MTV turned 30 last month. Last week AD’s J Neas looked back at the legacy of network and its place in pop culture. He also spoke with one of the more recognizable faces of MTV’s news department, former MTV News anchor and reporter John Norris. Having spent close to two decades with the network, Norris shares how his relationship began with the network, his own favorite moments, how MTV News became one of the network’s bright spots and what the channel’s move away from music meant for the pop culture landscape.
Aquarium Drunkard: First off, tell me a bit about your background at MTV. When did you start working there?
John Norris: I started working there in the late 80s. I was an intern for a couple of years before I became a part-time and then full-time employee. The internship began in ’86 and I was getting paid in some fashion around ’88 or ’89. I wasn’t fully staffed until 1990. I wasn’t full-time on camera until late ’90, ’91. I left at the very end of ’08.
AD: Did you have a journalism background coming in to work with MTV?
JN: I did. I was a broadcast journalism major at NYU. Music had always been a passion and I had worked at the radio station at NYU and then interned at another radio station that led to my internship at MTV. In the late 80s, there were still a lot of people just getting into MTV and discovering it.
AD: By the time you started your internship and were working with the news department, was MTV News taken seriously?
JN: Well, ‘seriously,’ is relative. You could argue whether it was ever really taken seriously. When Kurt [Loder; MTV News anchor] came on, that sort of gave it some gravitas. He had a print background. He had just done the Tina Turner book at the time. The first few years of MTV, it was called “Music News,” not MTV News. It consisted of little more than tour dates and album news and interviews. I wasn’t part of it then. The VJs did the news until they hired Kurt. And I think they all traded off doing the news. Hiring Kurt was a big step. They really wanted to make the news department into something more substantive and it took off from there. The ’90s were when they expanded beyond music and movies and pop culture into Choose or Lose and some of the more pro-social stuff. That was all done through the news department.
AD: From my perspective, being as old as MTV basically, what I consciously remember is that the moment the news department really seemed to take off was the ’92 Choose or Lose with the Clinton election and the famous town hall interview and all that.
JN: Yeah, and that was certainly about MTV being more proactive about really doing something different and offering a different type of political coverage for young people, but it also had to do with Bill Clinton being so suited for that kind of coverage.
AD: Going back to my question about MTV News being treated seriously, how were you guys treated by the more traditional music print press? Was there competition or were you looked down upon by them?
JN: My interaction with the print media in the ’90s was pretty limited, but since Kurt was the face and voice of the news department for such a long time, it really undercut people being able to not take us very seriously.
AD: He had worked as an editor at Rolling Stone for some time, right?
JN: Yeah, Kurt was absolutely a print guy. In fact, and he’d be the first to tell you this, he wasn’t very comfortable on camera. He had a learning curve of his own in terms of being a TV anchor. For me, they needed someone to fill in when he was away, I was there, they tried me out and one thing led to another.
AD: Was the news department separate from the VJs or did you interact?
JN: It got more and more separate as time went on. Particularly, the minute our purview went beyond pop culture, it was definitely a separate operation. Even to this day, I get people saying “you’re the old VJ, right?” I don’t usually correct them because there’s not much point. But back when we were doing it, not that there’s anything wrong with being a VJ, but you wanted people to get that news was its own thing.
I feel like the news department has been kind of truncated in the last 5 to 10 years and probably reached its peak in terms of visibility and what we did in the late 90s and early 2000s. It’s been on a slide since then. I think there are 2 on-camera people left at MTV News. There are a lot of writers. It’s no secret that the reason for this is that the majority of MTV News operations moved online; the reality that affected all news organizations in the last bit of time. If there’s any regret for me, I feel like we had a bit of a climb in terms of respectability from the late 80s to the early 2000s to the point where we’d be covering political conventions and we’d be there alongside network reporters or CNN, waiting in line to talk to Al Gore or Nancy Pelosi or whoever. And that was something. And yes, they still do political coverage, and yes, next year, Obama will probably sit down with Sway [MTV News anchor], but, to be honest, to the extent of what they do now, it’s been so diminished compared to how much we were doing ten years ago.
AD: Do you think the diminishment of the news department coincided with the network’s move away from music into reality programming?
