A Eulogy for MTV News: Former Head Dave Sirulnick on Covering Madonna, Kurt Cobain’s Death and Bringing Politics to Young People
Dave Sirulnick spent nearly three decades at MTV, helping launch the signature “Week in Rock” news franchise and overseeing “Total Request Live” — as well as reality series including “Laguna Beach,” “Cribs” and “My Super Sweet 16.” He spearheaded MTV’s Video Music Awards, as well as its ground-breaking “Choose or Lose” presidential campaign coverage and news programming stemming from world events such as Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2003 war in Iraq. Sirulnick rose to executive vice president for multiplatform production, news and music for MTV before departing in 2015 as part of a major Viacom reorg. With the news that Paramount Global has eliminated the last vestiges of MTV News (which had already been significantly downsized), Variety asked Sirulnick — now president of entertainment at RadicalMedia — to share his thoughts.
I walked into MTV’s offices at 1775 Broadway in May 1987, having been hired as a producer to create and develop a weekly show for the MTV News department.
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I got the job in part because I pitched an idea: If MTV News could earn the viewers trust by bringing more insight into the music they loved, bringing them closer to the musicians that influenced them and reporting on the triumphs and setbacks of those musicians, an audience would build for a brand-new news show that they would look forward to watching each week.
I knew that once we formed an ongoing relationship with the viewers — earned over years of relentless effort and building trust — that we could expand our storytelling outside of music as well, into the subjects that impacted the lives of young people.
I was 22 years old.
Over the summer of 1987, I started working with the small, dedicated MTV News team that had joined before me: Michael Shore, Stu Cohn, John Norris, Patrick Byrnes and Alisa Bellettini. I presented ideas to my bosses, Doug Herzog and Linda Corradina, about the new show that I would produce that would ultimately become “The Week In Rock.”
One of the first assignments I went on was two weeks on the road with the wildly popular band Genesis, fronted by Phil Collins. Filming news reports each day with the band backstage, on the bus, on private planes and during soundcheck, I had a view that was privileged and wildly insightful. We saw who the band members were, how they worked and how they created. I knew what I was experiencing was a microcosm of the greater goal of MTV News: To give viewers access like this on a regular basis and provide a deeper connection to the musicians who made the music that impacted their lives.
Before my trip, Doug told me, “This may be the best filming experience you ever have.” In a way, he was right. To see a band at the top of their game in such daily close proximity was incredible — Think “Almost Famous.” We were with the band on the Concorde to Paris, and then backstage before a sold-out stadium concert in Washington, D.C. Phil Collins and the band even threw a surprise birthday party for me.
But Doug was also wrong. During the next 28 years of working at, and then leading MTV News (and subsequently MTV News and Docs), there would be hundreds — if not thousands — of moments at MTV News that would be more meaningful and impactful than those days with Genesis.
We filmed the first episode of “The Week in Rock” on September 19, 1987. It held so much promise from the very start. We were nervous in the control room before shooting, knowing that to earn the trust of the audience and to earn their time, we needed to engage with them in a way that would get them to come back on a weekly basis.
The first episode was hosted by VJs Mark Goodman and Carolyne Heldman. They both did a good job, helping us to set the tone and create a foundation for the show, as did VJs including Adam Curry in the following weeks. But we all knew that the show needed its own permanent host. Doug, Linda and I agreed that for MTV News and “The Week in Rock” to grow an audience, we needed a full-time reporter and host who specialized in writing — and would work only on MTV News.
Throughout the summer leading to the first episode, we had already started to audition people for the host role. We were searching for someone that audiences would see as their conduit to all that was happening in the world of popular music. We wanted a figure that veteran musicians would know and that new hitmakers, who would lead pop culture in new directions, would want to share their story with as they came into their own.
Kurt Loder was the very best choice. Full stop. Without Kurt Loder, MTV News doesn’t become what it ultimately did.
The first time Kurt and I were in the field together was his first week on the job. It was February 1988, a pretty big week in popular music. Not only was it Kurt’s first time hosting the series, but two musical titans — Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen — were launching major tours. That week’s episode of “The Week in Rock” was going to be special.
I started the week in Kansas City filming and editing an MTV News segment on the opening of the Michael Jackson tour, then flew to Boston with production manager Robert LaForty to meet up with Kurt for the opening of the Bruce Springsteen tour in Worcester, Mass. In the frigid cold outside the arena, I guided Kurt through some techniques for interviewing Springsteen fans on camera, and worked with him as we shot with Bruce backstage and filmed songs from the concert. After the concert ended, Kurt and I sat together in an unused dressing room, and discussed what we thought were the key elements of the story that we wanted to tell — Where to start, what to include, what to highlight and how to end the piece.
