When you grew up absolutely devouring all things MTV, you knew which programs featured regular cut-ins for MTV News and which ones didn’t. This one typically didn’t.
But this day was different. It was a Friday afternoon in April 1994, yours truly was a 15-year-old who had the day off from school — spring break, maybe? — and I had “Lip Service,” MTV’s lip syncing game show, on TV. It was just before 5 p.m., and coming out of a commercial break leading into the show’s final segment, Kurt Loder came on the air with an unscheduled news break I’ll never forget, relaying the info that Kurt Cobain had been found dead from an apparent suicide in his Seattle home.
It was shocking. It was devastating. It was a world-shaker, especially for a high school sophomore who worshiped Nirvana. And it was Kurt Loder who somberly, professionally, straightforwardly delivered the news of his passing, and I wouldn’t have wanted to hear it from anyone else.
When you were young in the 1980s and ‘90s, MTV was how you got your information, and Kurt Loder was our Walter Cronkite. We wouldn’t think of watching the network evening news, and the ticking clock intro on “60 Minutes” might as well have been an alarm signaling it was time to leave the room. That was your parents’ news. But MTV News was hip, it was cool, it was trusted.
That was a long time ago, and last week, MTV News folded its operations for good, after a 36-year run. It had been quite a while since it had any sort of television presence, and had long since been reduced to a waning online operation.
But its passing marks the end of an era, not just for MTV News but for MTV as a whole, a brand that defined a generation and which is now home to umpteen hour “Ridiculousness” marathons, interrupted occasionally by showings of “The Wedding Singer” or “Scary Movie 4.” MTV no longer has any meaning, a betrayal which is just as hard to swallow as the news of Cobain’s death was that day in 1994.
It’s hard to explain, especially now, just how much of an impact MTV, and MTV News, made on Generation X. Back then there wasn’t an internet, there weren’t smart phones, there wasn’t TikTok. There was MTV, and you flipped it on and kept it on, all day long.
You’d watch the same videos over and over, even the ones you didn’t like, and you’d eventually start to like them. You’d memorize little things about them, and you’d feel bad for the fish flopping around at the end of Faith No More’s “Epic” video. You’d even watch the network’s game shows, some of which were good (“Remote Control”), many of which were not (“Lip Service,” despite the key role it played on that day forever seared in my memory, was not a great show).
It’s perhaps irresponsible to deliver a never-ending stream of music videos and game shows to kids, so trusted purveyors of American values that they were, MTV launched a news department in 1987. And they ran actual news: geared towards fans of music and youth culture, yes, but delivered in a serious manner by honest-to-goodness journalists. It was a wholly credible news operation.
Kurt Loder was the lead guy, a deadpan ironist with a background at Rolling Stone and other publications, who was always a bit older than everyone else, and whose experience in the field gave him invaluable street cred. He wasn’t your dad or even your cool uncle, he was bigger than that. He was a guy who knew Madonna and looked like he smoked cigarettes, so he was pretty much God.
His colleagues included Tabitha Soren, redhead legend; John Norris, a music nerd who was like Loder’s nephew; Chris Connelly, Hollywood correspondent to the stars; as well as rotating figures such as Serena Altschul, Alison Stewart and, in later years, Brian McFayden, Gideon Yago and SuChin Pak. The dream team, more or less.
The MTV News tagline was “You hear it… first,” with a funky bass solo filling in that ellipses gap. And you did hear it first, whether it was news of your favorite artist’s new album, interviews with 2Pac (Soren and Pac, there was chemistry there!) or music and movie industry news, broken down in a way our addled brains could understand.
News segments were delivered at 10 to the hour, most hours, and were collected and packaged into a weekly news program, titled aptly, “The Week in Rock.” MTV News waded into the political arena with 1992’s “Choose or Lose” campaign, and a few years later brought us the town hall event where then-President Bill Clinton clarified for the world that he prefers briefs to boxers, a moment that signaled the direction where all mainstream news coverage was eventually heading.
Working at MTV News seemed like the coolest job in the world, and that dream pushed untold numbers of youths, present company included, into journalism. (I eventually racked up a few dozen bylines for MTV.com, recapping “American Idol” circa the Adam Lambert years, and the sliver of affiliation with the network brand always made me feel proud.)
MTV News still had an on-air presence into the ‘00s; it was surprising, watching the 2022 documentaries “Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” and “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” how artists in the early 2000s still yearned for an MTV cosign, and the boost it would give their careers.
But as these things go, MTV News was squeezed out due to budget cuts and shifts in MTV’s ideology and branding, which leaves whatever husk of a network is left now. This week’s news that the plug was pulled was not a shock, it was overdue, and was like the line you read at the end of the documentary that makes you say, “Wow, I didn’t realize they made it as long as they did.”
For those who grew up with it, however, MTV News will always have a place in our hearts. It showed us that news didn’t have to be boring or stodgy, that it could be hip and relevant and vital. It was news for us, and we heard it — cue funky bass solo — first.