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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : VH1 nails down charisma by adding A.J. Hammer as a high-profile host

August 20, 1995|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A.J. Hammer's got "The Look," the kind Roxette sings about in that cloyingly catchy pop song.

As one of the mellower music network's newest hosts, Hammer seems to be turning a lot of heads and getting them to tune in to "Music Machine" weekdays and "VHI's Top Ten" weekly.

"He really should be in front of the camera, not hidden behind a mike," says Karin Silverstein, vice president of talent at VH1, of the coolly confident Hammer, who was plucked from deejay duties at New York's WPLJ pop radio station. "His looks are very accessible, friendly. He's the embodiment of our audience--his age, his looks and his vast knowledge of music. Both the audience and the guest talent respond well to him. He's got a certain on-camera charsima that everyone seems to love."

Says Hammer, somewhat modestly, "A lot of people kept saying, 'Why don't you try TV? Your looks are right for television. Why aren't you on MTV?' "

"I never thought about being in front of the camera," he confesses from his New York apartment, adding he was content to be a faceless voice behind a mike. "I just always knew I wanted to be in radio."

But Hammer's grown comfortable in front of the camera quickly. "The wardrobe's really great," he notes of his hip garb. He likes dressing "to talk to my peers. It's very close to the way I dress in real life. We're not the hip-hop generation. It would be a misrepresentation to dress me in ripped-up baggy jean shorts and a tank top."

VH1, the 28-year-old Hammer says, "addresses that people over 25 still buy music, still want information, and we package that in an accessible way," interspersing news and information about the current music scene.

He dubs himself "a perfect example" of VH1's audience. "I was a teen when MTV first started and am part of that first generation brought up on music videos."

The White Plains, N.Y., native is proof of how persistence can pay off. At 15, he says, he was the youngest staffer at WNBC radio in New York. "I did everything no one else wanted to do," he recalls. "I fetched coffee, I pulled tapes, and . . . if I was really lucky, I got to answer the request line."

Throughout high school, Hammer continued to work and clerk at WNBC. He took a year off after graduation to produce a morning radio show for WPIX in New York before heading to the University of Hartford in Connecticut. There he majored in philosophy and juggled two part-time shifts at two radio stations. "I've always voraciously read anything about music," he recalls and absorbed mass quanities of information on pop culture and music.

But radio was his life. "I got so accustomed to the night shift," he says. "Until now, I've worked between 7 p.m. and midnight my entire adult life."

He likens being a VH1 host to being a deejay. "People don't really understand what goes on when you're a deejay or hosting," he says. "There's a similar basic structure. There's an illusion here and in radio that the deejays or hosts pick the songs or videos. There's a playlist, very scientific, based on research. VH1 has great programmers with a real feel for our market."

He's happy to be where he is and unlike many another MTV or VH1 host--they don't call them veejays any more--he's not looking to branch out into acting.

"I never had aspriations to act, and it's really just a beginning for me here at VH1 and the future's very bright," he says. "I plan to hang around.

"Although," he adds with a little laugh, "I'm open to all kinds of opportunities and if the right one came along, I might seize the opportunity to do something else."

"Something else" now involves working in his spare time as a camp counselor for Birch Services, which sponsors camps for city-dwelling pediatric AIDS patients and their families. He's volunteered for Birch Services for four years. "It's so emotional and gratifying," he says. "Kids have time to have fun and be happy, without the secrets they may have in the city."

"Music Machine" airs weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. and "VH1's Top Ten" airs Fridays at 4 p.m. on VH1.

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