WHEN I WAS a kid, my parents read The New Yorker. But I grew up listening to the radio, doing my homework and watching TV all at once. I could jump from one to the other, but they were always saying turn off the TV. They can't have two people talking at the same time, they have to go A, B, C, D. My attention span is too short; I just get bored. I don't think one way is better than the other -- I think they're just different ways of processing information. -- Robert Pittman

When Robert W. Pittman was 21, he was the highest-paid radio programmer in the country. When he was 23, he guided WNBC to the top AM radio spot in New York City. That epic battle of Top-40 formats sent WABC into a ratings plunge and gained Pittman fame as the kid who fired the hyperkinetic Don "Imus in the Morning" Imus, only to rehire him a year later.

Now, at 28, Bob Pittman is a vice president of Warner-Amex, the giant entertainment conglomerate. He is responsible for programming The Movie Channel, Warner's challenge to HBO, and a one-year-old cable TV service called Music Television, or MTV.

He is a polite and formal young man, in striped suit and horn rims. Just the sort of fellow, come to think of it, who'd preside over the permanent alteration of Life As We Know It Now.

Perhaps an exaggeration; but then, have you seen MTV?

It is really nothing more than a 24-hour-a-day cable TV channel that endlessly plays three- to five-minute videotapes of rock groups in stereophonic sound. Every three or four songs, a VJ -- for video jockey -- pops on the screen with a bit of news or banter, and then the songs resume.

It is also probably the fastest growing cable station in history. Launched Aug. 1, 1981, MTV will be in 8.5 million cable homes by year's end, and a projected 14 million by 1983.

Now we fall into a chair to the sound of Huey Lewis and the News' "Do You Believe in Love?" The band plays happily along, inexplicably set up in the bedroom of a beautiful woman. She is in bed, asleep. "Do You Believe in Love?" Huey Lewis and the boys blast this tune right in her ear, but she sleeps on. Only after several minutes does she begin to wake. "Do You Believe in Love?" She yawns prettily, utterly oblivious to the wild rock rolling one foot away from her bedstead. She reaches out, puts on a pot of coffee. "Do You Believe in Love?" Pours, drinks, rises, yawns again.

Wow, but huh?

"We are entering the era of TV of plenty," Pittman said. "It's the same thing that happened to radio. In the old days, there were very few radio stations, and the audience was at the mercy of the schedule. If Jack Benny was on at 8:30, you had to be there. But then radio began to fractionalize. There were all-music stations and all-news stations, and suddenly there were five or six of them offering what you liked and you could punch in any time.

"In TV, there has historically been a scarcity of channels. So if people might like to watch something other than soap operas during the daytime, they couldn't. The economics and the lack of competition didn't encourage that. Besides, the networks want to be seen as 'old friends,' and old friends shouldn't change."

Three 14-year-old girls look up from their trance, betraying the revulsion that greets an adult trespasser in the television zone.

On the screen a sepia-toned world unfolds, apparently New York of the 1920s, a languorous admixture of images reminiscent of ragtime and Hester Street, which dissolves now to flappers and bread lines in a fast-moving montage. It's Fleetwood Mac, and the song is "Gypsy." Nothing moves in the room but the images on the screen.

MTV's target audience is aged 14 to 34. It is a classic example of "narrowcasting," as opposed to "broadcasting." That is, MTV delivers an audience with specific demographics.

"You used to hear the word 'demographics' a lot, but now we're beyond that," Pittman said. "Now we have psychographics.

"At MTV, we don't shoot for the 14-year-olds--we own them. We will reach 90 percent of them in any given household. You'd have to be a social outcast not to watch it. And about 10 or 20 percent of our audience is over 35.

"Music tends to be a predictor of behavior, and of social values, rather than of entertainment. Music symbolized the culture.

"People hate each others' music. To say you don't like somebody else's music is saying I don't like your dress, your friends, I don't like your life.

"You tell me the music people like and I'll tell you their views on abortion, whether we should increase our military arms, what their sense of humor is like, what their favorite TV programs are, their response to political candidates, even their taste in jokes."

