When MTV News ruled: Sway, SuChin Pak, Brian McFayden and Alison Stewart recount their most memorable moments on-air
Former staffers look back on interviewing Obama, watching Britney Spears dance with a snake and being at the center of youth culture.
Veteran TV journalist SuChin Pak has tried to explain to a very young person what MTV was like when she was part of the MTV News team in the early aughts, before everything was so fractured and there were hundreds of places to get entertainment news. She finds it difficult to convey just how powerful the brand was, especially when it came to reaching teens and young adults, whom no one else was talking to.
"It gets very depressing, very quickly, and you're just like, 'This is not fun for me to talk like I’m from… Encino Man. Like, I'm not that old,'" Pak, 46, tells Yahoo Entertainment. "It was the only place any celebrity had. They didn't have anything other than, obviously, gossip magazines, but that wasn't for young people. It's a strange thing to try to imagine and explain, but we were there. It really happened."
Following the announcement this month that Paramount Global has shut down MTV News, which was established in the late '80s, Pak and several of her former colleagues — Sway Calloway, Brian McFayden and Alison Stewart — told Yahoo Entertainment about some of their most memorable moments there. They recalled their time at the forefront of pop culture — "MTV was pop culture for a long time," Pak says — as both "important" and "surreal."
SuChin Pak: 'This is the craziest job'
Today, Pak is still a journalist, as well as host of the Add to Cart podcast and contributor to the book My Life: Growing Up Asian in America, but for about eight years, she was the first Asian American broadcaster at MTV News. What sticks with her about her time there is the importance of it, that it allowed the audience to see people like themselves, sometimes for the first time, on TV, while at the same time introducing them, especially those of us from smaller places, to people they hadn't come across before.
"Everything you did was a big deal," says Pak, who recalls that her first story for MTV News was coverage of 9/11.
A few days before that, she had been standing by, watching monitors outside the auditorium when Britney Spears had walked onstage with a giant snake for her performance of "I'm a Slave for You."
"When she came out, you could just hear the crowd inside, and people were freaking out," Pak says. "I just remember being like, 'What in the world is happening? Like, this is the craziest job.'"
It was a whirlwind, but it wasn't fluff. Pak's later assignments included chronicling tragedies, political stories — such as the forum that produced President Bill Clinton's boxers or briefs moment — and other seminal moments in pop culture. She even did a "short but incredible" docuseries called My Life (Translated), in which she followed bicultural young people "and we talked about what it meant to be American when you had to sort of juggle two identities." (Pak herself was born in South Korea and moved to the United States as a child.)
She credits MTV News with pushing "conversations that were not popular and certainly weren't mainstream."
"So whether it was about your sexual identity or about race or about the way that you felt as a young person about depression, suicide, mental health, all of these kinds of things were such a big part of what we did," Pak adds. "And the way that we would curate stories and push those forward… now that's more in the conversation, but I felt really lucky."
She considers the legacy of MTV News for a moment.
"The legacy, I think, is that whether it was the presidential election or we were covering Hurricane Katrina from the dorm rooms at Louisiana State or we were watching [Lady] Gaga be delivered in the future egg on the VMA carpet, for us, our only audience that mattered was the young person," Pak says. "It was our only focus. So I think in some ways, I hope that that sense of legitimacy and community and visibility, just as a young person, created a sense of self that was bigger than what was there before."
Sway Calloway: 'I had to say that s*** to the president!'
For Sway, his interviews with President Barack Obama before and after his time in the White House will always stand out.
The first time they met for an interview was during the 2008 presidential campaign. Sway remembers being nervous because people expected big things from MTV News. The candidate put him at ease beforehand, though, by asking about Sway's favorite rappers, singers and other artists and knowing about his very specific brand of shoes.
"We got vetted and they put us in a room. And when he first came in, it's the first time we met, he says, 'Where's Sway at? Where's Sway at?’ The way he said it was as if we knew each other. But it was evident that he knew of me," says Sway, who's interviewed politicians including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and late Arizona Sen. John McCain. "He came in the room and he was just probably the most personable politician I ever met, the most relatable I ever met."
