In honor of today being the 40th anniversary of MTV’s debut on cable television, the Rock & Roll Globe is proud to bring you this “remastered” edition of Tim Sommer’s inside account of working for MTV News in the 80s and early 90s
I say this with all the earnest, tight-jawed, almost fevered pretension that you have only when you are in your twenties, when it seems like the night-blooming fragrance of a great city is opening up in front of you:
Those of us at MTV News in the 1980s 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 B-sides and Syd Barrett solo albums when all you wanted to do was enjoy your dinner.
VIDEO: MTV goes on the air, August 1, 1981
MTV puffed its way into life one minute after midnight on Saturday, August 1, 1981. It is always worth noting the anniversary in some small or large way. From that moment forward, nothing was the same; it profoundly, irreparably changed the way people heard and saw music. In any compilation of the fundamental moments in when the music industry went sailing off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote-like, and looked down and saw an abyss that was filled with nothing but peril and promise, we must include 2/9/64 (the Beatles Ed Sullivan debut), 8/1/81, and the release of iTunes on January 9, 2001. Other dates, of course, are profoundly significant – but few had such immediate and irreversible effects.
I was a part of MTV News, on and off, from 1983 until 1990. Despite the time I put in within those walls, my perception about MTV has changed enormously over the years. Back then, I believed that I was a Soft Boys-loving fly in the Journey-belching ointment, and I had some kind of childish, sophomoric detachment from the overall mission and power of the network. But I had that wrong. I have come to realize that MTV, regardless of the behemoth shadow it cast on music throughout the 1980s and most of the ‘90s, was an enormously positive force in shaping and broadening the musical tastes of the United States. It did not reinforce earlier biases and inaccuracies (as it may have appeared to us snobs), but in fact broke them down in an enormously positive way.
There are many examples of this. Alternative British and American music, which the mainstream radio and media had considered virtually a non-starter prior to 1981, was given second, third, and fourth life by MTV. Circa 1980, Rolling Stone, the major labels (with some small exceptions), and virtually all the major FM outlets were extremely satisfied with the Eagle/Mac old-guard, and effectively conspired to keep it that way. MTV changed this profoundly because it operated on the most fundamental revolutionary level: It returned choice to the audience, and took it out of the hands of the corporations. It did so for two enormously pragmatic reasons: First and foremost, in its earliest days, MTV had to build the programming for an entire network out of available stock. When the channel blinked on it’s glowing nightlight, it found that lesser-known alternative artists had made a lot more videos than older FM stalwarts. Secondly, when you flashed the cultural pop Rorschach at young people sitting in their dens and dorm rooms, they were going to be a lot more intrigued by Simon LeBon and Cyndi Lauper than they were by the Mancows in the Outlaws or the Atlanta Rhythm Section.
VIDEO: MTV 1983
Within just 18 or 24 months of MTV’s debut, British acts that had been previously relegated to large clubs, small theatres, and college radio were playing arenas. A new die had been cast. When your dad prattles on and on about the Stooges and Big Star and all the cool bands he liked in the 1970s, you may get a very distorted perception of the 1970s. It was awful, and the mainstream was perfectly happy to keep it that way. People forget. We were so utterly subsumed by Dan Hill-ism and Steven Bishop-ry, not to mention turd-breathers like the Little River Band and conceptual monstrosities like Kansas, that when transparent near-mediocrities like the Cars and Costello emerged, we understandably greeted them like manna from heaven. My god, even the fucking Babys seemed like a relief. This, friends, is the “then” that existed in the United States before MTV altered the landscape.
Secondly (and more importantly), when the color line was broken at MTV in the mid-1980s mainstream popular culture was impacted by a multi-ethnicity that was virtually unique in the pop industry. Some backstory: In 1933, in order to help focus retail efforts more efficiently, the labels, retailers, and the trade papers separated “race” music (that’s the actual terminology used back then) from the other divisions of the pop/hillbilly/classical music they manufactured and promoted. From that moment forward, the public face of pop spun into a 50-year cycle of Jim Crow. The Jim Crow line that existed in the music industry between 1933 and 1984 was remarkably pronounced. African Americans were sold music made by African Americans, Caucasians sold music made by Caucasians, with radio, retail, and media outlets and sources accordingly divided. Although they were late to the party (the degree to which this integration took place under duress is not something I will discuss here, though I have reason to believe that conventional accounts are not necessarily accurate), when MTV climbed aboard the rap/r’n’b train they changed everything. Everything. The music industry (and the outlets it used to expose music to consumers) would never again be distinctly racially divided. Once half a century of pop Jim Crow ended, everything fundamentally and permanently changed – not just in record stores, but also in malls and High School hallways.
