3 Welcome to Your Life MTV Hires the VJs Nina:
I read an article in Billboard saying that there was a new twenty-four-hour music channel, owned by Warner AmEx Satellite Communications, that was looking for hosts and hostesses who knew about music. I sent them my résumé and an eight-by-ten picture. I wanted it to look punk, so I started coloring the picture with crayons. Danny came by and said, “What are you doing?” I told him and he said, “Nina, there are such things as color Xeroxes.”
They came out to L.A. and held auditions. I went down in my little MG, dressed all in black. I was dying in the heat, but I had to look cool. A few weeks later, they came out again. This time they wanted me to interview a “celebrity.” It was Robert Morton, who went on to be Morty, the producer of David Letterman’s show—he was pretending to be a smart-alecky Billy Joel. It went well, but I didn’t hear from them for a while, and I thought that was weird. I’m not the cockiest person in the world, but I kept thinking, “If they don’t hire me, who are they looking for? In the whole United States, how many people are working on this sort of thing already?” And I had rock ’n’ roll in my heart.
So I called them up, and the phone number went to a hotel, I think the New York Sheraton. I hung up and told Danny, “Oh my God, they’re a fly-by-night organization using Warner’s name. How are they getting away with it?”
He said, “You should call back.”
It turned out they were the real thing—they were working out of a hotel room—and they wanted me to come to New York for the final verdict. I went out, and they said, “We want you, but you have to move to New York.” Because the company’s name included “satellite communications,” I had assumed the job was going to be in L.A.
I couldn’t decide, so executive producers Sue Steinberg and Robert Morton said they would show me the highlights of New York, hoping I would want to move and take the job. They took me to the public library—hey, I like books. And we went to lunch at the Tavern on the Green. I was nervous, and when they brought out the crusty rolls, I inhaled one. It lodged in my throat—I was choking to death. Luckily, Morty knew the Heimlich maneuver. He jumped up and saved my life. After everybody calmed down, he said, “You owe me.”
I said, “Yeah, you’re right. I’ll take the job.”
I got a call from a friend of mine in Philadelphia. We both knew a guy named Richard Bencivengo, and he said, “I heard that Bencivengo’s working on some sort of music video channel.” I was unhappy at WPLJ, so I called them up. It turned out they were seeing everybody in the world. A bunch of people from PLJ went in—I saw them at the auditions. The first audition was in a forty-eight-degree studio. It was pitch-black, with a stool and a spotlight. Freezing cold, with a spotlight in the face, the vibe was interrogation: Answer our questions or we’re going to pluck out your eyeballs. I talked into the camera about Eric Clapton going on tour. There was a one-way window in the studio; it felt like a sci-fi movie where they do an experiment and the alien overlords watch through the window, waiting to see if your head explodes.
It was a few weeks before I heard anything—I guess they were scouting for talent in other cities. I had a second audition, at a different, warmer studio. They had two areas set up. One had a big white card with pictures of the Eagles taped on it, perched on an easel. They wanted me to back-announce an Eagles video, and then walk from the board to this other area, which had a ratty couch and a chair, sit down
there, and throw to the next video. They were literally seeing if I could walk and talk at the same time.
There were a couple of camera guys, and a bunch of producers, and cue cards. I had never worked with cue cards before, but I knew what I was supposed to be saying. At one point, I was so far off the cards, the producer had no idea what to hold up next. I just said, “Next card, please.” I found out later that went a long way toward getting me the job—when I needed some information, I didn’t stumble through it like a standard TV host. I spoke to the people off-camera and asked for it.
The next section was interviewing “Billy Joel,” as played by Robert Morton. Billy Joel is the nicest guy ever, but Robert was being cantankerous, giving yes and no answers to questions. At the end, I talked to Sue Steinberg. I’m six foot one, and Sue is approximately four foot nine. She looked up at me and said, “I think you’ll be hearing from us.” There was something in her face that said, “I can’t tell you this, but you so have this job.”
Nina was the first one they hired, and then maybe a day later, J. J. I got the call very soon after that. I had a three-year contract with ABC, which owned WPLJ, but I really wanted to do MTV. I booked a vacation, went away for ten days, and let my lawyers hash it out.
They wanted me right away—this was the middle of June. I asked if I could stay in L.A. for the Fourth of July. At the time, there were wonderful fireworks up and down the coast, and I really wanted to see them. I watched them from my favorite spot, Topanga Beach, and left for New York City on July 5.
MTV was a gamble. Vicki Light, who was my agent, and Danny, who was my manager, figured it was some little cable show, and if I didn’t like it, I could come back in three months. We weren’t even sure it’d still be on the air six months later.
MTV put me up in a beautiful hotel, the Berkshire. After the incident at the Tavern on the Green, I was really scared about choking when I was by myself. For about two months, I would order room service and eat right next to the phone so I could call the front desk in case anything happened.
The first weekend I lived in New York, I had maybe one friend outside of the people at MTV—and I didn’t really know them either. Mark kindly said, “You want to go to Central Park?” I got into a cab to meet him and immediately got into a car accident. Not a big one, but there was lots of screaming and yelling. After I finally made it to Central Park, Mark and I were walking around when a bush came alive.
