I almost can't believe it's been three decades since the dawn of MTV. Of course, the 16-year-olds who watch the network and its spin-off channels these days weren't alive when MTV rose to prominence as an actual music channel.
Old rock fans like me fondly recall those early days. So does veteran radio host Alan Hunter, one of the five original "veejays" (video jocks) alongside Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, and the late J.J. Jackson.
"I should say that I remember very little. That would be the cool response," Hunter laughs. "But, honestly, I do remember it being very much like working on an independent film. You got the sense that everybody in every department was making it up as they went along. No one really knew what they were doing, and no one had a feel at all for what a cohesive 24-hours would be like."
Hunter was a 24 year-old actor, newly arrived in New York City from Birmingham, Ala., when he landed the MTV gig. Hunter was the first VJ to appear on screen on the first day on the air (right after clips from the Buggles and Pat Benatar). He was hired three weeks before the network's debut.
"In the beginning, it was simply a video jukebox with VJs hosting it," he says. "Then, three years into it, they began to understand their audience a little bit. And this was before Nielsen ratings for cable channels. There was large money behind it from American Express and Warren Communications. It appeared to be a decent-sized set with big cameras. They event gave me $500 for clothing from Macy's, so I thought I was rich."
Not too long after a low-key launch on cable television in the summer of 1981, the fledgling network made a splash as a hip channel with a weird, exciting, and seemingly endless rotation of music videos. Some were low-budget promo clips, financed by record labels to show a band or vocalist miming to their own tracks. Others were more creative and thematic. The fact that they were being shown at all freaked a lot of people out at the time. For youngsters like myself at the time, to see such a parade of popular and up-and-coming acts on the small screen was stunning and inspiring.
"I think MTV really gave the record industry a boost," says Hunter, who currently hosts SIRIUS Satellite Radio's Big '80s channel (the '80s on 8 show). "It stimulated an appreciation of a wider variety of music. I think it had a mass audience — probably about the widest demographic there'd ever been. For as much as MTV gets slammed for making the landscape of music homogenous, you couldn't have found more variety back then. There was an incredible variety that you couldn't find on radio. Radio was at a low-point in the early '80s. Their playlists were very tightly controlled."
These days, with instant access to audio and video, it's hard to imagine a teenager sitting through two or three hours of random music videos, hoping to catch something they really dug. But that's what it was like initially. It was a valuable resource for popular and underground rock, Americana, punk, ska, and New Wave music from North America and the U.K.
"People weren't hearing bands like the Stray Cats or the British New Wave bands like Duran Duran, Ultravox, and Bryan Ferry out in the Midwest at the time," says Hunter. "But they started going to the record stores and demanding it. MTV deserves credit for that."
The fact that MTV lost its heart and soul years ago is old news. In search of ratings and revenue, the channel systematically abandoned what made it work so well in favor of amazingly crappy, teen-based reality shows and promotional garbage. I think it was around the debut of the first season of The Real World in 1992 when I gave up watching for more than a few minutes at time, save for a few glances at the alternative-rock series 120 Minutes when the encyclopedic Matt Pinfield hosted it (MTV2 relaunched the program tis month with Pinfield hosting, by the way). It ceased to be "music television." It expanded and splintered into a narrowly programmed lifestyle channel.
Looking back, Hunter doesn't blame the network for trying to make more bucks along the way. He credits it for creating more good than bad. "I don't think they had time enough to be money-grubbing bastards in the beginning or anything," he says. "I think it was a bunch of people with some money, trying to make something cool happen. They were trying to change the paradigm."