to stereo in late 1972. The show was originally produced by Watermark Inc. (which was bought by ABC Radio in 1982, which is now known as Citadel Media). And the show was first sponsored by Tom Driscoll, of Driscoll's Strawberry Associates Inc.!

It was a show with humble beginnings, but quickly became a powerhouse on the radio.

Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, Casey Kasem took American Top 40 and ran with it. The show was syndicated on over five hundred radio stations in the United States, and reports were that by the early 1980s, the show could be heard in over fifty countries. The show's popularity made it possible for the show to be expanded to four hour broadcasts instead of just three, though there was an ulterior motive for that one. With singles becoming lengthier, it was necessary to expand the broadcast or else they simply wouldn't have the time to air all forty singles on the chart.

Especially when you consider that such hits as Meatloaf's “I Would Do Anything For Love, But I Won't Do That”, Guns 'N' Roses “November Rain”, Oasis' “Champagne Supernova”, and Michael Jackson's “Thriller” were all five minutes or more!

The radio countdown was also broadcast on Saturday Morning television on NBC for a period, although that program only counted down the Top 10 hits. You can watch a clip of the television show by clicking on this link.  This edition was from January 1981.

Aside from the music though, there were a lot of features that Casey Kasem incorporated into his show that made it stand out. It was the first show that used number jingles to count down the songs, and in later years of the show, there were two sets of number jingles used. An upbeat one for up-tempo songs, and a slower version for ballads.

It was also one of the few chart shows to incorporate a segment known as “The Long Distance Dedication”, which first kicked off during the summer of 1978. The segment began when a staffer of the radio program at the time, found a letter in the mail written by a fan who wanted to request the song “Desiree” by Neil Diamond, for his girlfriend of the same name who was moving away. Over the years that Casey hosted the countdown, he would usually have two “Long Distance Dedications” to air, and usually these dedications were for remembering a lost love, or a message to a current love stating how much they were loved. Here's an example of this in action from a chart airing in May 1986.

Of course, this segment was the scene of a meltdown in which Casey lost his cool because he had to read a “Long Distance Dedication” in memory of a deceased pet after just playing an up-tempo dance hit just prior. The segment never aired on the show itself, but several links to the incident have been posted online. You can look it up if you wish to, but I won't post it here. All that I have heard was that the song that had aired prior to the fated “Long Distance Dedication” was this one below.

Yeah. Awkward. At least it wasn't “Who Let The Dogs Out”...

American Top 40 was also a treasure trove for trivia! Before the days of the Internet, many people tuned into American Top 40 to get all the news about their favourite artists and bands. On every edition of the countdown, Casey would precede the number one hit of the week with a story about the band, the songwriters, even about a funny story involving fans. In some ways, it helped the radio listener feel as though they were getting to know their favourite artists even better.

But that wasn't all he did.

He sometimes had special reports based on a specific style of music, usually preceding a chart hit that emulated that style. He would have a segment entitled “Whatever Happened To...?”, which gave updates on artists who hadn't had a hit on the charts for at least five years or more. He would give a list of songs that were topping other charts, such as country, alternative, or adult contemporary. He'd even answer questions from listeners who wrote in asking for information about songs that were played on the chart. For many people, Casey Kasem was their link to every piece of music trivia imaginable.

At the end of every edition of the countdown, Casey would sign off with his trademark closing spiel.

“Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars!”

And for the first eighteen years of American Top 40's run, Casey Kasem was definitely the go-to guy for the Top 40 songs of the week, as well as the information that came along with it.

So when it was announced that Casey Kasem was vacating the very show that he helped create in 1988, listeners all over the world were stunned at the news. Casey Kasem was American Top 40. How could he ever be replaced? Why did he leave?

The reason Casey left was due to creative control and contract issues between himself and ABC Radio. Billboard Magazine had reported that salary issues were also a main factor behind Casey Kasem leaving the show.

At any rate, Casey's last stint of hosting the countdown was August 6, 1988, and the following week, Shadoe Stevens took over the hosting duties of American Top 40. Although I have no problem with how Shadoe hosted the program, I'll admit that I was upset that Casey Kasem was no longer the host of the program, and apparently a lot of people felt the same way. They never really warmed up to Shadoe as host of the program, although I do believe that he did his best given that he had some really tough shoes to fill.

But if you thought that we had seen the last of Casey Kasem, think again. In January 1989, Casey Kasem came back on the radio airwaves with a new radio show, Casey's Top 40, produced by Westwood One Radio. From the moment Casey's new show debuted on January 21, 1989, quite a few radio stations dropped American Top 40 with Shadoe Stevens from their schedules to carry Casey's new show.

On one hand, it was good for Casey, knowing that he had such a loyal fanbase. On the other hand, you really had to feel terrible for Shadoe Stevens.

Unlike American Top 40, which counted down the hits in Billboard Magazine, Casey's Top 40 counted down the hits from Radio & Records magazine instead, which lead to an almost similar playlist as rival Rick Dees' Weekly Top 40 program. As Casey's Top 40 grew in popularity, American Top 40 kept plummeting. The show was cancelled in the United States for a brief period beginning July 9, 1994, and just a few months later, the show was pulled from foreign markets by the beginning of 1995, to be replaced with either Rick Dees' program, or The World Chart Show.

Casey's Top 40 would run almost an additional decade, ceasing production in March 1998 when yet again another conflict arose regarding creative control. With American Top 40 going on hiatus in 1995, Casey Kasem wanted to change the name of his program back to American Top 40 after getting the rights back from ABC. However, Westwood One refused to accommodate his request, so Casey left the company, took with him the American Top 40 name, and rebooted the American Top 40 chart with AMFM Radio syndication. On March 28, 1998, the American Top 40 program was revived after a three year hiatus, and Casey served as host of the program for the next five years.

However, as much as we don't like to admit it, all good things eventually came to an end. And in 2003, Casey Kasem left the hosting duties of American Top 40 permanently. He would still host other programs on radio until 2009 when he retired from the radio industry for good.

American Top 40 still lives on though. Hosted by Ryan Seacrest since 2004, the program continues to count down the forty biggest hits in the world...but I have to admit, part of me still wishes that Casey still hosted the program. I know that it's an impossibility these days since Casey Kasem is turning 80 this year, and is probably enjoying his retirement. But Casey Kasem was such a huge part of my childhood, and at least with him still hosting the program, I can at least feel like I can go back to those carefree days of being a child.

At least some radio stations are rebroadcasting old episodes of American Top 40 with Casey at the helm. I suppose that's some consolation.

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