Coming up: the real name and ethnic origin of syndicated Top 40 radio host Casey Kasem. (Pause.) That’s right! The originator of American Top 40 and now host of Casey’s Top 40, with Casey Kasem, two of the most successful shows on modern radio, is an American-born Arab of Lebanese descent—and his real name is Kemal Amen Kasem!
That’s just how Kasem, the deejay famous for introducing tunes with quickie bio-bits, might introduce himself these days. For 20 years the peppy, upbeat disc jockey has been a regular radio fixture with his Top 40 show (currently heard on more than 500 stations), but he has now emerged as the unlikely voice of a cause instead of a countdown. Kasem, 58, has turned up this past month on the MacNeilLehrer Report, CNN and elsewhere to oppose the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and to counter growing anti-Arab hostility back home. Without resorting to war, “we ought to be able to find ways to squeeze that man [Saddam Hussein] enough so that he backs off and retreats from Kuwait,” argues Kasem. More important, “We should not have gone in before Arab troops.” Says Kasem: “I think there are too many cowboys there and in Washington who think the best way is to shoot from the hip. I don’t want to see our boys coming back in bags. And I don’t want to see Arabs die.”
Kasem blames much of the current hawkish climate on warped stereotypes that for years have “demonized and dehumanized Arabs. We think of them, to quote an Israeli general, as “cockroaches to be kept in bottles.’ That’s not the kind of mind-set that is healthy for the world.”
In placing blame for that mind-set, Kasem looks to Hollywood first. “Seventy years ago The Sheik began to create the idea in Americans that all Arabs were knife-wielding, gun-toting womanizers and not to be trusted,” he says. “Then television came along, and it got even worse. I don’t have any objection to a show with an Arab bad guy. But where are the Arab policemen? Or Arabs like John Sununu, the President’s Chief of Staff, and George Mitchell, the Senate Majority Leader?”
Among the country’s 2.5 million Arab-Americans, argues Kasem, are many, like Sununu and Mitchell, whose Arabic origins have simply gone unrecognized. Among them, he notes, are consumer advocate Ralph Nader, pop stars Tiffany and Paula Abdul, Indy winner Bobby Rahal, heart surgeon Michael De Bakey and others. “We’ve been a quiet minority, but we’ve been very much a part of the fabric of this country,” says Kasem.
As a child in Detroit. Kasem says he suffered few prejudices himself. His mother was Lebanese-American, his father an immigrant Lebanese grocer who “didn’t care if he ever went back to the old country, he loved America so much. Growing up, I didn’t root for the Arabs in Beau Geste. I was an American. I didn’t question that the Arabs were the bad guys.”
After starting as a sports broadcaster in high school, Kasem began landing acting jobs in radio dramas, including ‘The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, while at Detroit’s Wayne State University. That led to work with the Armed Forces Network while he was with the Army in Korea. After a series of deejay jobs back in the States, he moved to L.A. in 1963 and branched out, doing small film roles and cartoon voice-overs. He launched his national Top 40 show in 1970 and has had a similar TV show, America’s Top Ten, for the past decade.
Long an antinuclear lobbyist and homeless-rights advocate, Kasem traces his active Arab-American politicking to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. “You wind up with 20,000 dead Lebanese and Palestinians, 40,000 maimed and 150,000 left homeless,” he says. “That’s when my shoe was stepped on. All of a sudden, that was really close to home.”
Outside the radio studio, home for Kasem is actually a Holmby Hills, Calif., spread complete with sunken tennis court and a three-hole golf course where he and wife Jean, 35 (formerly ditsy Loretta of TV’s The Tortellis), moved this spring, The couple recently had their first child, 3-month-old Liberty Irene, after eight miscarriages, and credit the birth to a new immunological procedure performed by doctors at UCLA Medical Center. In all, Jean spent eight months in bed during the pregnancy. Kasem, who has three teenagers from a previous marriage, says he now plans to cut back on his schedule to devote more time to home life and his causes.
That means he won’t be lowering his voice when it comes to Arab-American bias. Kasem insists he’ll keep right on protesting U.S. military actions in the Middle Last along with fellow opponents like Ron Kovic and Daniel Ellsberg. Guns may be poised in the Gulf, says Kasem, but “the only way we’re ever going to get a solution is through dialogue, not through war.”
—Steve Dougherty, Doris Bacon in Los Angeles