Huddled in a Fort Lee, New Jersey, bar on August 1, 1981, the team behind a new television network watched anxiously as their project hit the airwaves. Despite some early glitches — and having to cross the Hudson River since New York City didn’t carry the stations — MTV music television was launched, changing the entire face of the music industry and pop culture, as detailed in the special Biography: I Want My MTV, airing September 8 at 9/8c on A&E.
Appropriately, the first music video to air was The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star” — introducing an entirely new concept of television, hosted by the first group of MTV video jockeys, also known as VJs: Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Nina Blackwood.
While most of their tenures lasted about five to seven years, the group has stuck together throughout the decades, writing a 2013 book together called VJ: The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave, and appearing at events, like at the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 2019.
Jackson sadly died in 2004, but even at his death, he had been making plans to reunite with his fellow original VJs on Sirius XM Radio, where the remaining four worked together on its 80s radio station.
Mark Goodman was already an experienced radio DJ when he landed the MTV VJ job after two auditions — including one where he mock interviewed a staffer standing in an “obnoxious Billy Joel,” he told Gothamist.
“We’re a lot like your favorite radio station, but you’ll see your favorite music,” he said in an early MTV segment, seen on the Biography special. Soon the teleprompter scripts were thrown away to give the network a more rock and roll feel, giving the VJs the freedom to ad lib. “This is not television what we do. This is something completely different,” Goodman described.
Since quitting his VJ role in August 1987, Goodman has consistently worked in the music industry, with tenures at KROQ, Soundbreak.com, VH1 Classic — and even working as the music supervisor for the TV drama Desperate Housewives. Since 2004, he’s been at Sirius XM Radio, working on channels like The 80s on 8, The Spectrum and Classic Rewind.
Just 22 years old when she landed the job, Martha Quinn had done commercials in college, but more impressively, had a depth of music knowledge.
While her role was amorphous when she signed on, Quinn became a quintessential part of the network’s brand. Rolling Stone readers named her MTV’s Best-Ever VJ, despite leaving in 1986 and then returning from 1989 to 1992.
But for her, it was always about her fellow original VJs. “I was totally enamored with them,” she told Emmy magazine. “They were forced to be with me all the time. And we're all still such a close family today. It's remarkable.”
Post-MTV, Quinn found her way to other iconic TV shows, playing Bobby Brady’s wife in The Bradys in 1990, guest-starring on Full House in 1992 and 1993, co-hosting Star Search with Ed McMahon in 1994 and contributing to CBS’s Early Show.
Now she’s returned to what she does best. While she worked with her fellow VJs on Sirius XM’s 80s station, she left in 2016 and now is at iHeartRadio’s iHeart80s, and also hosts her own podcast Talk Talk with Martha Quinn.
When MTV first hit the airwaves, the first face that viewers saw was Alan Hunter’s. But that wasn’t exactly the plan — there was a tape mishap and the original segment didn’t quite sync up, so there Hunter was, welcoming the world to the concept of music television.
For the network’s first six years, he was on the frontlines. “We didn't know really who was watching, but then you’d go to a record store appearance and there’s a thousand kids in a line,” he says in the Biography special. “The country was going gaga for it. We started getting into the clubs and the bouncers started recognizing us.”
But he also had a sense of the reality of the situation: “We thought we were the center of MTV as the VJs, [but] the real parties, the real money, traveling the world in jets was happening in the executive offices.”
Soon Hunter found himself behind the scenes as well, moving back to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, where he started a production studio Hunter Films and entertainment venue WorkPlay with his brothers. He now also hosts the Sirius XM’s The 80s on 8 with Goodman and Blackwood.
J.J. Jackson perhaps had the most experience before becoming a VJ, having started in radio in Boston and Los Angeles in the 1960s and then working as a music reporter for KABC-TV in L.A. But it was definitely his gig as a VJ that carved out his place in pop culture history.
During MTV tenure from 1981 to 1986, he most notably covered Live Aid in 1985 and helped launch the 120 Minutes series.
Afterward, he went back to radio, working at L.A.’s KTWV and had left in late 2003, with plans to join Goodman at Sirius XM, when tragedy struck. On March 17, 2004, he died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 62.
Nina Blackwood was browsing Billboard when she saw an ad for MTV. “I sent in my resume and 8x10,” she says in her Sirius XM bio. “After two auditions, they hired me as the first MTV VJ.”
She left MTV in 1986 and continued hosting, taking charge of Entertainment Tonight’s “Rock Report,” as well as Solid Gold from 1986 to 1988. Blackwood also found her way back to radio with United Stations Radio Network’s Nina Blackwood’s Absolutely 80’s — and now also co-hosts Sirius XM’s The 80s on 8.
“Biography: I Want My MTV,” charts the rise of a cultural phenomenon that came to define a generation: MTV. What started during the nascent days of cable television as a scrappy, playful music video lineup, rapidly evolved into a reflection of American youth culture. As MTV came of age, the network pushed the boundaries of art, sex, gender and race, while cementing its image to celebrity. And when the information revolution raged, MTV was at the forefront exploring new technologies. “I Want My MTV” weaves together exclusive interviews with the network’s founders and VJs, artists and journalists, along with rarely seen archival footage and outtakes, including an interview with the late David Bowie that was never broadcast on television. The documentary, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 and became a crowd favorite at festivals around the world, details the story of a network that evokes youth for a generation now grown, and influenced the global media landscape for decades to come. Interview subjects include Sting, Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, Billy Idol, Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, Nancy Wilson, Fab Five Freddy, Norman Lear, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Bret Michaels among many others.