Women Who Influenced Early MTV
Listeners, you know the parameters. Women and TV. What fun we’ve had hitting the pause button on a myriad of moments in TV herstory. Knowledge is power. Today we’re going to look at a few revolutionary years in media, precisely music and television, and a few of the women of influence.
On August 1, 1981 (get it, 8, 1, 1981 – remember when bar trivia asks the question) Music Television MTV launched via cable TV into few than a half million homes nationwide This podcast introduces you to a few of those influential women who worked behind the scenes – working for MTV the channel, record labels and some as independent freelancers assigned to projects. We’ll also touch on a few of the less attractive sides of MTV and its own evolution that was so necessary to appeal to the changing youth demographic: sexism and racism.
Regular listeners know that this podcast prides itself on solid research that is supported with first hand accounts found preserved for all eternity on the internet. Sadly, there’s really no audio or video of candid reflection or commentary on their days at MTV by any of the women we’ll be discussing.
Instead, this segment relies on a doorstop of a handbook entitled, I Want My MTV: the Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, Dutton Publishing, 2011. The authors should take huge credit for archiving history recorded through dozens of interviews with industry and network executives, crew members, VJs, performers, directors and producers. Comprehensive and one I recommend enthusiastically.
They did a great job of pulling together candid recollections of key events. They cover the business side of the emerging cable TV industry, who the pioneer technicians were who gave us the first big videos and how women proved themselves as producers, directors and promoters.
Now for some background. MTV’s original format, 24 hours a day on cable TV, featured five video jockeys (the television equivalent of a disc jockey) who would read copy between music videos. The first VJs were Nina Blackwood, JJ Jackson, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman and Martha Quinn. No one had ever been a VJ before, but a few of them had musical or radio experience. Preparation enough for a fledgling cable channel.
Once it went to full day programming, MTV needed to fill 24 hours a day. That’s a lot of videos and the premise was still new enough that industry execs weren’t sold on the value of bankrolling this expensive form of promotion… for just any band. And not just any band wanted to do a video. And then there were artists who did want to do a video, but MTV didn’t want to air.
As it developed, executives set policies that unlike commercial radio, MTV would not pay to air videos. The videos were the responsibility of the record label and artists. If you knew how to made videos on the cheap, your band had a better shot of landing on MTV in the early days. In fact, that’s one of two reasons why MTV literally made the careers of so many acts. Someone on their team had the presence of mind to say, “let’s do a video” and then actually did it.
The second reason is this: Before MTV, the music industry’s concentration in New York and L.A. left little role for the general consumer. Radio networks were the distribution arm of decisions made on the east and west coasts.
Think of the infrastructure of cable TV like you do the interstate highway system. A highway in a rural or suburban setting is more essential to that area’s daily life and economy than it is in the urban core. With concentrated living comes more options for getting around.
In the Midwest, teens didn’t have many radio options. Cable operators were landing contracts to bring the amenity to cities and towns through these sprawling states where it helped complete the quality of life. It was easier to install cable into new or recently built suburbs than into 90 year old brownstones or stucco single family homes. Sports, news, movies – cable would makes us connected – as a nation. And it succeeded.
So how did cable and MTV make the careers of performers? These Midwest markets were hungry for
The original VJs: Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, JJ Jackson & Allen Hunter
more music and had money to pay for it. If it was fresh and fun, MTV put it on the air. Viewers in Dubuque or Denver liked the sound and bought the tape…. Or CD. It was that simple. Video took the power away from the suits who governed radio programming. It was a heady time for this upstart channel.
And the women behind the scenes held power and used their voices. Some put up with sexism and harassment, hoping for a better day. Some stood their ground against racist practices. Last point you should know is that once the channel took off, it had to grow up. In a rapidly changing industry on the cusp of a generational change (the baby boom was graduating from college and Gen X was a different beast altogether) it was sold to Viacom. There was still rampant drug use and partying artists and crews, but production costs and expectations had now raised the stakes of the game. The maturity that came along with music television success also would cause it to change.
Here are some of the women featured in Marks and Tannenbaum’s book.
