AN INTERVIEW WITH NINA BLACKWOOD
By David Iozzia
Nina Blackwood is a radio celebrity who's probably best known as one of the original five MTV VJs. I was honored when she took the time to answer my interview questions about MTV, satellite radio, music in the 21st century, and so much more.
Dave: Hello Nina, thanks for letting me conduct this interview. Looking back 25 years to day one of MTV and the days that followed, did video really kill the radio star, or did he just beat him up so bad that radio went into hiding for years?
NINA: I don't think it's either of those two scenarios. It was the opposite. I really feel that video enhanced the radio star. At the end of the 70's, the music industry was really in the doldrums. It was the end of the "disco" era. You had British progressive-rock, and you had a Southern California scene with bands like The Eagles, but the music business was kind of standing still and not going anywhere. MTV, when it started, and music videos gave a shot in the arm to the industry. It opened radio playlists across the country to artists and music, especially British new-wave, that wouldn't have seen the light of day in most markets. When people started seeing new artists and different types of music on MTV, they wanted to start hearing them on the radio also.
Dave: Who should have a bigger place in rock history: the bands who made one-hit wonders; or the bands who had poor musicianship and weak songs but who looked great on TV and made great videos?
NINA: If we narrow the focus to just the 80's, I think it's the bands that made the great videos, which were a huge part of the song's success. For better or worse, it's hard to hear a song from the MTV era that had a great video without thinking about that video. A band like Flock of Seagulls, with their distinctive look, is synonymous with the 80's. They weren't a one-hit wonder, and they weren't expert musicians. Yet everybody remembers them because they had a couple of hits and a couple of good videos.
Dave: Then in turn, does "the song" or does "the video" have the bigger place in rock history?
NINA: Obviously, it's the song that has the longevity. A one-hit wonder like "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum has been used on countless movie soundtracks. A great song is a great song no matter what. Yet certain songs became one-hit wonders because of the great video, like A-Ha's "Take On Me." That song and video made the band huge. They were called the "Norwegian Duran Duran." They couldn't get airplay for that song in the U.S. until their record company kicked in some dough for a cutting-edge video. It went number 1 because of the video. Unless that song gets used like so many others on a bunch of commercials, or unless you're a big 80's fan, I don't think it'll be engrained on the collective fabric of pop culture.
Dave: As a music fan, I was into live performance, great musicians and the way they played their instruments, and good songwriting. I ignored a lot of bands from the "hair-metal video" days. Many of those musicians are still around today and they had the qualifications I was looking for back then, but I couldn't look past the hair, the spandex, and the image represented on their videos. Were you able to look beyond that, recognizing the musicianship and songwriting, or did the videos blind you like they did to me?
NINA: In some cases yes, but in others I'd have to say I was blinded just like you. I wasn't into the "hair bands" at all. Guns N' Roses was the one band that I loved. They really kicked my butt. They were on the cusp, and they wiped the rest of the little poseurs off the map. I could see past their image, and I knew that there was some substance. Some songs and bands have aged well. When you hear Depeche Mode and The Cure today they sound timeless. Some of the cheesy power ballads are still popular, but when you hear them today you have to roll your eyes. Or, I hate to say it because Jani Lane is such a sweet guy, but when I hear "Cherry Pie" today I say "oh no!"
Dave: Why did MTV change from playing videos and concerts that push songs and new bands to a network of reality television that you've affectionately termed "lifestyle TV"?
NINA: I'm not the definitive person to ask, but like any other network, they probably wanted to boost their ratings. MTV started the whole thing with reality shows, it spread like a virus, and they continue to produce shows with that format. Reality shows are on TV everywhere. The people that grew up with MTV probably don't like it today. For others, who weren't even born when I was on MTV, it's all they know. They like watching all of the reality stuff. I wish the music was back at MTV. That's not what the powers-to-be choose to do, Consequently, I don't watch it.
Dave: MTV, in its hey-day, was a real friend to the record industry, bands, and music fans. It also opened doors for film-makers and directors, letting them be more creative than the regimented network television or Hollywood film industries would allow. Now that MTV has changed and stepped aside, what do you see jumping into the void to give the music industry the shot in the arm, and the kick in the ass, that it desperately needs?
NINA: Technology has fragmented music fans so much that it's really hard to say. It's only to become more fragmented. Every week there's a new technology. What I do know is that it'll never go back to the golden era of bloated expense accounts and big parties. I do foresee more independent labels and better marketing through the Internet. Not to be a nay-sayer, but it's not going back to the glory days regardless of what comes along next.
Dave: Many of the bands from the early MTV video era are now eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do you think Duran Duran, Def Leppard, and Motley Crue are Hall of Fame-caliber bands?
NINA: That's a real tough call. I was watching a debate on VH-1 recently about artists who have not been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rush, Yes, and Van Halen are not in yet. I'd have to pick those bands before I pick Motley Crue.
Dave: Forgetting specific bands then, do you think the MTV era of bands will be looked upon favorably by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
NINA: I don't have a definitive answer. Because they haven't recognized the bands I've mentioned, what are they looking for? What's their criteria? KISS, even though they are over-the-top and more the Gene Simmons merchandising factory than a real band, certainly belong. How can Alice Cooper not be in, he's an icon and he influenced most of the bands that are in there? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has to address all of the bands they've overlooked so far before they start thinking about Motley Crue and the MTV-era bands.