The pair ended up sitting down to talk in front of the cameras several more times while Obama was in office, the last being live from the White House just days before he was elected to his second term.
By then, Sway was feeling more comfortable with his subject, who's known to speak with carefully considered pauses, so he just broke it down.
"I had to tell him [beforehand]," Sway says. "I said, 'Man, I got about 13 questions, we got 20 minutes, you take about two-and-a-half minutes to answer a question, that's your thing. I need you to shorten your [answers] a little bit.' I had to say that s*** to the president!"
But Obama immediately understood.
Sway, who continues to do high-profile interviews as host of Sway's Universe and Sway in the Morning on SiriusXM, says his former team did something special.
"I think MTV News did a great job at giving hip hop culture substance, helping to give it an identity for those that were oblivious to it, and saw it in one way that would pigeonhole or stereotype it. MTV News always gave humanity to the hip hop culture, and it had a lot to do with the people running it," he says, singling out two women who were "the backbone of MTV News" when he started in 2000, writers and producers Elon Johnson and Morenike Joela Evans, as well as "the amazing dream team of hip hop journalists" there.
Brian McFayden: 'They frosted my tips and they put me in a chair'
McFayden was a radio deejay who joined MTV in 1999 to host a game show that never materialized, and he reluctantly ended up being assigned to the news department.
"So I got hired to anchor the news, alongside Kurt Loder and Chris Connelly and John Norris," McFayden says. "I was petrified, because these are the people that I grew up watching on TV. And here I am gonna be colleagues of theirs and, like, do they know that I could barely conjugate a verb? Honestly, I just didn't think I was qualified enough. And then next thing you know, they frosted my tips and they put me in a chair and I got to say all these amazing things."
Just three months into the job, he was sent to cover what had to be on of the most star-studded events of the era: TRL's "Class of 99" photoshoot, featuring all the biggest names from the first year of MTV's video countdown show. The exclusive group was impressive, even for today, featuring Diddy (then known as Puff Daddy); Jennifer Lopez; Britney Spears; Christina Aguilera; Destiny's Child; NSync; Tyrese; Lenny Kravitz; and the Goo Goo Dolls.
"It was all these big names, and you would think they'd be fighting for camera time," McFayden says, "and they were all cool."
Many of the artists hadn't met before, so McFayden was the one who introduced them.
"That to me was one of the most surreal times ever because when we go back, especially now, and we think about who these people are, these are huge stars," he says. "And they were just babies back then."
By 2001, McFayden was assigned to work on a very different story with Ananda Lewis and Carson Daly: a special about the tragedy of Sept. 11. He was already covering Metallica's groundbreaking lawsuit against Napster.
When Daly left the wildly popular Total Request Live, McFayden left MTV News to replace him for a couple of years.
Like everyone else in this story, McFayden has stayed in touch with people from his time at the network.
"I'm doing a new show with Chris Kirkpatrick from NSync," McFayden says of the "Class of 99" participant. "We're doing a podcast together, and that's about to launch here pretty soon."
Alison Stewart: 'It is something I'm proud of to this day'
For Stewart, who wrote and produced at MTV News from 1991 to 1996, the most memorable moments include that time she and Loder were interviewing Bono and their microphones stopped working.
"We were freaking out. It was in a stadium. A huge production. A huge interview. We thought it was RF," she writes in an email. "I made chit-chat with Bono to kill time and we joked about me having the same name as his wife." Turned out, the issue was dead batteries, so they changed them.
She also thinks of that time she visited the set of Michael and Janet Jackson's epically expensive video for "Scream": "It was fascinating to see them work together."
And there was something else that was less a moment than a movement.
"I think all of us who were on air looked like America, not to be too cheesy," Stewart writes. "For me personally, there's no way someone in a local market in the early '90s would have put me on the air and let me do my thing."
She notes that MTV News changed the way people thought about politics: "I think we showed you can care about politics and be a devotee of hip hop. MTV News in the '90s really highlighted those who had been 'othered.'"
Stewart points out the stories about not only government but culture that she and many others produced over the years.
"The election coverage we created engaged so many young people," she writes. "We changed the way people presented information. We helped register so many young people to vote. We did stories on issues that mattered in their lives. It is something I'm proud of to this day."