A recent post on a friend’s Facebook page noted the anniversary of the birth of MTV on Aug. 1, 1981, and how the channel, which essentially created a broadcasting genre by playing music videos 24/7, became one of her “obsessions.”
In the comments, I trotted out my story about Martha Quinn, the MTV host, or “VJ,” who became America’s sweetheart in the 1980s, and who I spent an afternoon with at an Atlanta area hotel in the summer of 1984, for a cover story in TVWeek, the television magazine I was editing at the time for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
My friend, Karin Johnson, loved my Martha story (which I’ll share below), so that prompted me to dig into the archives and find that TVWeek article.
Coincidentally, it was published 35 years ago today!
MTV didn’t invent the music video (which we called “promo films” back in the 1960s when The Beatles were doing them), and it didn’t even invent the concept of a “video radio station” (that had been done back in 1970 in Atlanta by an independent local TV station that ran the “Now Explosion” on weekends, which later was syndicated to other markets). Another Atlanta-based outfit, Video Concert Hall, had started programming several hours of music videos on USA Network, Showtime and other outlets in 1979. Still, it was MTV that turned music video into a cultural phenomenon — at least, for a while.
In place of radio’s DJs, the channel had on-camera “VJs,” who introduced the clips, offered music news and did interviews with performers. The quintet of original VJs were deliberate demographic choices: aging black hipster J.J. Jackson, who had been an FM progressive rock DJ in Boston and Los Angeles (not the former Atlanta disc jockey); cocky and curly-haired Mark Goodman, who was a Top 40 DJ in New York; All-American boy Alan Hunter, a Mississippi-born actor; blonde space queen Nina Blackwood, an actress who had the “sexy rock chick” thing going; and the fresh-faced and impossibly cute Quinn, just over a month out of New York University when the channel debuted, who represented the “girl next door” ideal.
Actually, MTV was a hard sell at first — for advertisers, cable TV companies who weren’t crazy about allotting space to the channel, and even the record labels (who were expected to provide the clips for free, just as they did records to radio stations). In fact, on that August day in 1981 when the New York-based channel debuted, MTV wasn’t even carried in Manhattan, so the staff had to bus out to New Jersey in order to watch the premiere, which famously started with the Buggles’ tune “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
Because its owners at the time, a joint venture between Warner Communications and Amex, had no intention of operating a channel that couldn’t be seen in most big cities, MTV did a saturation buy of TV commercials on national and local outlets, with stars like Pete Townshend and Billy Idol urging viewers to call their cable companies and demand, “I want my MTV!” It became one of the most successful catch phrases of a decade known for catch phrases, and provided Dire Straits with a chorus to “Money for Nothing.”
MTV continued to build its audience, and music videos suddenly became a thing. USA added “Night Flight” in 1981, the Video Music Channel started out of Atlanta in 1982, and by 1983, NBC was showing “Friday Night Videos” in late night, TBS was showing “Night Tracks,” and soon even local stations were programming their own late-night music video shows. The AJC added a weekly video music column to my duties.
When Quinn came to Atlanta on a promotional visit that summer of ’84, she couldn’t believe the change since the last time she had been there, when MTV was carried only in a few suburbs.
That had changed the previous December, when the city’s major cable systems finally gave Atlantans their MTV. But, Martha didn’t know that, and so she arrived expecting the same sort of indifference she’d gotten before.
Instead, the 5-foot brunette with the large eyes and megawatt smile was recognized everywhere. Would-be paparazzi kept following her car. “It really is a big difference,” the 25-year-old said with childlike enthusiasm.
Before MTV finally was picked up in New York, she said, no one could see the TV job she claimed to have. “For a long time, people didn’t recognize me. But, I’d go to North Dakota or Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they had MTV from Day One, and they knew me.”
Once they could see MTV, viewers everywhere immediately fell in love with the adorable Quinn, the stepdaughter of well-known economic columnist Jane Bryant Quinn. Her bright personality and mixture of little girl innocence and slightly punky sex appeal soon had her breaking out of the VJ pack.
As Conan O’ Brien recalled in the book “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,” “I remember thinking, Martha Quinn’s cute. She seemed attainable to me. She was the only one whose name I could remember early on.”
Fellow VJ Alan Hunter noted: “Nina was the vamp, and Martha was the girl next door. Guys always said to me, ‘What’s Nina like? I want to sleep with her.’ And ‘What’s Martha like? I want to date her.’”
“We definitely were picked for reasons,” Martha told me, “and I think we fulfill what they need.”
“Weird Al” Yankovic once said, “I think everybody in North America had a small crush on Martha Quinn,” and I certainly was no exception. On top of that, she was even more appealing in person than on TV.
Sitting cross-legged on a chair in her hotel room, and crunching on a bag of potato chips as we talked, she was wearing jeans, a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of one of her idols, John Lennon, and six earrings, including one with a toy airplane that bobbed as she talked animatedly.
One thing that most people liked about Martha was that she was relatable. When she met a big name, of whom she was a fan, she didn’t try to hide being starstruck. And, while Prince famously dismissed her asking him “So, how do you feel?” by answering, “With my hands, Martha,” Bob Dylan specifically requested MTV fly her to London to interview him.
