The Golden Age of MTV — And Yes, There Was One It's hard to remember now, but MTV did once play music videos all day. A new oral history recalls that golden age, and the network's meteoric rise to the top of the music industry.

The Golden Age of MTV — And Yes, There Was One

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JOHN LACK: Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.


With those words played over footage of the Apollo 11 launch, MTV took to the air a minute after midnight on August 1, 1981. The first video was, appropriately, "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles.


TINA CHARLES: (Singing) Video killed the radio star. Video killed the radio star.

TREVOR HORN: (Singing) Pictures came and broke your heart.

SULLIVAN: Not too many people were watching that day. The fledgling channel was only carried on a few cable stations. But MTV soon became a force to be reckoned with in the music industry, which is sometimes hard to remember in the current age of "Jersey Shore" and "My Supersweet 16." Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum are the authors of "I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution." And they join me now from our New York studios. Welcome to the program, guys.

CRAIG MARKS: Thanks, Laura.


SULLIVAN: Rob, when they first started in 1981, there were some music videos, but there weren't a lot of them, and they really weren't being played anywhere. I mean, where did the first MTV executive think they were going to get all of this content to put on a 24-hour a day music channel?

TANNENBAUM: Well, record companies and bands had been making music videos for 20 years or so. They weren't called music videos. And, in fact, if you had said to someone in 1981, do you want to watch a music video, the person would've said, I don't know what you're talking about, because the phrase didn't actually exist.

The record companies had these things mostly sitting on the shelves gathering dust. If a band put out a new song and they didn't want to go all the way to Australia to promote it, they would send the video. But no one had thought, before MTV, to package these all together, to play them consecutively. And, in fact, the record companies, when they heard the idea of MTV, almost universally said, that'll never work.

SULLIVAN: You took the title of your book from a famous ad campaign that MTV used to get local cable networks to - just to carry them. Tell me about that.

MARKS: There was a moment in MTV's early life where things weren't going very well. They couldn't get enough ads. And the reason they couldn't get enough ads was because they didn't have enough distribution. You couldn't even see MTV in New York City for the first year or L.A. And the people who owned the cable distribution networks were very conservative often, and they thought that MTV was a bunch of, you know, coked-up rock and roll fiends. And they were right, in a way. And they thought it was going to lower the community standards and things like that, so...

TANNENBAUM: And they were right about that too.


MARKS: Right. So MTV came up with - with the help of some ad executives, George Lois, who was very famous, and Dale Pon - this campaign called "I Want My MTV" that was based on an old ad that George Lois had done in the '50s for a cereal called Maypo. It was, I want my Maypo. MTV executive named Les Garland, who was very influential and very important in the programming, he was instrumental, as was a couple other people in getting rock musicians, very famous ones, to go on MTV, film this commercial spot and say...





MARKS: And when Pete Townshend and Pat Benatar and Cyndi Lauper and most famously, I guess, Mick Jagger, said call your cable company and demand your MTV, the phones rang off the hook. And that's really was the turning point, that and "Thriller" were the two things that kept the network afloat.

TANNENBAUM: And - this is Rob. When Michael Jackson started making his "Thriller" videos, MTV was at a really crucial point financially. They were probably three bad months away from going out of business.


TANNENBAUM: And happily for them, this coincided with Michael Jackson making three of the best videos that had ever been made. And by early 1984, MTV was profitable.


MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) 'Cause this is thriller, thriller night. And no one's gonna save you from the beast about to strike...

SULLIVAN: Well, you write in your book that they had a real battle to get Michael Jackson's videos on air.

MARKS: They did. You know, MTV was programmed and essentially founded by all these radio guys, these white, mid-20s radio programmers who believed in playing one type of music only to reach a particular demographic. So the way that most FM radio was segregated where you'll have a rock station and a hip hop station, that's the way that MTV was thought of and it was a - essentially, it was a rock station, MTV.

