The music didn’t matter that much on “American Top 40,” the syndicated radio countdown show devised by Casey Kasem and a handful of Los Angeles radio colleagues. Individual songs might advance steadily toward No. 1, stall out along the way, suddenly leapfrog into the Top 10 or peak early and plummet. They would come and go: rock or pop, soul or country, hip-hop or synth-pop. The format would hold them all.
Kasem, who died Sunday, didn’t invent Top 40 radio, the countdown show, the on-air dedication or the brief performer bio. But the weekly show he introduced on July 4, 1970 — when the No. 1 song was “Mama Told Me (Not to Come),” the Three Dog Night hit written by Randy Newman — brought those elements together in a design that was as much psychological as musical. Echoing the broad mass appeal of Top 40 hits, the show took pains to exclude no one. Unlike countless disc jockeys, Kasem on “American Top 40” stayed ever upbeat and inoffensive on the air (although some of his recorded and leaked off-air tirades, in that avuncular voice, have amused countless listeners). On “American Top 40,” Kasem used no teenage slang, no outlandish self-promotion, no lewd double-entendres, no inside jokes; he didn’t condescend to any generation, younger or older.
Between songs, his patter on “American Top 40” provided information about the hits, introducing a band or a genre thoroughly enough to brief newcomers but quickly enough not to bore existing fans. The dedications demonstrated how ordinary listeners were reacting to the songs, and how even the most forgettable ditty can move someone. With Kasem regularly announcing that the show covered the entire United States and its military bases, “American Top 40” promised all its listeners that they were joining some kind of national consensus, a weekly gauge of all-American solidarity and a big family picnic.
But in music, consensus can be a mixed blessing, rewarding the lowest common denominator rather than some higher unity. Reaching the pop charts implies that a song has surfaced from within its particular subculture — a place, a style, a genre — to draw new attention from outside. And for music, the more subcultures the better; each one is a laboratory of ideas, and the more opportunities they have to reach an audience, the better. Syndicated to hundreds of stations, “American Top 40” — along with many other factors — worked instead toward homogenizing pop, playing the same tunes coast to coast for four hours a week.
And since airplay breeds airplay — until that odd moment when a ubiquitous hit suddenly outstays its welcome — the spread of “American Top 40” tended to make hits national rather than regional, reducing the variety that makes American music so vital. (Arriving a decade later, MTV did the same thing in the era when it featured music videos.)
There’s nothing to stop a local radio station from doing its own countdown show, if it’s willing to research what’s popular in its listening area — something that large radio stations do as a matter of course for the rest of their programming. But where are the local countdown shows? It’s easier to plug into the syndicated feed.
Things were different when “American Top 40” arrived. It was an outpost of statistical rationalism, based on the seemingly objective Billboard chart, in a radio landscape full of gimmicky, happily juvenile AM DJs, as well as ultracool FM hosts enjoying the brief heyday of free-form FM radio before consultants and researchers turned the FM band into a collection of narrower and narrower formats.
The Top 40 that Kasem’s first show drew on did have something for everybody. Three Dog Night shared the Top 10 with the Beatles, the Jackson 5, the Temptations, Melanie, the Carpenters and Elvis Presley. Further down the rankings were both the smooth soul of “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps and the post-Kent State fury of “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
In the pre-Internet era, the show was a genuine resource for listeners outside the music business. It was what digital culture now calls a filter: a shortcut to the important stuff. “American Top 40” revealed to the public the chart that Billboard magazine subscribers were reading, and it gave everyone a chance to hear all the songs (or at least excerpts from the ones on their way down the chart) without buying the discs or commandeering a jukebox. It straightforwardly lined up all the week’s commercial winners, without the repetitiveness of pop radio’s usual “heavy rotation” songs and in a predictable order. Listeners could tune in early for the up-and-comers or wait until the last hour for the Top 10.
That function of “American Top 40” is virtually obsolete. Now Billboard’s Hot 100 is easily available online, complete with links to playable songs. So is information from the Mediabase chart that “American Top 40” now uses instead of Billboard. The show itself has changed its format, with Ryan Seacrest, as host since 2004, no longer concentrating solely on the countdown.
The Top 40 has changed, too. Radio stations started craving a more consistent sound. To a radio programmer’s mindset, those wild stylistic swings from song to song — far from holding the inclusive audience Kasem envisioned — risk tune-outs from demographic groups that marketers covet. Better a specific, targeted group than a scattered consensus; “American Top 40” found itself spanning too many niches for some stations to allow. Kasem himself, in his later career, recorded separate countdown shows for two targeted versions of “adult contemporary” radio aiming for older listeners.
The Mediabase chart that “American Top 40” now relies on is a chart of radio airplay, shutting out songs people might discover through other means and closing the gates more tightly, since only songs initially considered radio friendly ever get a chance in the first place. That’s one good reason tempos, rhythms and production styles in the current Top 40 are so depressingly uniform across nominally different genres — pop, hip-hop, dance music, R&B, even country — that even John Legend’s unctuous “All of Me” sounds wildly adventurous merely for doing without drums.
In retrospect, Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” started with a strong sense of “E pluribus unum.” Since then, that messy, capricious but still culturally essential pluribus is what radio has been trying to tame.