By ADAM BUCKMAN
NEW YORK, June 16, 2014 — Two things impressed me about Casey Kasem: His manners and his wealth.
He was an easy-going interview, aided in no small part by the quality of his famous voice, which was one of the most soothing in the history of broadcasting. It was no less easy to listen to on the phone, as he answered my questions in an interview in January 1989.
He was generous with his time, giving me more than an hour for that interview, which was conducted to mark the upcoming premiere of his new countdown show, “Casey’s Top 40.”
It was the new show he’d put together with Westwood One, the radio company that picked him up after his long-time (and by-then former) employer ABC decided to drop him from the radio show he made famous, “American Top 40,” rather than work through an impasse in contract negotiations.
ABC decided to replace Casey Kasem with Shadoe Stevens, rather than pay Kasem some amount of money that ABC must have deemed ungodly. One of my stories from back then about the contract negotiations with Westwood indicated that Casey’s new contract with Westwood would be worth $3 million a year, but if memory serves, Casey became a lot wealthier than that.
In fact, he was, for a time — in the era before Oprah, Leno, Letterman and Judge Judy (to mention some of the personalities who became the industry’s biggest money earners) — one of the highest-paid personalities in all of broadcasting, on par with Johnny Carson and, yes, Paul Harvey — the other ABC Radio personality who was once one of the top earners in the entire industry.
When I interviewed Casey in 1989, he was 56 and living with his wife Jean in a 3,000-square-foot penthouse in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. I asked him how many cars he owned and he answered good-naturedly, “Two black Mercedes — a large one and a small one.”
I asked him who his best friends were and he listed Dick Clark, Sammy Davis Jr. and Martin Sheen, with whom Casey had joined in anti-nuclear protests and was twice arrested.
Among other things, I learned that the Rev. Jesse Jackson presided over Casey and Jean Kasem’s wedding in 1980 — and Casey campaigned for Jackson when Jackson ran for president in 1988.
I also learned that Casey Kasem — the most famous disc jockey in America — didn’t have time to listen to the radio. “If I had more time, I might listen to more classical music,” he said.
Obituaries for Casey Kasem, who died over the weekend, repeatedly cited the “long distance dedications” as the most memorable and iconic features of his “Top 40” countdown programs. But Casey never mentioned the long-distance dedications in my interview with him (the first of two, possibly three interviews I conducted with him).
He seemed prouder of another feature he called the “teaser-bio,” the anecdotes and backstories about pop stars and their Top 40 hits that Casey used to recite on the show — always “teasing” an upcoming anecdote just before going to a commercial break.
“Turning right instead of left can change your whole life,” he told me in 1989 when he related the story of how he found a discarded copy of the 1962 edition of “Who’s Who in Pop Music” in a trash can at the Oakland radio station where he was then working in 1963. He used what he read in the book to invent these “teaser-bios” — which, to him, were the feature that made “American Top 40,” and made his career.
“This is the famous I-found-my-future-in-a-trash-can story and it’s true, absolutely true,” he insisted.
One of the things about Casey that endeared him to me was his old-school habit of writing thank-you notes. Very few celebrities, in my experience, do this — and the ones who do are the ones you remember. I have two of them from Casey — typewritten on 7.25″ x 5″ notecards, bordered in dark blue and red, with the words “Casey Kasem” printed at the top.
“Dear Adam,” he wrote to me in February 1989 after my story ran in the broadcasting trade mag for which I was then working. “I just wanted to send you my thanks for that great article about my work and other activities. It’s an excellent summary of my career and concerns. Keep up the fine work, and have a great year!
“P.S.: They’re quoting me on the classical music stations!”
Contact Adam Buckman: firstname.lastname@example.org