Dave: It's safe to say, that with your credentials, that you are an authority on 1980's music. That being said, who are the new bands of the 21st century that have impressed you the most?
NINA: I'm blown away by Jack White's talent. The Raconteurs is my most favorite new record and I love what he did with two instruments in the White Stripes. He's so creative and we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg of his musical talent. The Killers are up there but it's a little too soon to start thinking about what type of longevity they'll have. They're cool and I like them a lot. On the pop side, I think Christina Aguilera is a wonder talent. She's got the goods and the brains to be in it for the long haul. I like Beck, he's very creative in the studio, but he's not really 21st century. It's strange since we talked about one-hit wonders before, but so few bands from the 90's are still out playing and still relevant. What happened? The only relevant ones left are the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. Oh, and Dave Grohl. I love what he did. I don't even know the guy, but I'm proud of him.
Dave: What are your thoughts about broadcast radio in the 21st century? Don't forget to mention your nationally syndicated radio shows: "Nina Blackwood's Absolutely 80's" and "Nina Blackwood's New Wave Nation."
NINA: As much as I think that video did not kill the radio star, satellite radio will not put "terrestrial radio" out of business. There is a localized feel that you can only get from terrestrial radio and I love that aspect of it. Over the last few years, terrestrial radio hasn't been using the power that it has to full advantage. If they had, people wouldn't be switching to satellite radio. I wish the powers-to-be wouldn't keep switching around their formats or not utilizing on-air talent by having the station run by computer. Why should I listen to a station run by computer when I can just set-up my i-Pod? The power is still there in terrestrial radio, but it's being misused. I still love it though and I'm very proud of the two shows I have through the United Stations Radio Network. "Absolute 80's" is more mainstream pop and rock, but not heavy rock. "New Wave Nation" is really my cup of tea, going back into the late 70's, all of the 80's, and into the 90's. It's new wave, punk, and alternative. My website, www.ninablackwood.com, has a locator function that will help people find stations in their market that carry my syndicated radio shows.
Dave: You're very involved these days with satellite radio, which is still in its infancy. As one of the original five MTV VJs, you were there for its birth and you witnessed its growth. Compare the expectations you had for MTV then with the expectations you have for satellite radio now.
NINA: Before I started on MTV, I was working on some video-music projects so I thought video was going to catch on. I wasn't certain that a music channel that was on 24 hours a day would catch on. My expectations going in were that of a gamble. I'll try it for six months and if I don't like it I'll leave. Five years later, I was still there. It was definitely a wait-and-see attitude. Now, because of hindsight, I have bigger expectations for satellite. Even on a personal level if I wasn't working for satellite, I just absolutely love radio. I'm in Los Angeles, the number two market, and I couldn't find decent music on the radio. I was so angry trying to listen in my car to radio. Then satellite, and 160 stations came along, and you can get anything you want. It's wonderful. I'm not trying to sell it, but it's a no-brainer. Everybody should have it. If I wasn't working on satellite radio, I'd be really frustrated wishing that I was.
Dave: Talk a little bit about the Sirius Satellite Radio channel "The Big 80's."
NINA: The original MTV VJs: Myself, Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman, and of course J.J Jackson in spirit because he would have been with us, are all together again on the Sirius Satellite Radio channel 8, "Big 80's," and I think it's great.
Dave: I haven't jumped aboard with satellite radio yet, but I hope I make the right decision on either XM or Sirius. I'm clueless and I'm the same guy that chose Sony Beta over VHS, 8-track over cassette, and laser disc over DVD.
NINA: You have to pick Sirius, of course that's my answer. I'm not one of the corporate guys so I don't know if there will be a crossover of channels down the road. God only knows where satellite radio is heading, but you'd better jump aboard.
Dave: Bands in the 70's and 80's could have a live concert aired on a nationally syndicated radio show like the King Biscuit Flower Hour. Arbitron ratings and listener demographics allowed radio stations to market themselves to bands who might in turn have an idea on the size and shape of the audience their concert was reaching. Many bands that I've interviewed acknowledge that having a concert aired over satellite radio is great exposure, but they have no idea about the audience they are reaching. Does satellite radio have an audience measurement system in place to provide broadcast ratings?
NINA: I read something recently that an audience measurement system is going into motion. A ratings system is definitely necessary. For me personally, I don't even want to know if there are ratings unless they come in and they are good. That way I can say I'm number one!
Dave: What other ways do satellite radio stations market themselves to a band?
NINA: The best angle to market to musicians is very simple: exposure. That says enough. Satellite radio is also less restrictive. Artists can say what they want and play what they want. In a way, it's so sad that musicians have become so business-savvy. I'm a child of the 60's, where musicians just wanted to play for the sake of their art.
Dave: That's all of the questions I have for you Nina. Thanks again for the honor of letting me interview you. Is there anything that I've neglected to cover that you'd like to mention or promote?
NINA: No Dave, you're very thorough and it's been wonderful talking with you. You and I have a passion for our music and I'm sure that we could talk all day!.