Photo: David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images

When MTV launched a second, all-videos channel called M2 on August 1, 1996, it had lofty ambitions for the new endeavor. “This is a channel like MTV was in 1981,” Tom Freston, the chairman of MTV Networks, told The New York Times. “The audience we’re going for with M2 doesn’t watch a lot of MTV. They find it a bit too mainstream.” Accordingly, the videos aired on the channel weren’t predictable or overplayed. At times, M2 felt like MTV’s niche shows (e.g., 120 Minutes, MTV Jams) jumbled together; at others—especially when artists such as Moby or Veruca Salt programmed an hour—it was like thumbing through someone’s record collection. Best of all, M2 was always fresh and surprising: At a time when radio formats felt stagnant and “alternative” was meaningless and antithetical to rebellion, the idea that disparate eras, genres, and artists could coexist peacefully was downright radical.

But M2 also aimed to be as cutting-edge as MTV was in 1981. At its launch, for example, it harnessed a little-remembered, Intel-created technology called Intercast to add complementary online information such as tour dates or artist bios as each video played. Actually making Intercast work was complicated—but, years before home-based high-speed internet made such synchronicity a snap, M2 recognized that the mediums were distinct but related. “The forward-thinking view is to make sure we are on both the TV and PC… and creating a true multimedia experience, rather than recreating the same experience that one would see separately on the TV and PC,” Matt Farber, senior VP of programming/new business for MTV, told Billboard then. “We don’t see that the computer screen will replace the TV set, just as the computer has not replaced radio or the CD player.”

Its nonchalant approach to music discovery also felt ahead of its time and redolent of the way marketing has evolved in the last two decades. M2 intuitively understood that obvious, pushy promotion was a turnoff. “If you’re an MTV fan, you like all the stuff that’s on MTV,” Judy McGrath, the then-president of MTV Music Television told The New York Times.

You like all the junk pop cultural stuff. That’s how you know who you are and what to wear and what you’re like. But there’s another MTV viewer who says you don’t need to tell me what’s cool. Just put it in front of me.

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That method of promoting music also extended to the trio of inaugural VJs: Kris Kosach, Matt Pinfield, and Jancee Dunn. They were music fans—proud music geeks, even—who conveyed video intros and info in down-to-earth, relatable ways.

Lightning unfortunately didn’t strike twice for MTV, however. Despite simulcasts on its main channel in the afternoons to try to drum up interest—and Freston’s optimistic assertion that “word of mouth is what sold us 15 years ago”—M2’s music-only approach didn’t resonate with larger audiences. As Spin detailed in a recent exhaustive oral history of the channel, M2 eventually had to add commercials and morphed into MTV2—a symbolic change that eventually signaled programming shifts as well.

There are no easy answers as to why M2 didn’t take off. One plausible theory was its lack of availability. At first, viewers could only watch the channel on satellite TV, not regular cable systems. Unrealistic expectations—to some, M2 wasn’t diverse enough; to others, it was too out there—may have also played a part. Still, fans were devoted: When MTV2 kicked off 2000 with a stunt where it would air every video in the MTV/MTV2 vaults, in alphabetical order, more obsessive viewers soon angrily realized that major clips were being skipped. The omissions merited a Billboard blurb, complete with an apology from MTV2 general manager David Cohn, and (much later) rankled blog screeds.

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Still, anyone who experienced M2’s early days likely fondly remembers how weird and wonderful the channel’s programming could be—a secret oasis of cool during a time when letting your freak flag fly was a totally mainstream move. Former VJ Jancee Dunn—who has since co-written Cyndi Lauper’s 2012 autobiography and whose book How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids will be published in March 2017—talked to The A.V. Club about M2, from how the channel changed her life to its legacy.

The A.V. Club: How did you get involved in M2?

Jancee Dunn: I was working as a staff writer at Rolling Stone. I had a friend who worked at MTV, and she called me and said, “They’re looking for VJs for this new channel. Do you want to try out?” I had zero TV experience, but I thought, “Well, what the hay.” Tryouts were outside somewhere, in some parking lot near Viacom’s headquarters. It was just some strange, random, vacant lot, and they had cameras set up. I was so nervous, because I’m a writer. What they were looking for was a regular person, which, God knows, I am. I don’t look like a model; I’m a rock writer. They just wanted a regular person that knew a decent amount about music.