We instantly established a teamwork that would last for decades. Our relationship was easy going. Kurt and I complimented each other’s strengths and respected what each other was offering. I started looking at the footage and choosing selects while Kurt focused on the words. He said, “Let me write this up,” words that anyone who has worked with Kurt knows is the signal that his incredible gift is about to unfurl. Kurt’s use of the English language is remarkable. His gift at writing about the emotions and spirit of how music stirs us is unparalleled. Kurt is truly the most talented writer I have worked with in over 35 years of telling stories on film and TV.
Thirty minutes after he started writing, Kurt handed me a handwritten script. It flowed really well. His choices made me smile. We talked about where I was going to use interview excerpts or footage from the concert, and we adjusted the script together to ensure that it all made sense. As the roadies and crew worked nearby, I had to guide him around a few sentences. He wrote some amazing lines that started with “resplendent in his crisp white shirt and sharp black jacket, Bruce stepped from the darkness into the light…” I looked at Kurt and reminded him that we could see all of that in the footage. In this case, we don’t need to say it. A light bulb went off and he never looked back, brilliantly writing his words in and around footage and interview excerpts for producers and editors to work with for the next two decades.
“The Week in Rock” ran for more than 10 years, over 500 episodes.
But it was not inevitable that MTV News and “The Week in Rock” would connect with viewers. One of the elements that was very important for all of us at MTV News from the start was to never talk down to the audience. Strive to bring them the best storytelling we could, the best writing, the most interesting access to people, places, and situations that viewers may never experience outside of watching MTV. Over many years, that dedication to respect the audience was always a big part of the success of MTV News.
The news team would meet every morning in my office or the newsroom to talk through the stories we were going to cover and what we expected to be completed in the edit for air that day. This is also where writers and producers would passionately and thoughtfully pitch stories and shoots. Some would be greenlit, some would need more work, some would not move forward. But we listened to each other’s ideas knowing how much each person wanted to make the best version of MTV News possible.
We all cared deeply about the music. For the most part, we started at MTV News when we were in our 20’s. We could forge this understanding with the musicians and a connection with the audience because we were them.
We knew what music meant in young people’s lives. We respected it and honored it. The impact that music and musicians had to stir the soul, to be a calming presence, to see the world in a different way than your own, or to learn that there were others who felt just like you. We all lived it and felt it, and we wanted our programming to extend and enhance that experience.
We filmed at concerts and events, recording studios, dressing rooms, tour buses and homes, never forgetting how special, unique and groundbreaking it was for the time. Now it’s common to see all aspects of musicians lives across social media, but from the late 1980’s to the early 2000’s, MTV News had the unique opportunity to provide context and storytelling around this level of access to the audience. We made it our mission to accurately report on the setbacks and imperfections of those same artists, whether they liked it or not.
In the MTV newsroom we debated, we listened, we researched and we took it seriously. But we also had lots of fun. There would be some seriously large and over-the-top MTV parties with artists as legendary as Prince performing, and the MTV News team would take to the dance floor with the same boundless energy that we had in reporting stories.
We supported each other in and out of the office. With so many young people being far from where they grew up, the staffers who had been in NYC for a number of years would take the new team members under their wing, both at work and at play in NYC.
Soon, we knew it was time to expand what MTV News could do. I wanted to go live from the opening night of superstar tours and share with viewers the palpable anticipation and excitement from the musician’s point of view backstage as they were preparing to go on, and then broadcast the first song or two. It worked. We brought the opening nights of world tours into viewers home, with artists including Janet Jackson, U2, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna.
MTV News grew up with Madonna. She was (and is) a force of artistry, embracing change as almost no other artist before or since has done. As she changed what she was doing, we worked to keep up. Madonna and Kurt Loder had a great relationship born out of respect and humor. They got each other and when we filmed the two of them together it was sparkling. She needled him and he gave it right back. She made him blush; he made her laugh.
Through the years she connected with viewers over and over again through MTV News and “The Week in Rock.” We earned her trust, and soon we were traveling far and wide with her. Kurt, myself, and members from the MTV News team were with her in Tokyo for the opening of the Blond Ambition Tour; in Budapest for the filming of Evita; in Ronda, Spain, for filming of her “Take A Bow” video; in the desert outside of LA; and even in a low-key recording studio as she laid down vocals for the “Ray Of Light” album.
