"I love hymns and gospel music, but the idea of turning your music into a tool for evangelism is missing the point. Music is the language of the spirit anyway."
Another Time, Another Place: Pop Goes @U2
February 12, 2017
[Ed. note: This is the 2nd in our "Another Time, Another Place" series, where @U2 staffers recall a pivotal moment in time when U2's music impacted the trajectory of their lives.]
If you're younger than, say ... 30 ... I need you to suspend disbelief for the entirety of this article. You've grown up in a world where almost everything U2 does is reported online to the whole world almost as soon as it happens. You were a kid in 2001 when we started reporting U2's concert set lists almost as soon as they happened, and -- if we were lucky -- while the concert was still going on. Today, of course, any band member can be spotted in the most unusual place on Earth and it'll be on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter seconds later.
It wasn't always like this. There was once a time when (gasp!) U2 announced a major world tour and the news wasn't reported online until hours later.
The date was Feb. 12, 1997. Twenty years ago today! The day that @U2 was born. Not literally; the real birthdate is Oct. 23, 1995. But the @U2 you know now as a source of U2 news and information was born on Feb. 12, 1997 -- the day that U2 announced the PopMart tour.
I can't emphasize enough what a different time it was. Google didn't exist. The most popular web browser was Netscape Navigator. High-speed internet? LOLNOPE. Most of us connected with a 33.6Kbps dial-up modem, or maybe 56Kbps if we were lucky. U2 fans met online in a few different places: IRC chat rooms, CompuServe, AOL, or the biggest U2 fan community -- a mailing list called Wire where fans talked back and forth via email.
@U2 was about 16 months old at the time. I think it was still a one-person operation at the time (me, natch). We didn't have our own domain name yet; you visited this site by typing out the embarrassingly long URL, http://www.owt.com/users/pleeker/U2.html -- or, hopefully, by just clicking the bookmark you saved in Navigator. By the way, feel free to click that link; you'll end up on the page I published in 1998 after registering the atu2.com domain name.
My day job then was TV sports, where I was also a one-man band. I was the sports director for KEPR-TV, the CBS affiliate in Tri-Cities, Washington. I delivered the day's sports news on the 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. I lugged a 30-pound camera around to local high schools to get highlights of their football, basketball, baseball, volleyball and other games. My work day usually began around noon and ended when I got home at midnight. @U2 was something I worked on in the mornings before heading off to the TV station.
Pretty quickly, the site became a news destination for U2 fans around the world -- the few that were online then. I would post news that I found online, send a link to Wire and then watch the hit counter immediately climb. Someone would see what I sent to Wire and post it to AOL or CompuServe, and the hit counter would go even higher. It was pretty addicting. And it started to snowball: The more U2 news I posted on @U2, the more fans would send me news that they found.
By the time that the PopMart tour was about to be announced, the online U2 fan community was buzzing. "Discotheque" had been released in early January as the first single from Pop, and we knew that the album was set to be released March 4. I'm trying to remember what we knew in advance about the tour ... I think we knew that there'd be an announcement at a Kmart in New York City. But maybe we only knew the city, and not that it would involve a Kmart. There'd been plenty of rumors that the tour would open in Las Vegas.
The important thing, and what still shocks me to this day, is how excited I was to get the tour news and share it on @U2. I was so excited that I made a big decision the night before: I was going to call in sick to the TV station so I could stay online all day, searching for and posting whatever news I could find on @U2, then sharing it with Wire and hoping it would spread across all the U2 fan communities online. When I was sick, it was a huge inconvenience for the station; there was no other sportscaster in the newsroom, so someone would have to get pulled from their news duties to do my job. I could've been fired if they ever found out I stayed home to update @U2, but it was that important to me -- more important than my TV job.
Another thing way different in 1997: MTV didn't completely suck yet. It was still a pretty good source for music news, and I remember seeing plenty of MTV ads saying they'd have coverage of U2's tour announcement on the morning of Feb. 12. Great! But there was one problem: MTV wasn't shown live on the West Coast, or at least on my cable TV outlet. (I'm serious.) Whatever time MTV's coverage aired, I'd have to wait an extra three hours to watch it. Someone will surely correct me on this if I'm wrong, but I don't think MTV aired the news conference live; I think they aired it an hour or two after it ended, when they'd have time to edit it down as needed to fit their schedule.
But even if I have that detail wrong, I do remember this: I got online around 7 or 8 a.m. PT, turned on the little TV in our apartment bedroom (see photo above), which was also my computer room/office, and started watching MTV. Nothing. I fired up that speedy modem, connected to the web, and started searching for U2 tour news. Nothing. Local radio stations? Nothing. This went on for hours. Wire didn't know anything. The music news sites of the time (Allstar, Jam! Showbiz, Cybersleaze and the like) didn't know anything. I knew the announcement had already happened, but couldn't find a single word about it on the web.
Can you imagine?!?!
Finally, I found the list of tour dates. I think it was late morning for me, early afternoon in New York City, and they'd been posted on some news site that's now surely lost to history. I cut and pasted them onto @U2, wrote up a quick story and sent the link out to Wire. I'm sure others posted it on AOL and CompuServe and in the IRC chat rooms. The hit counter went crazy. I don't remember how many visitors @U2 normally got back then -- probably a couple hundred per day? Whatever it was, the PopMart tour dates brought at least 5-10x the normal amount, maybe more.
At some point after that, I was finally able to watch MTV's delayed coverage. My computer (I think it was a Mac Performa 450) could connect to our VCR, which meant I could feed the TV signal onto my computer. And there was a little video program where I could watch it and even make screenshots as I watched. (I used this to great effect, and another huge increase in hits, a year later when U2 appeared on The Simpsons. You can still see those tiny TV screenshots in our Events section.) I think it was while I was watching the press conference on MTV that I also found MTV's news story online. So, I combined that with one of my TV screenshots and posted that, too. It's still online in our news archive.
The rest, as they say, is history.
To this day, I remember Feb. 12, 1997 as the day that @U2 became @U2. It put the site on every online U2 fan's radar. And maybe most important, it cemented my desire to take this hobby as seriously as I could and keep building @U2 as an online destination for U2 fans. You wouldn't be reading this right now if not for what happened that day. It was definitely another time and another place, but it's still the heart of the @U2 that exists in this time and this place.
(c) @U2/McGee, 2017.