Music: Death of American Top 40 |

Music: Death of American Top 40

Craven Lovelace
Free Press Music Columnist
A photo of Casey Kasem from 1989; Kasem recently died from longterm illness.
Alan Light |

Here’s how Craven imagines a true obituary for the late, great Casey Kasem might have begun:

“Casey Kasem has died. He was preceded in death by his beloved medium, radio.”

We’ll get back to the late, great Mr. Kasem in a moment, but it bears saying again: Radio is Mike the Headless Chicken. It is a corpse whose feet haven’t yet received the news that the brain is dead.

There are folks out there — mostly radio industry types, Craven suspects — blithely insisting radio is a thriving medium. They buoy their denial with recent reports which show that even now as much as 93 percent of the U.S. population still listens to some radio every day. And radio advertising sales remain fairly robust.

But if radio isn’t dead, it’s on life support, and that’s a plug that’s eventually going to get pulled. What that 93 percent figure doesn’t tell you is that the majority of radio listeners are listening to just three formats: Talk radio, NPR and country music. No other format reaches even 10 percent of radio listeners at this point. Furthermore, most radio listening is done in the car or at work. Until now, online music sources like Pandora and Spotify have been either unavailable or big data plan vampires on the road. But that’s going to change sooner rather than later, as in-car Internet rolls out broadly and mobile carriers start offering special automotive data plans.

Eventually, the same trends which have eroded home listening will hit wheels. And in the workplace, there are sobering statistics revealed by an Edison Research study from last year that showed 50 percent of all workplace listeners of Internet radio replaced a previous AM/FM habit with the new digital offerings.

But look, if you need a more immediate glimpse of why radio is moribund, just take a peek at the response to Casey Kasem’s passing earlier this month. At the news that the long-time deejay and voice actor had finally lost his long battle with illness, adults of Craven’s generation or older felt a big twinge of nostalgia for “American Top 40,” the syndicated radio countdown program Kasem hosted from 1970-1988, and again from 1998-2004.

Anyone born after 1975, on the other hand, mostly noted Kasem for his vocal role as Shaggy in “Scooby-Doo” cartoons. Not only did young adults not remember Kasem’s persona as America’s favorite charts announcer, they had to have his role as such explained to them the way baby boomers learned about party lines and switchboard operators, or the way kids today have to have a Walkman elucidated. The kind of radio personality Kasem excelled at being is as extinct today as the Iguanodon.

Do young folks nowadays hear radio frequently? You bet. But is it the essential, deeply personal — even, in some of our cases, life-changing — force it once was? Increasingly, the answer is an emphatic no.

Radio may have its feet on the ground, but with every passing day there are fewer and fewer stars for which it can possibly reach.

Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: You may find him on Facebook as well.

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