Bang-bang-bang-bang went the musical mnemonic at 10 to the hour, every hour.
Those four drum-machine snare hits, represented visually by the N, E, W and S bars of a vintage typewriter, told you that things were going to get serious for a moment on MTV. You knew the tone was going to be a little more sober, the level of analysis a little deeper, whether the topic was the death of Kurt Cobain or Vanilla Ice’s cameo in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.” It was time for MTV News, where you heard it first.
You probably heard this first on Twitter: On Tuesday, as part of a massive round of layoffs at Paramount Media Networks, MTV News was shut down for good. Media brands are dropping left and right these days, but this one hit differently, and attention must be paid.
In the early ’80s on MTV, the VJs had to deliver the music news and do the more in-depth artist interviews. But some things were weightier than an Alan Hunter could be expected to handle, and by 1987, the fresh crop of pop stars the network had helped to create wanted to be interviewed more thoughtfully. What was needed was someone with gravitas. Someone with a lifetime of wisdom and experience, which is to say: someone in their very early 40s.
MTV made the correct choice: Kurt Loder, by then a veteran of rock journalism and criticism, a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone, a co-writer with Tina Turner of her autobiography. Loder brought a new, more worldly vibe to the channel. He was like a cool professor, an eminence blasé. A persona so unique in the culture that it would have done Showtime’s “Yellowjackets” no good to create a fictionalized version; they had no choice but to deep-fake him.
That year, the 10-to-the-hour segments expanded to “The Week in Rock,” a one-hour show that quickly replaced Rolling Stone as the place where Generation X got its pop-culture news. Young journalists like Tabitha Soren, John Norris, Chris Connelly and Alison Stewart entered the fold. As the 1992 elections drew near, the expanding MTV News team asked a question nobody in the history of television had thought to ask: What if a presidential election could be made interesting and relevant to a citizen under age 50? “Choose or Lose” was born, Bill Clinton was asked whether he wore boxers or briefs, and not long after, there was an MTV inaugural ball.
After the election, Soren became a TV star in her own right, but in many ways, Loder was MTV News, cool and authoritative, a Cronkite for Generation X. He held it together, smoothly and stoically, in the hours after Kurt Cobain died. He was mischievous enough not to keep Courtney Love from crashing his post-MTV Video Music Awards conversation with Madonna in 1995, something he absolutely could have shut down but didn’t, thank God. Kurt is still so tied to the identity of MTV News, even now, years after he left the network, that I have to remind myself that I’m not writing his obituary.
During my time at MTV, there was always a distinction between what we were doing as VJs and what the correspondents for the news department got to do. They’d have their own area at the VMAs or the MTV Movie Awards, doing harder and deeper pieces with the talent than we’d be able to: 90 seconds to our 20. They had to have versatility; Gideon Yago would come onto “Total Request Live” to update us on the production of the upcoming video from Mya, then hop on a plane to Fallujah to interview American soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
To this day, if someone recognizes me and says “You’re the guy from MTV News,” I am quick to correct them, because it feels like stolen valor. (For the record, I just asked Gideon what was the most dangerous place the network sent him, and he replied, “Absolutely the MTV Beach House.”)
Watching the MTV News department from up close for as long as I did, I can only make this comparison: It felt like the West Beverly Blaze, the high school newspaper in the early seasons of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” In the midst of a world that seemed frivolous, MTV News staffers were devoted to doing work that had depth. They were, whether on-air personalities or producers or writers, committed and intense, yet also hip and extremely good-looking. They were Brandons and Andreas to our Davids and Donnas, and I hope they know that’s as high a compliment as a person can give.
If people like Martha Quinn or Carson Daly made you believe a life in television could be full of cool parties and concerts, people like Loder and Connelly and Soren and Yago and SuChin Pak showed you there was a worthy career to be had in there, that there was something serious and meaningful and deserving of respect in the pop culture you loved, and that you could acknowledge all of that and still dress cool.
As kids turned away from television and toward their phones, MTV News lived on for a bit as a surprisingly excellent website — employing the likes of Ana Marie Cox, Ira Madison III and Alex Pappademas — and a Twitter feed with some very good original video content. But the brand had less and less of a presence on the channel, and the channel itself had less of a presence in the culture, as it abandoned music and moved toward an all-“Ridiculousness” format. That’s something we felt pretty acutely in the last few years, when we had no MTV News to help us process the deaths of David Bowie and Prince and Tom Petty and Taylor Hawkins. Now, we have nothing to help us process the death of MTV News.
It went out, not with a bang-bang-bang-bang, but with a whimper.
Homes is an editor-at-large for Esquire, and was a VJ on MTV from 1998-2002.
This story originally appeared on LA Times