The Turley Effect: can a rogue designer make MTV cool again?
Design guru Richard Turley turned around Bloomberg Businessweek, but can he save music television?
As the workday draws to a close, the streets of Hudson Square thin out into relative calm, a muted silence mirrored above in the deserted halls of Viacom headquarters. In a third-floor screening room, a sign of life; MTV’s most recent addition as Senior Vice President is pelting an immense television monitor with beer caps. “I can’t believe he did it again, he’s such a fucking whore,” he grouses. Richard Turley, fresh off a successful reboot of Bloomberg’s flailing Businessweek, is betting big he can do the same for MTV, reconnecting its wayward audience with a brazen new identity that reaches far beyond cable television.
The young man on screen raising Turley’s playful ire is an employee who has apparently managed to sneak his personal Twitter handle into the live broadcast of MTV No Chill, an experimental new production created by Turley and his team. In the context of the show, it’s a mild transgression lost in a deluge of anarchic images. Originally designed as a four-week experiment, No Chill is a daily two-hour block that lathers MTV mainstays Ridiculousness and Catfish with stuttering cuts and edits straight out of Tim and Eric or Adult Swim. Everything is buttoned together by interstitial content that draws from a winking aesthetic perhaps more at home on the Tumblr feed of some bygone net artist. Paradoxical images abound: Action Bronson retells acid-laced antics adjacent to a government PSA that implores teens not to smoke. A porpoise humps a man to a thudding trap beat; a soaring U.S. Air Force ad plies viewers with a sleek drone.
Mr. Turley, 39, unshaven and graying handsomely, oversees a team of wry twenty-somethings who slug Sapporos as they duck behind MacBooks. His lofty figure is pacified by a casual ensemble: faded jeans, yellow Nikes and a red zip-up hoodie, depending on the angle he casts a paternal or boyish profile. He ingests the two-hour spectacle with rapt attention, averting his gaze only to command a pair of iPhones or grab another beer, a simple wedding band clinking with each sip. When a Beastie Boys clip comes on, he lights up and begins nodding to the familiar beat. Curt judgements ping the room in his demure South English timbre; he winces at a man shoveling sand into his mouth, and directs “This show’s so stupid” at a recurring sketch called “Fuck That’s Disgusting.” Then, he implores one of the team’s social media managers, Darcie Wilder, to “go quite hard on the Twitter, they kind of like that,” as the show’s Twitter feed is inundated with angsty teens hurling barbs at the No Chill staff.
ichard Turley and the staff of No Chill in the greenroom at the MTV offices in New York on December 2, 2015
The viral life
Turley’s quicksilver assessments draw from over a decade of industry experience. While still a design student, Turley landed his first gig at The Guardian, moving briefly to Seven, a London-based music publication, before returning for an eight-year stay during which he served as Art Director for the paper’s G2 section. Since landing in New York in 2010, he’s continued his rapid ascent in the media world. Though he feels like a “European living on an island off the coast of America," he relishes in the country’s career-driven culture. He remarks, “In Europe everything has to be mitigated with a layer of, like, self-deprecation. It’s refreshing to come over here and admit to liking working. You’re not supposed to admit that if you’re British. I’m a bit of a sad bastard ‘cause I just like working.”
Turley is most notable here for the weekly covers he created for Businessweek: witty, off-color themes which often achieved a viral life all their own beyond the newsstand. In one minimalist issue, the cover simply reads “For Euro Crisis Relief: Bang Head Here”, in another, two planes copulate mid-flight to signify the merger of Continental and United Airlines. “I’ve always been surprised how nobody else has weird fucking covers,” Turley muses. And while he wasn’t involved in the divisive redesign of Businessweek’s web presence, an undertaking that led to resignations and restructuring at Bloomberg, the print magazine bares Turley’s design handicraft all over. Turley, too, seems to have been affected by the turmoil in the redesign’s wake. Recalling a “thank you” message he posted to Tumblr shortly after leaving the company, Turley pauses, “Well, that was weird. The real story is they put a lot of pressure on me, when I said I was resigning, they said I had to do it in a way that was [good for] Bloomberg—that felt like it was part of the story.”
