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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

MTV turns 25 today, though judging by their web site, it's hardly something to celebrate. Ever since one-hit-wonder band The Buggles declared that Video Killed the Radio Star, MTV has focused its appeal to the younger set, and that means kids who think 25-year-olds qualify for Medicare.

In its infancy a quarter century ago, MTV helped create the kind of pop stars whose stardom depended as much on image as it did on music.

(Soundbite of Beat It)

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer): (Singing) Just beat it. Beat it. No one wants to be defeated. Showing how funky and strong is your fight. It doesn't matter who's wrong or right, just beat it.

(Soundbite of Like A Virgin)

Ms. MADONNA (Singer): (Singing) Like a virgin, hey, touched for the very first time. Like a virgin, with your heartbeat next to mine.

CONAN: A decade later, MTV introduced us to Pedro, a gay activist who later died of AIDS, on the enormously popular reality series The Real World. For many viewers, that show was an introduction not just to gays and lesbians but to the lives of young men and women.

Seventeen seasons on, The Real World is a bit less earnest, a lot more lurid and continues to be a template for the surprisingly tenacious reality TV genre. MTV's own schedule is a case in point. If you tune in these days, you're more likely to see marathons of Laguna Beach than music videos.

Later on in the program, introducing America to competitive air guitar. But first, MTV at 25. If you're a fan of MTV or a critic, call and tell us why. Did it define your teenage years? How has it changed? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And to begin, we turn to Joe Levy, executive editor of Rolling Stone magazine. He's with us by phone from his office in New York City. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JOE LEVY (Executive Editor, Rolling Stone): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: When did you first tune in to MTV?

Mr. LEVY: Well, I guess it was around 1981, not day one, but year one. We didn't have cable at my house in the suburbs, so I had to go over to the neighbors. But we wanted to see the videos. They were a novelty.

CONAN: Well, remind us what MTV looked like in those early days.

Mr. LEVY: Different haircuts, that's for sure. MTV when it started was modeled on the radio, quite frankly. In fact, some of the very first words uttered on MTV by one of the VJs - the video jockeys instead of disc jockeys - were, we're going to do for television what FM did for radio.

Well, they did something else for television, but fine. That was the idea at the start. It was going to be a visual radio station, so what you had were VJs who told you about the people you'd just seen and videos, many of them of British bands because they understood the video medium better than we did in America. So 1981, a lot of Duran Duran videos.

CONAN: One might be able to argue that, really, Madonna might not have existed, or existed anywhere near as big as she got, without MTV.

Mr. LEVY: Right. You can't see she wouldn't have existed, or she'll come in and philosophically prove that we don't exist either.

CONAN: That, too.

Mr. LEVY: But, no, there certainly were artists like Madonna and Duran Duran, who I've just mentioned, even Michael Jackson, all of whom exploited the medium to get more famous than they might have been otherwise.

In the case of Michael Jackson, you're talking about someone who had a significant music career already and would have gone on doing so. But he understood the power of that medium, as Madonna did, and used it to become worldwide famous, more famous and to sell more records than anyone had imagined possible before then.

CONAN: Is that the primary change, do you think, that MTV has created in the entertainment industry?

Mr. LEVY: Well, MTV has created many, many changes over the years. Perhaps it was easier to talk about what these changes were when they were only 10 years old because now, 25 years on, really MTV is mainstream.

Four or five years on, you would have said MTV's affect was changing the way that television commercials looked, the television shows like Miami Vice looked, that movies like Flashdance looked. The original idea was that MTV was going to be put music with everything. You wouldn't be able to turn on the TV without seeing somebody sing in the middle of whatever it was you were watching.

But MTV has continued to change with the culture, to get out in front of it in whatever way they can, and actually, as you said earlier, what MTV has given us is reality television. Instead of music everywhere, we see real people everywhere.

CONAN: Well, they still do play some music videos.

Mr. LEVY: You know, that's absolutely true. It's a common complaint and it's usually made by people who have recently graduated from high school, that MTV doesn't air videos anymore. But they certainly do if you know where to look for them. They're on before school and after school.