“My first interview was with Hall and Oates,” she said, “and I was incredibly nervous. And there’s a band I won’t name that I was interviewing, and one guy said something unbelievably rude to me and I didn’t know how to handle it. I sat there and took it. My only regret is that I didn’t just take my mic off and say, ‘Hey, this interview’s over.’”
Prior to becoming a VJ, Martha had worked on the NYU student radio station and been an intern at New York’s WNBC Radio. “My job was to get sandwiches from the commissary and to alphabetize all the singles. I was stuck in the closet for a year,” she said with a laugh.
Originally, she had wanted to be an actress, and while in college had worked in TV commercials. “I was a Chicken McNugget girl in New York, and, national, I did Country Time Lemonade and was a bride on a Kellogg’s cereal spot,” she said. ‘It was really fun to do during college, because it didn’t matter. But, when I graduated, I was panicked, thinking I have to depend on these jobs now.”
She had lined up a job at a small “beautiful music” radio station (remember those?) on Long Island when a casual visit to WNBC Radio, where she had interned, changed everything. “Bob Pittman, one of the originators of MTV, used to be program director of WNBC. And his name came up and somebody said, ‘Martha, you should be a VJ.’ I said, ‘What’s a VJ?’ and he said, ‘It’s on cable TV’ and I said, ‘Ha, I have a job’ and he said, ‘Martha, take my word for it, this is better.’”
Still not that interested, she auditioned anyway. “I had walked onto the MTV set not really having a grasp of what it was and, as I went out, I thought, ‘Man, I’d love to have that job. That’s perfect for me.’ I couldn’t have invented a job better suited to me.”
Of course, life for a VJ wasn’t really perfect. Hearing from old classmates who had ignored her in high school but now wanted to be pals made her “livid.” And, among the 200 letters a week that she received, were some that were disturbing. One guy started sending flowers, followed by “a picture of himself with a bloodstained thumb print on the bottom and a note that said he was going to come get me.”
As an interviewee, though, Martha was very personable, and we got on well. As the T-shirt showed, Martha’s a big fan of The Beatles, so we had that in common. (A few years later, when she interviewed Paul McCartney, and he was drinking tea, she finished off what he’d left in his cup and put the cup and saucer in her purse as collectibles.)
After the official interview portion of our time together was over, she kept chatting casually, gossiping about attending a Lennon memorial the previous December at which Yoko Ono and then-8-year-old son Sean Lennon had appeared. Martha was aghast at how pushy singer Roberta Flack had been in accosting young Sean.
I left the hotel room thinking the interview had gone very well, and apparently it did. A few days after the piece, headlined, “The Quinn-tessential veejay loves her MTV,” had been published, we came home one evening to find a perky voice on our answering machine (again, remember those?). It was a lovely message from Martha, telling me how much she’d enjoyed the article.
That sort of personal feedback from someone famous I’d interviewed was pretty rare (though I had received a thank-you note from Judy Collins after another interview).
Shortly after that, I got a letter from Martha’s father, a New York attorney, asking if I could send him some extra copies of that edition of TVWeek, which featured his daughter on the cover.
Thoroughly charmed, I mailed him a stack of them.
Martha spent two stints with MTV, up to 1993, and afterward did some acting and commercial work, and spent 11 years hosting a 1980s music show on SiriusXM Radio. Now, at age 60, she is with IHeartRadio, hosting the morning show on its San Francisco station and a podcast on the company’s app.
As for MTV, I stopped watching after it went heavily into rap music in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and then the channel gradually started cutting back music videos altogether, focusing more on game shows and reality programming targeting teenagers and young adults, like “The Real World” and “Jersey Shore,” which drew bigger ratings. The VJs are long gone.
Until I started working on this piece, I had not seen the channel in years, and, in fact, wasn’t even sure DirecTV still carried it. It does, and it appears to be one marathon after another of reality shows, just like its sister channels, MTV2 and VH1. However, I discovered that there’s a fourth channel, MTV Classic, that still plays music videos, though only those from the ’80s through the ’90s and early 2000s.
I watched a few hours this weekend, even keeping it on while I did some work, just like I did back in the ’80s. I watched a block called “I Want My 80s” that included a lot of long-forgotten crap and some good stuff (a good summation of 1980s music). I saw a self-indulgent Huey Lewis video that spent several minutes on a lame Frankenstein parody before finally getting to the song, and clips from Aerosmith, hair bands like Whitesnake, Journey, the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” (the most irritating ear worm ever), REO Speedwagon, the Pointer Sisters, the B-52’s (“Love Shack”) and the Psychedelic Furs video for “Pretty in Pink,” with footage from the Molly Ringwald Brat Pack movie of the same name. Later, I saw a pop show that veered from boy bands to the Cars to Brandy to Eric Clapton to Crowded House to Elvis Costello, and also included the quintessential ’80s music video: Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” from the movie “Flashdance.”
MTV Classic also showed a video from 1983 of a then blond and vibrant David Bowie doing “Modern Love.” Watching that made me sad.
Unfortunately, they only played the videos, with no vintage VJ footage. Too bad; after watching Bowie, I could have used a bracing shot or two of Martha Quinn.