Stereo Stories

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(Pictured: Whitney Houston performs in 1991.)

I was listening to a podcast the other day that mentioned radio simulcasts of TV music shows. This kind of thing goes way back: in 1958, ABC offered rudimentary stereo broadcasts of certain episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show: the TV audio carried one side of the stereo mix and you tuned your radio to a local station to get the other. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), the Grateful Dead, Boz Scaggs, and Van Morrison pioneered radio simulcasts of televised concerts during the first half of the 1970s. The syndicated TV show Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, which ran from 1973 to 1981, was simulcast on some FM radio stations. One goal of the simulcasts was better audio fidelity. TV speakers were not built with high-quality audio reproduction in mind. The big speakers attached to the music system in your bedroom or family room were much, much better.

The major networks started sporadically broadcasting stereo sound in the mid-1980s, but it would be another decade before all primetime programming was in stereo. For several years in this transitional period, a lot of concerts broadcast on HBO were accompanied by stereo simulcasts in local radio markets. It was a win-win for everybody involved; HBO got the eyeballs, and the radio stations got an exclusive show featuring a major pop star—Paul Simon, Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, and so on.

At about the same time, AM stereo became a thing. Several competing systems duked it out for preference before GM, Ford, and Chrysler essentially settled the debate by offering C-QUAM AM stereo in cars beginning with the 1985 model year. (Nevertheless, it would take the FCC eight more years to make C-QUAM the official standard in America.) But AM stereo never became much more than a curiosity, although it wasn’t for lack of trying, at least in some places.

In the early 90s, I worked for an AM/FM combo in small-town Iowa. Our competitor in town, which we referred to as Brand X, was a stand-alone AM; a few years earlier its owner had decided to sell off a 100,000-watt FM signal and put all of the eggs into a 1,000-watt AM basket—an interesting business decision, to be sure. Brand X was, in general, hilariously bad, block-programmed with everything from hip-hop to big band, sometimes in the same hour. (Once, I heard a teenage girl hosting an evening shift segue from something by Motley Crue into Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel,” the latter at the wrong speed.) But advertiser loyalty and listener habit, built up over 50 years on the air, kept them viable.

As you might expect, Brand X was a true believer in AM radio. They went stereo sometime around 1990. They gave away AM stereo-equipped radios, and they frequently promoted their sponsor remotes by telling listeners to come and hear AM stereo—an excellent idea. The curiosity value would get people in the sponsor’s door, and the demonstration would help build demand for home use of AM stereo, which was pretty still limited. Brand X was in on the ground floor.

Then Brand X decided to carry HBO’s latest stereo simulcast. (Whitney Houston, if I’m recalling correctly.) They promoted it for weeks, which would have been fine if they had simply hyped the fact that they would be carrying a live Whitney Houston concert in stereo. But their promotion centered entirely on “watch Whitney on HBO while you listen in stereo on Brand X.” It did not occur to them that 96 to 99 percent of the AM stereo radios within earshot of their signal were in cars. Not exactly convenient unless you were planning to balance the TV on the hood.

I have one other stereo story to tell. At some point in the middle of the 1980s, while I was in small-town Illinois, an FM station in nearby Peoria had a problem. They had a glut of high-school games to cover and only one signal on which to broadcast. Until it dawned on them that they had, in fact, two. And so, one Saturday, they decided to broadcast one game on the left channel and another on the right. I wish I could tell you what it sounded like, but I didn’t hear it. I wish I could tell you what kind of response it got, but I don’t recall. I still respect it, however, as the kind mad-scientist thinking you just don’t find in radio anymore.

7 thoughts on “Stereo Stories

  1. The October 4, 1970, Grateful Dead/Jefferson Airplane/Quicksilver concert at Winterland was apparently a *quadraphonic* simulcast. Two Bay Area FM stations broadcast two audio channels each, while a TV station aired video.
    There are several comments on this in the Internet Archive’s Grateful Dead archive; I’ll excerpt one of the better ones:
    “This was touted as the world’s first quadraphonic broadcast and I remember it like it was today and I remember it was a fabulous success. The audio was from two FM stations and the video was supplied by KQED Channel 9, who still owns the tapes and keeps them in their vault. … we ventured over to the neighborhood geek’s house and he set up an incredible sound system for us with dual FM receivers and tv sets all over his wire-strewn house. The sound was indescribably phat and with close-ups of the band on our tv screens it was better than being in Winterland.”

  2. Alvaro Leos

    “Brand X was, in general, hilariously bad, block-programmed with everything from hip-hop to big band, sometimes in the same hour. (Once, I heard a teenage girl hosting an evening shift segue from something by Motley Crue into Shelley Fabares’ “Johnny Angel,” the latter at the wrong speed.)” Am I alone in really wanting to hear this or even thinking I’d enjoy it?
    Well AM Stereo is definately one of those revolutions that never were. How good was AM stereo back in the day? And could it have succeeded if done properly (such as not wasting years figuring out a standard), or was trying to revive music on AM radio doomed from the start?

      1. Wesley

        Me too. Please tell me there’s an air check of this event saved somewhere on there. It would make my weekend complete.

  3. ABC (which originated the Welk show) was committed to stereo very early. There exists an aircheck of Roger Carroll on KABC AM & FM in Los Angeles in February of 1959, live from the Hi-Fi show at the Biltmore Hotel—-and it’s in stereo. One channel on the AM, one on the FM and Roger explaining a couple of times how to set the radios physically for maximum effect. Roger also mentions that for most of the past year, he’s been doing his evening show five night a week in stereo.

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