If you get up at seven in the morning and turn on MTV, you'll see videos. If you come home from school, well, elementary school, high school, at 3:00 in the afternoon, you're going to see some videos on TRL or their hip-hop countdown show, Direct Effect. They do play music videos. You have to know where to look for them.

CONAN: As you said, when it started out, it was all about the music. And the music was, at least to a degree, had an edge of subversiveness to it. But for most of its existence, MTV has been part of mega-media conglomerate Viacom.

Mr. LEVY: Well, that's certainly true. I don't think that means that they don't have some subversive content on the network over the 25 years or still today. Again, as you pointed out, MTV was breaking down barriers with its non-music programming on The Real World, and MTV is still one of the places that treats the idea of gay and lesbian life as commonplace.

If you watch their dating shows now, and many of their shows are dating shows - they have five or six different reality dating shows, it is no big deal for them to show a gay or lesbian couple trying to hook up, as they would say. There's no fuss made over this. Part of what they're saying to their audience, and they do appeal to that audience in a libidinal way, is that this is everyday life. This is part of everyone's life. This is part of mainstream life. And in America today, that would still qualify as a subversive message.

I would say, also, that, you know, MTV has been tremendously important, in fact crucial, in the spread and dominance of hip-hop in popular music in America. And that, too, has had many subversive messages over the years.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. And by the way, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Cassie's on the line with us from St. Louis.

CASSIE (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to comment. I've had MTV almost my whole life. Well, I'm - I was in one of those households that got it on satellite when you first could get it on satellite because cable didn't have it. And I've grown up watching it. And I'm 25, myself.

And so I just feel like, you know, talking to the points that were just made, yeah, there were a lot of things that came out that were groundbreaking and revolutionary and culturally important on MTV. But I feel like nowadays when I turn on MTV, I'm saddened by the way it reflects my generation, that all we seem to care about is money and shopping and not really contributing to the world. We just want to look good and we want to have bling and we've listened to the same 10 songs over and over. And that kind of upsets me about MTV. I miss the MTV I grew up watching. So, I mean, that's just how I feel about it.

CONAN: I wonder what you think about that, Joe Levy.

Mr. LEVY: You'd get very little argument from me there, quite frankly. I still think that MTV has something to offer, but without a doubt, it's more entertainment than anything else at this point. Now the people who work at MTV would probably tell us that that's where the music has gone. You know, they don't make those hip-hop videos, all of which celebrate - well, not all of which - but many of which celebrate commodity, material goods.

And yet, true as that is, they do make an awful lot of television shows, reality shows, that also celebrate commodities. My Super Sweet 16 is a very disturbing and very popular show in which 16-year-olds have parties, and the best ones are the ones that cost the most.

CONAN: Cassie, thanks for the call.

CASSIE: Thanks.

CONAN: For those of you who watched MTV in the ‘90s, our next guest needs no introduction or maybe just a very brief one. Lisa Kennedy Montgomery was an MTV VJ from 1992 to 1997. She's currently the host of Reality Remix on the Fox Reality Channel. You probably know her by her middle name: Kennedy. She joins us now on the phone from Los Angeles. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. LISA KENNEDY MONTGOMERY (Former MTV VJ): Thanks for having me. What a momentous day.

CONAN: Yeah. I wonder what do you think - did you ever think MTV would be, well, 25?

Ms. MONTGOMERY: No, I didn't think it would make it past 18. Now it can rent a car. How exciting.

CONAN: Well, I'm not so sure about that. It's been awhile since you brandished a microphone on MTV. Do you still watch?

Ms. MONTGOMERY: No, I don't watch that much. I watch a little bit of the reality just so I can cover it on my show, because MTV does have the top reality shows on cable. I mean, it's unbelievable. Reality shows only last, you know, 10 to 13 weeks per show, and consistently, every cycle, they have the top shows.

