The distance has gotten longer


There are only a handful of names large enough to go in the radio broadcasting pantheon alongside the likes of Alan Freed and Wolfman Jack (a.k.a. Robert Weston Smith), but Casey Kasem certainly earned a spot. With his recent passing at age 82 it’s fitting that we pause to reflect not only on his life and career, but upon the medium in which he is best remembered.

If you were alive and near a radio during the 1970s, you doubtless remember Kasem’s most popular vehicle, “American Top 40,” a broadcast of the weekly leaders on Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 music chart. The show featured much more than songs a-la-mode. Rather, it was sprinkled with trivia, included biographical details on performers, flashbacks, album cuts and Kasem’s “long-distance dedication” for listeners who wrote to dedicate songs to friends and loved ones far away. The last item, the dedications, became popular fodder for comedians of the era.

Much as Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” owned the television’s popular music crown — prior to the invasion of MTV — American Top 40 held its own familiar court. Kasem’s dulcet tones were just saccharine enough when he read the opening of a reader’s letter, “Dear Casey, my husband and I can’t be together this anniversary… so I was wondering if you could play a song to help close the distance…” and of course, Kasem would comply.

As they do, tastes change along with technology. The ubiquity of cable television in the late 1970s helped pave the way for the aforementioned MTV and its less popular cousin, VH1.

For those not old enough to remember, MTV used to play music videos non-stop around the clock. Because these videos often featured risqué (at least by standards of the day) content, many cable companies puritanically refused to air the channel. In many ways the Rock and Roll clock had indeed come full circle back to Alan Freed.

Perhaps the most enduring image of the early rock banishment comes from St. Louis radio station KWK. It was there that station manager Robert Convey conducted what he termed a “simple weeding out of undesirable music.” His “Record Breaking Week” made national headlines in January 1958. Convey and other DJs would give records a “farewell spin” and then smash them. A clip of such is shown in the documentary, “This Is Elvis” where a DJ announces “Rock and Roll has Got to Go, and Go It Does Here on KWK.”

Even so, youth will have its excesses and as excesses go, a little music now seems pretty benign. As rock, R&B and pop music matured, the frenetic staccato and howling of Freed and the Wolfman fit less well. Audiences needed a different guide as the enterprise became less subversive.

Kasem fit the bill perfectly. He was smooth, even comforting. He lulled you into the affair — only for you to emerge three hours later. It was a perfect formula. It worked so well, that American Top 40 went from three hours to four. Rock and Roll was here to stay.

Sadly, Kasem, like all of us was not. With his passing it’s hard not to wax poetic about a simpler time — a time when interactive entertainment meant you had gotten up to dance.

If you’re a child of a certain era you’ll doubtless have a little pang for those lost afternoons, waiting and wondering who would be Kasem’s “No. 1.” One wonders whether the glow of the Internet will be capable of such a feat. We are given to doubt.