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Casey Kasem counts down his 25 years on radio

Some people find inspiration in the darnedest places. For Casey Kasem, it was in the garbage.

It was 1962, and the general manager at KEWB in Oakland, Calif., told Kasem to change the improvised comedy format that he had been using during his broadcast. Kasem was unsure what to do until just moments before he was to go on the air he found a copy of Record World's magazine, Who's Who In Pop Music, in the garbage.

Armed with interesting facts about artists from that publication, Kasem went on the air that night with something like this: "He was born in a three-room shack and went on to live in a $30-million estate. . . . He is Elvis Presley."

It was this teaser/biographical format, coupled with emotional requests and dedication letters from listeners, that became the staples of the Kasem-hosted American Top 40 countdown, which debuted on July 4, 1970.

The show was syndicated by ABC/Watermark until a contract dispute led Kasem to ink a deal in 1988 to host a similar show on Westwood One. He renewed his contract with WW1 in 1993 and will continue counting down the hits into the year 2000.

Today, his four shows, Casey's Top 40 for Top 40 stations, Casey's Countdown for adult contemporary, Casey's Hot 20 for hot adult contemporary, and the daily five-minute show, Casey's Biggest Hits, air on about 443 stations.

Casey's Top 40 was a Billboard Radio Award winner in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1994. In addition, Casey's Countdown won Billboard's nationally syndicated program award in the adult category in 1992 and 1993. Both shows are nominated again this year in their respective formats, a fitting tribute for the year Kasem celebrates his 25th anniversary as a nationally syndicated personality.

Looking back on his 25 years as one of the most recognized voices on radio, Kasem says, "It's still a joy going to work. I love it more now than ever."

Kasem says he always knew he'd become famous. But he thought it would be through a baseball or acting career.

His first professional radio gig was in 1950 at WXYZ Detroit, performing The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon from the living room of an old mansion.

Before this, Kasem was a member of his high school radio club in Detroit. It was during these early years that Kasem began calling himself Casey instead of his given name, Kemal Amen.

"Back then, Kemal wasn't like Mohammad or Abdul is today," he says. "I came up with Casey, because people always shorted Kasem to Case anyway."

The idea for a radio show counting down the hottest songs in the country actually came to Kasem nearly 21 years before the debut of American Top 40.

"It was 1949," says Kasem in the story-telling tone with which a generation of Americans has grown up. "I was working in a small grocery store, a beer store, and listening to Eddie Chase on CKLW (Detroit). He did Make Believe Ballroom, which was in the Top 10 hits in the U.S. I figured if I was going to do radio, this man's got the right idea. I always kept that in the back of my mind."

It wasn't until Kasem spent some time at Armed Forces Radio and at various stations, such as KRLA Los Angeles, that he finally could fulfill his dream.

"I like to think of what I do as having a purpose," says Kasem, who receives about 300 letters a week from listeners. "The letters that I get from people say (the show) is very much a part of their lives. They seem to get what it is that I'm trying to do. That is, to talk about role models."

Even after years of reading highly emotional letters on the air, Kasem says the letters still touch him as they did the first time he read one.

"There are so many good ones that hit you right in the heart," he says. "I find myself often crying reading the letters."

Kasem says one of the letters that touched him the most changed his own life in a way.

"When I first came to Westwood One, there was a girl in (Washington, D.C.), 11 years old, who wrote a letter concerned about people who were homeless," he says. "She had a birthday party, and she decided to ask her guests not to bring gifts but to bring canned food to give to a center. Here's the impact: We did that for our baby, and then we elevated it to our Christmas party, where we have 800 people. I'd like to think that other people that heard this story did the same, too."