Casey Kasem was one of the most recognizable voices in radio and television. Millions of fans around the world still find his name synonymous with musical countdowns.
In 2009, after 39 years as the “King of the Countdowns,” Kasem stepped down as host of American Top 20 and American Top 10, and in 2003, he retired from the helm of American Top 40 – the show he created in 1970 that became the gold standard of music programming.
Kasem’s friendly, “crackling” voice style took him to the top of his profession. The man, who once dreamed of being a baseball player but ended up as a radio sports announcer instead, was the youngest member ever inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. He has his own star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. In 1997, Billboard magazine honored him with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award. Kasem was honored with the first ever “Radio Icon” award at the Radio Music Awards in 2003. He also received the first “Lifetime Achievement Award” from Clear Channel Communications, parent company of Premiere, in 2004.
Kasem also released his own series of music CDs entitled, Casey Kasem Presents America’s Top Ten Through The Years, highlighting 20 top ten hits from each decade of the rock and roll era, the 1950s – 1990s.
Throughout his career, Kasem worked as a character actor in films and television. He has voiced countless commercials and Saturday morning cartoon-show characters, including the voice of Shaggy in the evergreen Scooby Doo television and film franchise.
All this is a long way from when young Kemal Amen Kasem, son of Lebanese Druze parents, was a sportscaster for his Detroit high school’s radio club. It was a short hop to radio acting. While majoring in speech and English at Wayne State University, he landed roles in national shows like “The Lone Ranger” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.” During military service in Korea, he coordinated and acted in radio drama on the Armed Forces Network.
A civilian again in 1954, Kasem became a disc jockey, moving from Detroit to Cleveland, Buffalo, Oakland and eventually Los Angeles. The easy-going vocal style that was his trademark came about as the result of a station manager in Oakland telling him to change his format from wild, improvised comedy characters – just minutes before he was to go on the air. With only moments to spare and still stuck for a new format idea, he spied a discarded magazine, Who’s Who in Pop Music, 1962, in a trash barrel at the studio. It was full of facts about recording artists – exactly what he needed. That night he began telling stories about the true lives of popular musicians – teased with lead-ins a few minutes before each story was told. This “teaser/bio” format became a familiar part of American Top 40 and a standard in the radio industry.
Away from radio, Kasem co-hosted Jerry Lewis’ annual Labor Day Telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association beginning in 1981. He received the prestigious Founder’s Award for aiding Danny Thomas’ St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. A vegetarian, he did TV spots and specials aimed at combating alcohol abuse, drunk driving and hunger, as well as a major campaign against smoking for the National Cancer Institute.
Kasem was a member of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting). He spent much of his time after 1986 calling the entertainment industry’s attention to ethnic stereotyping. He also helped promote and support workshops like the Cousins Club that brings Arabs, Jews and others together to discuss conflict resolutions. Kasem aided the Great Peace March in the U.S.A. (1986), and participated in the American-Soviet Walk to End an Arms Race Nobody Wants, held in the U.S.S.R. (1987). He returned to Moscow in 1992 to emcee a pop music concert on behalf of the Children of Chernobyl charity project.
His alma mater, Wayne State University, presented him with its “Distinguished Alumni” award. He received the 1989 “Martin Luther King Drum Major” award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, in 1990, the NAACP’s “Image” award and the “Ellis Island Medal of Honor” award.
Kasem passed away on June 15, 2014. He is survived by his four children and his wife Jean, an actress who co-starred in the 1987 NBC-TV comedy series “The Tortellis.”