Casey Kasem was best known as the long-time host of American Top 40, a weekly countdown show heard worldwide for decades. Casey never tried to be someone he was not. He injected personality into every song, telling a story that made AT40 greater than the sum of the parts. Songs always sounded better when Casey played them.
Kasem inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of radio personalities. Ryan Seacrest (you probably have heard of him, right?) once said that all he wanted to be when he grew up was Casey Kasem or Dick Clark. And Ryan is both of them today, hosting AT40 as well as Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.
Nobody Teased Like Casey
Casey was known for his unique broadcasting style, which included a technique he called “teasing.” He would tease upcoming songs before revealing the artist and title to build anticipation.
Kasem’s teasing technique was repeated enough to build a sense of familiarity and intimacy with the listeners by providing a sense of flow and continuity on AT40. He often used a tease to transition between songs to change the subject from Song #17 to Song #16 on the countdown.
Casey’s teases weren’t just promos for his content but provided background stories, trivia, and interesting factoids about the songs and the artists. This added depth and context to the music that was honestly the same songs played over and over by most of the affiliate stations.
By turning trivial facts into miniature stories about things we don’t care about, Kasem created a curiosity that encouraged listeners to stay and find out what artist just broke the record for the most Top 25 singles by an R&B group. The technique seems simple, but Casey the artist painted the picture in a way that made you feel you had a stake in the outcome of the story.
Learning to tease didn’t happen accidentally. Each segment was thoroughly prepared to keep the audience interested to hear more. Listen to the examples of the tease and payoff for the Duran Duran and Rolling Stones segments. He leads the audience through the content to build suspense over ordinary (maybe even mundane) facts. Try to ignore the cheesy puns and play on words. Instead, pay attention to the technique of keeping you engaged.
Casey built his entire personality by putting the songs and artists in the spotlight. Sometimes he used a listener’s favorite song as content (Long-Distance Dedications). Listen and you’ll agree that Limahl’s 1985 hit Never Ending Story never sounded better than when Casey played it.
Kasem’s legacy story wasn’t an overnight sensation. It started early in his career when he found a discarded copy of the 1962 edition of “Who’s Who in Pop Music” in a trash can at an Oakland radio station. He used what he read in that book to invent “teaser bios”. To him, this was the turning point of his career.
Listen to the aircheck of Casey At The Mic when he worked evenings at that Oakland station (1963). The style is the same but you’ll hear how he matured, grew, and polished his craft to be one of the greatest of all time. But that wasn’t the only type of stories Casey told.
Long Distance Dedication
One of the most popular segments of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 program was the Long Distance Dedication, in which listeners could request a song dedication to a friend or loved one who was far away. Kasem read the dedications, often adding personal comments or anecdotes with emotion and sincerity, making it a special moment for the caller and the person the dedication was for.
The feature expanded the show’s appeal beyond just a music countdown. Casey was a friend on the radio who would take their dedication and make it special for them. The concept holds up even today, with features like this one.
In an interview with Adam Buckman, Casey shared highlights of how his personality came together. The most revealing moment was how proud Casey was of his ability to extend time spent listening:
He (Kasem) was most proud of the anecdotes and backstories about pop stars and songs he used to recite on the show. He was always “teasing” an upcoming anecdote just before going to a commercial break. And it worked.
Casey’s simple style was formed by focusing on making a personal connection with listeners. He once said:
Basically, radio hasn’t changed over the years. Despite all the technical improvements, it still boils down to a man or a woman and a microphone, playing music, sharing stories, talking about issues – communicating with an audience.
I hear so many personalities today criticize Ryan Seacrest because “he’s not a real personality” or “He’s not that good”. Many said the same about Casey.
But there’s something to be said about having a friendly, likable persona that loves the things listeners love, understand why the audience tunes in, and make everything around them sound better and bigger when they’re on.
That was Casey. Seacrest does it, too.
But Kasem was more than just a DJ that told stories about the charts. He was an immensely talented voice actor. You probably don’t know he was the voice of Shaggy on Scooby Doo, among others.
But he always knew that he was performing for the benefit of the audience, never losing sight of why listeners tuned in.
In many ways, he was a perfect representation of the famous way he ended every AT40: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”