The concept is nearly non-existent nowadays, but there was a time when streaming your entertainment was merely a strange science fiction novella. A Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode. This was the same time when a satellite for television wasn’t some oversized frisbee you tacked onto the side of your house or on a four-foot pole in the corner of the yard. No, satellite TV meant a monstrosity that looked like a crescent moon that landed on earth and in your yard.
The mass entertainment signal was carried through coaxial cable and typically into a cable box. For most people in the 80s, that is. For me it was not the case. My parents didn’t want to flip the bill for Warner or Comcast cable, so our entertainment signal traveled through a coaxial cable from the back of our 27″ Zenith console and to a directional box, which then traveled up forty feet along an antenna tower to a massive television antenna. This was where my family received their entertainment.
The antenna was, like I said, directional. Meaning the box the coax went to from the TV before heading to the antenna had a dial you could turn which would then turn the antenna high above the house. So if we wanted to watch South Bend stations we aimed it north west. Fort Wayne channels? We turned it south east. This allowed us access to 9 channels; six were network stations, two were public television, and one was a local access channel that showed syndicated sitcoms, local kids shows, and on Friday nights horror movies around 11pm. No USA Network, TNT, TBS, or movie channels. No Nickelodeon or Home Shopping Network. In the summer I could occasionally get some Chicago channels, like Channel 9, 32, and 50. But for the most part, I was in a no man’s land of network TV and Masterpiece Theater.
Growing up a massive music fan one of the stations I missed the most was MTV. In the 80s you could actually see music on MTV. The neighbors had cable, so I’d try and plan to hang out there a couple times a week in order to catch some Van Halen or Motley Crue videos if possible. If there was going to be a video premiere of someone I was a fan of I’d try and make plans to spend the night at a friend’s house that had cable. I remember doing this for both Tesla’s “Heaven’s Trail(No Way Out)” and Metallica’s “One” video. My grandma had cable, so whenever I’d go over there I was always trying to get in as much MTV as I could.
Man, I felt like a mooch. And like a bit of a hayseed. I mean, who the hell didn’t have cable in 1987? Why weren’t my parents just succumbing to the pressures of 80s life and hooking us up with some cable box entertainment? Who was still using directional antennas? We were one of the first families I knew that had a VCR. It was a Betamax, but still. Why couldn’t we make that one last technological step?
So in the early to mid 80s my big chance to see music videos at home was every Friday night on NBC when Friday Night Videos would air. That was the one moment during the week when I felt like all the other kids in America. Most of what they’d play was absolute pop radio garbage. Whitney Houston, Wham, Michael Jackson, and Madonna were the mainstays, but occasionally I’d get to see Van Halen’s “Pretty Woman”, “Panama”, or “Hot For Teacher”. Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” or Ratt’s “Round and Round” would play and I’d be giddy with excitement. When we got our VCR I’d start to record videos as well for later viewing. I remember very vividly one night they were giving away a yellow and black electric guitar that was JJ French’ of Twisted Sister. My buddy and I were so excited but we couldn’t get the whole address written down in time in order to send our envelopes in. Then it occurred to me that I had been recording the whole time and only needed to rewind the tape and pause it. Of course, we didn’t win the guitar but it was still exciting nonetheless.
It seemed like between 1983 and 1985 was when I watched Friday Night Videos. From the fourth grade through the 6th. Ratt, Quiet Riot, ZZ Top, Cyndi Lauper, Twisted Sister, Van Halen, and Julian Lennon were artists I remember watching the most on there. I still watched the Michael Jackson and Madonna fare as well, because it was on and I figured why not? I also remember a lot of Bryan Adams, Wham, Billy Squier, John Fogerty, Dire Straits, and Tina Turner. It was Friday night and I had nothing better to do other than watch late night television.
Eventually I found Late Night With David Letterman more interesting than pop videos. I’d get my rock music fix with a syndicated radio show called Metal Shop. It aired on an AOR station out of Niles, Michigan, 95.3 WAOR on late every Friday night. There was a spot in my parents living room right next to the end table by the couch where I could get WAOR in on my General Electric boombox. I’d go between listening to Metal Shop and watching Letterman. That’s what I’d call a quality Friday night in 1987. Throw in a late night Totino’s and a 2-liter of Mountain Dew and look out, man.
There was another show my brother and I found on Channel 55 out of Fort Wayne called Rock n’ America. It was a syndicated show that featured sketch comedy and music videos and aired on Saturday mornings. It aired for a very short period of time in the mid-80s and then just disappeared. It was where I first saw Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” and Y&T’s “Don’t Stop Runnin'”. I feel that seeing Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” was one of those important moments in both of our lives. I was 10 and he was 16 and we never looked back at that point.
You know, as I sit here and write this I’ve realized one thing: I didn’t need MTV. Despite not having that channel to clog my mind’s arteries with fatty music garbage I still seemed to find the good stuff. Random Friday night viewings of Van Halen and Twisted Sister, along with Saturday morning punk rock and 80s metal caught in the airwaves on lonely Friday nights seems to have been everything I needed.
Maybe not having cable built character in me.
Maybe that directional antenna snagged all the airwaves and frequencies that I needed. Without it, those hot summer nights locating episodes of The Twilight Zone on channel 9 wouldn’t have been nearly as magical had I been able to easily locate them on one of several dozens of channels on a cable box. There’s nothing quite like pulling magic out of thin air, which was what that antenna tower did for me. Friday Night Videos, Metal Shop, and Rock N’ America were also magic to me. They gave a lonely pre-teen a place to drop into on the weekend and mingle with the music he loved so desperately. And even the stuff he didn’t love still felt like magic.