The Lunar Phases of St. GIGA
Before Sirius XM was launched St. GIGA existed in an orbit of its own, an orbit that broadcast its content in harmony with the movement of the Pacific tides. The Japanese company became the first Satellite Digital Audio Broadcast Corportion formed as a subsidiary of the satellite TV company WOWOW. Transmission tests commenced on November 30, 1990 and regular transmissions started at the end of March, 1991. The company adopted a commercial free broadcasting model but to listen to St. GIGA you needed a subscription. The subscription was worth the money though, because the soothing content of their programs was like nothing else before or since. With a receiver set to 11.8042 GHz the pioneering satellite radio station known as St. GIGA took listeners on a gentle journey of ebb and flow.
When parent company WOWOW decided to expand into the realm of radio they knew they would need some help. As business executives they were all in agreement that they weren’t cool and knew nothing about music. To come up with the name they solicited a poll to everyday “persons on the streets” and St. GIGA was selected. Yet they remained in the dark about what to put on the air. They were in need of a creative director to format the content of the satellite service and the searchlight landed on Hiroshi Yokoi. Yokoi had just worked on the popular J-Wave FM station founded in 1988 and which still broadcasts today on 81.3 mhz in Tokyo.
Yokoi was considered an innovator in the field, as was J-Wave. J-Wave's slogan is "The Best Music on the Planet," and the programmers aren’t mere DJs, they are known as "navigators" or nabigētā, and they guide listeners on voyages of discovery. J-Wave’s music could be considered to be the equivalent of top 40 but one of their innovations was the use of hundreds of different jingles to separate programs from commercials. These jingles are played at the same decibel level and are variations on a single melody; the jingles and give the station a unique sonic signature and identity. In 1994 J-Wave also moved to being simulcast via satellite and some of its programs became syndicated on various community radio stations throughout Japan. Due to his work on J-Wave the execs at WOWWOW thought Yokoi would be a good fit for St. GIGA.
Soon after he signed on Yokoi crafted a radical and artistic proposal for the station concept. The men in suits who controlled the money reacted with skepticism. Yet after a few months of traditional broadcasting the executives adopted Yokoi's concept for a probation period. Later he was given full discretion to shape the programming and future course of St. GIGA.
What Yokoi had in mind was a “Tide of Sound.” The concept was quite revolutionary. To tie in with the concept, the station motto became, "I'm here. — I'm glad you're there. — We are St.GIGA." This was a tip of the hat to Kurt Vonnegut's science fiction novel The Sirens of Titan in which the alien life forms called harmoniums communicate using only the phrases "Here I am" and "So glad you are." Yokoi was also influenced by writer Kevin W. Kelley's book The Home Planet. Kelley’s book was a collection of color photographs taken in space capturing the beauty of planet earth. The photos were pared with personal accounts of the experience of seeing earth from space by astronauts and cosmonauts. These two influences formed a communication methodology that broke new ground in the world of broadcasting.
As part of Yokoi’s concept the St. GIGA broadcasts followed no externally fixed program schedule. It was not based on a solar calendar week, where a certain show would recur every Sunday at 7 PM. Instead Yokoi had the genius to base the transmissions around a tide table. Themes for broadcasts were based on a cyclical motif and tried to approximate the current tidal cycle according to the Rule of Twelfths throughout a 24-hour day.
The Rule of Twelfths is an approximation to a sine wave curve. The formula can be used as a rule of thumb for estimating a changing quantity where both the quantity and the steps are easily divisible by 12. It has been typically used for estimating the height of the tide. The rate of flow in a tide increases smoothly to a maximum halfway point between high and low tide, before smoothly decreasing to zero again. The rule is also used to make predictions on the change in day length over the seasons.
