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Disc jockey, voice artist Casey Kasem dies at 82

Rebecca Trounson Los Angeles Times

For decades, he was among the nation’s best-known – and ubiquitous – radio personalities, hosting the weekend Top 40 programs that carried him “from coast to coast” and into the homes of millions of listeners eager to find out which pop song had made it to No. 1.

Earnest, upbeat and just a little bit square, Casey Kasem counted down each week’s hit tunes, relating personal tidbits about the artists and honing his signature catch phrases – from his greeting (“Hello again, everybody!”) to his sign-off (“Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars!”).

The Los Angeles-based disc jockey pioneered the nationally syndicated countdown-style radio show in 1970 with “American Top 40.” As he hosted the popular program and its numerous spinoffs over the next four decades, his warm, distinctively husky tenor became one of the country’s most instantly recognizable voices.

Kasem died Sunday at age 82, according to his daughter Kerri Kasem’s publicist, Danny Deraney.

Kasem, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and a form of dementia, died at a hospital in Gig Harbor, Washington.

His death came after a highly publicized battle over his health care between his second wife, Jean, and the three adult children from his first marriage.

As he built a national radio audience, Kasem became a major force in American popular culture. His program, with its song lists, bits of trivia and nuggets of music history, all pre-recorded and sent out to stations on reel-to-reel tapes, was aired on the radio the same weekend in cities and rural communities across the country, creating a shared musical and cultural experience.

Ryan Seacrest, who took over Kasem’s “American Top 40” show in 2004, said Sunday that listening to Kasem’s show when he was a boy triggered his own “dream about someday becoming a radio DJ.”

In 2009, on the 39th anniversary of his first Top 40 program, Kasem quietly retired from his last shows, “American Top 20” and “American Top 10.”

“American Top 40,” which Kasem created with producer Don Bustany, premiered July 4, 1970, on a radio network of seven stations. Modeled after the 1940s program “Your Hit Parade,” it eventually aired on more than 1,000 stations, including 400 on the Armed Forces Network.

Based on Billboard magazine’s most popular singles from the previous week, the show featured the disc jockey’s biographical storytelling and listeners’ long-distance, often heart-tugging dedications, read on the air by Kasem.

The minutiae-laden, feel-good narratives between songs were grounded in his own Lebanese-American background.

“I was drawing on the Arabic tradition of storytelling one-upmanship,” he told the New York Times in 1990.

Kasem’s program’s longevity may have been due as much to his own regular-guy appeal as to the music he played.

Kasem has “always transcended industry trends,” Time magazine said when the deejay stepped down in 2009. “He created American Top 40 in 1970 when the genre was said to be dying, and embraced corniness as Vietnam-era cynicism peaked.”

Kasem explained it this way. “I accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,’ he said in the 1990 New York Times interview. “That is the timeless thing.”

Born April 27, 1932, in Detroit, Kamel Amin Kasem was the son of Lebanese Druze immigrants.

In high school, he began using “Casey” as his first name and was bitten by the radio bug when a teacher praised an announcement he made over the school’s PA system.

A student at Wayne State University in Detroit, he was drafted into the Army in 1952 and sent to Korea, becoming a deejay for Armed Forces Radio during the Korean War.

In 1956, he graduated from Wayne State with a bachelor’s degree in speech and English.

Kasem also forged a career in voiceovers for cartoons and an estimated 10,000 commercials. Along with his long-running role as Scooby-Doo’s slacker pal Shaggy (“Zoinks!”) starting in 1969, he voiced Robin “the Boy Wonder” on the animated “Adventures of Batman” in 1968 and had many other roles.

In 1992, Kasem was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.

For the past 30 years, Kasem was also politically active but kept that “flip side” of his life, as he called it, carefully separate from his radio persona. He spoke out frequently for Palestinian rights and Arab-American causes and politicians. He protested U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, voiced concern about anti-Arab stereotyping and arranged conflict resolution workshops for Arab and Jewish Americans in Los Angeles and his native Detroit.

He also advocated on behalf of the homeless and for affordable housing, once sleeping overnight on a downtown Los Angeles sidewalk to draw attention to the plight of street people. He was a longtime vegan who supported animal rights and was an anti-nuclear activist.

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