Revolt TV CEO Keith Clinkscales stays forever lodged in my mind as the guiding force behind Vibe, its president in the magazine’s most influential heyday: 1993-1999. (I served as music editor in ’99, and interned there fresh out of college.) Vanguarde Media followed—Clinkscales oversaw Honey, Heart & Soul and Savoy magazines as chairman and CEO of what Black Enterprise called “the most highly capitalized Black company in U.S. history.” Then came a stint as senior vice president at ESPN, developing the digital sports platform The Shadow League in the process.
At a steakhouse in Manhattan’s crowded Grand Central Station, Clinkscales sat with EBONY.com to discuss the ins and outs of his latest venture. Launched nearly 10 months ago in partnership with Comcast, Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Revolt TV is positioned as the music network to end all music networks, more of an ESPN of music than a new millennial MTV. Keith Clinkscales explains why.
EBONY: I Want My MTV, the oral history of MTV, details the earliest days of music television. It was a can’t-lose business model because, in the beginning, the music video content was free. How does a music video channel work nowadays?
Keith Clinkscales: The record companies that used to have some—I don’t want to say hostility towards it—but they were concerned about it, they have worked with us much more, they service those videos nicely. You definitely make sure you have an arrangement. So it’s not like the earliest days of MTV and BET.
What we had with Rick Ross the other day at Revolt: he comes and sits for Revolt Live, and then he does a concert right there at Hollywood and Highland [Center] which might be different from those days. The energy that the labels are paying attention to is much different and is much more appreciative. So this is a good time to be Revolt, and it’s a good time to be serious about music.
EBONY: YouTube, like MTV, was another startup with a free content business model. They eventually created VEVO to have more cooperation with record labels for music videos. The evolution of music platforms is very interesting.
KC: We’re moving towards a world where you’re now buying music in some form of lease of music. Downloads were the big thing, but now streaming is the big thing. And downloads will continue to be big, but they won’t be as big as they were because you hear a song and you can access it. You don’t have to go through the process of downloading and things like that.
The model is different in the sense that you got to work harder in a very crowded environment to promote music. Celebrity, image and all that stuff matters more now than ever. I mean, I think there’s not a greater example of that than Beyoncé when she did her thing. When I got a tweet that Beyoncé had a new album, I didn’t ask a question, I didn’t say, “Oh gee, what’s on it? Who did she collaborate with?” I hit the click! I went to iTunes, I downloaded. And that’s because of who she is. If Dr. Dre comes out and says “I’m doing Detox,” I’m getting it.
EBONY: MTV eventually created programs like Remote Control, Club MTV and The Real World because there was a point when the novelty of showing videos all the time wore off. How do you feel about the future of Revolt programming? Will the novelty of videos, videos, videos wear off after a while?
KC: You read [I Want My MTV], and the book I work from is the ESPN book, because the model that we’re trying to take is closer to ESPN than MTV. People that worked at ESPN, sports was their religion, didn’t matter what was going on. Every now and then you have stories like the Boston Marathon bombing. But for the most part, 98 percent of the time you were dealing with sports.
So with Revolt, that’s what we are. We’re dealing with music 95 percent of the time. Yes, we’ll play videos, but the first show we have is a show called Revolt Live, modeled after the kind of repetition and information base that SportsCenter has. So every day, you come in and just kind of get a wrap-up in the music world twice a day. Right now we do them twice a day, and eventually as we grow, we’ll do more.
Programming will reside about making sure we treat the young people—that love music—with the kind of respect they deserve. We’re not so much into, like, “We need a show!” We’re into making sure we have quality content, that we are journalistic and serious about what we bring. That’s important.
EBONY: Final MTV analogy, promise. But The Real World and Jersey Shore opened up new worlds for them with ratings and advertisers. Is there any reality TV in Revolt’s future at all, and why or why not?
KC: You talk MTV, I talk ESPN. When I was at ESPN, you don’t do reality shows. You know why? Because no matter what reality show you come up with, you can’t come up with a six-overtime game. So, the same thing here. When you’re watching an NBA playoff game, and Jay Z, Timberland, Rick Rubin and all these cats come out for a three-minute commercial, you can’t recreate that energy that you felt when you saw that with a reality show.
