What Casey Taught Us

By Scott Westerman
Listen to an audio version of this message.

“Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” ~Casey Kasem

It’s a good bet that just about every rock jock who entered the business beginning in 1970 worked for Casey Kasem. At one time or another, we all ran the control board while Casey’s “American Top 40” program documented the popular musical taste. I had the opportunity to spend time in person with Casey on a couple of occasions and he was every bit the self effacing gentleman the public saw.

I felt for Casey these past few months. The infighting with regard to his final wishes grabbed a paragraph in every obituary. That was unfortunate. But it doesn’t detract from what Casey taught us.

Here’s what he taught me:

It takes time to find your niche – Casey tried a variety of formats before falling into the AT40 groove. He worked in a number of places, each experience honing his skills and bracketing his vision. Whatever your field, nothing beats the “seasoning” you get from doing the work.

Don’t underestimate the value of a mentor – When Casey first was on the air in Detroit he had a supportive boss, someone who allowed him to make mistakes and didn’t diminish his self esteem while he was learning. His boss’ guidance: Don’t be an imitation. Be yourself. It turned out that the authentic Casey Kasem was something special.

Follow the format but don’t be afraid to improve it – AT40 had a very specific routine. The music was center stage, but Casey provided the context that enhanced our enjoyment of what we heard. At the beginning this meant doing a lot of research to understand each artist’s backstory. In the years before Internet, this was hard work. As time progressed, Casey trusted the intuition that came with experience. When a staff member suggested the idea of doing “Long Distance Dedications”, Casey ran with it, ultimately fulfilling over 3,000 of them. It brought him even closer to his audience.

Someone is always listening, so watch your language – There’s a well circulated recording of Casey losing his temper in the studio. Having lived under the pressure of deadlines that depend on a number of people working together to meet them successfully, I can identify. Casey told me that he deeply regretted that experience and apologized to everyone involved. He said it was an important lesson that everything we say can have the power to hurt or heal. When you screw up, the most powerful words you can say are, “I’m sorry”.

Always record your voice tracks over the intros of the songs you play – This is the personal advice Casey gave me. The best radio execution is a symphony. The instruments include the music, the jingles, the commercials and the announcer. They should all mesh into a seamless wave of energy and emotion. In the context of life and career we need to grasp our purpose and discover how our voice can best contribute to the symphonic team we serve to create the best possible music, together.

Use your powers for the greater good – As Casey became a celebrity, he gave his time, talent and treasure to people and organizations he believed in. Each of us have a following. It’s important that we lead that following by example. So make it a good example to follow.

Change with the times – During Casey’s career, American Top 40 had a number of iterations. There was an America’s Top Ten TV show. There were years when Casey couldn’t use the Billboard charts for his countdown, so he found another source and kept counting. As radio programming became more homogenized, Casey’s affiliates asked for a shorter countdown. And American Top 40 became American Top 20. Casey diversified, too. He had an equally successful career as a cartoon voice artist. If you’re good at what you do, there will always be a way you can be paid to do it. But you have to be flexible, agile and creative. Don’t be afraid to break a paradigm or two along the way.

Know when it’s time to sign off – Casey’s final countdown happened in July of 2009, just one year shy of four decades after AT40 first went on the air. He knew it was time to hand the reigns over to someone else and his system was so good that Ryan Seacrest slid easily and comfortably into the host’s chair. If you are good at what you do, you will have created an environment where others can be equally successful in your role, and will have mentored a number of future stars to keep your constellation shining bright.

Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars – Casey’s trademark sign-off is the essence of his success. Plant your feet on a firm foundation of values, dream big dreams, and give your all to achieve them. This is the simplest definition of success I know. And I’ve tried to follow Casey’s advice every step of the way.

As with all things, Casey Kasem’s voice may fade from popular consciousness, but the lessons we can learn from his life and times can help each of us make it to “Number 1”