JN: I would only add to that their move away from music, slash, substance. I mean, not that TRL [Total Request Live] was the most substantive show ever, but at least its underpinnings were music, for god’s sake. The line I’ve used a lot in the last decade or whatever is it’s as though ESPN had all of a sudden decided to start covering weather. We can debate whether MTV’s mandate was music, full stop. I didn’t found the channel, so who am I to say? But it was a year ago that they removed the phrase “music television” from their logo. I mean, points for honesty there.
What happened to the news department can mostly be traced to the web. What happened to the channel, it’s no big mystery; reality TV is relatively cheap and does well. If people didn’t watch Teen Mom and Teen Wolf and teen whatever, then they wouldn’t be on the air. I can remember at the VMAs [Video Music Awards] in 2007, Justin Timberlake came up there and made some comment with the girls from The Hills standing on stage with him about how MTV had gotten away from music. And I was thinking, “That’s great, Justin, but you’re about 8 years too late on that.” We all know that began with The Real World in the early 90s.
AD: It could be, too, that the move away from music coincides with the rise of peer-to-peer networks, Napster and all those things, and when MTV launched, it was the best way, in a lot of ways, to hear music you weren’t hearing. And now a video channel seems kind of stodgy and slow.
JN: Yeah, and the other famous result, of course, of the web and peer-to-peer and the discovery of music now happening almost completely online, is that we’ve all gone into our own musical corners. There is no unifying pop place. Even though, in retrospect, in MTV’s heyday of music video playing, its daytime and primetime hours were pretty heavy on mainstream stuff. You had to go to 120 Minutes to see that stuff, and even then it wasn’t playing a lot of stuff you couldn’t hear. I mean, was it playing My Bloody Valentine or Slint?
AD: I remember a handful of the bands I got into through 120 Minutes. My favorite band, the Replacements, I got into through 120.., and they would show older, classic videos like that, but how out of the mainstream those videos really were is up to question also.
JN: I know a little bit about where they’re going with the current revival of 120 Minutes and I can only say they could be a little more aggressive about playing new music. My sense is that they’re going to be a little too reliant on the 90s thing. I understand there’s an audience for that thing. I know they’re going to play new videos, but it’s going to be a mix with older ones as well. There’s little enough time on any of the MTV channels spent playing music. I don’t know that we need to be spending a lot of that precious time playing songs from 1994. It’s easy to play armchair quarterback, though. Even with that, there’s a ratings mandate. At this point, those guys and I have really grown apart, 2 1/2 years removed from the place. I just don’t buy that there’s no room on television, cable, much less network, for music anymore.
AD: Do you have any feeling about the social impact of MTV – good or bad? Was it a net positive? People talk about the early MTV and how it’s changed, but like any other network, it is a money-making venture. It’s only as revolutionary as it is profitable.
JN: In the earliest days, it was common for older artists – from the 70s and early 80s, who had to make that pivot into music videos – to bitch and moan about having to do it. “What happened to this? It’s about the music, not about making little movies.” And then of course there were those who embraced it and it was the age of the music video. And by the 90s, it was a thing you did if you had any money at all. This is a source of regret for me – there are still a ton of great music videos being made to this day. And, also thanks to technology again, by artists without a lot of money. I’m amazed at what some of them are able to pull off without a lot of money. And is my Macbook Pro a decent place to watch them? Sure. It is. But would I rather have a television outlet to watch them? Yes, I would. Maybe that’s generational, but I think it would be special. There are those who would say the age of music television has come and gone. But these same people would say the way of top-down programming and “I’m the programmer and here’s what you’ll watch at 2:33 PM” is anachronistic and no one is ever going to accept that again. But I’m convinced you can split the difference. Have some sort of on-demand model where people can still watch music videos by genre or something and have the experience amped and not simply watch it on their phone.
We were talking earlier about how there is no sort of unifying music outlet anymore where you can see everything from Jane’s Addiction to Salt-n-Pepa. I don’t know what that would be in terms of contemporary music. So at some point though, MTV, if they’re going to cover music at all, during those rare moments of the year when they have music programming like the VMAs, they’ve got to chose a genre. They have to choose who is included in the current MTV party and who’s not. I would argue that if you took MTV 1991 and held it up to MTV 2011 – the Nirvana’s and the Jane’s Addiction’s of the world – those that were getting daytime MTV airplay – were far more edgy and transgressive music than what constitutes ‘rock’ on the channel now. Their target audience has gotten progressively younger. I wasn’t in the programming offices back in the early 90s, but I’m sure the target was late teens to early 20s.
