Alan Hunter | A Conversation with a Pop Culture Pioneer

By Robert Ferraro / February 7, 2017

In 1981, a brand new channel calling itself ‘Music Television’ chose an astronaut walking on the moon as the symbol of its brand. The message was clear: no one has gone where we’re going in the field of television entertainment. Four decades later, MTV remains a pop culture landmark.

Still, the groundbreaking 80’s are widely recognized as the channel’s most fun and exciting period, in which Alan Hunter – along with fellow ‘video jocks’ Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, and J.J. Jackson – played an outsized role.

Hunter hosted Spring Breaks, covered Live Aid, lounged in the grotto of the Playboy Mansion, commiserated with Andy Warhol, witnessed the unveiling of Kiss without makeup, was manhandled by Roddy Piper, appeared in a music video with Pee Wee Herman, and found himself eating Aretha Franklin’s homemade chili while she sang for him at her piano.

Dozens of these types of tales from all of the original VJ’s can be found in their bestselling book: ‘VJ : The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave’.  When I spoke to Hunter, I figured I’d focus on other parts of his story…until the trending topic of that morning’s news cycle became Madonna’s reveal that she had kissed Michael Jackson.

Robert Ferraro: I know that you interviewed Madonna before she was super famous, and you tell an interesting story about that in the book. What about Michael? He and MTV are almost synonymous, yet I never see clips of him in the studio from that time, or of him being interviewed by the VJs.

Alan HunterWe actually had so few MTV events with Michael. We did the premieres with ‘Thriller’ and all that type of stuff, but I think Mark (Goodman) was the only one to ever even meet him. None of us did actually interview him.

Robert: Which probably added to the mystique.

Alan: He was a mystery man, for sure.

Robert: A lot of that mystery was due to an intangible quality that he possessed, but it also helped that social media didn’t exist at the time, don’t you think?

Alan: Definitely. That’s why early Hollywood stars in the 30’s and 40’s were more mysterious, and came across as larger characters on posters, and up on screen. They had less cause for attention, unless they were out walking a red carpet somewhere, flashbulbs upon them. Come the 80’s, we were slowly moving in the direction of more accessibility between artist and audience. The artists and their videos were appearing all day, every day, on televisions across the country.

Robert: And that changed a lot of bands’ fortunes, quickly.

Alan: REO Speedwagon, for one, has a story. They had already been selling a ton of records in the late 1970’s, but were pretty much able to go about their business offstage while on tour, without much of a problem. Fast forward to one night in the early 80’s, after an arena show in, like, Iowa. They came out and were mobbed by people. Why? Because they had received their first MTV airplay earlier that week. Heretofore, no problem – they would play a gig, get on the bus and go back to the hotel. After MTV, that changed immediately.

Robert: The fortunes of these bands were changing, because their images were changing. Sometimes that was a double edged sword. See also: Squier, Billy.

Alan: Unfortunately, there were images in some of those videos that stuck in people’s heads, and went on to outweigh any of the talent the artist had. Billy’s ‘Rock Me Tonight’ served as a prime example for people who thought the video medium was going to ruin music. It certainly came true for him. One bad video in the mid 80’s, and his career tanked. To be honest though, I don’t know of many other examples where someone’s career was ruined like that.

Robert:  True. There were a bunch of bands who didn’t enjoy making videos however, or didn’t like what video was doing to their image, even though they benefited from it. Heart is most famous for that. Was there a band whose videos you played regularly on MTV, that you were surprised didn’t become bigger?

Alan: I think the Hooters, for one. They came out of Mark (Goodman)’s hometown of Philadelphia, and I thought (Hooters singer) Rob Hyman and the band were really good. Another band in that category is The Romantics. They each had that straight ahead rock sound. Both bands were successful, but I don’t know why either didn’t become bigger, to be honest. Who knows. There is a magic secret to that sauce, right?

