The shift from bartender in New York to a cultural icon wasn’t all that glamorous.
“One night, I’m mixing a daiquiri at a cabaret show and a guy sitting there starts wagging his finger at me,” Alan Hunter recalls. The customer recognized Hunter from a new cable channel that played music videos, and it was at that moment that Hunter realized that he could step away from bartending and focus full-time on his new job with MTV.
Hunter, a 1979 graduate of Millsaps College, had only recently started working as one of the five original “VJs” on MTV. He had no idea he would be on the cutting edge of a global shift in music and entertainment. The journey to this point, however, didn’t start in the middle of Manhattan but rather on the Millsaps campus in Jackson, Mississippi several years earlier.
Hunter came to Millsaps after one visit on a weekend trip with his high school girlfriend and her sister. It was one of seven colleges to which he had been accepted, and the only one he visited. As a student, Hunter was active in theatre and as a member of the Millsaps Singers and the Troubadours, a song and dance ensemble. As a senior, he made his professional acting debut with three lines as a wounded soldier in a Civil War film titled “Love’s Savage Fury,” which aired as an ABC Movie of the Week.
Good friends and good memories were also made around campus. Hunter fondly recalled afternoons when he and his friends would hang out by the observatory, with big speakers in their car trunks blasting the latest hits. Over the years, Hunter has remained close to Ward Emling ’76, who Hunter remembers as “his big brother.”
“In those first August days of my senior year, pretty much everyone I ran into said they had seen my brother on campus,” said Emling. “Now, I knew most of them didn’t know my brother, and I also knew my brother wasn’t on campus. Then, at the first rush party, someone said, ‘There is this guy here and I swear he’s…’ and then he pointed out Alan Hunter. From that moment on, we were brothers.”
It was a bond that was quickly cemented, Emling remembers.
“I suppose we did look and sound more like each other than we did our own actual brothers. We had the same interests: sports (though he had far better football hands), music (though he was far more interested in jazz…Spyro Gyra comes to mind), films. We liked the same people (though he was far more outgoing). And he instantly engaged life at Millsaps: Troubadours, The Players, intramurals. We found ourselves in the same place at the same time with the same people a lot, always hearing, ‘Are you guys brothers?’”
After marrying his college girlfriend, Jan Dickson ’77, during his senior year, Hunter returned to Birmingham where they both briefly acted in the Birmingham Children’s Theatre. The bright lights of Broadway were calling, however, and the next move was to New York City where Hunter worked a number of jobs when he wasn’t attending auditions. A visit to the Mississippi Picnic in Central Park in the summer of 1981, however, was where his life started to take a different direction.
Mingling with the crowd in the Sheep’s Meadow on the Upper East Side of the park, Hunter was introduced to Bob Pittman, whose father was a Methodist minister in Mississippi and a friend of Jan Dickson Hunter’s father, Rev. N.A. Dickson ’43, who was also a Methodist minister. Coincidentally, Pittman had attended Millsaps for one year prior to Hunter’s time there, received an honorary degree in 1997 and went on to serve as an honorary member of the Board of Trustees. He also established a substantial endowment in his parents’ name, the Warren and Lanita Pittman Servant Leadership Scholarship, that is awarded on an annual basis to a student committed to community service. Today, Pittman works as chairman and CEO of iHeartMedia, Inc., which is the leading commercial publisher of podcasts and producer of the iHeart Radio Music Festival.
“I told him I was a struggling bartender/actor, and he said he was putting together some cable channel that was going to show videos,” Hunter said. Hunter had just acted in a music video for the David Bowie song “Fashion” (for which he was paid $50 a day and got to meet Bowie), so he knew a little about music videos. A day or two later, Pittman’s executive producer called to invite Hunter to audition for the new channel.
That new channel, created by Pittman, was MTV.
Hunter auditioned early in the summer of 1981, reading teleprompters and talking off the cuff about music. After three auditions, he got the call that he had the job – three weeks before the channel began broadcasting on August 1. In his first meeting with the executive producer, Hunter remembers being handed $500 cash and told to go buy new clothes.
“As it turned out, Bob Pittman went to bat for me,” he said. “I owe my career to Bob Pittman. Bob and his team had been trying to cast the last VJ for months and months, looking at radio personalities, actors and musicians. Bob showed my first audition video to another producer, and said ‘this is your final VJ right here.’”
The first broadcast of MTV aired late at night in select markets on Saturday, August 1. While unplanned, Hunter was the first VJ to appear on the screen, soon joined by the other original four VJs – Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood and Mark Goodman.
As MTV rapidly grew into the leading place for music videos, the channel’s content also developed to include celebrity interviews. Hunter conducted the first MTV interviews with rising acts like Madonna, Duran Duran and U2. He also enjoyed the recognition from known celebrities as a result of his work on MTV.
“Robert Plant (lead singer from Led Zeppelin) was being interviewed at MTV,” Hunter remembered, “and when I met him, I knelt before him and said, ‘Sir Robert.’ He laughed and said, ‘arise, Sir Alan.”
Over the next few years, Hunter had the opportunity to sit down with the greatest musicians and actors of the decade. He cites Billy Joel as his most satisfying interview, and Hunter traveled with Joel to Russia for a concert in the late 1980s.
“Billy Joel was a great cap for me to that time,” Hunter said. “I had a long interview with him in Moscow toward the end of his trip there, and it was really satisfying. I knew his whole catalog, and they were the backdrop for my college career at Millsaps, to be honest.”
Hunter also noted an interview with the late Robin Williams as especially memorable. “To interview him during one of the more manic periods in his life was amazing. And for him to know who I was, that was the other satisfying part.”
His time today is spent hosting an 80s-themed show on Sirius XM and managing a production company he owns with his brother. Hunter lives north of San Francisco, where his wife Elizabeth is an assistant professor of play development and dramaturgy at San Francisco State University.
Hunter stays close to his southern roots, however, says his “brother.”
“Over the years, at Millsaps, in New York, Los Angeles, Birmingham; at dinner or a concert, on a stage or a ball field, and now mostly over the phone or email, it’s always familiar and easy,” Emling said, “and I’m glad my brother Alan Hunter and I ended up in the same place at the same time.”