There was some commotion in the bush, and I said, “Oh, that’s probably rats fighting. No big deal. There must be some garbage there.” Nina completely freaked out. She was so not a New York person. I thought Nina was really hot, and I was definitely attracted to her, but I was in love with Carol, so I didn’t try to instigate anything between us—and today, we’re like brother and sister.
After a format change at KWST—it went from classic rock to top 40—J. J. was without a job. At his MTV audition, he also interviewed “Billy Joel”—and did well, despite not caring for the actual Billy Joel. When the producers told him that the job meant moving to New York City, he said, “You see that beautiful black Jensen Interceptor sitting out there? You see those mountains, that blue sky, those big, puffy clouds? All that goes away if I go to Manhattan. But I’ll go, ’cause I need the gig.”
I met J. J. in the lobby of the Berkshire, where MTV had put us both up. He commanded your respect immediately, but he was a very sweet man. We were both Angelenos, so we talked about the sports cars that we had left behind. I had an MG; he had a Jensen Interceptor, which was a hand-built British car. He always pronounced it “Intacepta.” It wasn’t so much of a Boston accent as it was a J. J. accent. MTV gave the two of us tickets to see Judas Priest. Our seats were right in front of the speakers, so we lasted maybe thirty seconds and then went out to dinner.
MTV had hired one other VJ, Meg Griffin. I knew she was an FM
jock, and I thought she was really cool. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her very much, because she quit almost immediately.
Meg had been at WNEW-FM for years, and was next in a long line of jocks who were being groomed for a full-time spot. She was great—I was happy she got the MTV job. Meg was a very cute all-American girl next door, bangs and freckles, a Martha Quinn type. One day, before we launched, Meg did an interview with the Equators. At the end, Meg was supposed to get up: They would play some Equators music and she would dance with the band. For some reason, they had to do a few takes, and she was really uncomfortable with the whole thing. In her mind, that sealed the deal. We shared a cab uptown together after we were done for the day, and she said, “I’m going to quit.”
I told her, “Meg, don’t do this. You will regret this. Do not leave—you’ll work this out.”
Later, she told me there were other factors: Bob Pittman, who ran MTV, didn’t want her to keep a part-time job at WNEW. He said, “You’re going to work harder if this is your only job.” He wanted her to have the fear that comes with no backup plan. That was Pittman—he always wanted to keep his foot on our necks.
Meg was at MTV for the same reason I was—she was passionate about music. It became clear to her that wasn’t why they hired her: Do they want me here because I love music, or because I look like whole wheat? So she quit, and got that full-time position at WNEW. That was what made room for Martha.
Even though I’d graduated from NYU, I kept my desk clerk gig at Weinstein. (Some clerks stayed there for years—the most famous being Ric Menello, who wound up directing videos for the Beastie Boys.) One afternoon in July, I was sitting on the city bus, heading back uptown to my weird apartment. Around Rockefeller Center, the traffic got really bad. The bus wasn’t moving, so I jumped off to visit my friends at WNBC. Purely by chance, a guy named Burt Stein was
also visiting. He used to work for A&M Records in California, and he was hanging out at WNBC that day for no particular reason. A bunch of us were shooting the breeze in the music office. Then Burt randomly asked, “Hey, what’s Bob Pittman doing?” Bob had been the youngest-ever program director of WNBC—he left before I got there, but he was a legend.
Buzz Brindle, assistant program director at WNBC, and a former professor of mine, said, “Oh, he’s doing this MTV thing.” And then Buzz looked at me and uttered the words that changed my life forever: “Martha, that’s what you should do. You should be a VJ on MTV.”
“What’s a VJ?” I practically scoffed.
Buzz said, “It’s like a DJ on the radio, but on television.”
This sounded like WKRP in Cincinnati to me, so I asked the logical question, “What do I during the records?” I was thinking they’d film a DJ studio.
“No, it’s videos,” he explained. “They’re playing these clips.”
I said, “Oh, I can’t do that. You know who should do that? Evan Davies, he’s really good at music.” Evan was another radio major from NYU.
Buzz said, “No, I really think you should do it.” He picked up the phone and called Bob Pittman. It turned out it was the last day of auditions. Buzz said, “You gotta get down there—they’re closing up shop at five-thirty.”
It was already 5 P.M., and I didn’t know how I would get to Thirty-third Street and Tenth Avenue in time. I knew I’d never get a cab, so I called my friend Adam, the only person I knew who had a car. Adam picked me up, dropped me off on Thirty-third Street, and went to get a pizza. I walked into the studio and said, “Hey, I’m here to audition.” And they were like, “Uh, who are you?”
As I was running out the door, in came this young woman, barely five feet tall. As I remember it, she had a flower hat, and a T-shirt that said I LOVE COUNTRY MUSIC. I thought, “Hmmm, not very rock ’n’ roll.” Not being judgmental—I just didn’t think she was what they were looking for.