The reality that we will cover is the reality of actually making music and things like that, but we don’t want to go that route. Also, young people, they have devices, they got Twitter, they have Vine, they can entertain themselves with their own types of reality. The challenge with that is, once you go that direction, the music suffers.
Without besmirching anybody, some of these shows are covering artists that are not even big hip-hop artists. And they’re not really the ones moving the crowd, they’re just the ones engaged in relationships and stuff like that. It has its place. Revolt is not about that. Revolt wants to be the number-one name in music, not the number-one name in reality.
Here’s another thing you got to keep in mind: from a business standpoint, reality shows are not cheap. Once you put money to make those people stars and and shoot those shows, your costs increase, and then it almost becomes like a drug. You need your next hit. And you’re getting farther away from the music. We’re designing our business to make sure that music is always important. We’re covering music, we’re in studios, at festivals, we cover the award shows, we get behind the scenes, because that’s something that allows us to stay closer.
When you look at Twitter, the number-one subject on Twitter, time and time again, is music. So there is a need to discuss it, and someone’s got to do the work to provide that need.
EBONY: Have Revolt writers and editors been harder to find, with a younger generation weaned on blog writing and social media expression?
KC: I come from Vibe, I come from a journalistic tradition. So if you’re going to write for Revolt, you got to attain a certain standard, you got to have a certain amount of knowledge, and you have to have a certain amount of hustle. The guy who runs our news, the vice president of news, Rahman Dukes, he comes out of MTV. He ran MTV News for a while.
The way it is right now with what you can do on Facebook and Tumblr, you could do your own thing and kind of get your name out there. [But] you can’t just have people blog; people have to have something to say.
EBONY: They say video killed the radio star. Your background is magazine publishing. Did the Internet kill magazines?
KC: It didn’t kill it, but it mortally wounded it. It was substantial. I think it’s not so much the delivery of content, it’s the delivery of advertisement. But I think that print will adjust its business model so it’s not as advertising-dependent. They’ll put more value on getting subscription values. They might not have as high subscription bases as they did before, but they’ll get paid better on the bases they have.
EBONY: Do you own an iPad? Do you have any subscriptions? What’s that experience like for you?
KC: I have Esquire, I have Black Enterprise, I get the Wall Street Journal. Those are the ones I subscribe to. I’ve always liked magazines period. But nowadays, like, The Daily Show educates me more about things. And to be honest with you, I don’t think I ever watched The Daily Show on my television. I’ve only watched it on the device. I couldn’t even tell you when it’s on.
EBONY: How’s your health these days?
KC: I’m good. I had a battle with cancer several years ago, but I’m coming up on my fifth-year anniversary of being clear, so I’m glad for that. I’m working in an environment now that’s fun, reminds me of my old days at Vibe. It’s energetic, not overly stressful—because we’re dealing with music, we’re not performing open-heart surgery. Although it seems like it sometimes. But the reality of the situation is, you’re dealing with music and fun stuff.
EBONY: Tell about the first time you ever met Sean Combs.
KC: First time I ever met Sean was back in the ’90s, before we launched Vibe. Sean came by, he was at Uptown at the time, and he was the head guy over there. He came by to talk about himself and what he was doing, this project he had called Notorious something or other…
EBONY: Writer Scott Poulson-Bryant was working on his profile story maybe.
KC: This is right before Scott started on the piece, which became seminal. You know, anytime you’re in the media thing, you’re made by the choices you make and who you’re going to get behind. So he was the guy that we got behind early on. We took a risk. In the very first issue with Snoop on the cover, we put a five- or six-page profile on this guy named Puffy in the magazine after he got fired; didn’t know where he was going.
It was a smart thing to do. That’s the first time I met him, but it certainly was not the last, because we tangled over the years. That’s the beauty of our relationship, that it wasn’t always sunshine. We’ve had discussion, we’ve had disagreements, but there was always a mutual respect. Beef, yes, but certainly respect.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.