Carolyn Baker was an early MTV executive. She had come on board before all the funding had been found to actually launch the channel. The premise emerged from a show developed by Monkee Mike Nesmith called “PopClips” It was simply a show, a half hour long hosted by comedians who show music videos. The entrepreneurial MTV team wanted to do that times, ultimately, 48. Baker and Sue Steinberg, another influential woman, were two of the five who developed the prototype and worked out the logistics of how to execute the plan, assuming it could get funded.
PopClips was one of a few attempts to bring music video to TV. Each had generated just enough success to keep the MTV cohort focused on the prize of developing a channel.
The MTV cohort often plucked the best talent from those shows, like Beth Broday, who is an MTV founding producer, but had produced a syndicated video clips show called Deja View. In the Marks and Tannenbaum book, she recalled,
Response to the rudimentary clips we played was unbelievable. Station managers would get calls from viewers saying ‘this is fantastic. We’ve never seen anything like this.’ This was before MTV, but I knew it was going to explode.
Broday would later reflect in the book that women were respected as producers because of their attention to detail and diligence to get a project done. There were very few directors – Mary Lambert and Paula Greif. We’ll talk about Mary in a bit.
With the idealism that music television can and should play performers who are entertaining to watch as well as listen to, Carolyn Baker was in the middle of the racism controversy that would dog MTV through its formative years. On page 168 of the book, she’s quoted:
I said, ‘We’ve got to play James Brown.’ And Bob [Pittman] said, ‘The research says our audience thinks rock n’ roll started with the Beatles.’ I came through the civil rights movement. I was a member of SNCC. I believe in opening doors. The party line at MTV was that we weren’t playing black music because of the ‘research.’ But the research was based on ignorance. I told Bob that to his face. We were young, we were cutting edge. We didn’t have to be on the cutting edge of racism.
MTV founders Bob Pittman and John Lack were key to bringing Sue Steinberg into the picture. As Sue tells it,
John knew I loved music, so he plucked me from Nickelodeon and told me and Bob to work on a music channel. I became the founding executive producer.
Sue Steinberg led the search for the VJs using established channels of the day – putting ads in Variety and trade papers. Comedians auditioned. Auditions simulated the evolving role of the VJ – introducing videos, providing clever connections with the audience to fill time. Sue did her job quite well, hiring Nina Blackwood first and then the others.
One was Meg Griffin, a veteran radio DJ, who became an original VJ, until she encountered what would be a narrow, prejudiced side of Bob Pittman.
I went in kind of begrudgingly one day to audition for MTV, and it felt good that they wanted to hire me. I was in an office next to Bob Pittman and I overheard him say, ‘I have my black, my Jew, my WASP, my sex-bomb and now my tomboy.’ I was like, ‘What did he just say? It rubbed me the wrong way.’
The channel hadn’t launched yet. After a few weeks of development work, Griffin just didn’t show up. Martha Quinn was hired to replace Meg.
One of the two most recognizable faces and names of MTV, VJ Nina Blackwood auditioned while her other gig was as a harp player in a hotel. As a working musician, she transferred rock and roll to the harp, but in fact had studied acting at the Lee Strasburg Institute. Big credentials.
I was working on three different local prototypes for music-video programs, where I’d do interviews or introduce video clips. I sent in my resume and an 8 x 10 photo which I drew on with watercolor pens to make it look punky.
Steinberg saw promise in Blackwood and flew to NY for the interview..
With Meg Griffin gone but the qualities her replacement needed to have in place as defined by Bob Pittman, they interviewed Martha Quinn. “I said, ‘What’s a VJ?’” A couple days later Quinn was hired and became an original VJ.
There was a reason Nina Blackwood had earned the “sex kitten” role. She tells this story in the book.
In 1978, when I was living in Cleveland, I posed for Playboy. When Playboy got wind of my MTV job, they decided to reprint the photos. I got called into the MTV offices over this. I remember feeling like a scolded little girl, having to go to the principal’s office. They weren’t real thrilled, which I find pretty ludicrous considering what MTV turned into.
So from August 1, 1981 until 1986 when Blackwood was the first to be let go, the five original VJs were part of the teen and young adult worlds. Trusted faces. They recount that management didn’t want them to become stars, so they were held to restrictive contracts. No outside endorsement or commercial work. No capitalizing on their rising fame at the time. That would change with the second wave of VJs. The second wave would also make considerably more money.
