Analogue Wayback, Ep. 15

A radio station with pictures.

The mid 80s found me working for a year at a facility that operated two radio stations and owned two satellite transponders. I managed the video production side of the company. Satellite space was hard to get at the time, so they operated their own network on one of them and sublet the other to a different company and network.

At that same time MTV had come to the end of its first contract with cable companies and many wanted other options. Creating a new music video channel alternative was something of interest for us. Unfortunately, our other transponder client was still leasing space within that short window when cable companies could have chosen an alternative option rather than renewing with MTV. Thus, a missed opportunity, because it was shortly thereafter that our client moved on anyway, leaving us with an unfilled satellite transponder. In spite of the unfortunate timing, our company’s owner still decided to launch a new and competing music video network instead of seeking a new client. That new channel was called Odyssey.

As head of production, I was part of the team tasked with figuring out the hardware and general operation of this network. This was the era of the early professional videocassette formats, so we settled on the first generation of M-format decks from Panasonic.

The M-format was a professional videocassette format developed by Panasonic and RCA. It was marketed under the Recam name by Panasonic, RCA, and Ampex. Much like VHS versus Betamax, it was Panasonic’s M-format versus Sony’s Betacam. M-format decks recorded onto standard VHS videocassettes that ran at a faster speed. They used component analog instead of composite recording. This first generation of the M-format was later replaced by the MII series, which had a slightly better professional run, but ultimately still failed in the marketplace.

It was important for us to use a premium brand of VHS tape in these decks, since music videos would play in a high rotation, putting wear and tear on the tape. The Odyssey master control featured seven decks, plus a computer-controlled master control system designed to sequence the playlist of videos, commercials, promos, etc. The computer system was developed by Larry Seehorn, a Silicon Valley engineer who was one of the early developers of computer-assisted, linear editing systems.

We launched at the end of the year right at the start of the holiday week between Christmas and New Year. Everything was off and running… Until the playlist computer system crashed. We quickly found out that it would only support 1500 events and then stop. This was something that the manufacturer failed to disclose when we purchased the system. You had to reload a new list and start over, losing a lot of time in between. It would have been fine in a normal TV station operation, since you had long program segments between commercial breaks. For us, this was insufficient time, because we only had the length available of a music video in order to reload and reboot a new playlist.

Fortunately as a back-up in case of some sort of system failure, we had prepared a number of hourlong 1″ video tapes with music video blocks in advance. Running these allowed us to temporarily continue operation while we figured out plan B.

Ultimately the solution we settled on was to chuck the master control computer and replace it with a Grass Valley master control switcher. This was an audio-follows-video device, meaning that switching sources simultaneously switched audio and video. If you used the fader bar to dissolve between sources, it would also mix between the audio sources. This now became a human-controlled operation with the master control operator loading and cueing tapes, switching sources, and so on. Although manual, it proved to be superior to a playlist-driven automated system.

The operators effectively became radio station disk jockeys and those same guidelines applied. Our radio station program director selected music, set up a manual playlist, a “clock” for song genre and commercial rotation, and so on. Music videos sent to us by record labels would be copied to the M-format VHS tapes with a countdown and any added graphics, like music video song credits. Quite frankly, I have to say that our song selection were more diverse than the original MTV. In addition, having human operators allowed us to adjust timing on-the-fly in ways that an automated list couldn’t.

As ambitious as this project was, it had numerous flaws. The company was unable to get any cable provider to commit a full channel as they had with MTV. Consequently programming was offered to any broadcast station or cable company in any market on a first-come-first-served basis, but without a time requirement. If a small, independent TV station in a large market decided to contract for only a few hours on the weekend, then they locked up that entire market.

The other factor that worked against Odyssey was that Turner Broadcasting had already tried to launch their music channel with a LOT more money. Turner’s effort crashed and burned in a month. Needless to say, our little operation was viewed with much skepticism. Many would-be customers and advertisers decided to hold off at least a year to see if we’d still be in business at that time. Of course, that didn’t help our bottom line.

In spite of these issues, Odyssey hung on for ten months before the owner finally tossed in the towel. Even though it didn’t work out and I had moved on anyway, it was still a very fun experience that took me back to when I started out in radio.

©2022 Oliver Peters

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