VIDEO: MTV The Week In Rock, January 30, 1988
Which is all to say that even a pretentious old cynic like myself thinks that MTV did far, far more good than harm. But it did not necessarily seem like that at the time.
I joined MTV News about halfway through 1983. I had defenestrated, with a little shame (but frankly not enough) from NYU, sans degree. I was 21 and, bizarrely, had been writing about music professionally (at a pretty high level) for nearly five years. See, back in the summer of 1978 after 11th grade, I decided that there weren’t enough Kinks, Wire, or Strangler fans at Great Neck South; so I emerged from Penn Station into the pissy, flaking, weed and bleached-flavored white light of Times Square and began working as an office boy at my favorite music magazine, Trouser Press. For some reason, they encouraged my writing. By the time I was 16 I had a column in the magazine, and my journalism career snowballed from there. By 1983 I was a regular contributor to The Village Voice, the Daily News, a major UK music weekly named Sounds, and a pile of other music papers.
Merle Ginsberg was a good friend, and a pioneer of downtown arts and fashion journalism. She was a stalwart at the Soho Weekly News (which was a hipper, more artsy ideation of The Voice). She also had a very solid day gig writing for the newly created MTV News department, and she recommended me for a job there. It seemed like an extraordinary opportunity, one that was adult and exotic, all at once. You would be in an office and you would have health insurance and a rolly chair, yet you would also be working on the edge of the music and cable TV industry, at a time when there was still something ever-so-slightly strange, even naughty, about the 36-channel world of cable television.
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 they 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! Such-and-such just shot a new video, and we were on set, let’s roll the tape!
VIDEO: MTV News 1983
Someone had to write that stuff. The small staff of MTV News writers were probably obscenely overqualified for this sort of work: Merle and Michael Shore, another Soho News vet, were pretty much top of their game; Stuart Cohn, another Trouser Press vet I had known since my mid-teens was also first-rate; and the “new” guys were myself and an old friend from my NYU dorm, John Norris (John may have actually come in a bit later; dates elude me utterly, completely, and catastrophically, and entire years have sunk back into the fog of the loam, Brigadoon-like). John served a very, very important function: He wasn’t a college radio snob, and therefore could throw himself into the mainstream and pop stuff with complete abandon, and no smug detachment. Soon after, Kathy Levinsky, an extremely good humored, wide-smiling young woman who shared virtually none of our hipster obsessions but tolerated our singlehanded pursuit of them, joined up. There were also some very important non-writer types there, people who produced video shoots, ran great, clunking armfuls of ¾” tapes all over the building, and all the other things that didn’t involve talking on the phone to publicists and typing on enormous electric typewriters that could easily be used to kill a man or ballast a reasonably sized Hudson River garbage barge.
In late 1983, the boss of the small department was the second youngest person in the department (I was the youngest). That was Doug Herzog. Within a decade or two, Doug would be running some of the largest TV networks in the business (including MTV, Comedy Central, and Fox). But back then he was just a pretty deep reggae/alternative rock fan who had some experience writing about entertainment for CNN. He was also unduly impressed by the fact that I played with the Glenn Branca Ensemble, and he very kindly gave me time off to go on brief tours with Branca.
This is all to say that we all really liked each other. Every single day felt like when you would go to dinner in the dorm cafeteria and everyone would congregate around that one special table and try to impress each other with bad jokes and bits of arcane knowledge.
Our job was to generate eight or ten stories a day. Once written, our typed copy would be run – I think literally run – a couple of blocks west to the studio on the far end of West 57th street (for most of my time at MTV, we were on Broadway and 59th, in am unshakable old wedding cake which some of you would know as The Coliseum Books building). Now, this was all a bit harder than it sounds: First of all, nearly all of it was dependent on getting phone calls returned, so if that didn’t happen by 4 or 4:30 or so you might suddenly have to rearrange your whole line-up, or go scrambling to fill stories that had fallen through. Secondly, you had to work within a framework of 60 to 125 words or so that could be easily read off a teleprompter.
Everything would be coordinated with our department head (at first, Doug Herzog, then Linda Corradina and Dave Sirulnick, all really magical humans). And then it was left to the VJ’s to present our stuff as best as they possibly could. I say, without hesitation, that the original VJ’s were, without exception, professional, able, capable and friendly. They never took our contributions for granted, and I especially signal out Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter, and Mark Goodman for really making the effort to make us feel like they were part of our team, and that we were one holistic news gathering operation.
