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. True to their word, four decades later, MTV is a pop culture landmark.
Still, the 80’s are widely recognized as the channel’s most fun, exciting, and groundbreaking period, and Alan Hunter - along with his fellow ‘video jocks’ Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, and J.J. Jackson - played an outsized role in that.
In 6 years at MTV, Hunter hosted multiple Spring Breaks, covered Live Aid, lounged in the grotto of the Playboy Mansion, commiserated with Andy Warhol, witnessed the unveiling of Kiss without makeup, got manhandled by Roddy Piper, appeared in a music video with Pee Wee Herman, and found himself in Aretha Franklin’s home, eating her homemade chili, while she sang for him at her piano.
Dozens of these types of stories from all of the original VJ's can be found in their bestselling book: ‘VJ : The Unplugged Adventures of MTV’s First Wave’. Consequently, I decided that when I spoke to Hunter, I’d focus on his approach to broadcasting instead.
Or that was the plan at least, until the trending story of the morning 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? His 80’s career is synonymous with MTV, yet I never see clips of him in the studio with you guys, or ever being interviewed by anyone.
RF: If you stuck with acting, how do you think your life would have turned out?
AH: I think I would have been a stage actor, and maybe 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.
RF: I’m actually surprised your acting career didn’t take off in the 80’s. You were so recognizable to young audiences, you were a hit with the ladies, and many 80’s movies had that 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…[AH: Yeah, I was going to be the DJ that Richard Blade eventually became. I 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.
RF: I’d imagine.
AH: 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.”
RF: That’s painful!
AH: It was.
RF: MTV’s stance sure changed, huh? Was Pauly Shore still at MTV when he started making movies?
AH: He was. It all changed when Bob moved on, and the company developed a different outlook.
RF: 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?
AH: It’s like any other industry, in that 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…
RF: Julie Brown.
AH: 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.
RF: 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.
AH: Well, I think the good news is that we’re all so well beyond wondering…
RF: It appears that I’m not.
AH: [laughs] Well, admittedly, for the first few years after each of us had left, we had trouble figuring out where we should go. My mom 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 little while to come back around.
RF: You had a gig with Disney for a hot minute, until something happened, right?
AH: Yes, my first job after leaving MTV. My transitional gig. It was supposed to be, anyway. It was with Disneyland, hosting a video show called Videopolis. When Jeffrey Katzenberg (of Dreamworks fame) got wind that an ex-MTV guy was going to be the host, he said no way. Coming from where I came from, he was afraid I was going to be too edgy. They fired me when I was on my way to wardrobe.
RF: You bounced back in a very big way though, even before SiriusXM. You did commercial work. You started Hunter Films with your brother Hugh, and produced a short film that was nominated for an Academy Award. You co-founded an entertainment facility in your hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, that was voted one of the top 40 music venues in America. You co-founded a movie festival that was lauded by Time Magazine. And of course, you and the old gang published the book.
AH: 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.
RF: It’s one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever 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.
AH: Oh my god, J.J. was the true storyteller amongst us all. He 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…
RF: And may or may not have been completely true, right?
AH: 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.
RF: Your longest running on-air gig of all, of course, is at SiriusXM radio. I think you’re great on it – low key, non invasive, and conversational.
AH: You’re too kind, Robert.
RF: You honestly had never done radio before this?
AH: No. Its funny because back in 2005 or so, I kept getting these voice messages from Kid Kelly (veteran radio personality and 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.
RF: You didn’t know what it was, and you didn’t know how to do it. I’m detecting a life pattern here.
AH: Well, 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, XM. 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…
RF: And 12 years later, here we are.
AH: Well, for a little while there was a bit of getting up to speed, because we’re doing voice tracking (the dj’s dialogue is recorded in advance, often from a remote location). I don’t know if I’m breaking the illusion for some of your readers that listen to us, but when I’m doing this, I’m sitting in a booth at my home, often with a cup of coffee, wearing my pajamas.
RF: Sounds like good work if you can get it, but I can see how it might be difficult at times. Maybe a little creatively stagnant?
AH: Sure. 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.
RF: When you voice track, do you consider what time of day your takes will be heard by the public? I feel like I hear that.
AH: I do. My wife paid me a compliment by saying that I was pretty good at having a feel for what people are doing at 4 in the afternoon. I try to put myself in the head of someone who is driving home from work or going shopping, and listening to the Bangles. I can’t come on [exaggerated, loud, DJ voice] “Like this!!!” As far as what I’m going to say, I might have a general idea beforehand, but the plan is to have very little plan. I hit the button, and hope for the best.
RF: Again, just like at MTV.
AH: It’s the only way I can do it. I just have to be me.
You can follow him on Twitter @AlanHunterMTV
Robert Ferraro is a freelance writer and broadcasting school graduate, who has produced radio talk shows, and Major League Baseball broadcasts. In between, he has held over 50 menial jobs, all of which he departed when he couldn't find anyone interesting to talk to.
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