Retro Tech Spotlight: Digital Cable Radio

As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at digital cable radio.

This unassuming box brought the noise in more ways than one.

Back in the early-to-mid-1990s, there was no Spotify, no Pandora, no Napster. There were albums and tapes and CDs and MTV (which still played music then) and the radio. But what if you liked a particular genre of music and there wasn’t a local station that catered to your tastes? There was an answer on the way.

Digital cable radio had been around for a while, with stereo simulcasting of a handful of cable channels, but in the early 1990s, two upstart companies began marketing competing services with an array of channels tailored to meet the needs of just about every music lover, promising CD-quality sound to boot.

The two outfits were the Pennsylvania-based Digital Cable Radio (original name, right?) and the Los Angeles-based Digital Music Express. Both products worked essentially the same way. You paid anywhere between $5-$10 a month for the service, and your cable company gave you a radio box and a splitter. You’d split the cable coming into the house between your TV and the radio box. You hooked the radio box to your amp or receiver.

There was always something amusing about seeing uncensored song titles scroll across this little screen.

The box came with a remote so you could change channels while sitting on your rear. The remote also had a tiny LED screen that would scroll the name of the channel you were listening to, the current song playing, and the performing artist.

And that was it. Simple enough. Oh, but what worlds this opened up for a generation of kids. For you see, as digital cable radio was a premium service, it wasn’t censored. And in the days of Tipper Gore and the PMRC, this new format was a boon for genres like rap and metal that didn’t otherwise get a lot of airplay on standard radio.

Eventually, the little boxes went away as stereo TVs became the norm, with folks hooking their tellies up directly to the receiver. Digital Cable Radio (the company, in capitals) morphed into Music Choice, and began offering its channels through both cable and satellite outfits. Digital Music Express, or DMX, kept a toe in the consumer game for a while, offering music channels to DirecTV customers, but largely went the business route and eventually linked up with Muzak. You can largely thank DMX for why you can now shop while listening to Dexys Midnight Runners instead of Montovani Strings.

There’s surprisingly little about the early history of digital cable radio available on the Internet today. You can attribute a good chunk of that to one of its primary participants having such a generic name, and the other sharing a name with a rapper. Most of what I was able to find in the way of hardware pics and info was for the DMX product, including this promotional video from c.1992. Enjoy!