(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.