A Hard Day's Night with MTV's Video Jocks
It’s 9:30 on a Thursday morning, but on the set of MTV in a nondescript Manhattan studio it’s a definitely-not-live-from-New-York Saturday night. Nina Blackwood, MTV’s blond-bombshell veejay is taping an 11-second promo. “This evening’s concert,” she reads sincerely from a TelePrompTer, “is brought to you by Snickers. Snickers really satisfies.” Then, moving to a part of the set done up like a basement rec room, Blackwood hurries through a few lines of music news (“Paul McCartney’s upcoming film, Give My Regards to Broad Street, is going to include eight Beatles tunes”). Switching locations again, she races through intros and post-clip “outros” for dozens of videos (which will be edited into the tape later) and reads concert dates and promos. Forty minutes later, having recorded every “live” spot required for five hours of MTV’s weekend, she turns the set over to veejay Mark Goodman, who will tape his five hours of airtime in the next three quarters of an hour. Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn all follow. After dinner the five veejays—who tape material for seven 24-hour days of programming during a five-day workweek—will change clothes and begin taping another telecast day. “When we say music all day and all night, we mean it,” says Quinn. “I’ve never worked so hard at anything.”
Ah, the price of revolution. Two and a half years ago MTV didn’t exist. Now, says Quinn, “We are the Frigidaire, the Band-Aid of rock video. We’re it.” Along the way they’ve become celebrities themselves. Blackwood is still surprised when, walking down the street, she hears someone call out her name—and then realizes “it’s someone I don’t know.” Says Mick Fleetwood, one of the rockers who frequently drops by the studio to chat, “At concerts I’ve seen them get more applause than the bands they introduce.” And at cable conventions the veejays are mobbed by autograph-seeking fans.
Ironically, they’ve succeeded by seeming particularly un-starlike. “There is a nice air of naiveté about them that I find refreshing,” says Fleetwood. “They just have to hang onto it.” It’s true all five are startlingly nonchalant on-camera. Explains one of MTV’s directors, Geoff Bolton, “When someone flubs a line, we usually don’t correct them.”
Not that they all sound the same. Blackwood, 30ish, comes off like a dizzy dame, though, she says, “It’s not intentional. I’m really a very serious person.” Hunter, 26, is an all-American jock type who challenges the crew to keep up with his on-camera antics. Quinn, 24, is wide-eyed and innocent. Goodman, 30, is a street-smart Philadelphian. Jackson, 37, the only black in the cast, spent 14 years in FM radio as “a hippie deejay” and still makes the producers nervous with lines like “This is brown Jackson here with news of Jackson Browne.”
If the quintet has developed distinctive on-air personalities, it is partly because, two years ago, who knew what a videojock should be? “No one told us what to do,” recalls Jackson, “so we just did it.” Still, the producers say they interviewed 1,500 candidates before finding the right combination. Quinn came straight from New York University (though having newscaster Jane Bryant Quinn as a stepmother didn’t hurt any). Blackwood had been a struggling actress in L.A. Hunter, an actor and magician, met MTV executive Bob Pittman at a Central Park picnic for Mississippians—their mutual home state—and quit his night bartending job in Manhattan only when he became convinced that MTV would make it. Jackson and Goodman, another former deejay, arrived through music connections.
So far, fame hasn’t inflated their egos—or their wallets. They do their own makeup and hair in one cramped dressing room, where music is played on an old clock radio. Between tapings, they answer viewer mail (each gets 200 letters a week), study their lines, screen new videos (though they are not consulted in the network’s choices) and shop for on-camera clothes with their recently hired wardrobe mistress. Although they will soon get separate dressing rooms in a revamped studio, they insisted on a joint makeup table so they can spend their off-air time together. Indeed, they’d like to spend it with another veejay: All five applauded Pittman’s recent decision to hire a sixth person to share the load. Assures Jackson, who like the other veejays can take only one week of vacation at a time, “We won’t view it as competition. Just relief.”
They also wouldn’t mind a little economic relief. Most were hired for minimal salaries when MTV was aborning; now they hope to share in its success when their three-year contracts come up for renegotiation next summer. With that in mind Blackwood was on tenterhooks when she recently asked viewers of Columbus, Ohio’s QUBE systems (who can respond to on-air polls by pushing a button on their sets) how much they wanted to see the veejays. They answered: “As much or more.”