Stewart, Alison 1966(?)–
Alison Stewart 1966(?)–
Alison Stewart has been termed one of a new breed of rising young stars in broadcast journalism. As an integral member of the news department at the 24-hour music video cable channel Music Television (MTV), the New Jersey native writes, produces, and delivers on-air her own stories. Like some of her other fellow “alternative” journalists, the field was not her first career choice, and she had started out at the network as an assistant. Yet fortunately for Stewart, in the early 1990s the once moribund heavy-metal music outlet was seeking to diversify and modernize itself, and so began introducing feature stories and specials on current events geared toward viewers; these non-video segments eventually grew into a full-fledged news department.
Stewart’s incisive reports on racial, feminist, and political issues have played an integral role in MTV’s fresh, enlightened, and quite liberal slant as a media news source for the younger generation. Ironically for someone employed at a virtual arbiter of hepness, Stewart admits to being a self-confessed “nerd” during her teenage years, overweight, bookish—the only African American female in her graduating class, and forever straightening her corkscrew hair. Nearing 30, however, her high-profile job brings her daily fan mail from young African American teens. “They say I have my head on straight,” Stewart told People magazine.
Stewart grew up in the New Jersey town of Glen Ridge, essentially a suburb of New York City. Her father was a corporate vice president of a pharmaceutical company, her mother a high school biology teacher. When her parents originally moved into Glen Ridge in 1960, they were its first African American family; 20 years later, they were still in the minority, which sometimes made adolescent life difficult for both daughters. “It was your basic suburban community,” Stewart told John Martin in the Providence Journal-Bulletin. “The mall ruled.” Yet she also related to People magazine that growing up in a white neighborhood “taught me that I had to be my own person early on, because there really wasn’t the option to blend in.” From MTV’s 1981 debut in the midst of her teenage years, Stewart was a big fan of the 24-hour music video channel; at the time it was considered a virtual on-air revolution.
After graduating from high school in 1984, Stewart headed to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend Brown University. There she majored in English and American literature, but spent so much time at the campus radio station that she eventually became its music director. After graduating in May of 1988, Stewart planned a career in the music business in some behind-the-scenes capacity. One night, however, she went to a concert and saw this “woman who was 45, a record chick, who looked used and abused, screaming, ‘Woooo!’” she recalled about the incident to the Star Tribune’s Neal Justin. “I thought to myself, I don’t want to be doing that in my 40s. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t want to be finding bands’ Jack Daniels [brand whiskey] when I’m 42.”
Born c. 1966, in Glen Ridge, NJ; daughter of Joe (a corporate vice president) and Carol (a teacher) Stewart. Education: Brown University, B.A., 1988.
MTV: Music Television, New York, NY, assistant, 1988-91, segment producer, news department, 1991—, on-camera reporter, 1992—; writes, produces, edits, and delivers own stories for daily MTV News spots; also hosts MTV Unfiltered, a viewer-reported news program.
Deciding that blending her writing skills with her love of music was the best career path, Stewart next tried breaking into the music-journalism field. Turned down by Rolling Stone, she was eventually hired in August of 1988 by MTV as an “assistant,” which was essentially a paid internship of sorts. She handled autograph requests and fetched coffee, and became bored after a few months. In her off hours she continued to work as a DJ, landing a gig on the Long Island alternative station WDRE. Yet MTV had recently begun to venture into some nominal news reportage and had set up a fledgling department, and Stewart found simpatico types down the hall. She suggested story ideas and was eventually loaned into the department as segment producer in 1991, a four-month trial run that turned out to be permanent.
Stewart’s first assignment in the news department was as an associate producer for Racism: Points of View, the network’s first in-depth look at the subject. It was also the site of one of the worst moments in her career, when she interviewed a notorious skinhead leader, and he refused to even look at her. “It was very strange to be an invisible person,” she told People Later, she began to produce segments for House of Style, the network’s on-air fashion magazine, but landed a plum assignment when tapped to hit the 1992 presidential campaign tour early that year. MTV had launched a “Choose or Lose” campaign designed to lure younger voters into the political process with stories focusing on campaign and policy issues relevant to the generation; it also instituted a massive voter-registration drive.
Stewart became an integral part of this innovative approach that recognized that voters aged 18 to 24 hold quite different views about the political process and policy issues, concerns that were not reflected in the coverage by more mainstream media sources. As a producer and writer she spent several months on the campaign trail, completing 30 stories, attending both national party conventions, and working on a groundbreaking question-and-answer evening in 1992 with Bill Clinton as guest. The show, hosted by her colleague Tabitha Soren, was seen as a decisive moment in the candidate’s bid for the presidency. MTV’s “Choose or Lose” campaign won the network a Peabody Award. “Clinton realized there was a faction of voters who didn’t want anything to do with the system and that felt alienated,” Stewart told the Star Tribune’s Justin. “He used the vehicle to talk to those people.”
Oddly, Stewart’s first on-air appearance came after the 1992 presidential election; she had taken a broadcast journalism course to learn how to appear before television cameras. She took a class tape to her boss and told him this was what she wished to do next—and he had been planning to broach the same subject with her. Since then, she has continued to write, produce, and edit news stories, and delivers them on the air in one of the five to seven weekly segments of MTV News.Her office sits on the twenty-fourth floor of the channel’s headquarters in Manhattan. Since the late 1980s the network has tried to integrate its programming—in its early days the only video from an African American artist was Michael Jackson during his “Thriller” era—to bring in a more diverse viewpoint. Similarly, Stewart’s cutting-edge stories on racial issues and the serious focus she infuses into the news division demonstrate a more noteworthy shift.
During the 1996 presidential race, Stewart reprised her role as an integral member of the network’s “Choose or Loose” campaign, but this time as an on-air personality as well. She hosted a round=table discussion about educational issues in America among high-schoolers, for instance, and was scheduled to interview candidates in the “Choose or Lose” bus that was roaming the country. Yet Stewart also hopes to eventually to land a job with one of the major networks. “The average age [at MTV] is about 27,” she pointed out to Martin in the Providence Journal-Bulletin, “and the wages aren’t great. Management knows they can get someone who’s 21 to come in and work here who’s totally scrappy and prepared to live in a flea-bag hotel… I’m completely on my toes, everyday. I know that for sure. It’s really competitive.” Yet she also predicts that the network, seemingly geared toward the whims of teenagers, will mature as its top brass enters middle age.
Whether her future is at MTV or one of the more stalwart regular broadcast networks, Stewart will most likely excel. Being the only African American girl in her high school, and one of the few faces of color on what is perhaps the world’s most-watched television channel, has prepared her well. Stewart credits her parents for helping her realize her goals. “They instilled in me an enormous sense of self-worth—and believe me, I’ve needed every ounce of it to get where I am now,” she told Essence magazine.
Essence, September 1995, p. 64.
People, November 20, 1995, p. 185.
Providence Journal-Bulletin, December 12, 1994, p. 7D.
Redbook, June 1995, p. 94.
Star Tribune, January 15, 1996, p. 1E.
Additional information for this profile was provided by MTV publicity materials.