Remembering Casey Kasem

Casey Kasem at the premiere of "The Rugrats In Paris in 2000. (Wireimage)
Casey Kasem at the premiere of “The Rugrats In Paris in 2000. (Wireimage)

The media world spent Father’s Day mourning the loss of radio legend Casey Kasem, who died early Sunday morning from Lew Body’s disease and dementia, at the age of 82.

Rather than focus on the last few months of his life – which featured a rather nasty battle of his care between members of his family, let’s talk about the contributions he made to our industry and society.

A Detroit native, Casey was born Kemal Amen Kasem on April 27, 1932, to Lebanese immigrants who ran a neighborhood grocery store. Kasem appeared on Detroit Public Schools’ WDTR while attending Wayne State University, and later appeared on radio dramas based in Detroit, including The Lone Ranger and Challenge Of The Yukon, produced at then-ABC-owned WXYZ-AM. By the 1950’s, Kasem was drafted into the Korean war, and while there, assembled a group of actors, writers, and personalities for American Forces Radio (now the Armed Forces Network.)

After he returned stateside, Casey returned to Detroit radio – this time as a nighttime DJ at WJBK in 1956, using scripted banter and sound effects. After a failed stint auditioning for Broadway, he returned to radio again – this time to WJW-AM in Cleveland in 1959, where he still created comedy bits such as Payola Tune Of The Night, and hosted Cleveland Bandstand – one of his first TV gigs. When WJW flipped formats in 1960, Kasem moved to Buffalo (WBNY), then Oakland (KEWB, where he developed his unique storytelling style), and landed at KRLA in Los Angeles in 1963. While in L.A., he hosted a local teen dance show called Shebang at KTLA from 1965-68.

Kasem hit the jackpot thanks to finding voiceover work, in commercials and being a staff announcer for NBC in the late 1970’s. In 1968, he auditioned for and won the role of Robin in Filmation’s Batman animated series. Other animated voice-over jobs followed, including Superfriends, Josie and the Pussycats, Mr. Magoo, Chattanooga Cats, Hot Wheels, Battle of the Planets, and 2 Stupid Dogs. But none of those gigs compared to his role voicing Shaggy Rogers on numerous Scooby-Doo series (with few exceptions), which he was most famous for.

In 1969, Kasem had an idea for a national countdown show and his business partners, Don Bustany, Ron Jacobs, and Tom Rounds (who passed away two weeks ago), formed Watermark, Inc. to sell the concept in radio syndication. On July 4, 1970, American Top 40 was born, airing on only seven stations at first (The first song played on AT 40 was Marvin Gaye’s The End Of Our Road; the first #1 single played was Mama Told Me Not To Come by Three Dog Night.) In 1971, the show had nearly 120 stations; by the end of the 1970’s, AT 40 was heard on 425 stations in the United States; over 100 countries around the world; and on The Armed Forces Network.

In 1978, Kasem introduced the Long Distance Dedications, which quickly became a longtime staple of the show – usually two to three segments each show. The same year, AT 40 expanded from three to four hours. Another feature introduced into the show was the Question Letter, where listeners ask chart questions.

A television spinoff, America’s Top 10 aired in syndication from 1980 to 1992 via All American Television, and was hosted for most of its run by Kasem.

Watermark was purchased by ABC Radio in 1981, which in turn, was bought by Capital Cities in 1985. In 1987, Kasem became involved in a contract dispute with Capital Cities/ABC, which now distributed American Top 40. He left the show in August 1988 to start a new show with rival radio syndicator Westwood One, which would debut in January 1989 called Casey’s Top 40 (Kasem was replaced on his old show by former L.A. radio personality and Hollywood Squares announcer Shadoe Stevens beginning with the August 13, 1988 show.)

Kasem’s relationship with Westwood started to sour in 1997 when he regained rights to use the AT 40 name, which was dormant since the original show’s 1995 cancellation. When Kasem insisted he wanted to use the AT 40 name for the countdown show during negotiations to re-up with Westwood, they refused. Instead, Kasem left Westwood and signed a lucrative deal with AMFM Networks in early 1998, resulting in American Top 40, and its spinoffs – American Top 20 and American Top 10 – to return to the airwaves in March. AT 40 came under ownership of Clear Channel Communications after the merger of AMFM and Jacor.

