Ben Fong-Torres: Casey Kept Reaching for Perfection


San Francisco Radio Waves

by Ben Fong-Torres,

    June 22, 2014

 Casey Kasem at the Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago in 1999. The beloved "American Top 40" DJ died June 15 at age 82. Photo: Courtesy Ben Fong-Torres

One of the most recognizable radio voices of the 20th century has been stilled. Casey Kasem, king of the countdown shows and a radio actor and Top 40 DJ since the ’50s, died last Sunday at age 82. He had been ailing with Lewy body disease, a form of dementia.

In his last months, Kasem became the center of a heated and messy battle over his custody and medical care, between his second wife, Jean, and his three children from his first marriage, including Kerri Kasem, also a radio host.

Despite the fighting over him, the bottom line is that we have lost an iconic broadcaster, one whose career included a pivotal stop in the Bay Area.

Kasem, born in Detroit, was a child actor on “The Lone Ranger,” playing various parts. As an adult, he worked on Top 40 stations in Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y., where he honed a fast-talking style punctuated with “wild tracks,” sound clips from comedy albums by Stan Freberg and others. In 1961, he brought his act to KEWB in Oakland.

As “Casey at the Mike,” he did fine. Then one day in 1962, as he told me for my book about Top 40, his boss told him to ditch the rapid-fire delivery and character voices, and to be a regular DJ. And he wanted Kasem to make the switch on his next show. That evening.

At the studio, a nervous Kasem spotted an industry book in a wastebasket. It was called “Who’s Who in Pop Music 1962.” As he recalled, “They listed the hits, where the artists were born, where they went to school, their hobbies – nothing you could get excited about, but enough for me to get a show on that night. And I always teased anything I did. … I always said, ‘Coming up next …’ So I continued the drama, except it wasn’t comedy and wild tracks. And it caught on instantly.”

It was that approach that Kasem took to Los Angeles, where, in 1970, he would begin doing a syndicated countdown show, based on record charts, called “American Top 40.” It would grow to more than 500 U.S. stations by the ’80s.

The show brought Kasem fame and fortune; he would do countdowns in various formats and take a version of the countdown to television. And, with his distinctive, slightly hoarse voice and sincere delivery, he got plenty of work voicing commercials and cartoons (among hundreds of credits, he was Shaggy on “Scooby Doo” for decades).

But I will always connect Kasem most closely with his work ethic. In the late ’90s, at his suggestion, I was hired to write the national Radio Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies, broadcast out of Chicago, which he had hosted for several years.

In Chicago, I noticed how dedicated he was to his task. He was constantly studying his script, trying out the material, marking points of emphasis, rehearsing pronunciations of names, asking for changes of certain words. He liked words that evoked flavors and visuals, words he could emphasize. He’d practice his lines, again and again. The work invariably paid off, in polished, poised performances.

But with his perfectionism, he built a reputation as a taskmaster in the studio. Long before TMZ and YouTube, a recording of Kasem, angry that producers had placed an up-tempo song next to a dedication from a listener whose pet dog had died, was leaked. It revealed a side of Kasem – angry and foul-mouthed – that the public had never heard before. But it also spoke to his insistence on getting things just right.

For 50 years, he did just that.

The countdown of life: Two weeks before Kasem died, there was another death in the radio family. Tom Rounds, the producer who helped get Kasem’s “American Top 40” syndicated nationally, in 1970, died June 1 in Los Angeles from complications of a surgical procedure. Rounds died just days short of his 78th birthday.

Rounds was a DJ and program director in Honolulu, and was appointed PD of KFRC when that station adopted the Top 40 format in 1966. At KFRC, he conceived one of the first rock festivals: the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, in mid-1967 on Mount Tamalpais, featuring Jefferson Airplane, the Doors and others.

When he left KFRC later that year, Rounds’ departure landed on Page One of the first issue of a rock publication out of San Francisco: Rolling Stone. “Tom Rounds Quits KFRC,” the headline read. It must have been a slow news week. Rounds went on to a stellar career, co-producing larger festivals and forming Watermark Productions, which launched Kasem’s countdown show.

And farewell to “Wild” Bill Scott, a highly respected rock DJ and programmer who died May 2 in Auburn from complications of a stroke. Scott, 62, grew up in San Francisco and Los Angeles and was on the original, rock-formatted KMEL in 1977. He logged time in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. In 1986, he started the “Z-Rock” format, featuring heavy metal, for ABC Radio. In the 1990s, he returned to the Bay Area and appeared on KFOG, KTIM, KDIA, KSFO/KYA and KFRC. He most recently was a voice talent and consultant. Said Dusty Street: “He loved music and radio as much as anyone I know … R.I.P.”

Big Good Jon: Some host on “The Game” (KGMZ) played a snippet of a home run call on KNBR by Jon Miller, which ended, “Adios, pelota!” and marveled that the Giants’ play-by-play announcer could speak some Spanish. Miller, who is fluent in just about everything, from Spanish to Scully, has been making that call for homers swatted by Hispanic batters for many years. Miller has taken his tape-measure talents into Cooperstown, and, now, he’s been named one of the inductees into the National Radio Hall of Fame, based in Chicago. He’ll be enshrined in November.

Ben Fong-Torres is a freelance writer. E-mail: [email protected]


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