2021 is turning out to be a year of momentous media anniversaries. Earlier this year, two of my favorite brands – NPR and WRIF – celebrated their 50th year on the air. They have absolutely zero in common, except I've been blessed to have long working/consulting relationships with both. These milestone moments are an opportunity to look back at a brand's history and longevity.
What did they do right? What might they have done differently? And perhaps most importantly, how have they maintained their relevance five decades after they were first debuted?
But the buzz this week isn't about a radio station – it's about a cable TV channel.
MTV, to be exact.
With this handy list of blog topic ideas, your radio station's staff will never have writer's block again.
The network that made music videos mainstream turns the Big 4-0. And appropriately, that put it at a programming crossroads as cable channels go. When it was first launched (the right word, given the famous top-of-the-hour ID) on August 1, 1981, it made more than a splash – MTV revolutionized the way America – and soon the world – consumed music.
Up until that point, music was purely an audio experience, unless you attended a concert or in those rare moments when artists and groups appeared on network TV shows. But even an appearance on The Tonight Show or on shows like Shindig! or Hullabaloo didn't offer much of an opportunity to SEE an artist in all their glory, zaniness, creativity, and outrageousness.
The Beatles had to make two movies – Help! and A Hard Day's Night – that were essentially feature-length music videos for us to get a deeper sense of their creative energies and personalities.
MTV changed all that. The channel was run like a radio station – with a clock, VJs, production, and promos – that turned the world upside-down. If you remember when the iPhone, Spotify, or Netflix were launched, they all had massive impact on our culture, and the ways in which we consume media. They continue to be mega-forces today, as they've evolved, grown, and expanded.
MTV at its launch was bigger.
First, there was a lot less media back then. It was easier to stand out and generate attention. All that said, MTV came out of the blocks at Mach One – slickly produced, irreverent, in-your-face, fun. I've seen and been a part of many successful radio launches during my career. Nothing came close to how MTV exploded on the scene.
Its radio DNA was very much the product of Bob Pittman and his original team that generally had great radio pedigrees. MTV felt a little like radio, but on steroids – a supercharged version in full color that was truly mind-blowing.
On the radio, we had heard hits like “In the Air Tonight” and “Stop Dragging My Heart Around” hundreds of times. But to see Phil Collins, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, and a cast of thousands unleashed on our TV screens all over the country was breathtaking.
And if you were working in radio back then, you suddenly had an odd feeling you'd never experienced before. Seemingly overnight, you, your station, your music, and your airstaff had been lapped by this MTV monster. The buzz it generated on Day One was off the charts. And that made it suddenly challenging for any radio station to recapture attention. MTV was all the audience talked about, and it commanded loads of media attention.
For record labels, it was a crossroads as well. Early on, their marketing decision-making morphed from “Do we create a video of the song?” into “How much money are we going to spend on the video?”
And for fans, it became interesting and even debate-worthy. Did music videos alter the way you heard a song? When “Sledgehammer” came on the radio, did you “see” the fantastic video of the song? Purists argued that video versions of songs altered the way music was affecting our brains. No matter. MTV was off to the races.
I know this story up close and personal, because I started as PD at WRIF in Detroit just two months before Pittman rocked the world with MTV. At the time, I was in the competitive struggle of my life, up against two very fine AOR (Album Oriented Rock) stations – the world famous WABX and Doubleday's big entry into the format, the bombastic WLLZ. I had my hands full.
And then MTV signed on, like an alien lifeform attacking Planet Radio. We may not have understood the degree to which MTV would change the way the world consumed music, but we knew it was huge. And we were reminded of MTV's instant influence when the record labels began to give the cable channel first exposure on rock and pop hits. Artists who refused to go on the radio interview circuit – even over the phone – suddenly showed up in New York City to hang out with Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, and the rest of the very popular crew of MTV VJs.
At the Radio & Records Convention the following year, MTV executive Les Garland was a keynote speaker. Garland, like so many other MTVers had a great career in radio, was now one of the leaders of this new force in music – and pop culture.
MTV wasn't afraid to break a little china. In fact, the channel's irreverence was as buzzworthy as the music videos themselves. In a media world that was fearful of messing with institutions – like logos – MTV came along and used their logo as the framework for change. The MTV logo became iconic overnight, not because it was stable and dependable, but because the creative team allowed it to change – often by the moment.
Garland explained how video music wouldn't cannibalize radio – it would complement it. I attended his speech, and I can tell you many radio programmers didn't believe it for a minute.
