Second only to my father’s, Casey Kasem’s voice was one of the resounding male voices of my childhood and played a large part in shaping my dreams. That voice, which had been off the air for several years already, was silenced for good today when Kasem died at 82.
When people ask me how I got into music journalism, there is one story that I always tell and that is of loving listening to the radio. Growing up in Raleigh, N.C., the main Top 40 station was WKIX. It was my gateway drug into the music world. I bought singles and got into album-oriented rock as I got older, but from the start, I was a Top 40 girl. I listened to it all the time. I made my mom switch from WPTF, her station of choice, to WKIX whenever we were in the car together (my father, who loved classical music, wasn’t usually so compliant) and I listened to it on the radio in my bedroom when I was doing my homework. If I could get away with it, I would listen after I went to bed, but I would be so excited to hear what the next song was that I couldn’t fall asleep, so my parents put an end to that. The local DJs brought me the songs that informed my childhood, but every Sunday, Casey Kasem brought me the world.
The American Top 40 Countdown aired on WKIX every Sunday starting at noon. I would sit in church and fidget as it grew closer to 12 p.m. Church would finish and my parents — I’m convinced they did this just to torture me— would insist on chatting with friends or helping clean up the sanctuary while I would be dying inside, knowing I was missing the songs at No. 40, 39, 38, 37… on the radio. Usually, we’d get home by the time Kasem was declaring Song No. 35 or so and, as I did every week, I’d sit at my desk in my bedroom, take out purple, lined, notebook paper (sometimes it was pink) and I would write down the songs as he announced them. I’d leave space at the top for the songs I’d missed because I knew he’d recap them when he got to No. 30.
This was in the days when local stations had more clout in determining what they played than they do now, so I might hear a song on AT40 that I’d never heard before on WKIX because the local program director didn’t want to play it. There was something magical and wonderfully comforting about knowing that I was hearing him count down to “the top song in the land,” as Kasem used to say, and that some kid in Sacramento or Milwaukee was listening to these songs too. Kasem had a warm voice that felt like it was caressing the words as he conspiratorially, softly revealed secrets behind the songs and the artists, pulling back the curtain on new artists I’d never heard of before or revealing the newest song from some act I loved before WKIX had put it in regular rotation.
My obsession with writing down the weekly chart numbers probably lasted for only a few years— probably from fifth to seventh grade or so… but Kasem and the American Top 40 Countdown introduced me to Billboard. For several years, AT40 used Billboard’s charts and that’s how I found out about the trade magazine. And then… a few short years later, I was interning for Billboard while in college, and ultimately worked for them for more than a dozen years. I feel like I have Kasem to thank. I’m sure I would have learned about Billboard somehow, but because of Kasem, from a very early age, Billboard held a mythical allure for me.
I had long weaned myself off of having to listen every Sunday, but when I went to Germany for my junior year of college, Kasem came back into my life. I would find myself missing home and wanting to hear an American accent (this was was before the internet and Skype and international calling was expensive enough that I only talked to my parents once a month). Enter Armed Forces Radio Network. In addition to the 1,000 stations in the U.S. that aired AT40, the countdown was broadcast on 400 AFRN stations, including one that was near Regensburg, where I went to college. So once again, Kasem brought me the world— or more specifically— helped me go home each week, when I would hear what was hitting big in the U.S. while I was 4,000 miles away.
Kasem turned over hosting AT40 to Ryan Seacrest in 2004. Even though I hadn’t listened for awhile, I still felt nostalgic sadness that an icon from my childhood was no longer there for me every week.
SiriusXM Radio plays the American Top 40 Countdown on its 70s channel every week and if I’m in the car, I’ll tune in. It’s a trip to hear Kasem’s voice coming back at me through the speakers. The long distance dedications delivered with dripping sincerity sound hokey to me now in a way that they never did to that young girl growing up in Raleigh who took his weekly sign off of “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars” very seriously. I never met Kasem during my time at Billboard, but that didn’t make me sad because I felt like I already knew him already. After all, we spent every Sunday together for years.
It wasn't that long ago that Kasem and I were radio mates, but it was a very different time that feels like another era. Though Top 40 countdown shows still exist, there was something special about having a weekly listening date and knowing that if I missed hearing Kasem then, I couldn't just go online and see the chart or stream that week's countdown whenever I felt like. Technology has definitely given us more options, but when you have everything at your fingertips whenever you want it, it loses a little of its uniqueness and what make it special. I'm glad that I felt that urgency to get home every Sunday, even if my parents didn't understand the necessity, and I'm thankful that Kasem helped me understand from a very young age the power of dreams and music.