And, you know, Real World is still pretty interesting. The Hills is, you know, it's kind of trashy but it's fun to watch when you're - if you're unwinding after a day of really difficult higher math, I guess. And I have to agree that My Super Sweet 16 is disturbing and somewhat dangerous for younger girls who watch it. I mean, obviously, I don't worry about the 18- to 25-year-old woman who's watching the show. She's past that vulnerable, suggestible point in her life. But, you know, the 11- to 13-year-old, it makes me nervous.

CONAN: What did you like about your old gig?

Ms. MONTGOMERY: What did I like? What did I not like? It was, you know, I was 20 when I started and had so many fun, outrageous experiences. You know, I got tons of free clothes and got flown all over the world to interview bands. I hosted a great late-night alternative music show. I got to be in a Jean-Paul Gaultier fashion show with Madonna.

It was a really fun time. I never took anything too seriously. I was always really grateful for the experiences that I had, and I was always very aware that my time at MTV was going to be intense and short-term, and I - for that reason I took everything I possibly could out of it.

CONAN: You certainly left an impression, though.

Ms. MONTGOMERY: Lovely. You got to leave an impression everywhere, don't you?

CONAN: Yeah. If you could go back, would you?

Ms. MONTGOMERY: If I could go back, I would not, just as I would not go back to my old high school, which, you know, I'm also really fond of. I loved my time in high school, and, you know, MTV gave me the chance to have a long-running career in broadcasting. You know, I've been able to do talk radio. I've covered snowboarding at the Olympics. I've hosted a game show. And now I'm covering one of my favorite subjects, reality TV.

And I wouldn't have had any of these experiences without MTV. You know, it's hard because you do get typecast if you're there for longer than a couple years. And since I was there for five years, people have a really strong impression of my time there, and it's kind of difficult to overcome that. But fortunately, I've been able to persevere and, you know, through the kindness of people who give me jobs, I'm still employed.

CONAN: Good luck to you.

Ms. MONTGOMERY: Thanks, man.

CONAN: Kennedy was an MTV VJ in the ‘90s. She currently hosts Reality Remix on the Fox Reality Channel. She joined us today by phone from Los Angeles. And if you're wondering what happened to some of the other MTV VJs, NPR's online interns have been busy tracking them down. You can find out where they are these days at NPR.org. We'll be back after the break. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Today's the 25th birthday of MTV, and it hasn't been all punk rock, hip-hop and reality TV.

(Soundbite of MTV News)

Unidentified Woman: Governor, we have time for a quick question on this.

Mr. FOREST WRIGHT: Yeah, my name is Forest Wright and I'm 22. I just graduated from UCLA. And my question is it's really great that you're here today talking to us and you're in touch with us, but as president, how do you plan to stay in touch with us? I mean, would you be as willing to go back on MTV while you're president and do an interview as you were to be doing your State of the Union Address?

President WILLIAM CLINTON: I'll do that. I'll come back on MTV as president.

CONAN: And he did, answering the famous boxers or briefs question on MTV in 1994. On our web site, we've posted Neda Ulaby's look at how MTV has made the move into the digital era. You can find it at NPR.org.

Right now we're talking with Joe Levy, executive editor at Rolling Stone magazine. He's with us on the phone from his office. And let's get another caller on the line. This is Laura. Laura's calling us from Summerville in South Carolina.

LAURA (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

LAURA: I just wanted to make note that I grew up in South Carolina, and we're obviously not as fashion savvy as some of the faster-growing states, but the way that MTV affected me - I'm 35 now, so I think I was maybe nine or 10 when it first started out - and it absolutely changed the way I perceived everything as far as how you dress, how you act, how you go about being creative about one's self, pretty much everything from start to finish.

CONAN: Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

LAURA: Well, I think it was good in a sense that it made me seek out being creative in some ways, but I think it also sent me a little bit on the outer edge of what some people thought was normal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But, I mean, I really shifted once I got to college when it seemed like MTV went in a different direction, so I kind of shifted once I got in college and didn't really watch it that much anymore. And I have kids now, and, of course, my niece and nephew also like to watch it, so it's just kind of an icon thing that you look back and you say, wow. We didn't used to have ATMs either, you know, so.