Tidal changes are non-linear. This means that in the first hours of a tidal shift the tide might not rise or fall very much, yet as the cycle progresses the rising or falling will accelerate through the mid hours. The Rule of Twelfths applies to the semidiurnal tide - a tide having two high waters and two low waters during a tidal day, which is exactly what happens in most locations. The semidiurnal tide period lasts for a period of 12 hours and 25.2 minutes from low to high tide, and then repeats back to low tide again. The full and new moons also have effects on the tide, as do the first and third quarter moons.
The transmissions of St. GIGA followed this pattern in a unique way, mimicking the swell of the tides and the course of the moon. With his “Tide of Sounds” broadcasting process the end of one show and the beginning of another was not demarcated or clearly defined as folks are used to hearing on the radio. Instead, gradually, using the Rule of Twelfths songs of one genre would flow into and intersperse with songs and material from the prior genre until the new genre, just like a high or low ocean tide, became predominant. Yokoi designed it this way so that listeners could relax into waves of sound "like a baby sleeps in the womb." These "Tide of Sounds" broadcasts operated under the awesome principle of "No Commercials, No DJs, No News Broadcasts, No Talk." If only more radio stations would follow this principle and ethic. Of course this absence of commercials and talk was only possible because the service was subscription based.
Besides the timing of the broadcasts the content was also informed by St. GIGA’s tidal and lunar oriented schedule. It was heavy on ambient music, smooth jazz and field recordings from the natural world. One of the programs was called “Tide Table” and featured live environmental sound broadcasts of waves crashing on the ocean shore. The "Tide of Sounds" broadcasts often featured high-quality digital recordings of nature sounds accompanied by spoken word narration by the "Voice." The part of the "Voice" was played by a number of notable Japanese poets and actors including Ryo Michiko among others. "Voice" performances often consisted of all new poetry composed specifically for the show.
Ambient music, environmental sound recordings and poetry? It sounds perfect. I wonder what other funding models might be developed to breathe new life into this kind of innovative broadcast format? It seems like this mode could be set up and used by low-power community FM or AM stations, or on Part 15 compliant hobby broadcasting stations.
Due to the popularity of the environmental sound recordings and the overall library of material they played, St. GIGA was able to fund field recording trips to collect “biomusic” a term that includes bird songs, whale songs, dolphins, or the sounds of other animals and plants in their natural landscape. Biomusic recording artists were sent to places such as England, the Canary Islands, Mikonos, Venice, Bali, Tahiti, Martinique, Hanson Island (BC), and Maui, all to capture and create and transmit new worlds of sound for the listeners.
Ambient musicians were also commissioned to create original albums and works for the satellite station. Kim Cascone, under his Heavenly Music Corporation moniker, made and released the album Lunar Phase for broadcast from the bird. The album includes the song “St. Giga” and was released in 1995. It was from listening to this record that I learned of St. GIGA in the first place and went on to track down some of the recordings from the station that fans have made available on youtube. The Heavenly Music Corporation was a perfect fit for St. GIGA because the music is both heavenly, and in this instance, came down from the heavens.
The satellite gained something of a cult following and fanzines such as BSFan Journal and G-Mania sprang up to write about the music and report on the allied ambient, mood, and electronic scene in Japan.
St.GIGA also released CDs of their music on their own label and the popular American ambient label Hearts of Space (also a fabulous late night radio show). A number of thematic books were published at the high tide of the satellites popularity including the multi-volume St.GIGA Stylebook and Current of dreams: An introduction to St.GIGA programming. This contained the full text of Yokoi's original concept proposal. Later books included Trends in Dreaming - St.GIGA's Hiroshi Yokoi's General Office.
Despite all this by the mid ‘90s the company was in financial trouble. The popularity of the satellite had peaked and was starting to flow back into the ocean. The market for ambient and related forms of music was not as strong as had been initially anticipated. Plus there was the pesky problem of a financial recession in Japan. Then there was the related issue of strapped consumers not wanting to invest in the expensive antennas and tuners needed to pick up the broadcasts. So St. GIGA formed a partnership with Nintendo. Because that’s what you do if you are a popular Japanese satellite radio company in financial trouble. At this point Nintendo had become the largest shareholder in the company and with their influence the Tide of Sound broadcasts were cut back in order to bring some of their own programming on board.
