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Casey Kasem: Pop's 'gateway drug'

Story highlights

  • Mark Coleman: Casey Kasem was "tastemaker" before era of streaming and downloading
  • Kasem's "America's Top 40" wasn't gatekeeper but a conduit for popular songs, he says
  • Coleman says Kasem's show was accessible; his voice upbeat, not smarmy
  • Kasem an iconic voice of common-denominator music during divisive time, he says

The late Kemal Amin "Casey" Kasem was much more than a relic of radio's Top 40 heyday. In this era of streaming and downloading, when everyone functions as his or her own DJ and program director, the "tastemaking" role of music radio in the late 20th century -- the role that Kasem pretty much owned -- is almost impossible to fathom.

Casey Kasem was neither a maverick like pioneer rock & roll disc jockey Alan Freed nor a budding multimedia entrepreneur like Dick Clark. He didn't strive to be hip or hustle after the cutting edge. He wasn't really a gatekeeper or curator. His on-air presence was neutral; he merely was a conduit for whatever records were most popular.

Each week he'd present the top singles as reported on the Billboard charts, framing the songs with homespun advice, listener dedications and decidedly noncontroversial anecdotes about the performers. From 1970 to 1988, his syndicated weekly program, "America's Top 40," documented the ever-shifting mainstream of musical tastes. By today's standards, it can sound overly cautious or conservative, but it also reflected a cultural consensus that barely exists anymore.

Kasem's long-distance dedications

Easily accessible and free of charge, "America's Top 40" was a gateway drug for a generation or two of budding music fanatics. Kasem was the patron saint of preteen pop devotees held captive to their parents' car radios. His data-dependent chart format made him an enabler for amateur statisticians and precocious list-compilers, kids who couldn't afford subscriptions to the trade magazines.

Mark Coleman

The sturdy scaffolding under Kasem's success was his voice: upbeat, naturally modulated, soothing without being smarmy. Hear him once and he became Casey: familiar, somehow. You could accuse him of being corny, a shameless Pez dispenser of sentimental patter and clichéd advice along with pablum pop. You'd be literally correct but also fundamentally clueless about his down-to-earth appeal.

Kasem managed to be commercial without coming across like a hyped-up huckster. He made it seem easy, and also seamless, for instance segueing from a convoluted factoid about Top 10 hits with the word "Doctor" in the title to a Dr. Pepper spot.

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His voice was the product of formative years spent jumping from radio station to station as well as some acting work. Voice-over gigs proved to be a consistent and profitable sidelight; Kasem's resonant tones appeared in commercials and cartoons. Somewhat improbably, he supplied the voice of Norville "Shaggy" Rogers on "Scooby-Doo." No doubt this further endears him to a generation weaned on musty anachronisms such as network television and Top 40 radio.

Tributes: 'Keep reaching for the stars'

Truthfully, even at his most popular, Kasem was a bit of an anachronism. When "America's Top 40" debuted in 1970, the rock revolution was in full swing, and free-form FM radio was on the rise. But he stuck to the middle of the road, and not only endured but thrived during the tumultuous expansion and dissolution of the musical counterculture in the ensuing decades.

The Top 40 renaissance of 1984, kick-started by MTV, and the late '90s teen pop explosion can both be seen as vindication of Kasem's rigidly democratic format. In fact, the millennial breakthrough of boy bands and Britney Spears may go down in history as the Top 40's last hurrah.

Born the son of Lebanese immigrants in Detroit, Kasem went on to become the iconic voice of common-denominator music during a divisive time in our culture. In the end, what could be more American?

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