CONAN: Yeah. I wonder, Joe Levy, the way Laura's describing it, it's almost as if MTV is a phase.

Mr. LEVY: You know, that's the way a lot of people feel about popular music. It's often the case that you love a band that remains your favorite band when you're graduating from high school. By the time you finish college, you don't discover four or five new bands.

And so for some of us - not for me, I made a job out of it - but for some of us, rock and roll, pop music, hip-hop, whatever it is we loved at that moment that we're 17, 18, 20, it's not what we go on being involved in when we're 25 and have a full-time job.

MTV is very much the same way. To be honest, I think MTV really does change about once every high-school class. Every four years or so, if you were to beam back in, you'd say what happened to what I liked? It's not there anymore. Well, of course, it's not. You know, a whole bunch of 12-year-olds came along and changed it as they moved up to 16.

So, yeah, absolutely. I think that MTV is a phase. I think they know that. I think they heavily research the phase that their viewers are going through in order to keep up with them.

CONAN: And it's not just Laura in South Carolina who was influenced by the way she saw people dress and act on MTV. This has happened across the world.

Mr. LEVY: Well, that's absolutely true. You make an interesting point, which is that MTV has spread to be a global phenomenon, and it is indeed different around the globe, although there are some constants. You know, 50 Cent, Madonna in her day, these are global MTV constants. Whether you're in Japan, in Sweden, in England, in Asia, you know, you can find a different local MTV for all of those markets. So, yes, absolutely, it's been part of, well, pop music's worldwide dominance.

CONAN: Laura, thanks very much for the call.

LAURA: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: And joining us now is Jonathan Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek magazine. He was a consultant to MTV News back in the ‘90s and an on-air contributor. He's with us now by phone from his office in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. JONATHAN ALTER (Senior Editor, Newsweek): Thanks very much.

CONAN: We were talking earlier about that boxers or briefs moment when President Clinton went on MTV. Was that a transformative moment at the network?

Mr. ALTER: I think it was a transformative moment for Bill Clinton's presidency in that it became one of the best-remembered, in a negative sense, experiences of his presidency because it showed - it kind of summarized how he had, in some people's minds, trivialized the office.

Of course, when Monica Lewinsky came along, boxers or briefs seemed kind of small potatoes. But that was not the transformative moment for MTV. That came two years earlier during the 1992 presidential campaign, when he took part in the first MTV town meeting with a politician - which later became quite common - in the spring of '92 when he was the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party but still governor of Arkansas.

And I was involved in the planning and execution of that town meeting which took place, as well as later ones, which took place on a soundstage in Hollywood. And at the time that aired in, I believe, June of '92, it was a transformative moment.

CONAN: It suggested to a lot of people that Bill Clinton got it.

Mr. ALTER: Exactly. There was a sense that he understood that, before the phrase old media or mainstream media was current, that he understood there were other ways of communicating with the American public. Around the same time, he went on The Arsenio Hall Show and played saxophone.

But the MTV appearance, which got a tremendous amount of publicity at the time, really cemented the idea that he was a different kind of candidate and was going to try to appeal to younger voters on a different basis.

CONAN: What was MTV News trying to achieve, do you think?

Mr. ALTER: Well, it had started during the primaries, and I was involved with that as well, when I would do some on-air pieces where we would try to educate the MTV audience about the (unintelligible) of American politics. So I did a segment once on, you know, what's the difference between a primary and a caucus, for instance, and this was cut with the MTV-style, music video-type editing. The producer was Alison Stewart, who is now on MSNBC, and at that time, she was a very innovative producer at MTV. And she and Tabitha Soren really changed the way MTV covered politics.

And that whole year, they were out covering the campaign, and I would sometimes work with Tabitha in producing these interviews. She interviewed Bill Clinton about five times before the boxers or briefs town meeting in 1994. So this had been going on for a while, and they had a good relationship with the White House. The Oval Office door was always open to Tabitha Soren and MTV because the White House, the Clinton White House anyway, understood that MTV could be of great use to them.