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I’m so used to doing solitary interviews. You have some control—it’s quiet, it’s just you with your tape recorder and the person. Then when I was in front of the camera, I broke out in hives, which I continued to do well after I got the job. They would say, “Stop tape, she has hives.” Some poor makeup person would be called over and would have to spackle my hives. Then I would get more hives. It was just dreadful. They had me riff on various bands that they would throw at me and pretend that I was doing a two-minute introduction before a video. I would prattle about what I knew, but when I left, I thought, “No way in hell that I got that job.” [Laughs.]

But they appeared to like my train-wreck quality, and they hired me. I was astonished, and I’m not being disingenuous here. I really was. I was like, “Wow, okay, they wanted real. That’s what they’re getting.” I kept thinking I would improve, but I really didn’t. [Laughs.] You can hear my rambling delivery right now. It’s just who I am. Even after doing this for God knows how many years, I get nervous before interviews. Do you?

AVC: Yes, absolutely—every time. I have to write down my questions, because otherwise I get flustered and tongue-tied.

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JD: Also, the few times that people have been unpleasant, they of course loom large in your mind. Anyway, they hired me.

And when I say [M2 was] lo-fi production, it was so great and grimy. I was used to that world anyway, because we shot in bars, we shot in thrift shops, we shot on the street. And the bars, they would have just opened, and still there was barf on the floor and beer. We certainly kept it real. It was a small crew. Someone wrote scripts, but you could say really whatever you wanted. If I felt like not saying what was on the cue card, I would. We rarely did retakes.

I had this producer who became a friend, named Lou [Stellato]. Maybe it was a budget thing, but he never wanted to do any retakes. The more I would have a mental breakdown on the air… And I would say to him, “Lou, could we start over again,” like, “I really bungled this one,” he would do that wrist signal of “keep going.” There’s this painful footage of me arguing with my producer, of having a one-sided argument and saying, “Please, I messed up the names,” or “I’m rambling, I’m sweating. Look, I have hives, please.” But he thought that was great TV.

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Then I started getting fan notes from people saying, “Oh, keep up the mess-ups,” and I’m thinking, “I’m not doing it deliberately. This is just who I am.” But people thought it was funny. I guess if you’re watching and you see that I could do it, maybe it gives hope that anybody can do it.

AVC: Did you have any hesitation taking the job?

JD: I wondered how I was going to do it and keep my job at Rolling Stone at the same time. They were very nice, and they let me disappear for two days a week for a couple of hours. That’s how long shooting was. It wasn’t anything crazy, unless we had a special guest or something. It meant more work when I returned, but I was okay with that. So it was pretty great. Everybody was pretty understanding about it. Also, it was good, because M2 knew everything before everybody else. We had a wonderful department that scouted out new music. It was beneficial to Rolling Stone, because I would come back and say, “You have to hear this, you have to hear that,” and I found a lot of bands to feature, emerging bands. It [ended up being] symbiotic.

AVC: How did your background in journalism give you an edge when you were on TV?

JD: I really researched the questions. I was not some talking head that showed up and read off of a cue card. You can see when that happens with bands when they do TV appearances; they just shut down. They get really irritated. Some of them have fragile egos so God forbid you don’t know all the B sides they’ve put out. It helped me in that I obsessively researched. Part of that is straight-up paranoia. I really wanted to not look stupid. I do find that when you know your stuff, people respond to you. They open up, they trust you, they feel better. A few of the artists knew my name, because I have an unusual name, from Rolling Stone. That also helped, because they can be a little [prickly] or hungover or on drugs, and you want to make them feel comfortable.

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Also because few people were watching—aside from a healthy amount of incarcerated people, because M2 was offered in a lot of prisons—I was able to ask really long, kind of muso questions, that they loved. We could really geek out and talk about music for long periods of time, and that tape would just keep rolling and rolling.

AVC: This completely flies in the face of regular TV interviews, with hosts who might have no idea who the artist is, and it’s all very generic, surface questions.

JD: Yeah, and they’re cutting off the person before they are done talking, because they have to move on to the next one. Also, it did help that some of the artists watched a lot of M2. They knew all about it, and that was helpful, too, because it was something that they would request to do. Sometimes we were really surprised. There were major artists that would come by because they wanted to.

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AVC: What was the biggest adjustment for you being on camera?