Joining the fray at MTV in summer 2014, he now serves as Senior VP of Visual Storytelling, a position conceived just for him. What the endgame is for No Chill appears to be unclear to anyone, though Turley underscores that his team is merely at the start of a long period of trial and error. No Chill functions as a “Petri dish” to test development of brand loyalty, social media engagement and “always-on” audience interaction. Turley elaborates, “TV [nowadays] has a certain continuity, it’s become kind of separated from the sort of thing that made it good, which is the fact that it was live, it was ambitious, it was dangerous, it didn’t really know what it was doing. MTV No Chill is experimenting with whether that sort of thing can work again.”
Turley describes himself as a "sad bastard" because he just likes working
Turley admits that the show also serves as a kind of Trojan horse for the style of media he cut his teeth on growing up. He points in particular to Blue Jam, a skittering comedy program that aired on BBC One Radio during the late ’90s, as a primary inspiration for No Chill. He continues, “British TV is a lot different from American TV. There’s this trusted voice. It cultivates a sense of identity; it cultivates a sense of community through its interstitial content, as much of the stuff exists between the shows as the shows themselves.”
Sink or swim
Back inside the screening room, a slumber party mood belies an uncertain future at MTV, whose once-dominant global brand has not evaded the existential crisis stalking the television landscape. Another guest’s voice inquires across the table, “So what you guys do is like remix stuff right?” Erik Carter, the team’s Senior Designer, continues staring motionless at the screen, “What we do is kind of boring and sad.” The first hire on Turley’s handpicked team, Carter says that Turley reached out to him after a brief courtship on Twitter, simply emailing him: “Fancy working with me for a bit at MTV?” Carter and his coworkers enjoy the creative freedom Turley affords them, he says. “He trusts us to be able to come up with our own content, which is rare in the graphic design field.” Turley, proclaiming himself “a better employer than graphic designer,” has selected personalities largely based on their Internet presence to drive the delirious pace of No Chill on both web and TV. “The best thing about working on this stuff, and this is going to sound touchy feely, is you meet great people you want to work with, most of the people have an energy that is lovely to be around,” he says.
urley photographed at his MTV office
Where others see
a waning future, Turley sees an undervalued brand with tremendous upside
Turley emails a few weeks later following the conclusion of the No Chill project. The scheduled, though abrupt, end of the project has led to significant changes both within and beyond his team at MTV. “It pretty much killed us producing No Chill—2 hours of TV 5 days a week, 20 minutes of original content every day with a pretty small team. We needed a moment to regroup and find out what we want to keep exploring.” Turley, however, shows no sign of slowing, instead gushing about the next phase of his plan for MTV, which he calls The Hole— a show that will integrate MTV shows from the 2000s, music videos, archival footage and old TRL clips. Each block of The Hole is slated to cover a specific year of MTV content while continuing the “always-on” audience interaction Turley revived with No Chill’s freewheeling Twitter presence. Turley’s team has slimmed down for this new phase, he says. “We had a few people we didn’t need after the four weeks were up. We had scaled up to make No Chill—it was a big project.” While a few roles were axed, most of the employees conscripted for No Chill have scattered about to other MTV departments and projects. Turley is proud of the No Chill team and the work they’ve done, “We let a bunch of kids who’ve never made TV before make TV. [I] think somewhere in that lies the secret to MTV.”
“The best thing we have [is] that MTV doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Turley says. Where others see a waning future, he sees an undervalued brand with tremendous upside, an empty husk into which he can inject a chaotic new identity of his own design. Despite these high hopes, he understands, “It’s way easier to turn around a little magazine than it is to turn around a fucking TV show.” Turley also fears a growing content bubble, and seems concerned about how he’ll set apart No Chill and future MTV productions from the over 400 scripted shows scheduled for release on cable in 2016. “There’s just too much noise, imagine trying to start BuzzFeed now,” he remarks. Asked whether he has a backup plan in the event he can’t save MTV, he pauses for a moment and laughs. “Vice.”