While local radio station compilations have been around since the early 1960s, no label has taken the concept further than the Houston-based Starstream. Amassing an estimated 300+ albums and singles in its catalog, the company’s Big Music America, Rock to Riches, Superstar Talent Search, and Budweiser Showdown titles have given acts such as The Replacements and Bon Jovi their first big break on vinyl.
Ken Kramer, a Houston businessman, and Dr. Don Altfeld, a songwriting medical student who, in 1964, co-penned “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena,” came up with the idea to pitch homegrown talent albums to radio stations, as part of a nation-wide contest. They named their company Big Music America Corporation. The inaugural project on their new Nova record label would be the Big Music America contest.
“Kramer realized that since the project was basically a radio-driven promotion, he needed someone with more radio experience to run the company and he brought in veteran radio programmer Gary Firth as general manager,” said Gene Tognacci.
Tognacci had worked in radio at KTAR, KNIX and KOY in Phoenix, as well as WIRK-FM and WINZ, in Florida. He had crossed paths with Firth when they did time at KUPD in Phoenix. “He brought me in from Phoenix as production director and to handle affiliation relations – he wanted someone who knew radio to help him grow the company.”
According to Tognacci, the label’s first Nova release was a compilation of songs from various radio stations in Mississippi (unfortunately, he doesn’t recollect the name of the album). Soon after Nova released albums from Houston (KFMK), Pittsburgh (WDVE), Memphis (WMC), and Chattanooga (WSKZ).
Shortly after the release of Denver's KTLK Colorado Music ’80, the company’s corporate entity changed to Starstream Communications Group. They ditched the Nova label to reflect the change – and to honor their financial backer.
“Harold Stream III, a Louisiana oilman, was Ken Kramer’s lead investor in the venture, and I believe that either Ken or Gary’s wife came up with the name of the label,” Tognacci said.
While a handful of stations took part in the Big Music America contest, the concept was a hard sell.
“First of all, the contest had no real track record,” Tognacci said. “Second, album sales were dipping, and third, it wasn’t a fit for most pop stations.” Album rock stations were viewed as the best targets, but most, such as KDKB and KLOL, were already doing their own compilations. “The price tag for the radio stations to purchase several thousand albums was also very daunting.”
Starstream would go on to release 28 Big Music America albums.
“The Stompers, out of Boston, won the national contest the first year," Tognacci said. The band's winning song, "Shutdown," appeared on WCOZ Best of the Boston Beat - Vol. 2. While Atlantic Records offered the band a one 45 single deal, as part of their winnings (along with $25,000 and a sound equipment package), The Stompers ended up signing with Boardwalk Records, which offered them a full album deal.
"Interestingly, I see that they’re still playing in the New England area,” Tognacci said.
While the Big Music America contest was considered a success, it became obvious to the company that it couldn’t survive without a sponsor.
“So Ken and Gary set out to find corporate advertisers who would like to support the contest in return for promotional announcements on the participating radio stations.”
For the next compilation series, Rock to Riches, Miller Brewing Company came on board and gave the contest the dollars it needed to be promoted nationally, and the credibility it needed with the radio stations.
“Now, instead of asking the radio stations to foot the entire bill, we were coming in the door with promotional posters, local prizes, club nights for the bands—and of course the opportunity for the radio stations to chum up to one of the biggest advertisers on the radio at the time.”
The company hired additional staff to sign up stations, coordinate promotional announcements and book nightclubs.
“Our contract with the various advertisers dictated that we secure stations in certain key markets and we were paid by the national sponsor to deliver 'x' number of promotional announcements on major market radio stations with a certain rating,” Tognacci said.
At times it took some creative negotiating to deliver the contractual obligations.
“New York is a classic example,” he said. “We needed to deliver a station in the #1 market in the country, New York City, and WNEW kept turning me down for months. Finally within a few days of my deadline, WAPP changed format from beautiful music to rock, and program director Steve Ellis took the program.”
Ironically it was WAPP’s participation in the contest that gave Jon Bongiovi his recording debut. The album features the first appearance of the song "Runaway.”
Starstream went on to release 200 different Rock to Riches compilations, from 1982-1983.
“Most of the remix work was done at Cook Sound in Houston. We also used ACA, Sugar Hill and Inergy studios when we had odd format masters like 16 and 24 tracks. Mastering was mostly done by M.C. Rather in Nashville and Carl Rowatti at Trutone in New Jersey. Pressing was done at CBS records plants around the country and then later at Peter Pan Industries in New Jersey.”
Standard album cover art was provided to each station, however many handled the creative concept themselves. “Since there was a station expense involved in getting artwork ready for production, we always offered a “house cover” to the stations. The Big Music America cover was one version, the KZOK and WANS crowd cover is another.”
“Originally ballots were included in the album and counted by either the local radio station or mailed to Starstream for counting. Sometimes the radio station did away with the balloting and had local and national music celebrities and executives determine the best local band," he said. "When all local winners were determined we would divide the country into equal regions. Participating program directors were then sent a cassette of all the local winners in their region and they would vote for the regional winner. Voting criteria included originality, quality of recording, and commercial appeal."
When the regional winners were determined they were invited to the national finals to play before a panel of record company executives.
Finals were originally held in New York and then later moved to Los Angeles.
“The national finals were a big production – celebrities including Howard Hessman [Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP], and comedians Richard Belzer, Father Guido Sarducci [comedian Don Novello], and Judy Tenuta acted as hosts for the event,” Tognacci said. Special guests also included Rick Derringer, Night Ranger and the previous year’s national winner.
After the success of the Rock to Riches series, Starstream quickly unveiled the next contest – The Stroh’s Superstar Talent Search, which ran from 1984-1985. However the concept was not as successful as the previous series – the label only released 30 different albums.
“It may have had a bit to do with the regional nature of Stroh’s and their targeted markets,” Tognacci admitted. “Remember, by now this was a national promotion and the sponsor was directing which markets we approached and how much money was spent in each. Also, around this time, CDs were coming out and it was way too expensive for us to make that jump. It would have cost almost as much to just prepare the glass master as we were paying for pressing.”
The company attempted to make one more compilation series, using the LP format, in 1988, partnering with Seagram's Coolers.
In 1983, Starstream secured Budweiser to sponsor its Showdown series. As compared to the previous full album promotion, this series featured urban performers on 45s and 12” singles.
“We also felt that it matched the prevailing club scene better at the time,” Tognacci said. “Budwieser was looking to strengthen its presence in the urban market. The opportunity to tie in with a local radio station and clubs was a goodwill building effort.”
The national finals were elaborate affairs with the likes of Lou Rawls and Don Cornelius hosting, along with actress Jayne Kennedy, and singers Thelma Houston, Larry Graham, and Patti Austin.
“We had some great radio stations participating like KDAY in Los Angeles, WBMX and WGCI in Chicago, WBLS and WRKS in New York City and Majic 102 in Houston,” he said.
The series ran from 1983-1989.
Starstream also did a Hispanic talent search, for one year, with the finals at the Astrodome in Houston. “We had some help from David Thompson and Art Gottschalk, owners of Sugar Hill Studios with that.”
Shortly after the Budweiser series, Starstream decided to diversify its portfolio. “We went into radio syndication and other radio promotions that were expensive to run and ultimately generated little to no revenue.”
Starstream was sold in 1991.
Tognacci went on to become a successful voice actor.
“I also enjoy watching the crazy prices those Budweiser Showdown records are fetching on eBay.”
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