Goodbye to MTV News: The Conscience and the Ouija Board of the Network

Paying homage to the best job I ever had

Kurt Loder on MTV News (Image: YouTube)

If I needed to describe to a young person the power, presence, and ubiquity of MTV in the 1980s and ‘90s, here’s what I would say: Imagine Tik Tok, but everyone in the country is watching the same clips at the same time.

It’s an utterly lost era, unimaginable today: How do you explain to a young person that there was a time when every person in the country knew exactly when Walter Cronkite was on TV, and cared deeply about what he had to say? Or that one-third of the republic sat still for sixty minutes each week to watch the Carol Burnett Show? Or that everyone at school on Monday would be talking about who was on the Midnight Special the previous Saturday?

It was an era when the attention of an entire generation could be directed in one place. 

And in the 1980s and ‘90s, if you were between the age of about 12 and 25, that place was MTV.

A few days ago, Paramount, the parent company of whatever is calling itself MTV these days, made some massive cuts at the network; and MTV News, after nearly 40 years of being in business in one form or another, is now officially dead. MTV News was the conscience of MTV, the cool guy in the room at MTV. In the 1980’s MTV News assumed the role of seers and prognosticators for the network, and the network respected and encouraged that. The great movements and artists of MTV’s future – from rap to grunge, from R.E.M. to Run DMC, from the Beastie Boys to Nirvana, and many, many more – first surfaced on the channel in the blurbs on MTV News. 

It was my great good fortune to have worked for MTV News between 1983 through 1990. At the onset, let me correct a significant misconception: In most of the obituaries for MTV News I’ve read in the last 48 hours, they date the beginning of MTV News to 1987, when The Week in Rock show went on the air. In fact, the department was significantly older than that, having been started in late 1981, just months after the Network debuted.

MTV News Brief opening sequence (Image: YouTube)

I joined MTV News about halfway through 1983. I was 21 years old. Here’s how long ago that was: When I began working at MTV, the cable system in the area of Manhattan where MTV’s offices were located did not yet carry MTV. We could only watch the network via a videotape feed of that day’s programming and VJ segments that was beamed within the offices. (Sometimes we would need to call the front desk and say, “Change the tape.”)

In 1983, MTV News was a fairly straightforward concept. Once an hour, an MTV News logo would pop up behind the VJ’s shoulder, and the VJ on duty would deliver about 150 seconds or so of music news. So-and-so has a new album coming out! Such-and-such just announced a new tour! Band XYZ just shot a new video, and we were on set, let’s roll the tape! Someone had to write that stuff, go out and do the interviews, and shoot the video, and that was our job. It was a tiny office – at first five or six writer/producers, and the amazing Doug Herzog running the department (Doug was the second youngest person in the department — Emerson was very recently in his rear-view mirror — I was the youngest).

Generally, our office had to generate eight or ten stories a day. You had to work within a framework of 60 to 125 words or so that could be easily read off a teleprompter. At the end of the day, the stuff was faxed – or sometimes just literally run – down to the studios on far west 57th street where the VJs recorded their bits. We got most our stories by sniffing out who was on tour, who was shooting a video, who had just gotten arrested, who had just received a platinum record, etcetera, and bombarding – and being bombarded – by an army of record company publicists. 

And this is the thing about MTV News: We thought of ourselves as the conscience of the network. We really did. We were the annoying over-chatty boyfriends of the nation, insisting on telling you about Syd Barrett solo albums when all you wanted to do was enjoy your dinner. “Before we choose a wine, can I tell you why The Flamin’ Groovies are so important, or would you rather I go on explaining Gram Parsons?” Really, that’s what we were, and that’s what we did: You, the average MTV viewer, wanted to hear some little tidbit about Neil Schon, or Van Halen going on tour, or Stacey Q’s new single, and we said, sure, of course, absolutely, but first we are going to tell you something about the Soft Boys, Sun Ra and Gregory Isaacs! (Those are all actual examples of the personal obsessions of our little department.) We thought we did our best work in the margins. Our real purpose, or so we thought, was to sneak the names and faces of our personal favorites onto the MTV platform. 


VIDEO: Aerosmith and Run DMC on MTV 1986

I think it’s important to understand that when MTV first went on the air in August of 1981, I don’t believe the network’s creators intended to make anything that was hip. And there’s nothing wrong with that, not remotely: they were true visionaries, and they saw a niche. And in (brilliantly) filling it, not only did they create something that had never existed in the United States — they created the first-ever national radio station, the first time a single source could dictate the musical taste of the entire country – but they also got America to finally accept new wave music. See, culturally, the 1970s were very slow to end, and America (specifically the commercial radio and record label establishment, and Rolling Stone magazine, which was far, far more popular and impactful than it is now) was even slower to embrace alternative music. Mind you, you wouldn’t know that from watching any recent-ish streaming series or film set in the 1970s; you’d think that every bar or car radio at the time was playing the Stooges or Television. But that’s revisionist bullshit, the product of well-meaning music supervisors. Your dad may try to convince you the 1970s was all about Big Star, but the fact is, it really was about Dan Hill, Steven Bishop, the Little River Band and Kansas. 

