America’s mix tape

After a lengthy illness – and a brutal family feud which included his wife throwing hamburger meat at his children while recurring Bible verses – iconic radio host and voice actor Casey Kasem has died at age 82.

Listening to Kasem’s American Top 40 every Saturday (on OZ FM in St. John’s, 10AM to 2PM) was my weekend ritual growing up, and judging from the overwhelming reaction on Facebook and Twitter, a lot of Generation Xers did the same.   This tweet from The Dissolve’s Scott Tobias explains the unique appeal of Kasem’s pioneering countdown show:

American Top 40 – and its imitators, like the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 (inevitably broadcast on the number-two station in your town, like VOFM/Magic 97 back in St. John’s) and even Casey’s Top 40, founded by Kasem after he left AT40 following a contract dispute – counted down the 40 popular songs in America regardless of genre.  And it wasn’t just pop – in the mid- to late-80s a typical countdown would include hard rock acts, metal bands, boy bands, “alternative” groups, hip-hop artists, rappers, R&B and soul singers, country performers, even the occasional crossover from jazz or contemporary Christian music.

American Top 40 is still around, now hosted by Ryan Seacrest. The few times I’ve listened to it on recent years, however, there seems to be remarkably little diversity in the kind of music that makes it to the countdown.

I doubt know if music consumers’ tastes have changed, or if the show’s chart methodology has changed. But the modern AT40 listener can listen to the whole show without once being introduced to anything from a musical genre he or she didn’t usually pay attention to.

These days, we have satellite radio and thousands of online live streams to choose from, and it’s wonderful. But it does feel like we’ve lost something, in that we no longer have to be exposed to music we aren’t familiar with.  I have SiriusXM in my vehicle, and in theory I could be trying out dozens of channels featuring songs, and entire genres, I’ve never heard.  In practice, I usually go back and forth between the 80s and 90s channels.

That’s true not just for music, but for almost every kind of pop culture, and even news and politics. We aren’t all watching the same TV shows anymore, and we certainly aren’t getting our news from the same sources anymore.

More choice is a good thing, but it does allow us to go our entire lives without ever having to come across and put up with things we dislike or disagree with. This might make us feel more comfortable, but it also keeps us from growing like we should.

They don’t make ’em like Casey Kasem’s countdown shows anymore, and with that, we’ve lost more than we think.

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