But seriously, who remembers the second wave of VJs – other than Julie Brown and maybe Kurt Loder.
Original VJs Nina and Martha teamed up their male colleagues who are still living, Mark Goodman and Alan Hunter to write a book VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave.
The channel and music videos as an industry proved to launch careers of women who are still working. Their accounts reveal the racism or sexism that was part and parcel of a male-dominated industry which was experiencing a shift in power.
Judy McGrath left her job writing for Glamour Magazine to write on-air promotions at MTV. Think about how important on-air promotions were. The channel had to explain itself and make it seem like the hippest new thing to do was watch music videos. With the radio, you could be in the car or doing something. Music television called for a whole approach to music – focus on a video and enjoy your favorite band.
McGrath would become CEO of MTV and even today is involved in cutting edge branding and social media strategies to advance careers and showcase talent.
Within the record labels, a new position formed called video promotions and they were often filled by women. As executive Susan Silverman put it,
The record business was a man’s world. But there was an open door for women who had chutzpah. Video was the one area we could take over.
Video promoters were in a sense like the sales force, coordinating the band side of production so that everything was in place for the video to appeal to MTV.
It was a man’s world at every step though. Siobhan Barron who was an established video producer told the book’s authors the story of being called the “c” word by Boy George because she told him that the two directors he wanted for his “I’ll Tumble For Ya” video weren’t available. Rough and tumble.
Within MTV, executives knew they could improve audience numbers and engagement via contests. To combat the cynicism that most people have that they “never win anything,” Marcy Brafman is credited with developing the concept of “People Really Win on MTV.” Contest winners were followed around for some period of time just to show they led everyday lives. Remember these were big contests, not necessarily for physical prizes but experiential ones “A One Night Stand with Journey.” It’s likely that every dorm floor in America housed at least one young woman who sent in to win that contest.
Marks and Tannenbaum’s book details, from many first-hand perspectives, the channel’s reputation of being racist. The matter came to a very high profile head when CBS battled MTV for the airing of the first Michael Jackson video, “Billie Jean.” Jackson was an established performer who CBS knew had break-out talent that would change America. Here are some recounts from women.
Susan Blond was a record executive at CBS Records. “In those days, we usually had a messenger bring a new video to MTV, but in this case, we realized it was special. I brought them this amazing video (Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean) and they said, basically, ‘This doesn’t fit into our network.’ I first met Michael when he was a kid, and he was obsessed with the Osmonds – they were getting more coverage than the Jacksons, because Michael was black. This had been a major thing with Michael – his whole life, he’d been excluded from the media because he was black.”
CBS Records threatened to pull all their videos from MTV if Billie Jean didn’t get aired.
James Brown didn’t fit the research. Executives initially didn’t want anything to do with Michael Jackson. The racism and approaches to cracking it weren’t exclusive to MTV.
Grammy and Oscar nominated producer Sharon Oreck recalled, “When we cast ‘Glamorous Life,’ we hired a really handsome black guy to play Sheila E’s love interest. A short while later, we heard back from Simon Fields that Prince’s camp didn’t like him, and we couldn’t hire him. Mary Lambert said, ‘Why don’t they like him? Is he too tall? Too short?’ And finally Simon said, ‘they don’t want a black guy.’ We were like ‘What are you talking about? She’s black!’ We were told they wanted the record to cross over, so there needed to be a white boyfriend. Mary and I were appalled.”
We’ll talk about Mary Lambert in a minute. She’s incredibly influential. But let’s review for a minute the assumptions and challenges that went into that question of who should play Sheila E’s boyfriend in a very memorable video. Although I will say I remember the video more for Sheila E just being phenomenal than for what the boyfriend looked like.
Video is art but it’s also promotion. The audience is mostly white, living in the Midwest. Prince, notable game changer and provocateur, is the biggest name in the room and happens to be from Minnesota. He thinks the boyfriend should be white. Two women who have worked closely with female artists over the years thought the boyfriend should be black, to match Sheila.
