American Top 40 at 50

The iconic countdown show turns 50 this Saturday and a year-long celebration is planned

One of America’s iconic radio shows is turning 50 this Saturday, and the party is going to be one year-long celebration.

Premiere Networks announced Tuesday plans to celebrate American Top 40 as it marks its 50th year in radio. (although it did not air in 1996 or 1997.) Details were scant, but plans include interviews from the show’s archives and interviews with the show’s co-creator and host, Casey Kasem. Contests are also planned and include once-of-a-kind experiences throughout the year.

“Over the past five decades, American Top 40 has become a cultural touchpoint for millions of people around the globe,” said Julie Talbott, President of Premiere Networks. “Casey Kasem created the gold standard that we carry on today, and we’re so proud of how Ryan [Seacrest] has expanded that legacy. He’s taken the show to new heights over the past 16 years with added reach, engagement and technology, while continuing to drive impressive results for our partners.”

Seacrest took over from Kasem on January 10, 2004. AT 40 airs Sunday mornings from 6-10 a.m. on WKSC-FM (Kiss FM.) Today, the show is heard on about 500 radio stations worldwide and is in most major radio markets nationwide, including New York (WHTZ) and Los Angeles (KIIS). 

Kasem helped launch the show as host with Don Bustany on July 4, 1970 on only seven stations. By the end of the decade, AT40 was heard on over 400 stations nationwide in more than 100 countries, and on the Armed Forces Network. In the Chicago area, AT40 aired on WCFL, WDHF-FM (now WEBG), WBBM-FM, WLS-AM, WYTZ-FM (now WLS-FM), and WKSC. AT40 was also heard on Kankakee’s WBUS-FM. 

A TV spinoff, America’s Top 10 aired in syndication from 1980 to 1992 and was distributed by Golden West Television and successor All American Television (now part of Fremantle, producer of Family Feud.) 

In 1988, Kasem left AT40 in a contract dispute with Capital Cities/ABC and signed a deal with Westwood One to launch a competing countdown show in January 1989 named Casey’s Top 40 while Shadoe Stevens replaced Kasem on AT40. Six years later, ABC Radio canceled AT40 due to declining revenues, affiliate clearances domestically, and the downturn of the Contemporary Hit Format in general, but was kept on internationally until the end of January 1995.

Kasem would get into another contract dispute – this time with Westwood over his request to rename Casey’s Top 40 to AT40, given Kasem regained rights to use the name months after the show went off the air. After legal wranglings, Kasem relaunched AT40 in March 1998 with AMFM Networks (now Premiere Networks) as Westwood was forced to discontinue their countdown shows weeks after he left.

Kasem also brought his two spin-off shows – Casey’s Hot 20 and Casey’s Countdown (renamed American Hot 20 and AT20/10, respectively) to AMFM – targeting Adult Contemporary audiences, continuing in those roles as host even after he stepped down as host of AT40. Both ended when Kasem retired in 2009.

Reruns of his 1970s and 1980s countdown shows continue to be popular as both continue to be syndicated to local radio stations, even after Kasem’s death in 2014 (Both shows had a brief run at WLS-FM.) Sirius/XM also airs reruns of the 1970s on its 70s on 7 channel.

AT40 of course, spawned numerous imitators (Rick Dees, Dick Clark, Dan Ingram, Scott Shannon, etc.) – and some were even successful. And the countdown format Kasem pioneered has also been used in other music formats. In fact, Kasem and Bustany also created a countdown for the Country music format- America’s Country Countdown with host Bob Kingsley, which launched in 1973. Tom Joyner also did one for the R&B format in the 1980s and 1990s called On The Move

But of course, there is one and only Casey Kasem.

Outside of the main AT40, there are a few radio stations marking the 50th anniversary this weekend, including Premiere Networks airing the first show (now in stereo) in syndication this weekend. In addition, several stations are running marathons with numerous specials (Book of Records, Top Disappearing Acts, etc.) to air. One North Carolina station (WPNC-FM) is running a whole week of American Top 40 shows!

While American Top 40 is celebrating its 50th anniversary, it is not the only music program marking the feat in 2020. Comedy/novelty music The Dr. Demento Show is also celebrating its 50th this year (the show is still going strong online) and so is Soul Train, who got its start at Chicago’s WCIU also in 1970 (the show ended production in 2006, but lives on in specials.)

[Editor’s Note: An earlier post listed the wrong start and end time for AT40 on Kiss 103.5 FM in Chicago.] 

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