AD: And now you feel it’s more tweens and mid-teenagers?
JN: Absolutely. The programming speaks for itself. It’s all Twilight and American Idol coverage. Look at what MTV News is all about now. There are things we did in the 90s, that I would not be surprised that they would not do now. We did anti-violence campaigns, safer-sex campaigns. When you ask me what I think the legacy is, I think that up until recent years, they had a lot to be proud of. I’m supposed to be interviewed by someone at VH1 because they’re doing some rockumentary thing on the history of TRL. And a lot of people feel that was kind of a nadir for MTV because it was the rise of boy bands and Brittany Spears and, at least for a period of time, nu-metal – Limp Bizkit and Korn and all that. But I’d take that any day over non-music programming.
AD: Back around the anniversary, VH1 Classic spent the entire weekend replaying just random things from MTV while MTV itself did nothing to mark the anniversary on the air. There’d be half an episode of Beavis and Butt-head followed by an interview with Guns ‘n’ Roses and then Kurt Loder interviewing Courtney Love and Madonna and then you walking through the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. and then a segment of Liquid Television. And I was having such a blast watching. I didn’t know what was coming up. It just reminded me of a point in time where even the non-music related programming on MTV was pushing some sort of cultural envelope and speaking to an audience that hadn’t been spoken to before, instead of lowest common denominator stuff.
AD: I saw one of the MTV spokespeople quoted online saying “well, you know, we want to speak to our audience. And the fact is, a lot of our audience today wasn’t alive at the beginning and has no real memory of MTV.” And sure, that’s okay. They bring this real Menudo mentality to MTV. You turn 14 and you might as well go somewhere else. But really? You’re one of the 3 or 5 most recognizable cable brands of the last 30 years and do you think CNN would do that? Would ESPN not do that? Wouldn’t they be playing old cips and having old faces back? Of course they would. But MTV’s response would be that they have a different audience.
AD: Well, and the fact that you saw all of the MTV anniversary stuff on VH1 speaks to where you’d find most of the audience that would care, I suppose.
JN: The world wants to pigeon hole you as well. Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn [original MTV VJs] are on Sirius on their 80s channel. I’d love the opportunity to work on Sirius, but I’m only going to work on XMU. I’m someone who follows current music. I have my own music site (Noisevox) that I started with a friend and that’s what interests me. It makes a lot of people scratch their heads. “Why would someone who is no longer 25 want to cover music made by 25 year olds?” And I say, why wouldn’t I? This idea that music is the property of a generation – no one has that attitude about film. “This film writer is 40 or north of 40. He should only be covering films by people 40 or older.” No one says that.
You know, at the 20th anniversary, 10 years ago, MTV did this big blowout show at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. It was tremendous. They had older bands and newer bands and it had this homecoming feel. But maybe those were the dying throes of MTV having any memory whatsoever.
AD: Do you have a favorite moment from your time in the news department there? Something that really wowed you or that you really enjoyed?
JN: People ask me about the most exciting people I’ve ever talked to – because I’ve talked to so many people in music and film, my answers tend to be more political leaders and figures. Maybe the individual who I got to meet and interview and who meant a lot to me before I met him and afterward is Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General. I interviewed him on the 25th anniversary of World AIDS Day. I’ve talked to Clinton and Obama and Jimmy Carter and Al Gore and John McCain and Al Sharpton and all those people who are in the center of stuff that matters. But there are lot of people involved in stuff that matters. I’ve met kids who fought against hate crime in their communities and schools and organized groups that worked against violence. That touches me a lot more. I’m a music fan and I wouldn’t trade all the music stories I got to cover for anything. My reel that I send to people, to this day, still includes our Kurt Cobain [suicide] coverage. We did a thing in the wake of the Matthew Shepard killing where the channel suspended programming and streamed the names of hate crime victims for 24 hours and it was amazing to be a part of that.
I don’t want to sound too negative. It’s an utter cliché, but they were my family for many, many years and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I’m really proud of it. What it is today is just really different from the heyday of when I was there. words/ j neas