Remarks celebrating the five-year partnership between the Fulbright program and MTV at the United States UN Mission, hosted by Ambassador Susan Rice, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations
Good evening. And thank you so much to my wonderful friend and our generous host, Ambassador Susan Rice.
In a room that’s full of creative talent, artists, writers, musicians, actors, political actors—even real people—all prominent on the world stage, I know it will be very easy to ask you to use your imagination for a moment.
I want to take you back. I want to take you back to summer.
So, first, imagine it’s not cold and raining like tonight. In fact, let’s put all the umbrellas in our drinks. Nice cold drinks in the middle of a long, hot summer. You’re in shorts. Your feet are up. And the music is on.
I want you to imagine it’s actually a specific date: August 1st.
It’s Thursday, August 1st, 1946. President Harry Truman is probably not wearing shorts. More likely, he’s wearing his trademark linen suit. Earlier in the day, he signed legislation to form the Atomic Energy Commission. Now, he’s lit his cigar, poured a glass of bourbon and is celebrating the real feat of the day: signing the Fulbright Scholarship program into existence. That’s 65, now almost 66 years ago.
The President is smiling. The radio is on, maybe one of the big hits of 1946 like “The Things We Did Last Summer” or—and remember, this is the summer our troops are still making their way home from World War II—perhaps he is listening to “You’d be So Nice to Come Home to.”
Now, help me fast-forward this endless-summer reverie by exactly 35 years.
It’s still August 1st. But it’s a Tuesday. And it’s 1981. Diana Ross might be on the radio singing “My Endless Love” or maybe it’s Eddy Rabbit’s staccato thrum through “I Love a Rainy Night.” Or, if you were a farm kid like me, it might be the 10th time that day you were hearing Dolly Parton baring her … soul … for folks working “9 to 5.”
But forget about work and forget about 5pm. If you were just across the Hudson River from here in Northern, New Jersey and and you flipped on the TV one minute after midnight, August 1st 1981, you were lucky enough to hear—and see—a revolution.
First, you saw images of the space shuttle and Apollo 13 and a strange new flag being planned on the moon. And then you heard the pinched voices of those shiny suit and white sunglass-wearing British New Wavers, the Buggles. They were singing “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
MTV was on the air.
I was 19 years old on August 1st, 1981. A few days away from my 20th birthday. I was nowhere near Northern New Jersey. But it took me no time to hear all about MTV.
There’s another 19 year old I’ve always wanted to ask about the night MTV was born. What was he listening to? I know he’d left after the exams of his first year of college to travel all the way to Indonesia to visit his sister and his mother.
That other kid just a few days away from his 20th birthday was Barack Obama. We’re the generation that became adults with MTV.
And maybe MTV killed the radio star but it gave birth to an extraordinary era of creativity, new ways of blending sound and image, of telling stories and sharing lives.
Telling stories and sharing lives. Fulbright and MTV have a lot in common.
And both started out small.
The Fulbright sent its first scholar, Derk Bodde, to China. 300,000 of the world’s best and brightest have followed. Nobel Prize-winners, heads of state, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, teachers, farmers, inventers, scientists, artists, athletes, and, of course, great musicians.
Today you can find Fulbrighters in all 50 states and 155 countries around the world, studying everything from disease prevention in South America to hip-hop in Mongolia.
And since that first day of 210 music videos with occasional blackouts when the VJs changed the tape, MTV has also expanded all over the world, in England, India, Brazil, Israel, Japan, Pakistan, Australia, Mexico and just about everywhere else, with programming that spans from music videos to reality television. And they’ve expanded into universities with mtvU, their an Emmy-winning 24-hour student-oriented channel.
Now that MTV broadcasts to more than a hundred million viewers around the globe, it seems hard to believe its first audience was just a few folks across the river in Jersey. I think it was really just the parents of Snooky and The Situation.
Seriously, what both MTV and Fulbright know, and why we work together, is that music—good music—has always given voice to what is otherwise silent. As Jimi Hendrix said, “Music doesn’t lie.” Music offers endless possibilities for telling our stories, sharing our joys and pain, especially when words fail us.
Senator Fulbright himself was passionate about music. He co-sponsored the American Folklife Preservation Act on 1976, which helped to continue a century-long project to to rescue the great American folk tradition that would have virtually been lost had he not intervened.
And the program that bears his name has supported great musicians from Aaron Copland to Renee Fleming to Philip Glass to now five years of MTVu Fulbright fellows, young American musicians and ethnomusicologists who have taken their Fulbrights in Indonesia, Mongolia, France, Mexico, Uganda, Malawai, and Cambodia. The list keeps growing, expanding the audiences for the voices and stories of countless communities into one linked, global community.
As Fulbrighter Philip Glass has said, “Traditions are imploding and exploding everywhere—everything is coming together, for better or worse, and we can no longer pretend we’re all living in different worlds because we’re on different continents.”
It’s one world. What do we do with that complicated truth? How do we live together?
Fulbright and MTV are committed to making the world safer, less hungry, less traumatized and divided, more empowered, more creative, more in tune with the sounds and rhythms of our diversity, more in tune with solutions to problems we can no longer ignore.
From its opening line on August 1 of “Ladies and gentleman, let’s rock and roll” to its reminder to the war criminals in Sudan that “the world is watching,” MTV has never been silent.
But there are far better people to tell you about that. And one of them is our great friend and partner, Stephen Friedman, the president of MTV.
Under Stephen’s leadership, MTV’s already record-high ratings have continued to soar. MTV ended 2010 with its biggest ratings gains in a decade and 19 of the top 20 cable telecasts excluding sports. And just last year their Facebook pages totaled 100 million likes. That’s a staggering number—and one that matches the number of screens they reach.
And Stephen, who, like me, was a director of the PEN American Center (the international writers’ human rights organization), has made raising social awareness central to his career—and to MTV. He and his team have expanded MTV’s long-standing commitment to powerful initiatives for justice and social change from their first efforts to increase youth voter turnout to their work with Harvard, Google, and the United Nations to raise awareness about the political situation in Sudan.
Stephen Friedman has been praised everywhere for his network’s “A Thin Line” campaign, which has combated digital abuse among young people. He was deeply involved in MTV’s award-winning “Fight for Your Rights” campaign and its ”Choose or Lose” political drive. Stephen created the Peabody Award-winning Half of Us campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues on college campuses. And there’s much more.
With Stephen at the helm, MTV has converted television and computer screens into outlets for all kinds of stories to be told, voices to be heard—powerful truths to be revealed.
And lots of great songs to make us move.
So, ladies and gentlemen, let’s rock and roll.
Please welcome Stephen Friedman.