Madonna wanted to do something new and innovative when her new song and video “Bedtime Stories” was about to be released: She wanted to have a pajama dance party at Webster Hall in NYC. Upon hearing this, we immediately offered to produce a live special and got to work collaborating with her and her team. Madonna let it be known that everyone in the club was going to need to wear pajamas, even our producers and most certainly, Kurt Loder. I think she had the idea just to see if Kurt would do it.
“No problem,” said Kurt, and the MTV wardrobe team outfitted him with a great set of MTV-ready PJs. In a conversation, Madonna let it be known that she really hoped that our producing team in the video truck would also be wearing pajamas. Since I would be going in and out of the club to talk with her during rehearsals and soundcheck, I knew this especially meant me. So, for the only time in my career, myself and many well-established veteran TV personnel worked the night away in a small video truck in our pajamas!
I saw another opportunity to invite viewers into the world of music even further through the Video Music Awards. Remarkably, no one was broadcasting live from the red carpet of major awards shows at the time, but I had the idea for MTV News to broadcast a pre-show before the annual VMAs, giving viewers the chance to hear from the performers and nominees live as they arrived.
With every step forward, we took the same focus of consistently respecting the audience and bringing them into worlds they would not have normally been part of. From MTV News came the Cindy Crawford-hosted, Alisa Bellettini-produced “House of Style” series, focusing on style and design with contributions from the imaginative mind of Todd Oldham. In the early 2000’s, MTV News pioneered and produced an annual round able debate, counting down the “Hottest MCs” in rap for each year. This became so widely admired that artists such as Lil Wayne, Jay Z and Kanye West cited the Hottest MCs list in lyrics.
Hip-hop had always been a mainstay of MTV News. We worked regularly with LL Cool J, Run DMC, the Beastie Boys and De La Soul in the early days, then Missy Elliott, Wu Tang Clan, P Diddy, Snoop, Eminem, Outkast, 50 Cent, Ludacris, Kendrick Lamar and many others as time went on.
Early in my time at MTV News, I spent time with Chuck D of Public Enemy. Chuck was a viewer. He liked MTV News and “The Week in Rock.” He recognized our approach and what we were trying to do. We had long discussions about the intersection of hip-hop and media, perception and reality, politics and lyrics. I spent time with Chuck during recording sessions, tours and music video sets. MTV News’ consistent embrace of the new directions in hip-hop soon expanded across the country. “The Week In Rock’s” arrival in the fall of 1987 coincided with a new and distinct style of rap emerging from Los Angeles. NWA burst onto the scene and changed music, pop culture and the world. But before that enormous impact took place, MTV News was with Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren, and they welcomed us to share their story in many ways over the years. As MTV News was earning trust with viewers, we were earning trust with the musicians who were shaping the world.
In April 1994, this earned trust was shockingly and vividly on display, all in one heartbreaking day.
Once we confirmed the news of Kurt Cobain’s death by suicide, we had to get the news on the air as quickly and accurately as possible. In minutes we gathered in the MTV newsroom to sort through the information that was coming in. I handed out assignments to our team of producers, writers, bookers, and editors, with the one at the top of the list being to film the segment sharing the news of Cobain’s death.
At this time, MTV did not have a studio in the Times Square headquarters, nor was there a daily live show. (The famed Times Square studio, home in the future to “TRL,” would not open until 1997.) To get on the air quickly meant having our TV crew set up as fast as possible. I decided that we would film the segment in Kurt Loder’s office. With writers supplying the known info, Kurt wrote the script as the crew set up. We conferred on the language, made a few adjustments, and I sat on the floor next to the camera as we taped the news.
As the segment was edited and prepared for air, the feeling inside the halls of MTV was shock, disbelief and overwhelming sadness. Many of us had worked with Kurt Cobain over the prior three years, or his music had touched us deeply. Tears flowed as co-workers hugged and consoled one another. I went to Doug Herzog’s office to meet with him, Judy McGrath, and members of the MTV Music and programming department. I briefed everyone on what we knew so far and when the MTV News report would be on the air, as well as frequency of it airing.
MTV regular programming ceased and Nirvana music videos as well as the recent Nirvana “MTV Unplugged” episode would fill the air as the MTV News team continued to report the story. I suggested that we should go live — something that was very rarely done in those days — because we should be communicating live with the audience and updating them in real time. I knew that when an event like this takes place, viewers want a to be part of a community. TV can do that. We can do that.