I was in the outfit that I’d put on that day to go work at Weinstein—I was dressed for sorting mail and handing out toilet paper. I had a T-shirt with an iron-on glitter transfer that said, of all things, COUNTRY MUSIC IS IN MY BLOOD. My junior-year roommate (not the Wilhelmina model—this one left school when she got pregnant and married a Bible salesman) gave it to me. And I was in a white tennis skirt and Keds. Not one speck of makeup. I didn’t even have a brush for my hair.
After they figured out that I was supposed to audition, they sat me in a barber chair in front of a camera. I read the teleprompter for a bit, and then they said, “Okay, now tell us about a concert that you’ve been to.” I talked about an Earth, Wind & Fire show at Madison Square Garden. I had no idea what was at stake—if I did, I probably would have been too jittery to get the job! The audition was literally three minutes, but by the time it was over, I had a pretty good idea of what this MTV thing was about and I really wanted the gig. I called my brother and said, “I auditioned for something that is perfect for me.”
A couple of days later, after getting my hair cut at the Plaza—courtesy of Jane Bryant Quinn—I checked my messages from the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street. That was back when you had to access your answering machine with a little beeper. There was a message: Sue Steinberg saying, “Come to the studio, we think we have good news.”
I hailed a cab right away. When I got to the studio, I was escorted upstairs to a conference room with executive producers Sue Steinberg and Julian Goldberg. They asked, “So how would you like to have a job where you fly around the country and interview rock stars and go to concerts and be on TV?”
I said, “Okay, I’ll take it.” I didn’t even ask, “How much?” I was twenty-two years old.
We were doing run-throughs, practicing as we led up to the channel’s debut on August 1. Martha and Alan joined very late, in mid-July. I
watched Martha and thought, “Who is this kid? She has no idea what she’s doing.” Neither did I, but I did know music. It was clear to me that they were desperate as we got closer to the launch: They wanted five VJs, and they didn’t have them.
In the summer of 1981, I went to a “Way Up North in Mississippi” picnic in Central Park, an event for anybody born, bred, or educated in the state of Mississippi. There were hundreds of people at the picnic, eating watermelon, spitting seeds, doing the barbecue thing. They even—oh, Lord—sang “Dixie.”
Bob Pittman showed up in a jacket, snazzily dressed for a hot summer day in New York City. I was wearing some grungy shorts. Bob’s father was friends with my father-in-law; they were both Methodist ministers. So I was introduced to Bob; I didn’t know a damn thing about him except he was big in radio. I told him I was a struggling actor, bartending at night, going to auditions, trying to catch a ride somewhere. He told me he was working on a new cable channel for Warner AmEx: music video, twenty-four hours a day. “Really? I was just in this David Bowie video.” I told him about “Fashion.” I couldn’t imagine how spinning videos twenty-four hours a day would work, but I was polite about it. Bob was a nice guy, but aloof. A very cool cucumber.
Two weeks later, I got a phone call from Sue Steinberg. I don’t know how she got my phone number, but she said, “Bob bumped into you at the park and thinks you should audition for this thing we got going, called The Music Channel.”
I went to the audition totally blind. I had to read some teleprompter copy, no problem. I was a good cold reader, if a little stiff. When it came time to describe a recent concert I had seen, that was trouble: The last show I had seen was the Doobie Brothers, about a year earlier, hardly a target band for the channel. I would get halfway through my extemporaneous chitchat, and not know where I was going. I laughed and giggled a lot. Lots of flop sweat, but I was jovial enough in my embarrassment. I ended up doing three torturous auditions, and each one, I just wasn’t good at it. I couldn’t even pronounce
my own name correctly. I kept hitting a hard T instead of a soft t: “Alan Hun-TER.”
A few weeks later, I came home from some other audition, about to go work at the bar. I hadn’t heard a lot of good feedback that summer—I had been in the Bowie video and Annie, and that was about it. Rejection, that’s the actor’s life. I checked the messages on my answering machine. Sue Steinberg had left a message, saying they wanted to offer me the job. It made no sense at all.
In a state of total disbelief, I went to meet with Sue. It didn’t appear to be a joke or a mistake: She told me how much they would pay me and gave me an envelope with five hundred dollars cash in it to buy some clothes. Totally overwhelmed, I walked home to Jan. I shuffled across the room like a zombie, collapsed on the bed, and said, “Oh my God, Jan, this is fucking real.” We both cried: I had a steady gig in New York. The weight of the world was off our shoulders. We could buy a new couch.
Carol auditioned for MTV—pretty much anybody who was in radio in New York went down and tried out. Carol was a big star in New York, and beautiful, and smart. It seemed like she would have been perfect. But as it turned out, she was stiff on camera. I think part of the friction that developed in our relationship was that I got the gig and she didn’t.
I found out many years later that they cast us as types. According to Sue Steinberg, my niche was that I was the hunk. Which I didn’t necessarily agree with, but thank you for the compliment. J. J. was the benign black guy, Nina was the video vamp, Alan was the jock, and Martha was the girl next door that every executive wanted to fuck.
Meg Griffin told me that the day she was supposed to sign her contract, she overheard Bob Pittman on the phone in the next room, only his list was a little different: “We’ve got our black guy, our Jew, our vixen, and our jock.”