The day that video killed the radio star

On August 1, 1981, MTV was born, starting its very first ever broadcast with the appropriate 1979 hit "Video Killed the Radio Star."

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
2 min read

On August 1, 1981 -- 35 years ago today -- a channel launched that was to change music history. Music Television, or MTV, kicked off for the first time at 12:01 a.m., Eastern Time, with the now legendary words: "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll."

Then the opening chords accompanied Trevor Horn of The Buggles singing the first line of "Video Killed the Radio Star."

It turned out to be prophetic choice for the channel's first music video. By October 1981, record sales of the artists played on MTV but not radio stations were starting to boom. Radio stores were reporting overall sales rising up to 20 percent, while bands such as Adam and the Ants, Men at Work, Judas Priest and Bow Wow Wow started to enjoy popularity in America.

"Radio is a skeleton," Bob Goldstone, owner of Budget Records in Yakima, Washington was reported as saying. "MTV is the greatest thing that ever happened. Our customers had to go 150 miles each way to Seattle to see touring acts until MTV."

In its first year, penetration was relatively small, with MTV airing in just 1.5 million households. But by 1982, the Second British Invasion had begun, seeing a massive surge in popularity of British music in America, thanks to being played on MTV.

If radio were not to be "killed" by video, it had to adapt, and adapt it did. Listeners would phone radio stations requesting songs they'd seen played on MTV. The fascination with British music would wane, but MTV's influence would remain firm for years to come, guiding the direction of popular music tastes.

Just as technology saw MTV rise to prominence, technology has now seen it take a back seat. Now it's just one channel in a sea of channels, and its ratings in recent years have plummeted as it targets a younger audience of digital natives.

"Has MTV done an unbelievable job of being on that [digital] wave? Not so sure," MTV co-founder and former VP Les Garland told Rolling Stone in 2015. "If I were to admit my habits, I go to YouTube like everyone else."

Perhaps it would be more apropos, 35 years on, to say digital killed the cable star -- but not before MTV paved the way to its rise to power.