It was John Lack’s idea, and it was a hell of a good one. At Billboard’s inaugural Video Music Conference, in November 1979, the then-33-year-old announced that he was going to start a 24-hour video music network — “video radio,” he called it — as part of an early-days cable TV play from a joint venture between Warner Cable and American Express. Lack’s second idea was nearly as good as his first: He hired a hotshot 26-year-old radio programmer named Bob Pittman to get the network off the ground. There was one pressing problem: Music videos pretty much didn’t exist yet. Pittman was charged with convincing record companies not only to sink money into creating these videos but also give them to his unproven, underfunded startup. For free. Pittman and company were as persuasive as they were brilliant, and on Aug. 1, 1981, MTV signed on the air with a grab bag of videos ranging from embarrassing to revolutionary.
During the next six years, until Pittman and much of his original team departed after a failed buyout, record sales skyrocketed, visual culture was transformed and artists ranging from Michael Jackson to Madonna to Bon Jovi reached so many people through their videos that they would continue to sell out stadiums for decades to come. MTV would undergo reinvention after reinvention, eventually forsaking music videos for reality TV — “I never watched a full episode of The Real World,” admits former CEO Judy McGrath. Nowadays, it desperately casts about for an identity or idea remotely as powerful as the one Lack had nearly 40 years ago.
THEN: Director of promotions (original title); executive vp programming and production (later)
NOW: President of entertainment enterprises, iHeartMedia
MTV WAS ____: “Facebook without the money”
THEN: Senior vp, MTV; CEO, MTV Networks
NOW: Chairman/CEO, iHeartMedia
THEN: Editorial director of the on-air promotion group; chairman/CEO, MTV Networks
NOW: Founder, Astronauts Wanted: No Experience Necessary
ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE MY TIME AT MTV: “Delicious”
THEN: COO, Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company
NOW: Chief partner, Firemedia
ONE WORD TO DESCRIBE MY TIME AT MTV: “Life-changing”
THEN: Vp programming
NOW: Founder, Afterplay Entertainment
LAST TIME I WATCHED MTV: “At least five years ago”