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Casey Kasem, A Signature Voice Of American Radio, Dies At 82


An iconic voice of American radio has died.

CASEY KASEM: Hello again and welcome to American Top 40. My name's Casey Kasem and I'm all set to count down the biggest hits in the USA.

RATH: Casey Kasem hosted American Top 40 for four decades. He presented the week's hits with a sincerity and authority that made him essential learning for millions of Americans every weekend. Casey Kasem died today at the age of 82. NPR's Bilal Qureshi has this remembrance.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Casey Kasem was born Kemal Amin Kasem in 1932. His parents were Lebanese immigrants who had settled in Detroit. Kasem was drafted into the military and began his broadcasting career as a DJ for Armed Forces Radio in Korea. When he returned to the U.S., he perfected his sound at radio stations around the country before launching his show from California on July 4, 1970.


KASEM: Hi and welcomee to American Top 40. This is Casey Kasem and I'm about to start counting down the 40 top tunes in the USA, the best-selling songs from New England to Hawaii and from Canada to Mexico.

QURESHI: As American Top 40 evolved, Kasem added music trivia and the long-distance dedications that became a hallmark of his show.


KASEM: Casey, could you kindly play "Broken Wings" for my sister Aisha at Oklahoma State University? I do hope she's listening, for this is a message from those who love her all the way from home here in Malaysia. Signed, Norlida (ph). OK, Norlida, here's your long-distance dedication.

NEIL STRAUSS: It was a voice not just that was smooth and perfect and you recognized, but that you the listener had an emotional relationship with.

QURESHI: Neil Strauss is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine. He sat down with Kasem for a rare interview in 2004. He says the DJ represented the best of an age before the Internet.

STRAUSS: You actually wouldn't know what was number one because you didn't subscribe to radio and records or billboard. Only he knew what was number one, he had that power, right. And you didn't know all these details and stories about the artist, only he knew. He actually was a source of so much of your information about pop music and popular culture that nowadays you can just search online.

QURESHI: In addition to the show, Kasem was an accomplished voice actor.


KASEM: (As Shaggy) Hang on Scooby, we'll save you.

QURESHI: He was Shaggy and Scooby-Doo. He voiced several of the transformers on TV and he was an MC for Jerry Lewis' annual telethon. For listeners, his was an empathetic voice, but behind the scenes he could be exacting and temperamental.

STRAUSS: He was a stickler for just doing enough takes till he got it just right, that the levels were never too loud, never too quiet - that there was no single aberration in anything he said.

QURESHI: The contrast was so striking that several of his in-studio tirades went viral.


KASEM: See, when you come out of those up-tempo god damn numbers, man, it's impossible to make those transitions and the then you got to go into somebody dying. You know, they do this to me all the time, I don't know what the hell they do it for, but god damn it if we can't come out of a slow record, I don't understand it. Is Don on the phone?

QURESHI: For the writer Neil Strauss, those outburst proved just how seriously Casey Kasem took his hosting duties.

STRAUSS: The reason he'd done this shows for 39 years and survived where other people haven't is that he never associated himself with the music. He never tried to become or embody the music. He never tried to be cool or hip or whatever the trend was at the time. In fact, he never even really cared that much about the music or was a fan of it or really, say, liked it. He just liked counting it down and delivering his segments of trivia and dedications.

QURESHI: But off the air, Kasem was passionate about the environment, homelessness and the Arab community. He spoke out against racial profiling and against war in the Middle East. Ten years ago, Casey Kasem handed off American Top 40 to Ryan Seacrest. Five years later, he presented his final countdown and withdrew from public life. Kasem's health had deteriorated in recent years and as he suffered from worsening dementia, his wife and children from his first marriage began a painful and very public feud over his care. In today's personality driven industry, Kasem's original broadcasts can sound a little earnest. But writer Neil Strauss says Kasem was serious and it was reflected in his show's catchphrase.

STRAUSS: He said I believe that we're in a great country, we have a lot of opportunity and nothing's going to limit you so go for it. But don't hurt anybody along the way. Obviously that's not catchy, so he reduced it to that...


KASEM: Now one more time, the words I've ended my show with since 1970 - keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.

QURESHI: For NPR News, I'm Bilal Qureshi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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