Neither did I.
All MTV did was become bigger and more influential in the '80s. Following – and setting – the musical trends, it threw its weight around, and did what it needed to do to remain dominant, popular, and relevant. From Madonna to Mike & the Mechanics, from Prince to the Police, from Michael Jackson to John Mellencamp, MTV remained mainstream and continued to trailblaze.
And then I caught my break. By the mid-'80s, many of my Classic Rock clients were up, running, and thriving. My friend, Steve Goldstein, introduced me to his friend, Steve Seidmon, MTV's research guy. And we clicked.
I ended up doing a lot of focus groups and other strategic projects for the channel. I got to moderate the groups for MTV Unplugged as well as that first game show, Remote Control. I even did work on what became Comedy Central, testing unknown standup comedians like Ben Stiller, Dennis Leary, and Pauly Shore. When Vh1 came online, I spent more than a decade involved with its growth and evolution. And all the while, I got the chance to work alongside some amazing people.
Marshall Cohen, who headed up research for the various channels, was a research guru. He still is. I got to work with Lee Masters (yes, Jarl Mohn), Abbey Konowitch, Judy McGrath, Jeff Rowe, Sal LoCurto, Lois Ruben, and later, my former colleague and friends, Tom Calderone and Amy Doyle.
Over those years, I spent a lot of time in conference rooms at 1515 Broadway, hopefully giving as much as I received. In the 2000s, I worked on Vh1 Classic – makes sense, right? – working with Nik Carter, Roger Coletti, and my radio buddy from WPLR, Pam Landry. Good times.
And it was inspiring. The entire team was made up of big thinkers. You had to be an innovator and a dreamer to hold your own in those meeting rooms. “What if we…” was often the way sentences began. And the demand for quality permeated everything the channel did. It was truly the kind of atmosphere that was infectious and exciting.
Despite the success of Nickelodeon, MTV was the high-flyer in the portfolio, even as it began to mature. One of the realities that executives at the channel had to deal with, of course, was the same thing we contend with in radio: the ratings. They came out overnight, and delivered virtually an instant grade.
While MTV may have been structured a lot like a colorful radio station, it competed with everyone else in the cable TV ecosphere – CNN, Bravo, ESPN, and the like. And as its executives learned early on, maintaining strong “TSV” – time-spent viewing – was a challenge when your programming consisted of 3-4 minute videos.
And as we learned in umpteen focus groups, young viewers sat on their couches and watched MTV, until a video came on they didn't like. And when that happened, that remote in their hand instantly took them to another channel. In fact, MTV's lack of long-form programming – at least 30 minutes long – became its Achilles heel. Every few minutes, there might be a reason to change channels.
Around that time, the shift began. Great music videos and charming, irreverent VJs still mattered, of course. But the search was on for long-form programming that could generate more time spent with the channel. And as it turned out, MTV got good at it.
The animated Beavis & Butthead was a smash hit that became a cultural favorite. Then it was the music shows, like the popular TRL and Club MTV. Later, Real World, The Osbournes, Punk'd, and Cribs all rolled off the MTV assembly line.
But something got lost in the process – mainly the music. As we all have learned along the way, when your emphasis shifts to talk and personality, chances are good your music image suffers. And while that may seem simplistic, that's a big part of the story of how MTV lost its music mojo.
Back in the '90s and even the '00s, it wouldn't have been a stretch for MTV to maintain its new music discovery chops even in an Internet world. But Pandora, Spotify, and others followed, leaving MTV as a well-known cable brand that may have misplaced its compass.
As this 40th celebration has unfolded, it's great – yes, even nostalgic – to see and hear the old stuff again. But all of that was part of a different MTV at another time. I never was a card-carrying employee, of course. As a consultant, you always have that dotted line relationship with clients.
But I was always honored to know my work and contributions were valued by an amazing team of talented programmers, marketers, and creatives.
A lot has changed at MTV since that NASA rocket took flight four decades ago. In fact, last week, MTV unveiled its new “Moon Person” to replace their iconic “Moonman.”
Maybe it's more proof that when it comes to MTV and many brands, change isn't always a welcome thing.
I had a few words with my coveted “Moonman.” I call him Neil, and he's good with being a part of MTV's glorious past.
So am I.
- The Power of Music Passion - October 21, 2021
- Addressing My Car Radio Paranoia 3: Let's Fix It - October 20, 2021
- Radio's Car Radio Paranoia 2:What If Eric Rhoads Was Right? - October 19, 2021