MTV completely changed that. The 1980s started the day that MTV went on the air. But that was an accident, it really was. The founders didn’t mean for it to be hip, they just meant for it to be hot, new, and nationwide. They were television and cable execs, not rock critics. The initial hipster/British slant of early MTV was solely due to a quirk in the supply chain. In its earliest days, MTV had to build the programming for the network out of available stock, and circa 1981/82, lesser-known alternative artists and cooler/weirder British acts had made a lot more videos than older FM stalwarts. So that was a (very) happy accident. Therefore, by the time MTV News popped into existence in 1983, the landscape had altered a little; thanks to MTV, America was now safe for distinctly non-Seals and Crofty acts like Duran Duran and Adam and the Ants. But that wasn’t enough for us at MTV News, even back in the pre-Kurt Loder era when we were just writing little blurbs on giant typewriters for the VJs to read. We at MTV News were determined to take it further. 

And I think that’s really the amazing thing we did at MTV News, even before – especially before – the Week in Rock debuted. I tend to think of MTV News in the 1980s as the product development division of MTV, or perhaps more aptly, the geeks with the Ouija board. We actively tried to lead the network into places it hadn’t gone, and where it might go. Literally every day we walked into that office with the idea that we would push MTV’s tastes a little further to the left or a little deeper underground. It became well known – to both publicists and musicians – that MTV News was a great way to backdoor your act into MTV. On any given day in, say, 1984, you would walk into our MTV News bullpen, and Rick Rubin and LL Cool J would be visiting us, and the next day it would be the Beastie Boys, and the day after that Peter Buck and Michael Stipe. And they weren’t on the channel yet…but they were on MTV News.  

The MTV News staff throughout the 1980s – even as it expanded to take on the additional responsibilities of The Week in Rock — were, almost exclusively, college radio geeks, persnickety music critics, and record collecting music nerds. The rest of the building (as kind and creative as they were) were TV and film people, or they had backgrounds in radio and the peculiar intricacies of radio programming, ratings, and demographics. Snobbishly but not entirely inaccurately, we at MTV News imagined that our little crew were the only pure music people in the building. Whether that’s entirely true or not, I think, MTV News kept MTV honest. I mean that, and I think that’s a good way to sum up who we were: We kept MTV honest. 

As we moved into the 1990s (I left MTV News in 1990), MTV News took that idea of being the conscience of the network into an entirely new stratosphere: With Choose or Lose and the 1992 presidential campaign, MTV News took an active role in educating the young people of America regarding their electoral choices. It was no longer just the job of MTV News to make sure that you got some info about Mudhoney and the Melvins with the requisite blurbs about Nirvana and Pearl Jam; they now saw an opening to expand the “conscience,” the genuine feeling of social and cultural responsibility we felt, into a far more significant public sphere. This transition made a lot of sense to me: When you are in your 20s, you think it’s a political act to convince a Winger fan to give Fugazi a try; I think Choose or Lose was just an extension of that kind of thinking, that weird progressive ego, that MTV News had since I first walked into the office in 1983. 

MTV News Logo (Image: Wikipedia)

I can’t speak for what MTV News was in the last 20 years. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve watched half an hour of MTV this century, but maybe that’s exactly as it’s supposed to be. I can only assume it was, much as it was in the last century, a network where the currency and the desired demographic was youth, and therefore they no longer spoke my language or had any interest in doing so. When we consider MTV today and the death of MTV News, a lot of people are probably making jokes about Ridiculousness, but I want to say two things about that: First, MTV (or Paramount, or whoever) plays all those endless loops of Ridiculousness because someone is watching them, and it makes some sort of godforsaken economic or demographic sense to do so. And we must accept that MTV today is a brand name completely detached from the role it played in the 1980s and ‘90s as cultural arbiter, national radio station, and universal water cooler for the under-25 crowd. That was then. Whatever rating, financial consideration, or demographic flag compels MTV to play Ridiculousness now, that’s what it is in 2023. Just accept that, and accept that your MTV, the MTV that was your nightlight and your breakfast companion and your conversation starter back in the 1980s and ‘90s, doesn’t exist anymore. It served its function, and we moved on, and it moved on. Got it? Secondly, I know the cat who directs Ridiculousness and, perhaps oddly, he’s one of the coolest music geeks I’ve ever known, and one of the only people in my high school who listened to Neu! So there’s that. My point is, we are now adults who must lead with our mortgages, not our ability to know who did the spoken word bit at the beginning of “Astronomy Domine.” (It was Peter Jenner, by the way.) 

Finally, I want to say this: MTV Networks, and especially MTV News, in the 1980s was a magical place to work. Imagine a high school full of amiable smartasses where no one had to go to gym. Imagine a place where you got paid to walk around all day with a smile on your face. Imagine entering a building and knowing you were walking into the lizard brain of mainstream culture and the mammalian brain of hipster knowledge.

I say this without any hesitation: MTV News was the best job I ever had. Period. And I still feel greatly bonded to the people I worked with and the friends I made at MTV News and MTV Networks; and if any of them are reading this – and I’m not going to devolve this piece, at the very end, into a long list of names — I want to say that I love you. Seriously, each and every one of you. And if we did a little good and spread a little knowledge while having all that fun, well, all the better.  


I dedicate this piece to three MTV News colleagues who are no longer with us: Kathleen Levinsky, Alisa Bellittini, and Kathy Davis. I miss them deeply. 


VIDEO: Kurt Loder reports on the death of Kurt Cobain



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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYU DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

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