Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Casey Kasem

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Casey Kasem

Casey Kasem—whose long career on the radio and as an actor made him one of the most-heard voices in America—has died at the age of 82. Generations grew up listening to Kasem count down the hits on American Top 40, the radio program he co-created and hosted for decades, old episodes of which are still broadcast on Sirius Radio. During that same period, he was providing the distinctively manic yet affable voice of teenage ghost buster Shaggy on the Saturday morning cartoon Scooby-Doo.


Born Kemal Amin Kasem to a family of Lebanese immigrants in Detroit, Kasem spun records and acted in radio plays for Armed Forces Radio during the Korean War. After his discharge, he bounced around the dial, working at stations as a disc jockey (a term he favored over the more vague and upscale “radio personality”) in Cleveland, Buffalo, San Francisco, and Oakland, California. Kasem began to develop his trademark style in 1962, when he started incorporating bits of trivia and biographical information about the performers into his introductions to records.

Looking back on his “Eureka!” moment, Kasem recalled that he had been instructed by his station manager to come up with something to differentiate him from all the other guys on radio doing funny voices and skits between records. “Wedged in the door of the studio was a big trash barrel, and on top of all of it was Who’s Who In Pop Music,” he said. “I looked at those little thumbnail sketches, and I was on my way to do what I am doing today, counting them down.”

The first American Top 40 show premiered in 1970 during Fourth of July weekend, broadcast on seven stations. In its early years, the show ran three hours every week, finally expanding to four hours in 1978. It was basically an audio version of the Billboard magazine charts, spiced up with such features as the “Long Distance Dedication” (based on letters from listeners) and Kasem’s sign-off motto, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”

People who have grown up with the Internet may not be able to grasp how important the show was during the 1970s and 1980s. More than just a radio countdown, American Top 40 provided a weekly report on the state of mainstream pop, in the days before popular music and the listening audience became far too splintered for anyone to confidently present a handful of songs as representative of what “everyone” was singing along to in their car.

Kasem’s show took the increasingly sprawling mess of what was going on in music in the post-Beatles era—including blockbuster smashes, instant classics, one-hit wonders, novelty fluke hits, and records whose appeal would seem incomprehensible a mere week or so after they’d fallen off the charts—and he packaged it all in a way that made it comprehensible. Within 10 years, American Top 40 was being broadcast on more than 500 stations in the U.S. When Kasem stepped down from hosting for the first time in 1988, it was being carried by more than a thousand.

At the same time Kasem was building his radio career, he was also working as an actor, mostly in low-budget exploitation movies and on TV. In the years surrounding the launch of American Top 40, he appeared in several biker flicks—The Glory Stompers, (1967), Wild Wheels (1967), The Cycle Savages (1969), Scream Free! (1969), The Girls From Thunder Strip (1970)—as well as a 1971 horror movie with the self-explanatory title The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant.

Kasem had much more impact doing voice work for TV cartoons. He first voiced Shaggy in 1969, on the initial, 25-episode season of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? The cartoon spawned a franchise that kept the character alive, both in reruns and new spin-off series and TV movies, well into the present day. Kasem last played Shaggy in the straight-to-DVDScooby Doo! And The Samurai Sword (2009), and also lent his voice to the character of Colton Rogers, Shaggy’s father, in five episodes of the most recent Scooby-Doo TV series, Mystery Incorporated.

Starting in 1968, Kasem also voiced Batman’s sidekick Robin on The Batman/Superman Hour, a role he would reprise throughout the ’70s and ’80s in several different iterations of the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends.

Kasem also did voice work on such shows as Cattanooga Cats (1969); Josie And The Pussycats, where he played Alexander Cabot III; the 1971 Rankin-Bass Easter special Here Comes Peter Cottontail, playing the title character; the 1980 Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Return Of The King, as the Hobbit Merry; and also on Transformers—although Kasem would later explain that he chose to cut short his participation in that show, due to what he perceived as unflattering stereotypes of villainous Arabs. He also made guest appearances on such primetime series as Garrison’s Gorillas, Ironside, Charlie’s Angels, and Quincy, and had small roles in the movies Disco Fever (1978), The Dark (1979), and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977).