JD: [Laughs.] I had to be aware of my appearance. I had always been this sort of hermit writer, and it was a strange thing to shoot outside and have construction workers say, “That one’s on TV? She’s got kind of a big butt for being on TV,” and I would say, “I can hear you. I’m not a hologram.” I would get adult acne when it was somebody really famous I had to interview, so sometimes I would have to look straight at the camera because I couldn’t look sideways or profile, because it would show. I got a unicorn horn on my head once. I said, “Can you really see that on camera?” My producer said, “You can see it from space.” I would have to angle my head a certain way so that I didn’t look misshapen on camera.

The worst was I had little control in terms of smoothing out my questions and making myself look good the way I could in print. All the ums and uhs and rambling and apologies and hyenalike laughter at something that really isn’t funny. You know when an artist will crack a joke, and you’re like, “That’s so hilarious,” like, the fawning laughter that you can at least cut when it’s print? It’s just all out there, and it’s really humiliating. I can barely listen to my tapes when I’m transcribing, because I can’t stand how I sound. Or when you disclose something really personal in hopes that the person will then disclose something personal, too? It’s all there on camera, your techniques that everyone can see through. Or the missed opportunities when you could have grabbed someone’s answer and gone with something really incisive.

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Also, when someone shuts down on you… There were a couple of times of somebody that was just unpleasant, and you can’t get them to loosen up. It’s this horrible spiral when it’s on camera, because you’re trying to get them to like you, to trust you, to give you decent answers. When they’ve shut down, you get more nervous. They react to that, and it’s just this hideous shame spiral. Although sometimes that can be some good train-wreck TV. That’s another reason it’s definitely difficult—when you are just not connecting, and it’s there for the world to see.

AVC: There are no do-overs.

JD: Once you start stuttering and stammering and blushing it’s just… oh, God, that wasn’t good. Most people were nice. I’m trying to think of who was really unpleasant or just not in the mood for talking. We had on Thurston Moore and he was just not feeling it that day, so it was difficult. Your difficult interview is out there for the world.

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AVC: And now it’s on YouTube. It’s amazing how much footage and how many of the interviews are out there now.

JD: From MTV2?

AVC: Yeah.

JD: Oh, God, really?

AVC: There’s an outtakes reel of you.

JD: Oh, well, if you see that outtakes reel, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

AVC: There’s one of you interviewing Limp Bizkit. There’s one with Lenny Kravitz.

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JD: That’s another terrible one, because he’s really handsome, and I know I should be objective and think about his music, but up close, he is a really good-looking guy. He was hugging me while I was trying to go to a video, and I completely… You turn into a giddy girl, and it was just horrifying, because he really smelled good, and just the whole package… It’s just too much. I thought, “I know why you get so many models.”

AVC: Obviously, there were people in the programming department, but what did you do in terms of influencing what was played?

JD: That was the beauty of working at M2. First of all, it was so fun; the crew was great. We were all friends. Anybody could program something. We would have our production assistant program an hour. You could ask for whatever you wanted. They would do it for you. We did theme programming, videos that were shot in black and white. We could do anything. We could dig up concert footage from the ’60s or the ’70s, and anybody on staff could program an hour, or two hours, or three hours. It was an absolute free-for-all.

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It was like being with friends in your dorm room and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could…?” and then we would do it, any wacky idea. One time we did something where we asked viewers to guess what the hidden theme was. I loved bad ’80s R&B, so I frequently asked for that. Nothing was embarrassing. It was very egalitarian. They didn’t look down on pop, and you could mix it in with the cooler stuff.

AVC: That’s what I remember: the diversity. I was thrilled beyond belief. I would video-tape it. I have VHS tapes of M2 from that time somewhere in a box.

JD: That makes me so happy. You do that thing [where] you sit down and you think, “Okay, five more minutes. Ten more minutes. An hour.” You’re there for hours.

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You just never knew what they were going to do next. They broke so many bands that were unknown. I was just the talking head. I had as much say as I wanted, certainly. You know, Coldplay was unknown, and we played them over and over and over again, and they were really loyal to us. They went on M2 way after they had broken and become famous, because they remembered us.

We had to do something at [a festival in Washington, D.C.]. I remember Chris Martin, by then we all knew him, there were certain people who were regulars. He would say, “Oh, my God, you guys, I think I’m going to throw up.” It was a daytime festival, and they went on right after some really heavy band, and he was saying, “I don’t think I can do this. I think I’m going to throw up.” He was in the bathroom thinking he was going to be sick. He said, “They’re going to hate us.” In fact, they hated them. They hated Coldplay—did not go over well. His instincts were correct.