It's not like the rest of TV. You can tune in anytime and get what you want. Otherwise, television is pretty much a series of scheduled events: If you want to see "Destination Tokyo" on Channel 20 tonight, you have to tune in at 8 o'clock. If you're not there, "Destination Tokyo" goes on without you. But MTV is always there, always the same, passive but ineluctable.

Now comes "Burning for You," by Blue Oyster Cult, one of the best of the heavy metal bands. Blasting from a car tape deck, or bubbling the brain at max volume through headphones, this kind of rock is absolute music.

The video version is a programmatic delight. Cars cruise eerily down what looks like the Los Angeles aqueduct, operated by erstwhile band members. Eventually, one of the cars catches fire -- as the band plays on in the foreground. There may or may not be a human being inside. Yes, apparently there is a human inside, burning for you.

All in fun, of course.

What is success? Robert Pittman asks. This is a philosophical question that networks answer with a numeral representing the percentage of the population a program reaches. For Pittman, programmer of MTV and The Movie Channel, such a numeral does not exist.

"The networks always said that getting a very large share of the audience was success. But that's changing. The advertisers says, gee, it's expensive: and besides, who wants all those people? My wife is in the fashion business, and in the fashion business they call this the age of individual style. What this really means is there are no more trends. You can do whatever you want to, and it's all right. Everybody wants something different.

"Advertisers find this appealing. With the fragment of audience MTV gets, clearly a product like Preparation H would be inappropriate. But Kawasaki will find they are reaching 100 percent potential buyers.

"With The Movie Channel, we're not interested in audience shares either. We make no money on that. We make money on 'satisfaction' -- when the bill for the pay TV service comes in at the end of the month, we want people to be satisfied, so they'll pay for the next month.

"In both MTV and The Movie Channel we're not talking about blockbusters. We're talking about dealing a mood to you. It's the style, not the substance."

On comes a hip video jockey: a little rock news, a bit of gossip, then back to Adam and the Ants, Split Enz, Cheap Trick, Elton John, Girlschool, Clash, U2, ELO, Kansas, Asia, Quarterflash, Haircut 100, Spandau Ballet, Fay Wray, Stray Cats, Iron Maiden, Heart, Stones, Motels, Rainbow and Fun Boy Three.

Wow, but huh?

Fun Boy Three performs "The Telephone Always Rings." Two of Fun Boy Three are Caribbean fellows of considerable musical and personal charm. They seek to engage the attention of a very pale and wan lad in a sailor suit and fright wig--he being the one remaining Fun Boy.

Extremely diverting and utterly hyponotic are Fun Boy Three et al. Perhaps we shall never leave the TV room ever again. Dinner can be brought in. The New Yorker can be thrown out.

Why is MTV not available to Arlington cable subscribers? Why is Annapolis the nearest cable system offering MTV?

"MTV is probably very confusing to the non-TV generation," Pittman says. "It's all bits and pieces coming at you. But we have noticed that with The Movie Channel, people watch movies in bits and pieces now. They will watch the middle first, then the beginning, then the end. They will see part of a movie again and again.

"The movies themselves are less linear, too. They use quick editing, and people can follow it. You no longer need to see a person get out of a car, walk up to the front door, ring the doorbell, the girl answers the door, he goes inside. All you need is to see the car pull up, and then the next scene they're in bed together."

Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so.

Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so.

Turning Japanese, etc.

This video number is called, not surprisingly, "I Think I'm Turning Japanese." It is performed by the Vapors.

MTV gets the videotapes free from record companies, just as radio disc jockeys get records. There is evidence that record stores tend to sell a lot of albums when a good video is featured on MTV in a community. There is evidence that MTV will make a lot of money for Warner-Amex in the very near future.

True, MTV is not yet cocktail party conversation in the big cities. That is because the big cities tend not to be wired for cable TV.

Also because big cities go A-B-C-D, and read The New Yorker.

Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so.

"You see the headlines saying kids are illiterate," Pittman said. "They're not illiterate, they're just processing information in a different way.

"Things have changed. The pressure and anxiety levels today are down. People live as they please, and it's okay -- there's much less pressure to be like Ozzie and Harriet. True, it's an uncomfortable world for many, especially for parents who think the world is falling apart.

"I'm not saying linear people don't still exist. But that sort of approach takes more of an effort, and it's not always worth it. When you have a head full of information, you'd better be able to do several things at once."