Is This Bar Trivia Veteran the Next Ryan Seacrest?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the classic host role is fast disappearing.
By Carly Stern
Kevan Kenney stopped by his mother’s house one night a few years ago on the way home from hosting trivia night at a local dive bar. He flipped on the TV to watch Adam Sandler sing an emotional ode to David Letterman, who would be leaving late-night television. “You’re the king of comedy,” Sandler sang. “Our best friend on TV.”
For Kenney, that line crystallized the career goals he’d begun chasing. The New Jersey native was hustling between hosting bar nights and running his own live events company, trying to figure out how to break into radio, music and entertainment. But now his quest had a new focus: He wanted to be the host who could be every millennial’s digital best friend.
One year later, Kenney would get his first break, working on Billboard’s Charts Center — as the guy who worked the clapboard to signal the next take. He introduced himself to anyone with whom he crossed paths. Sitting in MTV’s Times Square office, Kenney laughs when describing himself a few years ago: bright-eyed, overflowing with passion and with no experience. “I never knew if I was going to get my shot,” he says, “but I knew if I could get some time on the field, dude, I could score touchdowns.”
I feel like I’m the last guy, in the last seat, on the last train out of town.
Today, Kenney, 29, is the host of MTV’s new iteration of TRL (Total Request Live), Fresh Out Live on Fridays, as the station returns to music video content. He hosted Billboard Live and co-hosted Billboard’s Hot 100 Top 10 Countdown, now has a radio show on New York’s 92.3 ALT FM and is a red-carpet correspondent for Dick Clark Productions. And he’s also starting to pop up at high-profile events, like Billboard’s Grammys pre-show. Kenney has an “ability to connect with people no matter where you’re from in the world,” says Alex Vitoulis, charts manager at Billboard, who believes that Kenney is on the way to becoming the “new Ryan Seacrest.”
In fact, Kenney himself has no shame in admitting he meticulously studied the career arc of Seacrest, along with those of predecessors Carson Daly, Merv Griffin and Dick Clark. “He does his homework,” says Celeste McLaughlin, a supervising producer in TV production who has worked with Kenney at MTV. The problem? Traditional TV hosts hosts aren’t exactly a growth industry in the streaming and social media era. “People aren’t looking for the next great host,” Kenney says, flashing a big smile. “In a lot of ways, I feel like I’m the last guy, in the last seat, on the last train out of town.”
An only child, Kenney grew up in the less-than-2-square-mile town of Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey (population roughly 4,200). There, he became savvy at navigating different social circles. His mother, a single parent, worked a low-wage job. During the summer, Kenney attended camp for children from low-income homes; during the school year, he hung out with kids whose parents were affluent bankers commuting into Manhattan. He’d wake up on “staycations,” feeling bored when his friends were traveling, and — as he puts it — “hung out with Carson Daly” during TRL. “It was this service of hospitality … as opposed to a source of entertainment, for me,” Kenney says.
He went off to college at Florida State University, which he quickly found didn’t suit him. “I don’t love … the whole sheep mentality of a social scene or Greek life,” Kenney says. “I always gravitate toward individuals … characters and outcasts, which is ironic because I don’t know if I was ever that.” Kenney transferred to Ramapo College of New Jersey, where he studied communications and lived at home. “I barely went to college,” he admits, noting with a smile that his undergrad years involved a lot of “finessing” with professors.
Instead, he poured energy into producing videos, filming a weekly video series for his college and making a music show that he syndicated on several campuses. Kenney was obsessed with all kinds of music, from punk rock to alternative rap — and he has always taken pride in having original taste. “The easiest thing you can do is dress like the person next to you,” he says.
Professionally, hosting has shown Kenney a path to marry his passions of people and music. He describes himself as insatiably curious, and what energizes him during interviews is the challenge of cutting to the crux of somebody’s soul in just a few minutes. “This job makes dating really hard,” he jokes — small talk is difficult when you’re used to jumping straight into the heavy questions with strangers. Kenney exists in dualities: He comes off as breezy, yet tenacious. He hobnobs with the famous, yet seems equally willing to have an intimate conversation with just about anybody.
And he doesn’t take himself too seriously. “I don’t feel like I’ve stolen anything, but I feel like I’ve absolutely snuck in,” Kenney says. That combination of excitement and humility is likely to serve him well, as some might argue that his role in the music and television landscape is becoming obsolete at worst and of diminished importance at best — even as MTV is steering its content back to music.
After all, the value of MTV’s TRL in the late 1990s and early 2000s used to be about access — introducing fans, sitting in their kitchens, to famous artists they’d never otherwise meet. But as social media continues to break down those gatekeepers and anyone can gain proximity to artists, Kenney is aware his paycheck relies on his ability to overdeliver on the responsibility to be a conduit to those stars — filtering their music and their accolades, guided by the questions that viewers want to know. “I feel like I’m perpetually fighting unemployment,” he says.
At the core of it, Kenney wants to be “a proverbial couch for popular culture.” Whether it’s at trivia night or on the radio or on MTV, he’s talking to those Jersey kids on staycations who are looking to find their new best friend on TV.