American Top 40: A Columbus Radio History

A lot has been written about American Top 40 and Casey Kasem. The history of the show and its star is fascinating. There are books about the classic countdown show which provide an astounding background look into the development of the program along with interesting episode summaries. Rob Durkee's book The Countdown Of The Century gives us a behind-the-scenes look into the show's inaugural challenges and a thorough history of its time on the air while Pete Battistini's two books, American Top 40 - The 70s and American Top 40 - The 80s , offer a deep-dive of each show's chart history and information worthy of trivia contests. 

For this article, since I have followed the show's history from its debut here in Columbus up to today, right down to scheduling and presenting the weekly 70s and 80s reruns on WODC (93.3FM), I thought that writing about the show's history in Columbus might be interesting as it differs somewhat from the way the show the show ran nationally. American Top 40  continues to run on WODC's sister station WNCI (97.9FM), where it began nearly five decades ago. Today's AT40 is hosted by Ryan Seacrest and is syndicated by the Premiere Radio Network. AT40  is even in the same Sunday morning slot on WNCI that it has held during most of its Columbus broadcast history (8AM - 12NOON).  Ironically enough, the Classic American Top 40  70s and 80s reruns are on at the same time on WODC! I grew up listening to WNCI and I listened to AT40's first airing on the station while in grade school. The show had been on nationally since July 4, 1970. Even while I worked in college radio at The Ohio State University and then on to my first professional radio job with a local rock station, I kept my feet in the ground listening as Casey Kasem counted backwards. 

With much hype the show started on Sunday, February 14, 1971 as "WNCI's Valentine's Day gift to Columbus," which at the time called its studio "Love Dove Central." What made the show interesting was hearing some of the songs that made the national chart that weren't yet being heard in Columbus---even on the station that presented the show! AT40 used the upper rung of the Billboard Hot 100 chart which listed how singles were selling. Many singles sold without much airplay, therefore creating a dilemma for some stations around the country, which found some songs not ready for prime-time radio programming. But Kasem's storytelling and other presentations during the show were so fascinating that the airing of some of those not-yet-popular songs which often graced the first hour of AT40 was not that big of a deal, at least for WNCI, which already had a pretty diverse local song chart. WNCI rotated 50 singles (T he Hot Half-Hundred)  and published it in a weekly Billboard Magazine-like circular called Record Rap.  From early 1973 until mid-1975 WNCI replayed the previous Sunday's AT40 from 12MID to 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday mornings, or, as promoted, at 12 midnight on Tuesdays.

In late September 1978 WNCI ran promotional announcements stating that AT40 was going to become a four-hour show. The reason given was the length of many songs, running 4 to 5 minutes and more. When the program started in 1970 the average length of a song was less than 3 minutes. Kasem and his team successfully launched a four-hour version of AT40  that ran from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon on October 8, 1978. Shortly before this change the famous Long Distance Dedication segment was introduced on the show. The program's success in Columbus and worldwide was phenomenal by this point, and all was well---until 1988. 

Kasem tried to renegotiate a contract with the show's distributors but the talks broke down. Without much notice WNCI listeners heard a new host on the morning of August 14, 1988 by the name of Shadoe Stevens. It was quite a shocker! A countdown show without Casey Kasem's voice? It seemed to be the new reality so we had to try and accept it as fans of the program. Kasem was out of the countdown business, but not for long. He started a new show titled Casey's Top 40 in January 1989. Although much was reported about his new show at the time, WNCI remained loyal to the AT40 brand and stuck with the show hosted by Stevens almost to the end of its run in 1994. 

Around this time WNCI had begun to position itself as a Hot Adult Contemporary station, meaning they played the most popular songs on the charts, but eliminated country, heavy metal and songs representing the then-new hip-hop movement. Meanwhile these songs sold millions. Since AT40  used the Billboard singles sales chart, it was forced to air songs that had become problematic (such as "One" by Metallica and songs by Slaughter, Guns 'N Roses, AC/DC and many rap songs). Therefore, it was pretty amusing to hear WNCI use their moniker "Not Too Hard---Not Too Lite" and then hear Metallica on the way to church. 

I didn't catch on that there was a "problem music" scenario concerning WNCI until around June 1990. I was reading Billboard when I discovered that The Humpty Dance, a catchy but rousing and raunchy dance song by the group Digital Underground, had made it to #11 on the Hot 100. That meant that I was going to have fun hearing it on WNCI even though they didn't play that song or anything like it. I was getting ready to leave for church and heard the #12 song Ready Or Not  by After 7. Then there was a commercial break. I waited and figured I'd have time to hear the Digital Underground song before I left. After that break they were already in the top 10 with a song by Perfect Gentlemen called Ooh La La I Can't Get Over You . I assumed it was WNCI that skipped over the #11 song. For the rest of my life I have to live with the fact that I was once late for church trying to hear The Humpty Dance on WNCI---only to have them skip it! WNCI replayed AT40  on Sunday nights at the time so I listened again. And there was my confirmation. Something was up. I learned that stations had the option to delete from the show any song deemed offensive or way out of their music format. The Humpty Dance was both, but I loved the winding bass in that song! 

By mid-1994 WNCI rang the bells loudly and said that they were going to dump American Top 40 with Shadoe Stevens  and air Casey's Top 40 in its place. WNCI listeners had long complained about not having Casey Kasem on Sunday mornings, especially after hearing that he was on in other cities. Kasem's show was less problematic with the music because he used a non- Billboard  chart that counted down what popular songs radio stations were playing around the country versus songs that were actually  selling . It made the show less interesting for the music aficionados who wanted to hear regional hits, but we got Casey back on WNCI in his old time slot playing the nation's biggest hits. 

Meanwhile, AT40 with Stevens was losing popularity nationally and left the air by July 1994 on the few U.S. stations that still aired it. But Kasem's show was soaring and didn't differ that much from his version of AT40 . In any case it was hard to believe there was no show on the radio called American Top 40 ---at least for about three more years. 

Then the remarkable happened! WNCI announced, in early March 1998, that American Top 40 would return by the end of the month with Casey Kasem as the host! His original show returned, complete with his Long Distance Dedication and other features he had to modify for Casey's Top 40 due to copyright restrictions. However, he got all those rights back for his triumphant return. The only thing different was that he didn't use the Billboard chart to count 'em down. He used a song airplay chart instead of a song sales chart just as he did on Casey's Top 40 . By this time though, radio stations had opened up to a lot more musical diversity. 

Kasem remained on the show until January 2004 when Ryan Seacrest, today's host, took over. Kasem also had countdown shows for Adult Contemporary radio audiences, such as American Top 10 and American Top 20 . But Kasem was still missed playing the 40 hits, to the point where classic editions of the entire countdowns have been made available to radio stations across the country, including WODC.

As Music Director and Assistant Program Director of WODC, I couldn't be happier to be scheduling and presenting classic 70s and 80s American Top 40 shows every Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 12 noon the way we heard them back in the day with the dearly departed Casey Kasem as host. We started airing them in April 2011. 

By the way, in my additional duties as Program Director of the newest station in our Columbus cluster, classic hop-hop WYTS (1230AM and 105.3FM), I get to play The Humpty Dance all I want.

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