We had all these funny bands that we were big champions of early on. That was one of them, and the Spice Girls.

AVC: I saw some footage of that. They were so much fun, such a breath of fresh air.

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JD: Yeah, they were so happy to be there. It was so cool of Matt Pinfield. He was unironic in his admiration of their music. He really liked them. That was a good thing, too. There was a safe atmosphere, where you didn’t have to be too cool.

AVC: It felt like people who really dug music being like, “Hey, we like this too. Here this is. Check this out. This is cool.” It’s like having a daily recommender. I didn’t have an older sibling, so you guys and M2 were like an older sibling.

JD: That is an excellent point. It’s like a stand-in for an older sibling who has musical taste, because so many people, that’s how their taste is formed, isn’t it? That’s totally true. I feel like it helped in that way—if you were to share your workout playlist with the world, I guarantee there’s stuff on there that wouldn’t pass the cool test, and M2 helped in that way.

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AVC: Do you recall your best and worst interviews? Do you have anything that stands out?

JD: I’ll dredge up some painful ones, because there were some when the person left, we were like, “We hate you.” I’ll have to email some of my friends from there and say, “Who did we hate? Who was surly?” [Dunn emailed later to say she couldn’t drum up any terrible ones: “I swear to you, I must have blocked the memory of them. I just asked my makeup artist from back in the day, and she couldn’t come up with any either.” —ed.] It’s really annoying when people are surly for no reason. It’s like, “Okay, I guess your record company dragged you here, but make the best of it. We’re promoting your album, for Christ’s sake. Come on. Why do you think we’re here?”

The best: Stevie Nicks. I had a nice connection with her that then led to an interview where I got to go to her house and go to her bedroom and try on her shawls in her closet. She invited me to spend the night at her house in Los Angeles.

AVC: Oh, my God, that’s amazing.

JD: That’s definitely memorable, because we had such a nice connection. She was very concerned with lighting, which now I get. She was concerned with looking good. I remember defending her, indulging her, and saying, “Guys, come on, it’s important.” We had a connection—we did bond that day—and then it led to this fantastic story. I got to be in her house! It’s filled with shawls. There’s shawls everywhere. There’s shawls on the tables. There’s shawls on the piano. It’s everything you think and more. There’s silk flowers everywhere. I went into her closet, and she had platform boots in every color lined up against the wall. She said, “Do you want to try on a shawl?” Uh, yeah—do I! She pulled out her diaries from the Tusk era and said, “Do you want to read my diaries?” because she trusted me. Can you imagine? I read them out loud to her.

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AVC: That’s amazing. You divined magical powers from Stevie.

JD: There were doodles in there of unicorns and stuff. It was heaven. Things like that often led to other things, which were even more memorable and personal. It was just me and no camera crew. [Her M2 appearance] opened the door to her shawl-covered house—it was because of that particular day. Thank you, M2, for that.

AVC: You left M2 in 2001, is that correct?

JD: Yes, and at that point it was ramping down. That’s when they were really going for the teen-boy demographic. It was changing. I got out while the getting was good. I was 35. I was the oldest female VJ at Viacom ever. I left them, which at least preserved my dignity, because I’m sure they would eventually have kicked me to the curb. I mean, who there is over 35 now? I can’t even imagine. On air? I was glad I lasted that long.

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AVC: What were some memorable videos that you really loved playing or songs from that time?

JD: There were ones that we played over and over and over and over that will immediately take me back. “Blue,” from LeAnn Rimes. When I hear the Spice Girls, yeah, all that ’90s stuff, like Limp Bizkit. Dandy Warhols! Whenever I hear them, it takes me right back, because they were friends of the channel, too. We liked their videos because they were funny and clever, so we played them a ton. Outkast we played at times, and they came on the show a lot. U2, they came on the show a fair amount of times. What really takes me back is when I’m walking around the Lower East Side, because we went to so many places [there]—the bakery, a mannequin store, all these factories with mice running around. That also is very visceral and takes me back. Pool halls, tattoo parlors, all kinds of stuff like that.

AVC: That reminds me of anything you read about MTV’s early days, when it was a “let’s just throw people into different situations and see if they can swim” mentality.

