MTV hits the big 4-0

Where were you 40 years ago? Were you anxiously awaiting the launch – at midnight on August 1, 1981 – of Music Television, better known as MTV?

Were you born? If you did exist on Earth back then, were you old enough to remember this august (pun intended) moment in American cultural history?

I am old enough to remember the start of the MTV phenomenon, though I did not witness the launch personally. The availability of cable television wasn’t widespread in 1981, especially in urban areas. So in Pontiac, Michigan, where I grew up, our TV choices were still limited to over-the-air broadcasts from stations mostly in Detroit:

2WJBKCBSDetroit
4WDIVNBCDetroit
7WXYZABCDetroit
9CBETCBCWindsor, Ontario
20WXONIndependentDetroit
50WKBDIndependentDetroit
56WTVSPBSDetroit
62WGPRIndependentDetroit

Here’s how the Detroit Free Press noted the upcoming launch of MTV two days before it started:

Detroit Free Press, Thursday, July 29, 1981, page 12B

An interesting note about cable TV availability: I was listening to the original MTV video jocks (Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn, and Alan Hunter – the fifth original VJ, J.J. Jackson, died in 2004) chat about MTV’s start on SiriusXM’s “80s on 8” yesterday, and they recalled that they had to travel to Fort Lee, New Jersey during the evening on July 31, where they went to a restaurant that had cable since it wasn’t yet available in Manhattan. They’d been taping their segments that would appear between the videos, but really weren’t sure what MTV was going to look like until the channel started at 12:01 a.m.

My first exposure to MTV was about a month later when I went off to Central Michigan University for my freshman year. As noted in Bettelou Peterson’s Free Press item above, Mt. Pleasant was one of the Michigan cities that had cable and was going to have MTV on their lineup. So when I got to my dorm (the late, great Tate Hall), some of my new dorm mates were aware of the channel already. The dorm had only one cable connection, located in the basement hangout room, where it was attached to a then-quite-large 24” diagonal color television.

I spent a bit of time down there watching, but frankly, I was more into radio and didn’t see the attraction of watching music instead of just listening to it. But some of our classmates spent way too much time down there, and it was apparent that the concept definitely had appeal.

During “Welcome Week,” in fact, the university’s Program Board, which organized music and other cultural events on campus, held a “video watch” event in the Kiva space in Moore Hall. Music videos were projected onto a screen. About 100 people showed up and a good time was had by all.

By the time my radio career got started in 1982, first at campus station WCHP and then at WCFX-FM in Clare, MTV was already affecting how music was being marketed and consumed by fans. MTV’s popularity profoundly influenced what it took to be a successful popular music artist. While it never hurt to be physically attractive before, visual image became even more important in an era when your song absolutely had to have a video to have any chance of getting played, not just on MTV but on the radio as well.

Change is often gradual, and it’s hard to point out exactly when our culture started moving in a different direction. But August 1, 1981, was a pivotal moment in American society when the rocket took off and MTV started burrowing into our collective consciousness.

Do you ever listen to yourself talk? Let’s try a real-life aircheck.

When I worked in radio a long time ago, I had to pop a cassette tape into a recorder at the start of every shift. It would turn on every time I switched the microphone on, so I could review my show, either on my own (if I’d been diligent, which I was not) or with my program director (which was supposed to be weekly, but since he wasn’t any more diligent than I was, tended to be every month or so). When I did take the time to listen to my “aircheck,” though, I usually discovered speech tendencies that I wasn’t aware of, so I could try to stop doing them.

Since I eventually left radio after seven years, with the largest market I worked in being Mount Pleasant, Michigan, you can see how that turned out.

I thought about airchecks the other day when I caught myself expounding at some length on some topic of great importance (to me, anyway). There are times when such a detailed discussion is appropriate, but I’m pretty sure this wasn’t one of them. I’m also pretty sure I was talking in circles and probably repeating things the person I was talking to had already heard from me before. In other words, I was likely overbearing, and worse, boring.

Do you ever listen to yourself talk? Maybe we need airchecks in our everyday lives.

The Age of Rush

I’m half hoping that the title of this post will draw fans of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart, but I somehow doubt it.

Rush Limbaugh died today at the age of 70. Limbaugh was a radio legend, whether you liked or agreed with him or not. While not the first conservative radio host by a long shot (this great article by Michael J. Socolow on Slate.com goes into that history very well), Limbaugh was the first to really give political radio shows the full shock jock treatment. While Howard Stern can be political at times, Limbaugh wasn’t interviewing Playboy models or deviant tabloid celebrities (though many of the politicians he championed had plenty of deviant, tabloid personal characteristics).

He was probably not too different from his on-air persona; many shock jocks and blue comedians have a natural need to offend, raise eyebrows, and draw attention to themselves. He confided to people close to him that most of his broadcast antics were just that, an act, intended to encourage his supporters and outrage his detractors. This was especially true in the earlier days of his rise as the King of AM Radio (he was often given credit for saving the AM band after FM took over the terrestrial airwaves in the 80s and 90s).

I used to listen to Rush occasionally, at least one or two days a week. While I’ve never considered myself to be particularly conservative (or liberal, for that matter – you are, after all, stuck in the middle with me), I did share Limbaugh’s distain for Bill Clinton. As I’ve mentioned before, there was always something about Clinton that irritated me, and I didn’t vote for him either time (I voted for independent Ross Perot in 1992 and Libertarian Harry Browne in 1996, if you’re curious). So his shtick parodying Clinton amused me.

He was a lot more amusing back then. He certainly had a nasty edge, but a lot of the show was so over-the-top in terms of his boasting and ego that it was impossible to take seriously. Like a good shock jock (he’d started at small stations in his native Missouri), he knew how to put on a performance that would create loyalty among his listeners. Even if you hated him, you had to admire his ability to dominate the AM airwaves at a time when everyone else was abandoning it.

Later, he seemed to forget where the line was between the performer and the performance. His endless, often tasteless, attacks on Barack Obama and his administration began to be unmoored from any connection to facts. Perhaps some of it was connected to his addictions, or maybe it was his diminishing role in Republican circles after several on-air controversies and the failure of right-wing candidates he’d championed to do well in elections, but he seemed to become more strident and even desperate for attention. He was rather late to the Donald Trump show, even criticizing Trump in 2015 for not being a “genuine conservative,” but once he realized how useful Trump could be, Limbaugh was all-in (as were many other Republicans who had been critical during the 2016 presidential race).

At one point, Limbaugh was so popular that ESPN thought it might be a good idea to add him to the Monday Night Football booth. That experiment ended quickly after he, predictably, made offensive comments about Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Rush Limbaugh spawned dozens of imitators, none of whom ever approached his relevance, or even dominance, of American political culture in the same way. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking his place.

Just as well, really.