And then Michael Jackson came along, and his label, CBS Records, said: You're going to play Michael Jackson or we're not going to let you play any of our other videos, Billy Joel, and just a slew of really important videos. And MTV was a little bit hesitant at first. They - really, they didn't think their audience would like Michael Jackson or any urban artist. And they were proven wrong almost immediately.


TANNENBAUM: And - this is Rob. They weren't idiots. Once they saw the ratings go up, they realized that they could program black musicians. And after Michael Jackson come Lionel Richie and a bunch of other people, and R&B becomes really an essential part of MTV's programming.

SULLIVAN: I'm speaking to Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, authors of the new book "I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution." This battle between, sort of the artists and the network, I mean, that erupted again a few years later when rap became huge.

TANNENBAUM: Yeah. This is Rob. When Michael Jackson saved the network, the MTV executives said to one another, well, we learned our lesson. But the lesson that they learned wasn't broad enough because a couple years later, the exact same thing happened with rap videos. To be fair to MTV, most people were afraid of rap at the time. And the story of rap's conquest of MTV is really a pretty great one.

All the grownups there were afraid of it. And there was a 23-year-old assistant named Ted Demme who relentlessly kept banging on people's doors and saying, we need to do a rap show. We need to do a rap show. And they gave him a small budget to do a show that aired late at night, early in the morning, and their expectation was that no one would be watching it. When the ratings came in on Monday morning, they were triple what MTV's usual ratings were.

And the same way it happened with Michael Jackson, they weren't stupid. Within a week or two, they were putting "Yo! MTV Raps" on the air on a regular basis.


ERICK SERMON: (Rapping) Then came the answer. Commercial was the key. They get airplay and a spot on TV. Like Ed Lover and Dr. Dre for Yo! MTV Raps, a show mainly for the black and still we can't ill...

SULLIVAN: Rob, you end the book in 1992 at the close of what some people call the golden age of MTV. Why did you choose to end the history then?

TANNENBAUM: Well, '92 is the beginning of the end of what we consider to be the golden age. We're not making an argument that there were no great videos after '92. But certainly in '92, MTV began to recede from music videos. One of the signature things that happened that year was Bill Clinton was a constant presence on MTV in '90, '91, and he was elected president. But if you're MTV, you know, once you've helped elect a U.S. president, are you going to go back to playing Winger videos?

MARKS: And the other reason that '92 marks the end of our book is because in 1992, MTV debuted a reality television show called "The Real World," which was really the first reality television show on any American network on any kind of regular basis. And, you know, it's very easy to trace the line from "The Real World" to Snooki, and it's an alcoholic crooked line all the way there.

But MTV quickly realized and learned that narrative television, even reality TV, rated better than music videos. And I think "The Real World" was the last point where MTV could be considered revolutionary.

SULLIVAN: Are you sad? You sad it's all over?

TANNENBAUM: I'm sad about the fact that the 1969 Mets are never going to take the field again. You know, the past is gone, and it's not coming back. And our book is a memento for all the people like us who adored that era and want to relive it.

MARKS: And I do miss the days when a video would world premier on MTV and it would sort of spark this communal moment where we were all, you know, entranced with the new Madonna video or a new R.E.M. video or a new Guns N' Roses video. I think that's missing that communal feeling of watching something at the same time with everybody, especially with everyone that you don't know.

TANNENBAUM: And particularly a Guns n' Roses video. There's nothing I've seen since those Guns N' Roses video that has just made my jaw drop and say, what is that? What does that mean? I don't get it.


AXL ROSE: (Singing) When I look into your eyes I can see a love restrained...

SULLIVAN: Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum. They're the authors of the new book "I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution." Thanks so much to both of you for coming in.

TANNENBAUM: Thank you for having us.

MARKS: Thanks very much.


SULLIVAN: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan. Check out our weekly podcast, The Best of WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it iTunes or at We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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