Robert: Sure, like you see in Hollywood – the intangible difference that separates a great actor or actress from the 100 actors that resemble them. That was a cheap segue for me to ask you how much it helped for you to have already studied acting when you arrived at MTV back in 1981?

Alan: I think my acting career was actually a hindrance to my beginnings at MTV, to be honest. I found myself having to throw all that away. I had every desire to be a Broadway actor, and I wanted to do stage work. I went to college and got a psychology degree, but when I came to New York I attended drama school, and acting turned out to be my thing. So when I first started on MTV I was still sort of doing a character, instead of just trying to be myself. All the producers did for the first half of the year, was ask me to be me. Still, I was wondering, “What is me?’. Once I discarded the actor mentality, and made the decision to just be myself – whatever that meant – I felt much more comfortable.

Robert: The 5 Original VJ’s are often recognized for their diversity along gender and racial lines, but you were also very diverse in regard to personality. I thought you were the funniest and most unpredictable, while still showing your intellect. Yet, by your own admission, you knew far less about music than your male cohorts.

Alan: I knew I couldn’t compete with the stature that J.J. (Jackson) or Mark had in the music business, through their previous careers in radio. So I approached it from the standpoint of a fan, and let my enthusiasm come through. Mark approached it with a serious minded, “I know my music” type outlook, and J.J. was the granddaddy of all of us. Martha (Quinn) and I just had enthusiasm for it. That was the only direction I could go…be enthusiastic about it and take a bit of a quirkier approach.

Robert: Meanwhile, you were thinking this all through…applying all this thought about craft…to a job that had never existed until you were hired to do it.

Alan: Right, it was a very odd thing. No one had done it before, but there we were, standing in front of the cameras 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, doing segments between a crazy new art form. It just made sense to me to be as crazy and fun as the videos were.

Robert: In those early days, they had you doing a lot of heavy lifting. You’d be coming out of a Billy Idol video one minute, doing the news the next, dishing out Cure concert dates before a commercial, and interviewing Adam Ant after the break.

Alan: You’re right. Martha, Mark, J.J., Nina and myself were ‘every man’…that was the intended demographic…so we were tasked with giving some sense of connection to all of the fun that was going on. We were hosts, and we were news purveyors…we had our hands in everything.

[In 1981, Hunter, who attended college in Mississippi, went to a ‘Way Up North In Mississippi’ picnic in New York’s Central Park. A struggling but working actor at the time, Hunter had already played small parts in a David Bowie video, and the movie version of Annie. At the picnic, he was casually introduced to television executive Bob Pittman, who mentioned that his company was starting a 24 hour music network. Two weeks later, Hunter received a very unexpected call to audition for ‘The Music Channel’.]

Robert: I assume that most people in the broadcasting industry have had more traditional paths to career success than you did. Is it safe to say that if you didn’t fancy some watermelon on a summer day in 1981, I may not be talking to you right now?

Alan: Well, it’s the truth. A right place, right time story, no doubt. But then, on top of that, you have to be ready for success when it comes knocking. Whether or not I was ready, I was pumped and primed to catch some sort of ride. I had already moved to New York City from Alabama and went to drama school by that time, so I believe that the purposefulness of my actions led to something.

Robert: Point taken. Bob Pittman certainly wasn’t going to ask a plumber or stock broker to audition.

Alan: That’s true. If I wasn’t waiting tables, bartending, going on auditions and putting myself out there, I would not have gotten the gig. I mean, when I met Bob I didn’t even know what video music meant. Except, of course, having appeared in the Bowie video.

Robert: Oh yeah, that. [mock sarcasm]

Alan: [laughs] Yes, but the concept of playing music videos 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and hosting them…that made no sense to me at the time.

Robert: We mentioned that no one had ever done this thing you are famous for, until you did. That would be challenging regardless, but you were trying to figure this out in front of millions of people on television. You had some early struggles, and feared being fired at one point. Looking back, was being the Neil Armstrong of VJ’s a good or bad thing?