In 1980, Kasem—anticipating the emergence of MTV and the dominance of music videos—launched an abridged version of his radio countdown for syndicated TV, called America’s Top 10. The show, which Kasem hosted until 1989, made Kasem the most famous face among disc jockeys since Wolfman Jack had appeared as himself in American Graffiti and hosted The Midnight Special. (It also effectively ended his playing at being an onscreen actor, since it made it impossible for Kasem to pretend to be anyone other than Casey Kasem. He did sometimes make spoofy appearances as himself, such as in 1984’s Ghostbusters and on NBC’s Saved By The Bell.) Although Kasem didn’t personally rate the records he played, his combined presence on TV and radio gave him an air of authority on the subject of contemporary pop music, similar to the one enjoyed by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on the subject of movies.

In 1991, the prankish sound collagists Negativland released an EP, U2, that incorporated a notorious outtake from an American Top 40 taping, where Kasem had launched into a profane tirade while reading a “Long Distance Dedication” to a deceased pet. (In the course of his tantrum, Kasem also derided U2, famously saying, “These guys are from England, and who gives a shit?”) The record became a central part of the debate then taking shape about the unauthorized use of samples; It was ultimately taken off the market, though not because of any complaint from Kasem, but because U2’s music label, Island Records, contended that the use of the band’s name on the jacket art was misleading. (Negativland offered its side of the story in a book and accompanying CD, The Letter U And The Numeral 2, which in turn got it sued by its own label, SST, for copyright infringement and for releasing information about the label’s finances. The whole thing was eventually re-released in 2001 as These Guys Are From England And Who Gives A Shit.)

In 1988, after failing to agree on a new contract with ABC Radio Networks, Kasem quietly left American Top 40 and started a new show, Casey’s Top 40, which duplicated the former’s style but dropped the Billboard listings in favor of statistics from the rival trade publication Radio & Records. ABC kept American Top 40 going without him, hosted by Shadoe Stevens, until finally abandoning it in 1994. By then, Kasem was still doing Casey’s Top 40, as well as a pair of spinoff shows focusing on adult-contemporary music. In 1998, Kasem, having secured the rights to the American Top 40 name, revived his baby and reappointed himself as host, a job he held onto until January 2004. After he passed the reins to Ryan Seacrest, Kasem continued to host the spinoff series, Casey’s Countdown and Casey’s Hot 20, until their final episodes on July 4, 2009—the 39th anniversary of his debut as a weekly countdown host.

The graceful exit from public life that Kasem had sought with his retirement was unfortunately marred in recent months with bizarre news reports of his reported disappearance from a Santa Monica nursing home and his subsequent reappearance in the care of his wife of 33 years, Jean.  Kasem, who was reported to be suffering from untreatable dementia (and who had been misdiagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2007), became the focus of an ugly public battle between his wife, who wanted Kasem to remain at home, and the children from his first marriage, who went to court to seek the authority to have him hospitalized. The conflict reached some kind of low point two weeks ago, when Jean Kasem was filmed throwing raw hamburger at her stepdaughter, after which she explained her bizarre actions to TV news cameras by saying, “In the name of King David, I threw a piece of raw meat into the street in exchange for my husband to the wild rabid dogs.”


That legal fight ended Wednesday, June 11, when a Los Angeles judge, reversing his own earlier order, ruled that Kasem’s daughter Kerri had the authority to disconnect her father’s feeding tubes and remove him from life support. Kerri Kasem has said that she and her siblings were honoring their father’s wishes as he expressed them in a directive he signed in 2007, where he’d asked that no efforts be made to prolong his life that “would result in a mere biological existence, devoid of cognitive function, with no reasonable hope for normal functioning.” Kasem’s children and other family members and friends had reportedly been sitting in vigil with Kasem, and playing him recordings of old AT40 shows until his death.