CONAN: I think Clinton showed up at an MTV inaugural ball and said it made the difference. But despite all that coverage, despite all the Rock the Vote stuff, we don't see a spike in youth voting.

Mr. ALTER: There wasn't a spike. I'd call it a little bit of a blip. I mean, I remember going on MTV on election night, 1992, and saying that, you know, young people had helped elect a new president. I was in Little Rock. It was very dramatic.

And then when we looked at the numbers, you're quite right, it wasn't nearly as dramatic as we were suggesting when the actual numbers came out. But it was still of some significance. And at least, you know, tonally, people felt like it did matter who could relate, in terms of coolness, to the American public.

And then, as you mentioned with the MTV ball, you know, for hundreds of years they've been having inaugural balls, but in 1993 - on January 20, 1993 - when Clinton was sworn in for his first term, that night the MTV ball was the hot ticket. That's where everybody wanted to go in Washington. And that was kind of a sign that, you know, MTV had arrived as a force in American politics.

CONAN: Let's thank Jonathan Alter. Appreciate your time today.

Mr. ALTER: Thank you.

CONAN: Jonathan Alter is senior editor at Newsweek, former consultant to MTV news. We should also mention he has a new book out about Franklin Delano Roosevelt - that hipster - entitled The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. He joined us by phone from his office in New York City.

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Ed. Ed's calling us from West Windsor in New Jersey.

ED (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ED: Yeah. Thanks for making me feel old.

CONAN: You're not the only one.

ED: Exactly. Listen, I remember when MTV - actually it wasn't even MTV, it was music videos - first came out, they were really intermissions between movies and that's when you'd get a little video. You'd get a taste of, you know, what band was out there and popular. But really what I wanted to talk about was - and I was, I think I was a junior in college, this was like '79, 1980 - but what I do remember about MTV when it was starting to come out is that the only black faces that you saw at that time were Michael Jackson. Not even plural, singular for that matter.

And I remember that, you know, as a young black student in school, yeah, it was interesting, but I also felt that it was somewhat biased. And in fact, there was a little bit of a brouhaha that came up, because when rap started becoming - it had already existed in the late ‘70s - but when rap started becoming mainstream, that's when MTV came out with Yo! MTV Raps, which for me was really the black version of MTV.

CONAN: Yeah.

ED: And there was some problems and there was some - I guess there was something in the news about how MTV was somewhat biased and not portraying or not giving air time and video time to those performers. And as a matter of fact, I felt that that continued with The Real World when you had the black comedian that was awkwardly placed in there.

And it felt as if he wasn't the right character to be in that scenario and kind of reminded me of the fodder, the joke that a lot of comedians came up with, you know, in a horror movie the minority is the first one to get killed off.

CONAN: Right. Yeah, the minority crewmen on Star Trek, always the first to go.

ED: Exactly.

CONAN: Joe Levy, is that criticism justified do you think?

Mr. LEVY: It's a very fair criticism. It would be a very far criticism of radio at the time as well. You know, Michael Jackson didn't just break the color barrier at MTV. He broke the color barrier at rock radio in 1982 or '83, which really was playing no music by black artists either.

And it was the start of something, through the mid-80s, different. The start of a moment in time when Prince was as much a rock artist as a dance artist, as was Michael Jackson. There were artists on both sides of the color barrier that could cross over to different radio formats. You might hear, for God's sake, George Michael on black radio in New York City. It happened. I was there. I can tell you.

However, it is a very fair criticism of MTV at the start. I would say that MTV actually was instrumental in bringing rap mainstream in 1987 and '88 when Yo! MTV Raps started. That really was the moment. Rap had certainly existed for a number of years at that point, but that was the moment when hip hop went mainstream on the radio, on MTV. And MTV was stunned, absolutely flabbergasted by the popularity of Yo! MTV Raps. As I remember at the time from talking to people who worked there, they were amazed. It instantly became a dominant force on the network.