Alan: Well, we were definitely given the chance to write the DJ handbook, so that was good. TV personalities up to that point were primarily hosts and anchors, in a more staid environment. So, the good news was that we got to write the book. The bad news was…

Robert: You were making it up as you went along.

Alan: Right. There was nothing for any of us to hang on to. And that goes for the producers, who were also our age. None of us knew what we were doing early on.

Robert: Audiences found that to be part of MTV’s charm.

Alan: If people only knew what went on behind the scenes…it was one experiment after the next, most of them on air. Eventually a lot of our segments became unscripted, because early on, it looked like any other thing you might see on tv. It seemed stiff. Our execs didn’t want MTV to look, sound, or feel like anything else America had ever seen, so they encouraged us to open it up.

Robert: You would do cartwheels in the studio, run into teleprompters, dodge runaway cameras, and eventually work yourself up to barging into a restaurant in Texas while brandishing a fake machine gun. I think you got the memo. 

Alan: Yeah, once I decided to totally jump off the cliff and be spontaneous, I was a free bird, and it didn’t matter if I had a plan. I said, “Please, just turn the camera on, and let me be me.” When the light said ‘go’, off we went.

Robert: Once you had that persona up and running on MTV – did the people who knew you from back home, recognize that Alan Hunter?  

Alan: I think so. The biggest compliment I was ever paid by someone in authority at MTV, was that I seemed natural. I don’t think that’s anything to receive a pat on the back for necessarily, because it was the only way I knew how to operate. I was best that way, and that’s why acting – pure acting in the Robert DeNiro sense of the word – wouldn’t have been in the cards for me.

Original MTV VJ’s

Robert: If you had stuck with acting, how do you think your life would have turned out?

Alan: I think I would have been a stage actor, and maybe could have made some Broadway things happen. I’m more comfortable onstage than I am in front of a camera. The camera is tough. You have to have a certain internal quiet. True screen actors are fun to look at, even when they’re up there as just 40 feet of face. [laughs] I think I have too many personal quirks for that.

Robert: I’m actually surprised that your acting career didn’t take off in the 80’s. You were recognizable to young audiences, you were a hit with the ladies, and many 80’s movies had a quirky male friend or love interest in it. I know you were cast to be in Girls Just Wanna Have Fun with Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt…

Alan: Yeah, I was going to be the DJ that Richard Blade eventually became. I originally got the movie and my agent was about to sign the deal, but Bob Pittman of MTV called me up, and said “Alan I don’t think this is going to be the right movie for you.” That was actually just part of his strategy, to keep us under his thumb. He saw the 5 of us as representatives of the brand, because we were the face of the channel. I was really pissed off.

Robert: I’d imagine.

Alan: I had to interview Sarah Jessica for her next movie, whatever that was (1986’s Flight Of The Navigator), and she said, “Alan! I knew you were supposed to be the guy.”

Robert: That’s painful.

Alan: It was.

Robert: MTV’s stance sure changed. Was Pauly Shore still at MTV when he started making movies?

Alan: He was. The company developed a different outlook when Bob moved on.

Robert: You made $27,500 in your first year at MTV, and were making less than $200,000 when you chose to depart in 1987. Did it bother you to see the large salaries being paid to the VJ’s that followed you?

Alan: It’s like any other industry, in that the early sports stars made very little money, and the ones that followed them made millions. We were the ones that started the VJ thing of course, and then after that came Adam Curry, Daisy Fuentes…

Robert: Julie Brown.

Alan: Downtown Julie Brown, but they weren’t paying her exorbitant amounts of money. When TRL came about with Carson Daly, that’s when they started becoming celebrities, as they should have. They became bigger than the channel, but the channel benefited from it, which was our argument all along.

Robert: Speaking of Daly, I always felt that you could do a lot of things well on air, but one particular thing you would have knocked out of the park, would be hosting New Year’s Eve.

