While channel-surfing one Sunday morning in September 2019, we heard a familiar voice from the past on a local iHeartMedia oldies station. KOSF was replaying a classic Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown show from September 1983. It turns out all his weekly shows from the 1970s and ’80s have been digitally remastered in stereo. If you only know Kasem as the voice of Shaggy Rogers in Scooby-Doo or heard about the public fight between his second wife and his children, well, you’ve come to the right place.
The Program Heard Around the World
We take for granted American films and American TV shows are seen everyday all over the world—it’s been like that for ages. AT40 was probably the first American radio show heard around the world—up to 50 countries at one point. Not to take anything away from Alan Freed and other legendary radio DJs, but no one has had the same impact internationally as Kasem.
The distribution of AT40 is another interesting story. Remember there was no Internet in the ’70s. And the idea of audio files was not quite ready for prime time—we had to wait for the adoption of the PC and the music industry to transition to the digital CD format first. So the solution was to distribute the show on multiple vinyl discs. We all know what could go wrong with vinyl. Once in a while, some affiliate station somewhere wouldn’t be able to broadcast the show if the discs were too warped to play.
What Makes AT40 Unique
For people who grew up listening to his successors such as Shadoe Stevens and Ryan Seacrest, you’re in for a treat. Few DJs can match Kasem’s made-for-radio voice. He made countdown shows compelling; he had a way with certain words and phrases. In a 1990 New York Times Magazine article, he explained he chose the word “notch(es)” because it’s something he can envision. AT40 became so iconic that the hosts of other countdown shows opted to use different words like “spot(s)” and “place(s).”
Another distinction is the fact that the shows from the ’70s and ’80s were based on the Hot 100 charts while later shows switched to airplay charts for various reasons. Back then only music industry professionals read such trade publications as Billboard, Cash Box, and Record World. AT40 took “insider” information and shared it with the world, a game-changing move in 1970. If radio stations produced their own countdown shows at all, they were probably based on listener requests and perhaps local sales data.
Though Top of the Pops predates AT40 by six years, it only showcased about 10 songs each week, and we doubt this British TV show had the same global reach as AT40. To be fair, TV shows such as American Bandstand and TOTP had time constraints whereas AT40 was three hours long and then expanded to four in October 1978.
Then there was the parody-rich long-distance dedication, something that wouldn’t work in this century. But Kasem made it work back in the day when this feature began in 1978. On the show we heard on KOSF, a woman wanted to dedicate Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry out Loud” to her dearly departed cat named Cat (or Kat?). Memo to iHeartMedia: Create a podcast for updates on people whose requests were shared on air. Call it After the Dedication or something. We’d like to know what happened to Shirley, who in 1986 dedicated a Supremes song to the birth mother she never met. Long before Internet memes, some of Kasem’s R-rated outtakes were sampled on a twisted U2 remake by Negativland in 1991.
The AT40 Effect
We submit the popularity of AT40 helped buoy the market for books based on Billboard charts—Record Research published its first title in, coincidentally, 1970. Without AT40, newspapers and magazines would never have reprinted music charts from various sources. If not for AT40, we wonder if the Billboard Music Awards show would be on TV starting in 1990.
Streaming AT40...for Now
We haven’t been able to get a list of all iHeartMedia stations that are broadcasting these classic AT40 shows. But the company has set up a page where you can stream them anytime you want. Let’s pause for a moment and thank our lucky stars all 940 shows survived intact. Analog products tend to degrade over time—if they’re not destroyed by accident. XM Satellite Radio was the first to replay them in 2006. The Internet being how it is, there’s no guarantee these shows will be available for free streaming forever.
iheart.com/live/classic-american-top-40-6545 [still active as of August 2020]
Listening to a radio show from the past is like opening a time capsule, a kind of musical time travel. Oh, sure, you can go to the Internet and pull up a Hot 100 chart from that period and then switch to YouTube and play the songs. It’s nice to know you don’t have to do all that work yourself.
Instead of giving people the option to select which shows to stream, iHeartMedia has simply put every show from July 1970 to August 1988 in a continuous loop—every weekly show including yearend countdown editions and other specials. It’s too bad iHeartMedia doesn’t bother to identify exactly which show is being streamed, but a look at the Recently Played log is one visual clue of the year at least.
These archives represent a much deeper catalog than what oldies stations offer. How best to take advantage of this opportunity? Well, we don’t recommend that you binge-listen to these shows the same way you binge-watch your favorite TV shows. It takes 6.5 to 8.67 days to go through a calendar year, depending on whether each show is three or four hours long. Stream away as you celebrate a holiday weekend or as you make that cross-country drive. Listen with kids in your car or during those long commutes. Sadly, a good time to listen is while you shelter in place.
One thing stands out as you listen to these classic shows: the ubiquity of the electric guitar. You don’t hear this instrument much on the radio nowadays (except for mainstream rock stations), but you can’t say it didn’t enjoy a good run. Many of the records sound a little dated, a fate few artists can escape (The Police are one of the lucky ones). The big surprise? The whole listening experience takes on an unexpected note of poignancy whenever Kasem talks about artists in their prime who are no longer with us. Of course, the host himself passed away in 2014 (read the obituary we published at the time).
You’ll want to catch the first show for chart dated July 11, 1970. Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” spent its first of two weeks at No. 1. Leave it to the provocative John Lennon and Yoko Ono to release a single about sexism with the N-word in the title. Lucky for AT40 this song only got as high as No. 57 in 1972 (lack of radio support). As far as we know, AT40 never censored any song, but they did issue alerts to affiliates regarding potential problems. The biggest hit that triggered such an alert was Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling.” Some stations did censor it even when Berry’s only gold single hit No. 1 on October 21, 1972.
Some of the most popular artists of the ’70s include Paul McCartney/Wings, Elton John, Chicago, Carpenters, Neil Diamond, Bee Gees, Jackson 5, and Stevie Wonder. As you listen through the ’70s, you’ll be able to track how disco dominated the second half of the decade, peaking in 1979. Use our Crossover page as a primer. Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which reproduces Chic’s “Good Times,” spent only two weeks in the top 40, peaking at No. 36 on January 12, 1980. The ’80s saw the rise of or career highs for Michael Jackson, Prince, Journey, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Huey Lewis & The News, Madonna, Tina Turner, George Michael, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson. Two 1970s hitmakers, Kool & The Gang and Hall & Oates, continued to be top 40 regulars in the next decade.
If you never listened to these countdown shows before because you had to go to church, now you can hear what you’d missed. Can we get an amen?
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