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JD: It was very freewheeling. It was nice, because you felt like the stakes were low, and if you messed up, it was okay, and everybody was friends. We just made it work somehow. I feel nostalgic about that time.

AVC: Why do you think M2 didn’t catch on?

JD: We were all baffled, because the second it went on the air, we thought, “Oh, my God,” because this is the thing I would have died [for]. We were the ultimate consumers of the thing, and we thought, “Every college kid is going to go berserk. High school kids—it will introduce them to music they didn’t know about. This is going to be a phenomenon.” Plus, it seemed like it was insider-y, yet it was available to everyone. I thought, “Cable companies are going to be snatching this up.” You think about the dreck that is on so many cable companies, of course they’re going to love this. And we were just crushed that nobody cared.

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We were pandering to all these cable companies. We would have to say, “Hey, a big shout-out to Comcast Phoenix. Thanks for adding us to your playlist.” Then we started getting real big names, and we thought, “Well, surely they’ll tune in to see U2.” But it just wouldn’t happen. We went after cable companies, we were very specific in our shout-outs, and no one cared. We did all these stunts that got a lot of press, you know, playing “1999,” that Prince video, for 24 hours when the millennium changed. Funny stuff and weird stuff. Even the promos were really strange.

To this day, I don’t have a satisfactory answer as to why. The years would go by, and we would think, “God, still nobody cares.”

AVC: The strategies you talk about worked for MTV when the channel launched, in terms of encouraging people to call in. That actually did move the needle, and it’s weird that nearly 20 years later, it didn’t. I don’t know if that shows how much culture had changed.

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JD: Even personalizing things—which predates how everyone is today—we would read peoples’ letters aloud. Any letter that came in, basically, that wasn’t hideously offensive, we would just read it. People had a lot of contact with us. They would email us, and we were very responsive. We had viewers program an hour: If they had a good idea we would program it. How cool would that have been for people?

AVC: It would be like, “This is a suggestion from X viewer to do this.”

JD: Yeah! We were really responsive. It was very personalized for the die-hards that did watch, and I thought that would be a big draw, too. [Laughs.] I don’t know, do you have any ideas? I really don’t know.

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AVC: In 1996 and then the late ’90s, things were still a bit wide open in terms of different genres. Toward the end of the decade, rock music especially was in such a weird place, in terms of bands that were popular. Pop music was in a great place. There was a lot of really fun, interesting stuff. Maybe because of that, or just because the cool stuff never seems to last. You think of those TV shows that are cult, that you’re like, “This is so smart, this is so interesting,” and they last a season. Or it isn’t until they’re off the air that people rediscover them.

JD: It’s as simple as that, isn’t it, that nothing gold can stay, right? That’s really what it is. I can remember taping 120 Minutes. I was thinking at the time, “I could watch this 24 hours. I just wish it was on all the time. Why can’t it be like this all the time?” And M2 was like that, parts of it were, and I thought, “120 Minutes is so popular.” But, nope, not to be.

AVC: What do you think is the legacy of the channel?

JD: I think in its own small way, it did push people to be more accepting of different kinds of music. It definitely made music more egalitarian in terms of, it took away the shame of the goofy bands that you liked. It showed the interconnectedness of a lot of music in ways that maybe were original. I mean, it wouldn’t translate that well in print, would it? It’s easier to hear it and see it. That was a nice, immediate way to see how certain bands that you wouldn’t think of, [that are] far from each other, are connected.

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I think that it definitely opened it up in terms of acceptance. I tell people now about it, younger people that didn’t know about M2, and they can hardly believe that it happened. It does seem unreal that it happened. When we had the launch party, all the biggest bigwigs at MTV came. They all loved it; they all quoted from it. I would see Judy McGrath, the grand poo-bah there at the time. She knew everything about M2. She watched it all the time. It was really great. They were totally behind it.

AVC: M2 sounded very ahead of its time in terms of mixing genres. Because now the whole thing is that you have playlists, and people listen to everything. It’s not like you’re necessarily in a specific subgenre group, like a goth or a metalhead, so it’s a lot more egalitarian in general. Maybe M2 was way ahead of the curve on that.

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JD: I would submit that, I really would, because I think that’s true. Before M2, I really felt self-conscious about some of my choices, and I was slotted into a category. At Rolling Stone, I was the alternative chick, and that was just the way it was. That did break me open a little bit, and that was maybe its legacy. And it’s a nice one.