On January 3, 2004, Kasem stepped down from AT 40 and was replaced by Ryan Seacrest a week later, but maintained his positions on the two spinoff shows. In 2009, Kasem announced his retirement, effectively ending AT 20 and AT 10 (this blog was among the first to report Kasem’s departure.) In 2010, Matthew Lillard – who played Shaggy in the live-action Scooby-Doo movie, took over the voice role from Kasem in Mystery Incorporated and any future TV projects.

Chicago connections

Though Kasem never worked in Chicago radio, his presence was felt whenever he visited the Windy City. Kasem was among the first class of inductees in the Radio Hall Of Fame, in 1992. Kasem also was a supporter of Chicago’s Museum Of Broadcast Communications and hosted the Radio Hall Of Fame induction ceremony for five srraight years (1996-2000.)

Chicago stations carrying the original version of American Top 40 include WCFL, WDHF (now WNUA-FM); WBBM-FM (right before the Hot Hits/B96 era); WLS-AM; and WYTZ-FM (known as Z95; now known as WLS-FM.) The most recent incarnation featuring Kasem was carried on WKSC-FM (Kiss-FM) from 2002-04.

After seven years at WLS/WYTZ, Kasem returned to WBBM-FM in 1989 as host of Casey’s Top 40, with the last three hours of the show up against his old AT 40 show on WYTZ until October 1991 when WYTZ dropped its CHR format.  B96 dropped Casey’s in 1993 after the station started leaning in a more rhythmic CHR direction.

For South Side and south suburban listeners, Casey’s was also available on Kankakee’s WBUS-FM (99.9 FM, now progressive talker WRZA) from its inception to 1996, when the station was sold. WBUS also carried Casey’s original American Top 40 show and for a short time, the Shadoe Stevens version.

WLIT meanwhile, carried the Adult Contemporary versions of Kasem’s countdowns from the mid-1990’s to 2005.

Casey the Humanitarian

In addition to his radio and TV work, Kasem gave back to the community – he was a longtime spokesperson for MDA, and regularly appeared on their telethon during the Jerry Lewis era. Kasem also participated in numerous peace marches, resulting in a few arrests along the way. Kasem was also an activist for Arab-American rights and served on numerous boards.

The Lighter Side Of Casey

There is a lighter side of Casey he probably didn’t want you to know about – in fact, his contracts prohibited the release of any outtakes. But a few slipped through – notably a two-minute tirade over a “dead dog dedication” (which never made it on AT 40) from September 1985 and has been a staple of morning radio shows everywhere. When Kasem found out a decade later, he naturally laughed it off.

As Kasem became more looser in his delivery during the 1987-88 season of AT 40 – his last with Watermark/ABC – he actually used his “Shaggy” voice to introduce a record.

During a June 2002 show, Kasem was a victim of a bad editing mistake on a tease, introducing a record by Paulina Rubio: “Coming up, the song ‘Don’t Say Goodbye.’ It’s by a singer who understands stardom very well. Her mother – it’s by a singer who understands stardom well. Her mother is one of the biggest film stars in Mexico.”

To hear the “dead dog dedication” outtake and a few other bloopers from Casey, click here.

Personally speaking, Casey Kasem was indeed, one of my idols growing up, being a Scooby-Doo fan and listening to American Top 40. Kasem’s show influenced me as a writer, thanks to his great storytelling skills. He also made wonderful contributions to radio – pioneering the syndicated radio show (for better or worse) and inspiring generations of young people to get into radio.

Casey Kasem was on a short list of mine of people who I would like to meet in my lifetime. Sadly, the opportunity never came.

Rest in peace, Casey. And as he would say at the end of each show he hosted:

“Keep Your Feet On The Ground And Keep Reaching For The Stars.”