And hip-hop has remained a dominant force on the network since then. When MTV started MTV 2, because MTV no longer played enough music videos, they wanted to start another network that was devoted to music video - by the way that network is now 10 years old and shows a lot of cartoons - but hip hop is a very, very important part of MTV as well.

So, although, it's a fair criticism of MTV at the start - and in fact, a fair a criticism of The Real World, which generally has a token character, whether it is a character of color or a character with a different sexual orientation. You know, The Real World is not five gay people and one straight person. Generally, a Real World cast is five straight people and one character that might becoming to terms with his or her sexuality. So, these are fair criticism quite frankly. That said -

ED: I would surmise that that - and I feel that things have certainly changed as you alluded to earlier - you have representation of, a varied representation in The Real World, such as, you know, the gay/lesbian hook-up and whatnot. I have yet to see a biracial hook-up. But I don't know.

Mr. LEVY: I can't swear to you that it's happened. But wouldn't be surprised if it has. But I, you know, off the top of my head, I can't say.

ED: Exactly.

CONAN: Ed. Thanks very much for the call.

ED: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking today about MTV's 25th birthday. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And joining us now is Jon Murray. He's the creator of Real World, MTV's chronicle of the lives of seven young people living together in a Manhattan loft. The show debuted back in 1992. It's now in its 17th season. It's been renewed through its 20th. Jon joins us on vacation in Cape Cod. Nice of you to be with us.

Mr. JONATHAN MURRAY (Creator, The Real World): Happy to be with you.

CONAN: I wonder if you just heard that criticism. Is that fair?

Mr. MURRAY: You know, it's always difficult when you're putting a show together, because whoever you put on it, often you sort of feel like, gee, do they have to represent a whole race or do they have to represent the sexual orientation.

But if you go back to our third season - you know, back to 1995, The Real World San Francisco - we had Pedro Zamora, a gay HIV positive cast member who ended up having a commitment ceremony to his black boyfriend, and he was Latino. And so, you know, I think The Real World has broken a lot of barriers. It's not perfect. Nothing ever is.

CONAN: Let me ask you, this was, it's credited with being the first reality TV show. Do you sleep at night?

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah, I do. I think reality television, you know, there's good and bad to it, like everything. But, you know, it took reality television and Survivor to have the first sort of gay Machiavellian winner of a major, you know, television show with Richard Hatch, you know. You wouldn't have gotten a scripted character like that. So, sometimes reality can take you places that scripted can't.

CONAN: How did you come up with this idea?

Mr. MURRAY: For The Real World? Well, actually when I was in high school I saw something on PBS called An American Family, about the Loud family of Santa Barbara. And it was essentially a reality show about this family in Santa Barbara. During the course of the series, their son came out of the closet, the parents got divorced. It was fascinating. It was very observational.

And many years later, we were working with MTV on trying to do some kind of program, perhaps scripted, and ultimately we realized that the best way to sort of chronicle this age was to put seven people together and sort of be a fly on the wall and watch what happens.

CONAN: The show is obviously quite different now than it used to be.

Mr. MURRAY: You know, I don't think it's that different. I think it - it still has seven people, still from different walks of life. I do think they party a little more than they used to. But then if you look at college campuses, certainly drinking is a bigger thing today than it was back in '92.

CONAN: All right, can you stay with us over the break?

Mr. MURRAY: Sure.

CONAN: All right. We're going to take a short break. And, again, if you'd like to join our conversation, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org. We're talking with Jonathan Murray, co-creator and still executive producer of Real World on MTV. Also with us Joe Levy, executive editor of Rolling Stone magazine. We're also going to be talking when we come back with Bjorn Turoque, the man who would be the king of the air guitar. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Heavy fighting continues in Lebanon as Israel expands its ground offensive, sending thousands more troops deeper into the country. Israel has also resumed its frequent air strikes.

And Fidel Castro has handed over power temporarily to his brother Raul. The 79-year-old Cuban president is recovering after surgery to stop intestinal bleeding. The news sparked celebrations in Miami's Little Havana.

