I met original MTV VJs Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter and Mark Goodman on Sept. 5, 2019, at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The VJs' panel discussion with Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Chief Curator Karen Herman about the '80s golden era of MTV was part of the museum's current exhibit "Stay Tuned: Rock on TV." Another of the original VJs, Cleveland native Nina Blackwood, participated via phone.
I bought a $15 ticket after happening upon the event announcement while browsing the Plain Dealer, Cleveland's daily newspaper. But I soon had buyer's remorse. I scolded myself that this would be a self-indulgent, nearly five-hour round trip on a "school night" from my home base in Columbus that had no other value other than feeding my insatiable appetite for pop-culture nostalgia.
I’ve always been a cultural omnivore, devouring all different types of media. This practice started when I was a preteen, bingeing on cable television in my grandparents' rec room as a child. MTV was definitely one of the stations I landed on most frequently while channel surfing in middle and high school.
Setting out to see the MTV VJs, I chastised myself like my grandparents used to for watching too much TV. I could use the time I'd waste on this frivolous road trip to catch up on work, clean house or visit with family and friends.
But the trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame turned out to be fruitful, after all. Here are three main takeaways from my experience meeting the original MTV VJs:
It was practice networking. Going up to Goodman, Hunter and Quinn at the meet-and-greet after the panel discussion was practice introducing myself to people who are in the same industry I'm in as a writer and filmmaker: media.
It was practice in how to express myself clearly and succinctly. I didn’t want to be that obnoxious person who talks a celebrity's ear off while other people are waiting to get autographs and photos. So while I was waiting for my turn to talk to the VJs, I condensed what I wanted to say to them.
It was practice making conversation with cultural influencers. As the VJs stated during the panel discussion, MTV in its heyday really was a cultural unifier. Martha Quinn talked about how the experience of watching music on YouTube nowadays is way different from the 1980s, when we Gen X kids would wait for hours for our favorite video to come on MTV and then talk about it incessantly the next day at school.
When I met the VJs, I underscored this point by sharing that I grew up going to a predominately white private school. Watching MTV not only gave me, as an African American, something to talk about with my classmates, MTV also exposed my classmates to pioneering black artists like Tina Turner, Prince and Run-DMC. As I told the VJs, MTV helped bridge the cultural divide because my peers would not necessarily have tuned into BET, MTV’s African-American counterpart.
Talking to the original MTV VJs was also practice in how to make an impression in a short amount of time. Which is what people working in media often have to do. And after talking to the VJs, I definitely got the sense that I made an impression on them, that I managed to stand out from the dozens of people waiting to shake the VJs' hands and tell them how much their work meant to them.
When I made my point about MTV being a cultural unifier among me me and my classmates as a kid, Mark Goodman gave me a big smile. And Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn talked to me for a fairly lengthy amount of time about the idea of people who didn’t grow up in big cities seeing themselves reflected in some of the artists who got airplay on MTV.
For example, Martha Quinn said people who grew up in small towns and felt like they didn't fit in have told her that by watching MTV, they felt less alone. These small-town music fans related to offbeat artists like Boy George, lead singer of the early '80s MTV fixture Culture Club.
I told Martha that I had a similar experience seeing Prince's videos like "Little Red Corvette" and "When Doves Cry" on MTV. I grew up in Columbus, which is a midsize, Midwestern city with a surprising amount of culture and diversity like Prince's hometown of Minneapolis.
It originally seemed like a dorky thing to do - a grown man like myself "fan-boying" out over pop culture idols from my youth. But ultimately, I'm glad I made the journey.
For more information about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's "Stay Tune" exhibit, visit Rockhall.com.