So many people at MTV were hurting, grappling with what happened with Cobain, we could only imagine what our viewers were going through. MTV News went live for hours with Kurt Loder hosting and sharing information as we reported it or sourced it. Our team booked mental health experts to come on the set live with Kurt to sort through everyone’s complex feelings. We had suicide prevention hotline advisors on hand as we took viewer phone calls, and put producers and writers who had worked with Kurt Cobain live on air to help contextualize his and Nirvana’s music. This was about being there when we felt the audience needed us to be there.
After establishing MTV News through its tireless reporting on music, we thought that the time was right to open the aperture of what it could produce. We began to report on issues like censorship, drug addiction, hate speech, gun violence, sex education and more, all through the lens of how it affected young people in their everyday lives. It worked very well, and as the 1992 presidential election approached, we decided to cover the campaign from the perspective of young voters. We would talk to the viewers with respect about the issues and frame the discussion for the audience on how the different candidates’ points of view would impact young people.
We decided to take it one step further: We would encourage the viewers to vote. This was something that other news organizations did not do at that time, but we felt was an important part of the MTV News plan. The name “Choose or Lose” was decided on for the campaign: “Choose” to be part of the decision making around your own future, or “Lose” out on a say in where the country was heading.
It turned into a rallying cry. With 24-year-old Tabitha Soren front and center, and young producers like Alison Stewart on board, the three of us, plus our production management team and camera crew, headed to New Hampshire to cover the primary in January 1992. We did not know how the candidates would react to a crew from MTV, but as soon as Tabitha started asking questions about college affordability, the growing environmental crisis and job opportunities, they quickly realized that while we might present ourselves differently and have a very different energy from the other networks covering the election, we were serious.
Through MTV News, the candidates were being watched and scrutinized in quite a new way by young voters. In 1992, there were no other alternative TV news outlets covering the presidential election. When asked how what we were doing compared to the long-established networks, I used to say that we were playing the same game as them, just “in an entirely different stadium, to an entirely different group of people.” What we were doing was fairly uncharted territory and there were many in the mainstream media who doubted that young voters would turn out at the polls, no matter how many segments and specials we produced. But we knew our audience was ready to hear directly from the candidates, and as our coverage aired in the “Week in Rock,” it picked up momentum and interest.
The candidates began to take notice. We interviewed all the Democratic challengers to President Bush, and in particular, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. As he ascended in the delegate count, Clinton realized that MTV News was talking to an audience that wanted to hear directly from him. After many interviews with him along the campaign trail, MTV News proposed and produced a town hall event with Bill Clinton exclusively for the network. The studio was filled with over 300 young people who asked questions about gun safety, drug legalization, AIDS research, Supreme Court nominees, and the job market for young people. Millions watched the 90-minute special, and MTV News was putting the viewers front and center. MTV News’ “Choose or Lose” coverage of the 1992 presidential election went through the conventions and general election.
On Halloween, three days before the election, President George Bush finally agreed to an interview. It turned out that we were to film on the back of a campaign train speeding across the Wisconsin countryside. On the tiny, cramped balcony of a caboose, Tabitha asked the questions that young voters were interested in. I hung on to the railing next to our camera operator as the President answered, knowing our audience had been waiting to hear from him all year. Following the interview, we left the train at the next stop, flew back to NYC and edited a “Choose or Lose” special featuring this interview. On election day, more young people voted then had in 20 years and President Clinton captured most of those votes. The trust the audience put in MTV News and the respect that we gave to them had been cemented. MTV News’ “Choose or Lose” went on to win a Peabody Award for coverage of the 1992 election.
Twenty years later, in October 2012, Sway Calloway, myself and members of our MTV News team stood in the East Room of the White House, where we had assembled an entire television control room. Sway is was there to interview President Obama, live from the Blue Room, as part of our coverage of that years’ election.
While we had earned the trust of the viewers in 1992, we had also earned the trust of future candidates and their campaign teams. From 1996 to 2012, every major presidential hopeful, Democrats and Republicans alike, spent time with MTV News answering questions about the issues that impact the lives of young voters. Some, like John McCain and Barack Obama, participated in live MTV town hall meetings much like Bill Clinton had; others, like Bob Dole and John Kerry, sat down for extensive interviews. The only major party candidate who chose not to participate was Mitt Romney.
For each election cycle, I knew we needed to innovate and add new elements to our creative presentation. Change was baked into the DNA of MTV. “Move forward, try new things,” Judy McGrath would say, and it was as important to the success of MTV as any other element. I embraced this with gusto upon my arrival at MTV News. I did not want to do the exact same thing again and again in any of our work, especially our coverage of the presidential election. I am the same way today at RadicalMedia.