An average day would go like this: You’d have a few leads about video shoots, album releases, or tours coming up, and you’d start calling publicists. You’d get the info confirmed; you’d scramble for some graphic support; and Bob’s yer uncle. Sometimes, you would have to accommodate a larger MTV agenda – “Oh my god, Armand DaSilba of Violated by Geese was arrested after peeing inside a 7/11 in Dothan, Alabama!” – “We can’t run that, they are trying to get the Violated by Geese to play the New Year’s Party.” That sort of thing happened not infrequently; for instance, you generally couldn’t say “Boo!” about Guns’n’Roses or Michael Jackson without clearing it with about half a dozen people higher up on the food chain. Honestly, we didn’t get that worked up over that sort of thing. We basically knew we were working for MTV, not Harper’s Magazine.
This brings us back to what we thought we really did.
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. On any given week, each one of us would be permitted to slide in a story or two about some fave artist who could only tangentially be connected to someone on the MTV playlist. For me, this meant wedging in stories about, oh, R.E.M., old garage bands, Hanoi Rocks, the Bad Brains, or so forth; for Michael Shore, it mean world music heroes like Fela Kuti or extreme jazzpunks like Sun Ra; for our boss, Doug Herzog, it meant Boston college radio faves and reggae stars; for John Norris, it meant promoting the leading edge of Britpop and downtown dance music. We lived for this stuff. Now, we usually could think of some legitimization for interpolating our bias; perhaps we would say, “While Sting was in Nigeria, he guested on a session with…” or “College radio faves the Frantic Eggs will be opening some dates for the English Beat next month…” That sort of thing.
I also believe that 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 R.E.M. to Run-DMC to the Beastie Boys, and many more – first surfaced in the blurbs on MTV News. We did not take this role lightly. Thankfully, circa 1985, the network was structured in such a way that we could actually say to a front-rank exec, “Pay attention to this act, you’ll be hearing more from them.”
I left MTV News for the first time at the very end of 1986 to go full-time with my artrock band, Hugo Largo. When I returned in 1989, things had changed enormously. The VJ’s were no longer reading the news segments and MTV News had a dedicated newsreader (the wonderful, grave, and slightly smug Kurt Loder, and later, John Norris, Tabitha Soren, and to a very limited degree, myself). We also had a show called The Week In Rock. This allowed us a terrific platform to attain both credibility and branding for MTV News. Since, without exception, all of us were music geeks who took music history very seriously, we were able to find a really first-rate balance between the “obligatory” tour/video stories and other aspects that gave MTV News the veneer of being the Source of Record for music news. I think it is important to explain why this seemed so bloody important in 1989:
In the very late 1980s, we were still living in the Underdog Age of American Rock. So very many of us had been formed in the fire of music that stood apart from what was on the radio, covered in Rolling Stone, and available for perusal at the local EnormoDome. Our social lives and our careers had been defined by a desire to tell that story, to find friends, to convert the townspeople.
VIDEO: MTV The Year in Rock 1991
As late as 1989, the United States still had distinct outsider and mainstream music cultures (in the U.K., Canada, France, and West Germany, alternative sensibilities had been significantly infiltrating the mainstream since the late 1970s). Once upon a time, it seemed it might always be that way. As long as that was the case, we at MTV News felt we had an extremely vital function: We told the story of the alternative nation from within the halls of the temple of the mainstream.
The grunge era, which essentially mainstreamed music directly descended from the outsider communities of ’77-era punk and post-SST/Dischord hardcore (even further scrambling the underground jet fighters by adding a distinct flavor of outsider metal and sexual ambiguity), changed all that. It was the moment there stopped being distinct mainstream and outsider continents in American Caucasian music. Personally, I think when that happened we no longer needed MTV News. The Hipster Elder who gently (or not so gently) pointed you towards “good” music was no longer strictly necessary in the post-Nirvana era, and soon, Internet immediacy would eliminate the need for weekly music news roundups.
None of that high-falutin’ zeitgeist stuff is meant to obscure this: MTV Networks 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. In 1990, I left MTV News to take over a much smaller music news department at VH-1, and I left there in 1992 to sign bands and help people make records at Atlantic Records. All told, I put in about 7 years at MTV Networks, and I have not one single bad memory. Truly.
I dedicate this piece to one of the heroes of MTV News, Kathleen Levinsky Somach Wittbold.
VIDEO: MTV The Week in Rock, January 1988