You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Tomorrow at this time on TALK OF THE NATION, in an effort to battle gang problems in prison, some states keep inmates in solitary confinement, kept under lock and key almost 23 hours a day. Serving time in solitary and trying to readjust to life on the outside, tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Today we're talking about MTV, which turns 25 years old today. Our guests are Joe Levy, executive editor of Rolling Stone magazine, on the phone from his office in New York City. And also with us is Jonathan Murray, co-creator and now still executive producer of MTV's The Real World, who's with us on the phone from his vacation spot in Cape Cod.

Let's get a caller on the line. And this is Eric. Eric calling us from Phoenix, Arizona.

ERIC (Caller): Good Afternoon, Neal. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ERIC: I just wanted to mention and respond to some of the criticism about some of the “token characters” on The Real World. As a young gay man dealing with my own coming out experience, being able to watch on television other young people that looked like me and sounded like me that were going through some of the same experience served as such a strength in an otherwise confusing and turbulent time. And I think it's fantastic that there are those kind of token characters that young people such as myself can kind of look to as a source of strength.

CONAN: Jon Murray, that must be nice to hear. I'm sure you've heard it before. I wonder, were there any difficulties in establishing that character on Real World?

Mr. MURRAY: No, not at all. From the beginning when we sold the show to MTV, it was, you know, it was meant to be about seven diverse characters and wherever that diversity took us they were willing to let us go.

CONAN: So, no problems at all? Nobody said, ooh, wait a minute?

Mr. MURRAY: No, no, not at all. And I think if you look at some of the gay characters we've had, they're all very different from each other. You know, we had this guy Danny, who was in our New Orleans season, whose boyfriend was in the military and so we couldn't show his face for the whole season.

Mr. MURRAY: You know, it's amazing where these stories can take you and it's amazing how our audience has really year after year sort of followed these stories and in some cases learned from them, not just been entertained by them.

CONAN: Eric, do you still watch?

ERIC: I do. It's similar to some other callers. It doesn't serve the same purpose for me in my life now, but I'll turn it on every now and then just to see what's going on. But I don't have the same connection to it like I did maybe five years ago.

CONAN: Eric thanks very much for the call.

ERIC: Thank you, gentlemen.

CONAN: And I'd like to ask both of you. One of the most difficult things for any institution to do is to keep refreshing itself. As executives get older, inevitably they sort of lose touch with the people. If they're still aiming for a youth audience, sometimes it's extremely difficult. And Joe Levy, how do you think MTV has managed to do that?

Mr. LEVY: Well, from what I know - and certainly I'm on the outside - they pay an awful lot of attention to their audience. They pay an awful lot of attention to the young people who work there, most of whom are interns that are working there for free. And they are constantly in touch with the people they mean to serve. So as their audience changes they can change with it. Sometimes they're leading that audience and sometimes they're following it.

CONAN: Jonathan Murray, what do you think?

Mr. MURRAY: Yeah, well I think with a show like The Real World, there essentially it reinvents itself, because every year we cast directly from MTV's audience. So, it directly represents them. It's, you know, if we were the same, you know, if I was writing this show, gee, God, you know, I'd be pretty out of touch. But luckily I'm just sort of casting it and finding the people and then telling their stories. So that helps.

And yes, they do take advantage of interns and they will often take a pilot and show it to their interns to get their feedback before they make their decision on whether to pick it up or not.

CONAN: Jon Murray, appreciate your time today, especially taking a break from vacation. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MURRAY: All right, glad to. Thanks, bye.

CONAN: Jon Murray, co-creator and executive producer of MTV's Real World, and as we mentioned he joined us on the phone from vacation on Cape Cod. And Joe Levy, I know your magazine's going to bed today. We appreciate your taking the time out to speak with us, too.

Mr. LEVY: Oh, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Joe Levy, executive editor of Rolling Stone magazine, another institution that's managed to hang on for a few years. He joined us by phone from his office in New York City. When we come back, Björn Türoque.

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