Type keyword(s) to search


A Fond Farewell to MTV News, Former Monocultural Capital for Teen News

For many Gen Xers, watching Kurt Loder was a formative experience.
  • Kurt Loder in Hate Rock: An MTV News Special Report (Photo: Everett Collection)
    Kurt Loder in Hate Rock: An MTV News Special Report (Photo: Everett Collection)

    Like most pop stars, MTV found that it needed to reinvent itself every decade in the race to stay relevant. However, from its early never-ending jukebox days through the TV animation hits, the Total Request Live era, and finally the reality show years, one constant remained: MTV News. Starting in 1987 with The Week in Rock, MTV News anchor Kurt Loder brought Generation X teens music news, treating it with the same gravity as the PBS Newshour and his audience’s intelligence with respect. For many of us, he was our first news anchor, and MTV News was the way to stay informed.

    In the early years, Loder’s show sometimes felt like Rolling Stone made a news program, which was not a coincidence. The then 42-year-old Loder had been with the legendary rock magazine as an editor since 1979 and was known in journalism circles as one of Rolling Stone’s more prolific writers. The program covered everything from album releases to concert dates. It also included news from other entertainment realms, like movies, TV, and celebrity gossip, in an era before the advent of magazines dedicated to pop culture like Entertainment Weekly. It also was one of the few places LGBTQ+ news made the headlines, like the death of Divine and, later, the passing of Freddie Mercury from AIDS, the first major star to succumb to the disease.

    But from the first, The Week in Rock also reported on political news, especially regarding music. The 1980s were the era of the heavy metal Satanic panic and the rise of political hip hop, all of which the Reagan era demonized in various ways, leading to parental warning stickers on albums and a push for censorship. Loder did newsmaker-style interviews with the artists of the period who publicly stood up to those politicians, introducing younger viewers to them in the process — artists such as Frank Zappa, whose refusal to make videos MTV could air kept him from breaking through to the new generation. He also continued to cover Madonna’s new releases, including the famous “Erotica” video, when she got too hot for MTV.

    Unlike conventional news programs, Loder brought an unabashed Libertarian viewpoint to his reporting, framing these stories in a way no other mainstream broadcast channel would dare to imagine. His blunt language and deadpan snark delivery added to the “MTV is rebellious” attitude of the time, giving the network progressive credibility it perhaps did not always deserve. He also began including updates from a non-profit group, Rock the Vote, founded in 1990, which encouraged politically conscious bands to bring their late teen and early twentysomething to the polls.

    However, it wasn’t until the 1992 election that MTV News first drew attention to its political content. That was the year Judy McGrath, MTV's creative director, decided to take a risk in starting a voter education/registration campaign known at the time as “Choose or Lose.” Loder and co-anchor Tabitha Soren began including updates on the 1992 Presidential campaign during weekend broadcasts. The program also began covering international events around that time, as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were large enough to affect the music world, with bands able to tour behind the Iron Curtain for the first time.

    Looking back now, some question if MTV’s attempts to bring in young people to politics was the best move, as it normalized a new, much less high-minded discourse. (Bill Clinton being asked the relatively harmless question “Boxers or Briefs” was already shocking enough at the time. It took on a whole new meaning during impeachment.) But for those of us in high school who cared about politics (uncool as that was), having Kurt Loder give a weekly rundown of world news was a formative experience. MTV made it so political nerds could be cool too.

    Even at a time when “slacker” was the watchword of our generation, seeing there were those out there not slacking and trying to engage in the world and engage me with it was the first time I felt like my opinions might be respected by adults. Having someone explain politics in a way a 12-year-old could understand was as revolutionary as Loder calling out Tipper Gore and company for hysteria over curse words in lyrics. And though it may not have made a difference in getting young people to vote in the way some hoped, it did create a framework for reaching young people still being utilized today.

    Of course, Kurt Loder’s most famous moment was breaking the news of the death of Kurt Cobain. It was the closest MTV ever came to going full rolling news channel, with Loder appearing at regular intervals with updates as they came in. For a generation, it was a “where were you when you heard” moment, and for many, the answer was “watching MTV.” In a time before the entertainment landscape fractured into thousands of tiny niche offerings, MTV was, in that era, the monocultural capital of teen news, as Yellowjackets recently reminded us via a deep faked clip of a 1996 Loder reporting on its plane of missing girls.

    Though the network would reach larger ratings highs in the 21st century once it turned full force to reality TV (Jersey Shore remains the network’s ratings high point), Loder’s domination of the 1990s teen news scene through the alternative music era was total — he was the Walter Cronkite of Generation X. By the time he stopped appearing on The Week in Rock around the mid-aughts, he had helped viewers process many things, from a war in Iraq to a drunk Courtney Love vs. Madonna, to the final days of Johnny Cash.

    Though it’s been years since The Week in Rock was a staple of the MTV lineup, Kurt Loder never officially retired from MTV News, as much as he just faded away. Now 78, he still occasionally makes news, like apologizing for an infamous incident in 1998 in which he corrected Jewel’s grammar. MTV News did keep on rocking the headlines, moving into the digital space on Facebook and Twitter, and then trying to reinvent itself yet again — albeit too little too late — in February 2016 as a Buzzfeed-like destination. They put together a good crew for a time, led by the late lamented Grantland’s founding editor Dan Fierman, and made a commitment to promoting compelling and diverse voices, like Wonkette founding editor Ana Marie Cox, Crooked Media’s Ira Madison III, The New Republic's Jamil Smith, and great all-around essayist Alex Pappademas. Sadly, it didn’t last.

    But the loss of Loder is made more palpable by the lack of an obvious successor, someone to help a new generation through the traumas of the 2010s and early ’20s, from the death of David Bowie to January 6. Instead, the void has only expanded with the shuttering of MTV News itself, as parent company Paramount struggles to compete in the streaming landscape. To be fair, the rebellious news division had long abandoned its claim on teen eyeballs, fighting for relevance in a world where Teen Vogue was just as likely to deliver straight (if not even blunter) talk on how adults are screwing up the future for up-and-coming teens. And Loder’s libertarian attitudes, once seen as alternative and edgy, are no longer the politics of choice for Generation Z. But for those of us who came of age at a time when an MTV Town Hall with presidential candidates was a novel concept, MTV News will always be tinged with deep nostalgia for a time when a sax-playing president was as edgy as it got. Remember, you heard it (insert guitar riff) first.

    Ani Bundel is an entertainment writer covering everything from celebrities to movies to peak TV when she's not tweeting or Instagramming photos of her very fuzzy cats. Her other regular bylines can be found at PBS/WETA's Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles, CNN Opinions, and MSNBC Daily. 

    TOPICS: MTV News