Alan: Well, I think the good news is that we’re all so well beyond wondering…

Robert: It appears that I’m not.

Alan: [laughs] Admittedly, for the first few years after each of us had left, we had trouble figuring out where we should go. My mother would always tell me that she wanted me to be on a sitcom, and I was like. “You and me both, Mom!”. We were pigeonholed, and it took us a while to come back around.

Robert: What was the first job you took, after MTV?

Alan: It was with Disneyland, hosting a video show called Videopolis. It was supposed to be my transitional gig. When Jeffrey Katzenberg (of Dreamworks fame) got wind that an ex-MTV guy was going to be the host, he said no way. He was afraid I was going to be too edgy. They fired me when I was on my way to wardrobe.

Robert: You bounced back in a very big way though, even before SiriusXM. You did commercial work. Along with your brother Hugh, you produced a short film that was nominated for an Academy Award. You co-founded an entertainment facility that was voted one of the top 40 music venues in America, and you co-founded a movie festival that was lauded by Time Magazine. And of course, you and the old gang collaborated on a bestseller.

Alan: Yeah, even though it is an oral history, it still required a great writer, and we had one in (Rolling Stone contributing editor) Gavin Edwards. We’re really happy with it, and the readers are still responding to it.

Robert: It’s one of the most entertaining books I’ve read. That said, I couldn’t help but to miss J.J.’s voice (Jackson passed away in 2004, at age 62). I know his stories are legendary.

Alan: Oh my god, J.J. just loved talkin’. He had great tales, full of specific and intimate details of everything he did, and everyone he met. No matter who we bumped into, he had some sort of anecdotal story that was usually fascinating…

Robert: And may or may not have been completely true.

Alan: Yeah, I suppose so. (laughs). To be fair, after this many years, when the rest of us were doing the book, we’d often be foggy on details and would sometimes mix things up a bit. Frequently, one of us would start a story, and the other 3 would have to finish it.

Robert: Your longest running on-air gig of all, is at SiriusXM radio. You’re great on it, for being 3 things most broadcasters should strive to be– relaxed, interesting and conversational.

Alan: You’re too kind, Robert.

Robert: You honestly had never done radio before this?

Alan: No. It’s funny because back in 2005 or so, I kept getting these voice messages from Kid Kelly (SiriusXM executive), and I kept ignoring them. I get requests from time to time to appear on different radio stations for one thing or another, so I thought it was something like that. I honestly didn’t really know what satellite radio was.

Robert: You didn’t know what it was, and you didn’t know how to do it. Your career pattern!

Alan: Definitely. Even when Kid and I finally spoke, I said, “Oh, sure Sirius. I know you guys. David Bowie does a commercial for you.” It turned out that was actually their competitor. When we eventually got on the same page and started talking about it, I told him that I don’t do radio, but I know how to work a microphone, so…

Robert: 13 years down the road, I assume you passed the audition.  [smiles]

Alan: I don’t know if I’m breaking the illusion for anyone that listens to me, but when I’m doing this, I’m actually sitting in a booth at my home, often with a cup of coffee, wearing my pajamas. It’s just me and a microphone…no direction from anyone, or crew hanging around laughing at my jokes…and then I hit the button and just start talking. In the beginning, it was a little unnerving. Now, I might have a general idea of what I am going to say beforehand, but the plan is to have very little plan. I hit the button, and hope for the best.

Robert: Just like at MTV.

Alan: It’s the only way I can do it. I just have to be me.

Alan Hunter can be heard on SiriusXM 80’s on 8 (channel 8) and SiriusXM Classic Rewind (channel 25).

Follow Alan on Twitter @AlanHunterMTV

Robert Ferraro is a freelance writer and broadcasting school graduate, who has produced radio talk shows, and Major League Baseball broadcasts. You can follow him on Twitter at @PopCultRob and like him on Facebook at: Of Personal Interest