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388,000 Fans Can’t Be Wrong--'Rockline on MTV’ Is a Hit

<i> Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for Westside/Valley Calendar</i>

The microphone in front of Poison front man Brett Michaels was just a prop, another high-tech set decoration against a backdrop of wooden latticework and the deep neon blues and pinks of “Rockline on MTV.”

A working mike was hidden off camera as Michaels, leaning self-consciously toward his prop, fielded excited phone calls from rock fans across the country. This was live television, an unnerving experience even for rock stars accustomed to performing in sold-out sports arenas.

Just a few minutes earlier, on an acoustic guitar, Michaels had been comfortably plucking out a few notes from the old Yes hit “Roundabout,” as his makeup was being touched up. But now, the cameras were on him as unseen callers asked pointed questions about his band’s music, his tour plans and that rumored scuffle with Poison guitarist C. C. DeVille.

The experience was disorienting enough that Michaels, during a break in the half-hour broadcast, turned to the show’s host, Martha Quinn, and asked, “Can they see me?”

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Artists are routinely praised and grilled by fans on “Rockline on MTV,” broadcast at 3:30 p.m. Tuesdays from a West Los Angeles studio. Even an artist of the dramatic self-assurance of Sinead O’Connor, known for outspoken opinions on music, society and politics, had begun her appearance shyly on the show weeks before, only slowly warming up on the air.

As with O’Connor and Michaels, major pop figures from Rod Stewart to MC Hammer have appeared on the program since its February debut, allowing them and their fans a rare opportunity for direct communication.

“I think this show is great,” Michaels said after his recent broadcast. “I would have died when I was growing up to call Alice Cooper, or to say to Bob Seger, ‘Why did you write “Night Moves?” ’ To actually see them answer on TV would have been great.”

“Rockline on MTV” enjoys an audience of about 388,000 at any given minute during its half-hour time slot, MTV publicist Linda Alexander said. A crew of 40 operators screens callers each week--those that get through. More than 100,000 calls end only in busy signals.

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“It’s not just a promotion thing,” said Joel Gallen, vice president of production at MTV and co-executive producer of the new program. “It shows another side of the artist. It shows the personal side of them. They’re not coming on to do a song necessarily, or to show a video. It shows you have a sense of humor; it shows the artists in a very informal, spontaneous type of environment. I think the fans and people who watch MTV think of that as something very special.”

The program is an offshoot of FM radio’s “Rockline,” broadcast locally on KLOS (95.5 FM) and now celebrating its 10th year interviewing rock performers weekly on album rock radio stations. The Global Satellite Network production is heard worldwide on more than 200 stations. It has been a consistent winner of Billboard magazine’s Syndicated Album Rock Show of the Year Award, and has inspired several imitators over the past decade, including call-in interview shows for Top 40, classical and country music.

The television version finally materialized after years of discussions between “Rockline” producer Howard Gillman and various networks and syndicators, all looking for a proven vehicle to attract a young, pop-driven audience. MTV had passed on the idea eight years ago.

More recently, ABC-TV hoped to put on a “Rockline” show after its “Nightline” news-interview program, Gillman, president of the Global Satellite Network, said. But the rock show’s essential live element could not be guaranteed nationwide, since “Nightline” is tape-delayed for its 11:30 p.m. West Coast broadcast, and is often shuffled around the late-night schedule by local affiliate stations.

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“For this kind of show it’s got to be live ,” said Gillman, who serves as co-executive producer on the MTV production. “To take the element of the phone calls out of the show, you don’t really have a show. So to afford everyone the opportunity of picking up the phone and calling in live, you really have to have a live feed throughout the country. And MTV can do that.”

At MTV’s New York headquarters, Gallen lobbied the network to pick up the show. MTV executives had already discussed creating a live vehicle designed for its core audience. Virtually all MTV contests, for example, had attracted hundreds of thousands of calls.

