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Happy 30th Anniversary MTV: “Doing for TV, what FM did for Radio”

Image from "Video Killed the Radio Star" video

Over the weekend I was so jealous when various friends mentioned that they were tuning in to the original first hour of MTV. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of MTV’s launch on August 1, 1981; VH1 Classic is in the midst of a 3-day marathon full of retro MTV programming, including a rebroadcast of the original first hour of MTV complete with commercials. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I made a call to my satellite TV provider to ask for an upgrade so that I could watch the MTV30 specials before they ended today.

Although I’m looking forward to tuning in to old clips from Yo! MTV Raps, House of Style, and MTV Video Awards shows, I was most excited to watch that original hour of programming from August 1, 1981, even though I never got to see it during my youth. My parents didn’t spring for cable in the 1980s, so my introduction to early music videos was from video shows like “MV3,” Video One,” “California Music Channel” (which was simulcast over a local radio station) and “Night Music.” As I sat down to watch MTV’s original hour (it will be re-run today as well), I was struck by the number of references to radio and to stereo sound. 30 years later a lot has changed. Not only has MTV’s programming drifted away from music videos (although they did recently bring back the video music show 120 Minutes), but an entire generation has lost interest in high fidelity stereo sound.

The first hour of MTV from August 1, 1981 began with footage of a space shuttle’s launch, followed by the words “Ladies and Gentlemen, Rock and Roll” and then the Buggles’ video “Video Killed the Radio Star.” In that video, piles of vintage radios can be seen as futuristic looking characters reminisce that “In my mind and in my car/We can’t rewind, we’ve gone to far/Pictures came and broke your heart/Put the blame on VTR.”

Much as home-taping was rumored to be killing the record industry, there was concern that cable television and video recorders were threatening traditional broadcasting outlets and the Buggles’ video questions if video was killing off the radio stars of the past.

A promotional video for MTV chronicled the importance of music to humankind and recounted that “man invented the radio and the phonograph” and explained that “full stereo sound…made the explosion.”

The first MTV VJ Mark Goodman welcomed viewers to “the world’s first 24 hour stereo video music channel.” He explained that “a new concept is born. The best of TV combined with the best of radio” and in his second segment he argued that, “We’ll be doing for TV, what FM did for radio.” Even commercials during that first hour referenced radio, as an ad for “The Bulk”showed a transistor radio being crammed into the expandable binder. Another commercial for Dolby hyped Dolby noise reduction, saying, “almost every time you play a recording, turn on the radio, or go to the movies, Dolby noise reduction has helped make the sound more real.”

At the time of its launch MTV also promoted the opportunity to listen to the cable network over the radio in stereo. By sending MTV a self-addressed stamped envelope, one could acquire an “MTV Dial Position Sticker,” which would “mark the exact spot where our sound comes in.”

It’s easy to imagine stereophiles back in 1981 hooking up their televisions to speakers or to FM stereo in order to watch videos in high fidelity sound. Yet today that promise seems antiquated in light of music fans tuning in to compressed sounds over the Internet or through iPods and earbuds. Although the Buggles’ first video on MTV nostalgically mused that VTRs (video tape recorders) killed the radio star, 30 years later we might wonder if iPods or the Internet killed the video star. In any event, I’m enjoying the look back at MTV’s past on VH1 Classic today, although I wonder why MTV didn’t share its history on its own flagship channel. Perhaps because MTV killed the video star.


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4 Responses to Happy 30th Anniversary MTV: “Doing for TV, what FM did for Radio”

  1. Jack McHugh August 1, 2011 at 11:48 pm #

    I remember tuning in for the launch of MTV, in fact the channel was in stand-by mode a few days prior, counting down as I recall. It was a year after I graduated from High School, and it felt like it was made for my generation. I was a big “Night-Flight” fan as well, and remember the simulcasts. What was also cool is that it came with basic cable. I was one of those people using the OHM/Splitter to get Stereo FM/cable. You could flip the dial and get HBO as well for that “Home Theater” effect. I actually ran out and got one of the 1st Stereo VCR’s so that I could finally get stereo TV. A lot cheaper than a new TV!

    Great article. Unfortunately I found it early Tuesday morning whilst searching for where the MTV retro programming was. I actually saw a commercial on Friday late night on Palladia. Suprised they didn’t carry it on there, for at least that stays close to the original idea of MTV. Palladia was 1st called MTVHD when HDTV started expanding in about 2007. Also it’s not like anything would have been pre-empted. Just like the original MTV, Palladia seems to have acquired only so much content, and runs it ad-nauseum. I never thought I’d be saying “Ladies and Gentleman the Rolling Stones again?” Hopefully they will revamp it a little bit more. It’s a shame when you have to watch the BIO channel to catch some of the great classic rock videos. In the 3am hour Palladia does run videos, but sadly there too, it seems to be driven by a strange force (or lack thereof). Sorry to drone on about my disappointment in Palladia when you were writing about MTV. I guess I’m just cranky because I missed the replay of the early MTV days. I WANT MY MTV BACK ! ! !

  2. Jennifer Waits August 1, 2011 at 11:58 pm #

    Thanks for the comment. There’s some retro MTV content on the VH1 Classic website here and you can find that original first hour of MTV on YouTube

  3. JESUS HERRERA August 2, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    I was born and raised in Mexico City.

    MTV was launched here around late 1982 and it was G R E A T, because music for youth (read Rock) was kind of unofficially banned, so all we got on the FM radio was pop / hit list oriented.

    Watching MTV was like visiting another world, we could hear groups never programmed here before and also see the fashion usually tied to the music trends, as well as dance steps.

    Thanks for the early MTV!

  4. Jack McHugh August 3, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    Thank you Jennifer!

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