The Alt Programmer

Alternative-rock–radio pioneer Calderone mixes it up at VH1

When Tom Calderone returned to Buffalo State a couple of years back to speak at his alma mater's graduation, he advised the young graduates not to limit themselves. “Do everything,” he said. That way, you can learn “what you suck at.” For Calderone, who started in alt-rock radio before climbing the ranks at MTV Networks (MTVN) to executive VP/general manager of VH1, that fearlessness gave him the confidence to know what he did not “suck” at—even when people told him otherwise.

In the mid 1980s, as the youngest student ever to become program director of his college radio station, WBNY, Calderone faced an outcry from students accusing him of tinkering too much with the format and turning the station into “Tom Calderone's virtual jukebox.”

“My attitude was that, as long as you were interested in being a good communicator, a good broadcaster, it doesn't really matter what you're playing,” he says. Indeed, by swapping Top 40 for alternative rock like REM and The Cure, he helped make WBNY one of the pioneering alt-rock radio stations of the 1980s and '90s.

After graduating, Calderone worked at commercial talk radio and alt-rock stations before becoming a consultant at Jacobs Media—inventor of the “classic rock” format—where he advised stations around the country on programming, talent and marketing strategy.

His knowledge of music and his marketing acumen soon caught the attention of MTVN chief Judy McGrath, who invited him to apply for a spot heading up MTV's music department. Initially passing him over for another candidate, MTV hired him to be senior VP, music and talent programming, in 1998.

“We wanted someone who had in-depth knowledge of music and clever ways to package and promote it, and he brought all that,” says President of MTV Networks Music/Logo/Films Group Van Toffler, who calls Calderone “one of the most passionate people about television and music.”

Transitioning from radio to TV was a “totally wild experience” for Calderone. “Everything I learned from my radio days I had to forget,” he says. “Radio was much more about the here and now. There's no story arc in radio.”

Calderone began to infuse MTV's video programming with new hip-hop acts and pop stars like 'NSync and Britney Spears. In 2000, he took on management of music and talent for offshoot channel MTV2, adding oversight of the college-focused mtvU in 2002.

“I wanted to do more than just be the music guy,” he says. “It was important to me to make sure my talents were being channeled through other avenues.”

Under the tutelage of programming wunderkind Brian Graden, MTVN Music Group president of entertainment, Calderone branched into series development. He oversaw hit originals including the Snoop Dogg-hosted variety show Doggy Fizzle Televizzle and absurdist kids show Wonder Showzen.

When then-President of VH1 Christina Norman took over at MTV in May 2005, Calderone assumed the lead at VH1. The channel was surging with pop-culture review shows like Best Week Ever and“celeb­reality” series like The Surreal Life.

Calderone aimed to boost the momentum with series like Flavor of Love, a celebreality vehicle for clownish rapper Flavor Flav, while bringing the focus back to music with series like reality show SuperGroup, the Rock Docs documentary series and the upcoming Ice-T's Rap School.

Growing VH1 Siblings

Calderone is also focused on growing VH1 digital siblings VH1 Classic (now on 24 hours a day and in 40 million homes) and VH1 Soul (in 20 million). He aims to expand VH1 on emerging platforms—broadband network VSPOT, VH1 Mobile, VH1 Games—and through video-on-demand.

He also recently took control of MTVN's budding high-definition channel MHD and is developing an original series to put the network on the map.

As he looks to chart new territory at MTVN, Calderone draws on the same advice he once imparted to the graduating Buffalo Staters. “Why be afraid?” he says. “For me, it's about throwing yourself into things, giving them a shot and trying.”