“The camaraderie and the purpose and the sheer invention of something that didn’t exist was so irresistible.” That's Judy McGrath talking about the launch of MTV in 1981, with Bob Pittman, a founder of the game-changing cable TV music network. The pair reunited for the iHeartMedia CEO’s podcast “Math & Magic: Stories from the Frontiers of Marketing.”
During the interview, McGrath also discusses her years in journalism at Conde Nast, after growing up in Scranton, PA—and being determined to find kindred spirits in the big city, far from home. “I knew my tribe was in New York City, and my parents, friends and neighbors felt like I was moving to Moscow or Brussels,” she says in the program.
Her first gig was at Mademoiselle, working for the Conde Nast title. She muses, “You could literally tell who worked for which magazine by what they were wearing, eating, saying, drinking and where they were clubbing—and you could pick all of that up just from the lobby.” She explains that in those days, Mademoiselle was “the smart girl magazine,” where “I made some of the best friends of my life. I was so thrilled to be there, and those magazines have very clearly defined brands.”
But then she was called to interview for upstart cable TV network MTV, where she would eventually become Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, including MTV, MTV2, VH-1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, TV Land, and Logo, remaining at the helm until 2011. At the time, “The beauty and wonder of MTV is that I thought it was filled with people that could not find gainful employment anywhere else,” she said. Adds a bemused Pittman: “We were.”
Explaining the allure of the concept of the fledgling network’s branding, and its iconic “I want my MTV,” McGrath says the mission was clear: “This is about the person on the other side. Who are you trying to communicate with? They’re like you but you can’t make this just for you. And there were really no other rules… except no full frontal nudity… so go out there and do it. It was so much fun to meet people who were far more creative than I was.”
Further reflecting on MTV’s success, she tells Pittman, “When I joined, I didn’t know anything about television, I didn’t even like it. But it was like, how fast can I get out the door at Conde Nast and join this thing? So many people at Conde Nast were opposed to it. It was like I was joining the circus. If this many people think it’s a bad idea, I’m definitely going to do it. It has to be a good idea.” She adds, “It just felt like if I could marry all of the things that I’m interested in with these set of principles and join this crazy band of people who have a lot of audacity and a firm belief that this could work, what a gift. I never looked back, not a second.”
And: “I think we were so snotty. I remember thinking I don’t want to hire anyone who worked at an advertising agency or a television network or a magazine.”
Now, nearly four decades later, she notes, “Subsequent generations from ours are so much more equipped than we were, to change the world. They have so many more tools, so much data that we never had.” That said, McGrath adds that today, she talks with those who are founding upstarts, and the focus is on building corporate… instead of the actual mission.
Weighing in on a more innocent time, Pittman says, “We were all doing jobs we hadn’t done before. So we didn’t really know what we weren’t supposed to do.”