Starting today – 35 years to the day that MTV first debuted – VH1 Classic becomes MTV Classic. The new retro entertainment channel features an eclectic mix of fan-favorite MTV series and music programming drawn from across its rich history, with a special focus on the 1990s and early 2000s.
When MTV burst onto cable television on August 1, 1981, the original VJs – Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn and J.J. Jackson – couldn’t imagine the hold they would quickly come to have over pop and youth culture.
We thought it fitting to once again feature our interview with original VJ Nina Blackwood as she discussed an exciting, new kind of broadcast medium that was being created hour by hour and day by day.
Do you remember the first time that music really grabbed your attention?
Absolutely. I started playing piano when I was four. Music has always been a part of my life.
What was it about the piano that attracted you?
I don’t remember exactly, but I wanted to play piano. I remember going to the piano store with my parents and they let me play all the different pianos and pick out the one I liked the best. Of course they had the final say. My mom never had to make me practice. I always loved to play. When I started reading, the books I would love to get would be biographies on different composers. Even at an early age I was doing my research! I started working on stage in theater when I was eight. As I got older – maybe 13 – I started playing harp. My parents were very supportive and they bought me a harp. That’s how I made my living for years. Music and acting have always been very special to me.
Do you remember the first band you heard that you really grabbed on to?
Like millions of other people worldwide, it was the Beatles. The Beatles just blew me away. I loved everything they did. I collected the Beatles cards, read everything I could get my hands on, was the first to get the new records when they came out, everything. I just absolutely loved the Beatles. Then all the other British Invasion bands – the Kinks, the Stones. Actually, you were either a Beatles girl or a Stones girl. I got into the Stones a little bit later, but I love them. It’s safe to say the whole British Invasion deeply affected me.
What was your first concert?
I’m not exactly sure. I think it was the Who at Public Auditorium in Cleveland. They were phenomenal!
So if you mix piano, harp, and your favorite bands like the Beatles and the Who – how did that all mesh together when you were in high school?
I was always a good student. I studied hard and had perfect attendance for years and years. I was a cheerleader and on student council. At the same time I had this other influence – rock ‘n roll. At that point it was about being a little rebellious. I started going a little left of center in high school. I remember one night during cheerleading that I could either go to this club and see the Velvet Underground or cheer for football. I didn’t even care for football, quite honestly. I just liked cheerleading. That’s when I decided to quit cheerleading and pursue the rock ‘n roll aspect.
How was the idea presented to you about “this new music channel” called MTV?
I moved to Los Angeles and was studying acting at the Strasberg Institute, playing my harp and going on auditions. I was also working on a pilot for a music driven TV show. I was functioning as a host, introducing clips and doing “man on the street” interviews. I always read Billboard magazine. I read an article that a 24-hour music channel was looking for hosts. I sent my resume and photo to them and they came out to LA two times over a period of four months. By June of that year (1981) they flew me to New York and hired me.
As the channel launched and programming came together, did you have strict guidelines as to what you were supposed to do or did things change day to day because it was such a new, exciting venture?
We were inventing the wheel, so to speak. There wasn’t anything we could use as a guideline. It was all spontaneous and impromptu at the beginning. The first few years involved a lot of tweaking. The five of us always thought the early days were the most fun. It was more of a free-for-all. We were doing anything and everything. The crew would even come on. As MTV became more popular and important to the record labels it became more strict, more corporate.
Did you feel like you were becoming a kind of “rock star” as the popularity of the channel grew?
I can speak for all of us when I say we didn’t think we were really cool rock stars. We all felt like normal people that had really cool jobs! I never walked around with a “star” attitude. I was more concerned with doing a really good job and having credibility. That was really important to me – being respected by people in the industry, the artists, by the record industry and by the viewers. I wasn’t out for the lifestyle, the partying and hanging out with rock stars. That wasn’t me at all. I took my job very seriously.
Did you see changes going on at the network that prompted you to leave or did you have other things career-wise you wanted to do?
We were signed to an exclusive contract. There were many things that came our way that “the suits,” as we used to call them, wouldn’t allow us to do. My agents and manager back in LA were pulling their hair out because all these opportunities came my way and MTV’s answer would be “no.” The fifth year I was there you could just sense something was in the air. Things were changing at the channel. The offers were coming in. Paramount offered me an unprecedented two show deal for Entertainment Tonight and Solid Gold. A syndicated radio show came up. Something from one of Turner’s channels came up. By that time I was ready to go and graduate into the real world! That’s why I left! I had a bunch of stuff to go to.
Nina, I appreciate you taking time out to talk a little about your time at MTV and your passions for music and entertaining. What would you like to say to wrap things up?
Keep listening to music and if you’re creative – create it!
Nina can be heard on Sirius-XM’s “80s On 8” which airs Mondays through Fridays 1PM to 4PM, Saturdays from 8PM to midnight, and Sundays from 10AM to 1PM (all Eastern times), as well as hosting the “VJ Big 40 Countdown” with her fellow former MTV VJs Mark, Martha and Alan.