For the 1996 campaign, I had the idea to create the “Choose or Lose” bus to travel the country registering voters, appearing at candidates’ campaign stops and at pop culture events. At the time the only other media utilizing a bus for their traveling HQ was the home shopping network QVC. Today, it is quite commonplace. The “Choose or Lose” bus was wrapped in a unique flag motif with hundreds of quotes and lyrics adorning it, with interiors designed by Todd Oldham. It was a traveling studio/edit room and home to our bus team, who were on the road the entire year. We made quite a splash on the road and at stops in small towns and big cities all year. We welcomed thousands of visitors onto the bus and registered over 50,000 voters. President Bill Clinton rode the bus in Kentucky while being interviewed by Tabitha Soren; Tabitha also interviewed Bob Dole aboard the bus in New Hampshire and Ross Perot in Texas.
In 2000, we looked to innovate once again. We decided that the reporters for “Choose or Lose” that year would be four young, first-time reporters who were deeply interested in politics: Gideon Yago, Erica Terry, Jason Bellini and Julia Mejia, who made up the “Choose or Lose” street team. Along with MTV News producers, they fanned out across the country, following the candidates, reporting and communicating the importance of having a say in the direction of the country. In 2019, Julia Mejia proved the importance of how every vote counts: She ran for Boston city council and won by a single vote. In 2004, “Choose or Lose” was recognized by the Emmy Awards for informing and inspiring young people to vote.
With the success of “Choose or Lose,” it was again time to try something new.
MTV News grew into MTV News and Docs, with the idea to document and produce stories that were shaping the lives of the audience. Alongside Lauren Lazin, we created films, series and specials that garnered acclaim and viewership. We crafted new ways of connecting viewers to musicians. Artists saw that our coverage was accurate and fair, even when the news was not good. We created and developed a series called “Diary,” where viewers went along for an intimate look the into a week of the life of a musician or performer. Developing the series with producer Jesse Ignjatovic, I wrote the tag line for the series: “You think you know, but you have no idea.” Many performers followed that description, allowing viewers to see parts of their creative process and life that had previously been unseen.
Britney Spears, Eminem, Aaliyah, Beyonce, Outkast, Justin Timberlake, Green Day, DMX and Alicia Keys were among the many artists who participated. Our team filmed Jay-Z learning about the world’s water crisis in Africa for a documentary called “Water for Life,” which premiered at the United Nations. In the 2010s, with decades of sharing musicians’ stories under our belts, we created documentaries that followed Drake as he recorded and released his first album; Miley Cyrus as she stepped out from her childhood stardom and came into her own; Nicki Minaj as she stood up for herself and established her career.
By then, MTV News and Docs had been created its signature series “True Life.” We wanted a series that took viewers deep into the lives of their peers as they went through life-defining moments, in which the protagonist and the viewer didn’t know what the outcome would be at the onset of the episode. Like the teams who were covering music for “The Week in Rock,” the production teams working for the Docs group were young, often straight out of college, with a dedication to share the stories they were covering because they had recently been a part of the audience.
“True Life” connected with viewers to such a degree that when I left MTV in 2015, we had produced over 300 episodes of the series over a 17-year span and won an Emmy Award in 2009 for our efforts. I continue to work with many of those “True Life” producers in my role at RadicalMedia, producing films and series for streamers and networks. The “True Life” series is built on trust: Trust by the subjects of the episode in the producers, trust in the audience of the stories being shared. “True Life” does not exist without the hard-earned trust that the audience had in MTV News — The trust to tell a story accurately, fairly, and with sharp focus on young people.
It is probably not a surprise that while the core values of MTV News and Docs remained in place for over 30 years — with unwavering support from the top of MTV by Tom Freston, Judy McGrath, Doug Herzog, Van Toffler and Brian Graden — the true success came from the dedicated people who worked for the department. MTV News and Docs ideas and personnel would change gradually over a four- or five-year period. Smart, creative writers, producers, editors, and production managers would join MTV News often after watching what their predecessors had done, and wanting to produce their own new ideas to expand or morph what MTV News and Docs could be for a new audience.
The secret is that while the core vision remained, the execution would adapt to new thinking and new times. Everyone you saw on MTV News, from Kurt Loder to Tabitha Soren, from John Norris to SuChin Pak, from Serena Altschul to Sway Calloway, evolved. Those who worked behind the scenes evolved as well, all part of a forward moving continuum of respect for the audience and respect for the stories.
When I stepped into MTV in 1987, I had high hopes for what we could do with the news department. We raised the bar on our own expectations each year, and the audience followed. MTV and MTV News was built on trying things that had not been done before. Often, I would encourage our team, “if we can imagine it, we can make it.” And we did.
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