Oreck also tells of coordinating the audience for Janet Jackson’s Control video. The event was billed as a free concert – though lip synched – and included multiple takes of just that one song Control. Right before they’re ready to begin shooting in earnest, they’re told by the record company ‘more white audience members closer to the front.’ The audience skewed African-American, since they thought they were attending a free Janet Jackson concert. Oreck and team had to gingerly ask white people to move closer to the front – three times. Oreck lost it and cried. Then she told the guy from A & M Records that if he wanted more people to move, he’d have to go on stage and do it himself.
Imagery is a powerful agent of social change. Hold that thought.
Cable gave us the chance to begin tailoring our viewing habits, movie channels, news channels, talk show formats, children’s programming. MTV struggled with how to gracefully ease into serving the next generation of young people. The next generation, who could barely remember TV without cable, didn’t look or act like its predecessor. The music and messaging were totally different. Because MTV didn’t necessarily have their next act figured out, they couldn’t effectively collaborate with the record companies to create the next big thing.
But the next big thing happened, and no one was ready for it.
Rapper Kool Moe Dee credits industry execs Ann Carli and Russell Simmons with pushing MTV to a new audience and next phase through rap and hip-hop.
We were aware that there was one video budget for R & B or hip hop acts and another budget for a pop act. We had to fight to even have a video budget in our contract, the record label would tell us we could do one video, and if our single sold 250,000 copies, we could potentially get a second video. Labels didn’t believe in spending money on hip-hop videos.
Ann Carli went on to a long and distinguished career advancing the imagery of all sorts of communities of color. In 1999, she earned the Golden Ring Award from the Asian American Arts Foundation and here is a clip from her acceptance speech.
The channel’s focus took a strident shift from art and cutting edge music promotion to sheer profit as Viacom bought the network.
MTV’s reputation for being racist or at least non-welcoming to black performers extended into its life beyond the original mid 80s concept. The first Rap-based show debuted in 1988. But during that mid-80s transition, top artists like Sting, U2 and The Pretenders were replaced by racier, more misogynist videos of hair metal bands. Reality shows and specialty shows started to fill the line up. The Spring Break special event series debuted in 1986.
All the while on cable’s TBS, Night Tracks, aired on Friday nights and showcased up and coming rap performers and their videos. Inside the offices of MTV, the fight continued.
Top artists of the later 80s Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart got pressured to steer away from concert style videos and more toward sex-kitten themes. Bikinis and pole dancers were doing so well with selling hair bands, it should work for performers too, right?
Women perfomers – this HAD to have been a hard and confusing time for them. Who made decisions for them? How much control did they have in saying what they would or wouldn’t wear. Who was pressuring them to be what they weren’t, in order to sell more records or get their video picked up on MTV? And if they pushed back or refused, they earned that reputation found in all industries: She’s difficult. A Diva. Other women performers were excluded because the genre and target markets were going right to Mountain Dew drinking young men. It was not about the art any more, it was profit.
This focus also caused the emergence of fashion photographers as videographers. Videos were now selling performers who otherwise would never have made it on their talent. Except that there were talented performers in the mix. And then there’s Madonna.
Mary Lambert, the woman from the story who really thought Sheila E’s video boyfriend should have been black, has been a professional colleague with Madonna since Day One. In the book, she revealed.
Madonna works with a lot of different stylists and costume designers, but nobody really dresses Madonna except Madonna. The whole trashed-out lingerie street-look – where your dark roots and bra strap are always showing and there’s holes in your stockings – that was all her.
Mary Lambert hails from the Rhode Island School of Design and worked in special effects. Showing some of her work on videos of emerging artists to Warner Brothers executives, Lambert was hired and assigned to then-unknown Madonna. In her heyday, no one pushed the envelope of standards and decency more than Madonna.
Michelle Vonfeld was head of MTV Standards and Practices. She told the book’s authors “We had four constituents we were trying to please,” She listed the stakeholders of the cable companies and their FCC regulations they needed to comply with, the advertising community which had finally recognized the connection MTV made with key demographics, the creative folks who were looking to invoke their own sense of art onto another artist in the hopes of achieving a music video success and finally, the audience at-large, which had changed since the first days of MTV.
We devised a two or three page document, our standards document. It wasn’t a list of words you couldn’t say on television. It was more our philosophy. It talked about not glorifying violence, it discussed sexual matters, issues of taste, things that could be hurtful to other people.
Some were quoted in the book as observing that the more popular the artist, the less the standards applied to his or her video. Madonna was frequently cited.
