Casey Kasem at the 41st Emmy Awards. Photo courtesy of Alan Light.
During a time when the Vietnam War was still in full swing, the world was recovering from the Beatles split and a “meat dress” was not something anyone could imagine, a veteran DJ by the name of Casey Kasem hosted the very first Top 40 countdown program in El Cajon, California. On July 4th, 1970, Kasem broadcasted, as he called it, “the Top 40 hits of the nation this week on American Top 40, the best-selling and most-played songs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico.” Not a bad gig for the guy who started doing the voice of Shaggy on “Scooby Doo” just one year prior.
Based off of the top 40 songs from the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Kasem played all of the contemporary successful tunes everyone had grown to love over the course of three hours in order from number 40 all the way down to number 1. Broadcasting guru, Todd Storz, had invented the radio format of playing only the top 40 tracks in the 1950s, but the general masses did not know the rhyme and reason to the tracks being played since the top 40 was only an industry term. AT40 made this format known to the world and was the first of its kind to incorporate a countdown of any kind. This is hard to fathom since a large majority of programs today have some variation of this form of entertainment. Of course, Rolling Stone magazine features “special edition” countdown issues of anything from the best guitarists, best albums recorded on a full moon in Dublin, or a countdown of the best countdowns. AT40 started it all.
Just as it goes today, the first Top 40 held an eclectic mix of music superstars, newcomers, and one-hit wonders. The first song on the list was Marvin Gaye’s cover of “The End of Our Road.” As the program continued, listeners also heard “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdan and War, “Ohio” by Crosby Stills Nash & Young, “Make it With You” by Bread, “A Song of Joy (Himno a La Alegria)” by Miguel Ross and “Gimme Dat Ding” by The Pipkins (props if you are familiar with all of those songs).
The program concluded with excitement as Kasem unveiled the top 10 songs ranked by Billboard. Included in these final tunes was Elvis Presley’s “The Wonder of You” and The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road,” which, sadly, just so happened to be the last chart where both Elvis and The Beatles were both included in the top 10.
Finally, Kasem approached number 1 and the honor went to “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” by Three Dog Night.
After the first show had ended, did Kasem play the same 40 songs the next week? Absolutely not. That ain’t no way to have fun, son! Every week, listeners were able to hear who made the cut and who fell by the wayside according to the songs on Billboard’s list.
The show had originally aired in seven different major cities throughout the country. The producers were interested in expanding the program to other areas but found difficulty in selling them to new stations. At this time FM was becoming more and more popular with new stations continually being created while AT40 was broadcasted in AM.
Attitudes in music were also changing from the campy pop songs that Kasem mostly aired to longer and more artistically inclined cuts. However, as time went on and its popularity grew, other stations began picking it up. Once a station started airing AT40, nobody else could broadcast the show within the market area. The producers used this as a marketing technique to make the show more illustrious and listeners took the bait.
People throughout the country were also getting hooked on the DJ’s regular mix of jingles, stories, chart trivia, and stories featuring fun facts about the artist. The last bit was a significant factor in separating the program from others on the radio. Kasem continually kept listeners intrigued with interesting or useless knowledge about the artist or song. This could include anything from a backstory of the musician’s life and motivation to write the lyrics or a brief history of soda-pop if the songs subject matter included the object in question. All of these factors created the perfect storm allowing the show to expand from seven to 300 episodes in five short years. Over the course of the next two decades, Kasem and the AT40 had become household names.
Since the early days of the AT40, listeners have heard Kasem become replaced by Shadoe Stevens, followed by Kasem’s triumphant return in the late ’90s and finally with Ryan Seacrest taking the reigns in 2004. The DJs may have changed but the program continues to live on and influence our outlook on music. Today the majority of mainstream music stations only plays the songs included in the top 40 and sadly, people who do not know any better think these tracks are the only things worth listening to.
The AT40 has changed the industry from the constant bombardment of countdowns in all forms of entertainment to the over saturation of the most popular songs that are currently on the market. But that’s not to say this is the end of the world. The radio world was stuck in a broadcasting rut in the late ’60s trying to compete with the dawn of television until Kasem and his gang came in and changed the game. We must now keep an eye out for the next thing to break us free of our current chains.
Until then, as Kasem always said, “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”