Still, the network was unable to attract a permanent sponsor for “Rockline on MTV,” Gallen said. “We decided that we liked the show so much that we would go ahead and do it anyway.”

The result is the latest example of the continuing cross-pollination of MTV and radio, said Craig Rosen, a reporter for Billboard who covers syndicated radio. Before this, the music network’s “MTV Unplugged” show, spotlighting big-name artists performing largely on acoustic instruments, has been simulcast on radio. And, at present, “MTV News” and “Radio MTV,” a Spanish-language pop music program, are successfully syndicated on radio.

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“It’s giving both MTV and radio some fresh programming ideas,” Rosen said. “Both MTV and ‘Rockline’ have a marquee value. By mentioning MTV on the radio, you already have a built-in audience. And vice versa. They’re known commodities.”

Gallen and Gillman chose to limit “Rockline on MTV” to half an hour, although its long-running radio counterpart is a 90-minute program. The TV show could be lengthened occasionally for major acts such as the Rolling Stones or the Traveling Wilburys, Gallen said.

“Essentially, we just thought that would be good television,” Gallen said. “We tossed and turned about putting videos on it, making it longer, but we felt that there’s plenty of opportunities for people to watch MTV for videos. And this was an opportunity for them to get to know their favorite artists.

“MTV’s audience is known for channel-flipping, tuning in for 12 minutes,” he added. “They don’t have a tremendously long attention span, nor should they. That’s not the audience we’re going after. Anything longer than a half-hour is going to be tough.”

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Unlike radio’s “Rockline,” where KLOS personality Bob Coburn is host, the MTV show is less strictly rock-oriented and is directed toward MTV’s broader spectrum of pop mediums, from rap, to rhythm and blues, to rock, to pop. “Rockline on MTV” is based in Los Angeles on the theory that a larger pool of pop musicians is available here, although the show has brought in guests via satellite to talk with fans: Rod Stewart from London, Vanilla Ice from Orlando and the Black Crowes from New York. It’s a global communications capability that MTV host Quinn likened to life on “The Jetsons.”

“We look at artists that would best serve our audience,” Gillman said. “Whoever is topically right for the show, has got the No. 1 record, or just is hot at the moment.”

Artists at the center of some controversy also have been guests. In April, the Black Crowes were eager to talk to fans after the band was ejected from the ZZ Top tour, following the Crowes’ open criticism of the tour’s corporate sponsorship. The band had first made the announcement on radio’s “Rockline” the previous evening.

“It’s direct, it’s honest, it’s to the point,” Michaels said. “Even if they ask me a question I absolutely hate, I can answer it the way I feel. At least I feel I had a say-so in what was said.”

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Added Gillman: “It’s also a much safer environment to have contact with your fans. John Lennon had contact with his fans. But these guys are protected where they can reach out and touch their fans.”

The show hasn’t been without its minor mishaps. “Rockline on MTV” was knocked off the air for a few seconds recently when the studio was struck by lightning. And one week’s scheduled guest, singer Jani Lane of Warrant, failed to show up at the studio, telling producers he had been confused about the time. Fortunately, Warrant bassist Jerry Dixon was there as scheduled and stepped in as the sole guest.

“He was great. He just shined and was a natural for this type of thing,” said Gallen, who was so impressed by the bassist’s telegenic personality that he was soon talking of him as a guest host on the network’s “Headbangers’ Ball” hard-rock show.

“But it’s funny,” Gallen added, “we had promoted all week that Jani was going to be there, and nobody even questioned: ‘Where’s Jani?’ The fans were calling up, and the bass player from Warrant was good enough for them.”

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MTV has already discussed expanding the “Rockline” call-in concept to other genres, producing an occasional “Rockline at the Movies” that Gallen said would feature “some hot MTV-type movie star.” The goal, he added, was to tap directly into an audience that is constantly calling and writing the network anyway.

He continued, “We’ve talked about it in program development meetings for over a year now: What can we do that’s interactive? We think that’s the next great wave of television in the ‘90s. And certainly this is a start.”


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