Hair metal bands – targeted at an audience demographic that was different than the original audience – weighed heavily on the objectification of women. This captured their audience and stroked the egos of the young men watching. Was it misogynistic? Yes. Was it within their First Amendment right? Yes.
When VJs changed, it showed recognition of the cultural shifts occurring in America, subtly that they wanted to see in their audience and that by the early 90s, the music experience had become customized. The internet only made it more so.
Julie Brown and Carolyn Heldman were part of the second wave. Tabitha Soren became the face of MTV News, which covered social issues and provided this new generation of viewer with more information about the industry. MTV had 24 hours a day to fill and the cost of video production caused their demise.
Julie Brown, arrived in the U.S. from London with an attitude and style all her own. She was not going to be molded by MTV, she created the new feel. With ego and edginess, she was known for being difficult to work with. Numerous examples are found in the book.
Carolyn Heldman, who had been hired through the national search for the second wave of VJs having been a real DJ in Colorado, was the antithesis to Downtown Julie Brown. Not urban more hippie. Not all product and high fashion and name brand, but casual, authentic and confident. She appeared once on camera in shorts and was fired shortly thereafter.
As a company, MTV was non-Guild, so the hiring requirements for crew members were less stringent for their projects. Beth McCarthy was an assistant director at the age of 25. Poorly paid, she gained experience that would give her control on shows like MTV Unplugged, Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock.
The second wave of VJs ushered in more original programming that was as much lifestyle oriented as it was about the music. Club MTV featured new music and dancing- think American Bandstand if you’re old enough for those words to have any meaning for you. And then there was their spring break coverage, beginning in 1986 and each year outdoing itself. Excess.
Channel promotions guru Marcy Brafman observed of the evolution,
MTV’s Spring Break coverage really bothered me. I mean, wet t-shirt contests? Even with all the rock n’ roll mayhem at the network, we’d never had a sexist outlook. Of course, a lot of that had to do with the fact that there’d been a lot of women running the network. MTV didn’t objectify women back then.
Still, MTV was, at least according to the book, a real microcosm of 80s feminism. Sexism and sexual harassment existed, you just had to decide whether it was your battle to take on. We were still a few years away from Anita Hill’s testimony at the Senate’s Confirmation Hearings of Clarence Thomas. Whether to speak up or remain quiet varied in degree for a woman based on her status, appearance, age and attitude.
One of the most candid statements in the book comes from Linda Corradina, an MTV executive who went on to lead all sorts of projects,
Boys are stupid, what can I say? A lot of the guys were known for hitting on girls, especially younger girls. There were men – married men – who didn’t have boundaries, absolutely. But girls can make their own reality. You put up with it, or you don’t. If you’re intimidated by it, you should report it. I can’t say it ever bothered me.
While it held true to its core mission of music television through the airing of videos, MTV posted powerful imagery that changed America. Behind the scenes, a few good women thrived in the thick of things and contributed to sound decision-making. The snippets of insight contained in the book reveal that women with visibility and power were scrutinized with a different standard, just as they are today. And the channel’s success transformed the recording industry – maybe not in a great way with its tremendous emphasis on looks. But then the internet crushed the old business model entirely. It’s more fractured today. Agility is essential. Yet women are still outnumbered at the highest levels across the entertainment world.
These talented, influential women of MTV have a place in herstory. I hope they’ve applied lessons learned – or courage gained – from their experience, to advance the careers of other women.
Thanks for listening to this installment of Advanced TV Herstory. For a topic set in the 80s, I have to say we exercised A LOT of restraint on the topics of hair and fashion. If you’re looking for a book that teaches you as much about business as it does about illegal substances, put I Want My MTV: the Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution high on your reading list. Audio clips used in this segment both come from YouTube – someone uploaded a short clip of Carolyn Heldman pitching Spring Break coverage and the Asian American Arts Foundation shared its 1999 Golden Ring Awards video on YouTube too.
Find this and past scripts on my website – cynthiabemisabrams.com, where you can also learn how I can bring TV Herstory topics to your conference or leadership training session.
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Until next time, all I can say is thanks for listening. Thanks for recommending Advanced TV Herstory to your friends and family. Knowledge really is power. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams saying, “Rock On!”