From 'Fish Heads' To 'Bette Davis Eyes,' How Teletunes Changed The Way Denverites Saw Music
In February of 1981, six months before MTV hit the airwaves, FM-TV launched in Colorado on public television’s KBDI Channel 12. A year later, the music video showcase became “Teletunes” and for almost two decades, it helped shape the way many saw and heard music. Among fans, its impact can still be felt today.
Growing up without cable, Teletunes was how Benji McPhail kept up with new music.
“They played all the Michael Jackson and Talking Heads videos, but they were cooler than that,” said McPhail, program director for KUNC’s sister station, The Colorado Sound. “They actually played a lot more when it came to a diverse playlist. So it was a good way to get introduced to new music — the cool, kind of weird stuff. I mean, they were playing The Residents. They were playing Ebn Ozn. And you would never see that on MTV.”
It was that risk-taking style that made McPhail originally want to become a VJ. He saw it as the best way to play a role in showing audiences new types of music and new artists.
“That's why I still have that passion, because the people that were the hosts on there, they looked like they were having the time of their lives,” he said. “And I'm like, ‘Man, if I could get paid to introduce people to cool music, hang out with rock stars and go to shows, I will have made it.’”
Colorado Sound listeners can still hear the show’s influence, McPhail says, not only in the airing of certain songs like Trio’s “Boom Boom” (a Teletunes favorite), but in the eclectic mix of artists and genres showcased.
Teletunes was an early part of programming on the fledgling Channel 12 lineup. The station, which had just begun a year earlier, was still trying to find its niche.
“When the station first went on the air, it was really scrambling for content,” said Shari Bernson, the director of development for the station, now known as PBS12. “It wasn't really hooked up on this PBS distribution chain as it is now. So they were very open. They were also trying to produce a lot of their own content.”
That included programs like Home Movies, which allowed viewers to send in their own homemade films, and Teletunes. Back in the 1980s, Bernson was one of the folks behind Teletunes, working as a programmer, presenter and eventually executive producer for the show.
“There were some real music lovers there who were aware of these things starting to happen called music videos,” she said. “And by that time, MTV had launched and music videos were in the pipeline originally as a promotional tool to move units, to generate sales and airplay.”
The show’s early days featured videos like Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” and The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” They also pushed the envelope with some that — at the time — were seen as controversial, like the Plasmatics’ “The Damned” video, which featured a leather bikini-clad Wendy O. Williams riding on top of a careening school bus just before it explodes.
“Let me just say that people take their music very seriously,” Bernson said. “I remember letters of, ‘How dare you play Def Leppard? Why are you playing that band with the guy that wears the lipstick?’ The show helped expand people's worldview about their music.”
One of those people was Mikii Schoech.
Schoech grew up in Boulder Canyon with only a couple channels to choose from — including Channel 12.
“At the time, the way we had to experience music to some extent was very different than how people do now, which is probably why a lot of us hold Teletunes close,” she said.
Without platforms like Spotify or YouTube, discovering truly new music required heading down to the local record store and talking with other music fans or making a guess based on an intriguing album cover.
Schoech still remembers the first time seeing the video for British synth-pop band Visage’s song, “Fade to Grey,” on Teletunes. While the video’s big hair, gothic fashion and arthouse aesthetic would now be classified as “typical ‘80s,” at the time, she says it was groundbreaking. It was also how she found herself.
“It was like, ‘That. That's what I want. That's what I want to hear. That's who I want to be,’” Schoech said. “I remember watching Teletunes and then going upstairs and trying to mimic the way some of them were dressed. And, you know, my friends in middle school — nobody had really been exposed to that music. So everyone was a little confused about what I was doing.”
That openness to experimentation is exactly why fellow Teletunes fan Batsheva Frankel thinks people loved the show so much back then and why they have such fond memories of it now.
“It felt like ours and not like we were just absorbing some commercial product or being told what is good,” Frankel said. “They played everything, and it didn't really matter what the genre was.”
Frankel is now a podcaster in Los Angeles, but growing up in Denver she and her friends watched the show religiously, including when it first began as “FM-TV.”
One of her favorite memories was a contest to change the show's name after the moniker “FM-TV” was sold to USA Network. Frankel — who back then went by Susan Hirschman — and her friend, Jill Hadley Hooper, submitted a long list of ideas.
“I don't know how it started, but we just started taking the word ‘tele’ and putting it with everything we could think of,” she said. “And we're just walking around like, ‘tele-stereo, tele-this, tele-that.’ And we came up with Teletunes and then we sent the whole list and we didn't really think anything of it.”
They were excited when the new name was revealed — until they heard the names of the winners. Turns out two other fans had also submitted Teletunes. Frankel contacted the show and when station officials realized the mistake, they added Frankel and Hooper to the schedule to be guest VJs for the night.
Unfortunately, there’s no archived video of that night. And Frankel’s Betamax failed to properly record it. But the memories she has of Teletunes are etched in her brain.
The same is true for Denver music teacher, composer and performer Rich Italiano.
“The fact that I could do my own music video show on television for the world to see, well, the Denver audience, was just a dream that I couldn't even imagine,” said Italiano, who started out as a Teletunes fan and later became a programmer, host and music director for the show until it was canceled in 1999.
That year, the Columbine massacre occurred, sparking controversy around artists like Marilyn Manson, whose videos were a regular fixture on the show at the time. Teletunes had already begun slowing down, but Italiano says that pretty much cemented its end.
“We were just heartbroken,” he said. “Most of the staff dispersed. We took the show to DCTV (Denver Community Television) public access for the next three years. And so we stayed on the air kind of low key because it was just cable access. But we kept the message and the dream of what Teletunes is all about through that point. Then DCTV went off the air.”
But in some ways, the show is still around. Twelve years ago, the Facebook page Fans of Teletunes was established. It’s a place where people can share some of their favorite music videos from the show, kept alive thanks to YouTube.
Over the years, the page has had a solid membership of core fans, but during the pandemic it exploded. Italiano, now an administrator for the page, says people were looking to connect to something that reminded them of better times. They began not only sharing video clips, but memories of watching the show, the impact it had on their lives, even old concert stubs and photos from the era.
That sense of nostalgia even sparked a call from some fans for the return of Teletunes. PBS12’s Shari Bernson says they've toyed with the idea of bringing it back in some format. But there are a lot of hurdles.
Back then, it was a bare-bones outfit with staff routinely recording the current week’s show over previous weeks’ to save tape.
“Nobody had the vision at that time, really to think that far ahead,” Bernson said. “And then we were so busy going just to get the clips on the air for that weekend or that week. Maybe a couple of weeks later, they recorded a NOVA feed over it or something. I mean, literally.”
That’s why actual copies of full shows are rare. But PBS12 still has the music videos themselves. The three-quarter-inch video tapes are stored off-site.
Bernson says they’ve looked at the overwhelming and expensive task of transferring the thousands of tapes to a digital format. But while the station still owns the broadcast rights to the videos, they don’t have streaming rights and many of the record companies no longer exist.
“Where do you even start?” Bernson said. “Who do you even track down for 405 Records that was out of San Francisco with Romeo Void and other acts from that area? It's almost impossible.”
For Colorado Sound program director Benji McPhail, the return of Teletunes would be a welcome idea. But even if it doesn’t come back, he’ll never forget the show or its impact. Even just hearing the opening notes of King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk” or Scandal’s “Goodbye to You” — both of which were used in the opening and closing credits — takes him right back to those days, he says.
”That thing was such a huge part of my life,” McPhail said. “I mean, Teletunes is a part of me. It is. And I would not be the person I am if it weren't for that program.”