With the video game company kicking them some dough, they started to broadcast digitally encoded games to owners of the Super Famicoms system between the spring of 1995 and the summer of 2000.The Super Famicom was the Japanese version of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Nintendo made an accessory component to work with the Super Famicom called the Satellaview. This was a satellite modem never released in America or Europe. The Satellaview allowed the users to connect to St.GIGA. During a special segment called Super Famicom Hour game data was broadcast. During this transmission people could download games to the Satellaview's internal memory or an optional Memory Pak. Super Famicom Hour actually lasted from noon to two am, so it took away a good chunk of time from St. GIGA’s original programming.
Unlike other services offered by competitors the Satellaview did not have online multiplayer capabilities. This was due to the one-way nature of commercial satellite radio. Despite this limited amounts of data could be sent back through the radio connection. The service featured numerous quizzes and other competitions which required players to send their answers back up to the bird
Another new service related to the games was called SoundLink. CD-quality sound was streamed through the St. GIGA satellite connection to accompany real time play of video games such as the three versions of BS Zelda. The SoundLink included a fully-voiced "narrator" who would guide and give helpful hints and advice to the players throughout the game. Because the SoundLink required a live broadcast of music with a voice track, some games could only be played at the time of transmission. After the last broadcast of the SoundLink data was over, that game could never be played ever again. Some time-sensitive games were split into separate transmissions on different days to allow for the play of longer games.
Due to the rewritability of the cartridges and the fact that SoundLink broadcasts were streamed live and not downloaded during the noon-2AM Super Famicom “Hour” time slot, and because the games have never been rereleased by Nintendo, they have become extremely rare. Yet some can be played in partial emulation. This has been achieved by the extreme level of devotion and skill in this corner of high-geekdom. The subculture of collectors and game enthusiasts have exerted much effort engaged in electronic archaeology by extracting old data from heavily rewritten data cartridges in order to try to reproduce these games via emulation.
SoundLink also featured a type of enhanced magazine. This functioned as a mashup of a radio drama mixed with images and text. Unlike all other Satellaview content, SoundLink content was only available for an additional fee of ¥600 a month.
As St.GIGA’s tide continued to ebb out it broadcast talk shows and entertainment news programs about celebrity idols, as well as a variety show. The shows were slotted to match the schedules of video game and pop culture addicted students as the station's audience had shifted radically, much to the disappointment of its original devotees, the ambient music fans. Before long the station had ceased transmissions of all "Time & Tide" programs including the much-admired Tidal Currents show. Fan publications such as BSFan Journal became replaced by ‘zines that focused on the video game content. Towards the end of its life St.GIGA had focused all of its energies on Satellaview transmissions.
Until 1999 the Satellaview service was controlled by both St. GIGA and Nintendo. After 1999 St. GIGA was the sole controller of the service, as Nintendo broke its partnership with the radio station due to a dispute. However, the service was only turned off in 2000. By 2001 St. GIGA was nearly bankrupt.
Around this time Yokoi the director had also been stricken with cancer. After his death in March of 2003 St.GIGA was rechristened Club COSMO under the leadership of Shinichi Matsuo. Broadcasts continued until October 1, when the company was forced to sell its licensing rights to World Independent Networks Japan Inc. (WINJ). WireBee immediately began bankruptcy procedures, and all recording instruments and 241 tapes of nature sounds were auctioned off at open market for a total divided sale price of ¥5 million.
St. GIGA had reached low tide. It is my hope that it and Hioroshi Yokoi, the man who made it so brilliant, remains in orbit in a heavenly and oceanic musical realm.
Read the other articles in the RADIOPHONIC LABORATORY serie.
Leave a Reply.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.