I was saddened to hear of the passing of legendary radio personality Casey Kasem over the weekend, but I was already prepared given recent news reports documenting an apparent long, slow slide into dementia.
Still, that didn’t make the void created by his death any easier to accept.
I grew up as a radio-loving kid at the start of his heyday during the 1970s. His warm voice and upbeat persona made him a kindly companion to a boy trying to gain his footing in the pop cultural firmament — the stuff that gave you touchstones with other kids your age and gave this awkward adolescent an “in” to conversations or at least an understanding of what everyone else was talking about.
Looking back at his musical countdown show, “American Top 40,” with the eyes of a kid, I think I found an affirmation and validation of what was becoming my musical taste. It was kind of like picking horses at a racetrack; if a song I liked moved up the charts and all the way to No. 1, I win! (And everybody loves a winner right?)
My Top 40 years — from around 1973 to 1979 — were populated with artists as varied as Helen Reddy, MFSB, Paul Simon and Charlie Rich thanks to WWNR-AM in Beckley and “AT40,” as Kasem would occasionally refer to his show. (Every so often, the radio station would hold giveaways of that week’s countdown on vinyl. It wasn’t until a long time after I grew up that I figured out that the broadcasts weren’t live.)
Since his show was simply a recounting of a week’s worth of sales and airplay, Kasem didn’t set the playlist; he was ostensibly an impartial observer. But he could still pick and choose which songs or artists had an interesting back story that he would share as introduction to a song. This kindled in me a real love for more than just the music, but the people and process behind it.
He was part of the soundtrack of my adolescence. Summers spent as kids with Barry Manilow — don’t judge — and Seals & Crofts and Elton John biking around the neighborhood and listening to transistor radios are a pleasant, carefree haze in my memory. (Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” and Kasem’s background story about it are forever linked with the summer of 1975.)
And maybe that’s why I’ll miss the man, or at least the memory of the man. He was one of the links to my childhood and probably marked the last real unifying element of radio as a medium. As audiences grow more segmented and mass media is splintered among television, online, mobile, terrestrial and satellite radio and print, there aren’t that many events that can hold the public together for long anymore.
But for those three hours a week, a good portion of the country could find something in common, listening for their favorite songs and following their rise and fall. Kasem’s passing marks the end of that era and a milestone in the medium.
Of course, no appreciation of Kasem’s life and career would be complete without his signature sign-off. I always took it as a sort of a combined caution and valedictory rooted in the turmoil and promise of the 1960s — just before his own star took off with his radio show in 1970: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
Thanks for the memories, Casey Kasem.