The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Chapter 12

I knew the adjustments would be difficult, but I always assume most people are reasonable. As publisher of Roadside, I took orders from no one. Now, I answered to someone thirteen years my junior now planning Roadside’s national roll-out. When I started Roadside, Jennifer was still in a Kansas high school.

After closing the deal with Ball Publishing, I hosted thank you a brunch at the Rosebud Diner, inviting those who helped me get Roadside off the ground in the beginning. Pictured here flanking me is Richard Gutman on the left and Teri Dunn on the right. That day, I also toasted Marjorie Norman, Larry Cultrera, Jerry Soucy, Julie Rackliffe, my mom, and my sister Marylynn Garbin. (Photo by George Lucey.)

Suddenly, I began to receive all kinds of information about the travel business from her, including car rental industry prospects, gas price outlooks, and hotel security issues. If nothing else, Jennifer thoroughly researched the issue as best she understood it and inundated me with her information.

By the end of February, Roadside had an art department, a circulation department, ad sales consultants, an IT guy, publicists, and a finance director. When we again met in the beginning of March for another round of editorial discussions, I prefaced my presentation by telling everyone at the table that I did all their jobs.

My concerns about Ms. Derryberry aside, I relished the money that seemed to rain down upon the magazine. Ball Publishing budgeted millions of dollars toward launching this new enterprise, but I immediately saw a challenge trying to make everyone newly involved with Roadside truly understand its real mission. From the outset, Martens and Derryberry indicated that they somehow needed to peg the magazine either as a travel magazine or a lifestyle magazine. They argued the need to position the magazine as serving one particular market.

Sure, I had previously called Roadside an “alternative travel source,” but I never really thought of the magazine as a specific guide. My philosophy of travel relied more on exploration than site-seeing. Roadside may have helped people discern the difference between a Fodero and a Kullman, but the stories did their best to focus on the people who brought these places to life. Sure you had to travel to get there, but you also lived – or wanted to live – a certain lifestyle to better appreciate these back roads attractions.

In trying to explain these things, I began to sense a patronizing attitude toward this admittedly idealistic editorial approach. Yet, I still clung to the hope that as editor, they would allow me to set editorial mission and tone. Editors, after all, function as gatekeepers.

The first issue that related to this mission flared over the choice of car the company would provide me. Initially, they instructed me to choose any car within a cost parameter of $18,000-$20,000. I readily chose a new VW Jetta. My publisher balked.

“I’m not sure how well a foreign car fits the recipe for an American renaissance,”

As the one who drafted this “recipe,” I saw no problem. Roadside was not about cars, never was, and hopefully never would be. I drove a Japanese car, as did Martens and half the staff at Ball Publishing. No one, I assumed, gave a damn about what I drove.

In the end, during another dinner at an expensive Italian restaurant, Mr. Ball simply said, “Just get him what he wants,” and that ended the issue, except that the victory heightened my concern of how this would play with Martens. I was acutely aware of the danger of office politics, while I had no desire to look like a prima donna. I had little background information on Martens, but what I did have told me that the man did not like to share the spotlight. He had no reason to be threatened by me in any case. I just wanted to publish a magazine, have some fun, and make money for the company.

Teri and I had one last issue to produce in the meantime. Ball Publishing decided that we would use issue 30 as a way to announce Roadside’s sale and to give the existing readers something before we entered yet another hiatus. Teri and I saw this issue as capping the end of an era. While this might be the last Roadside that looked like Roadside, I hardly lamented the evolution. I always wanted the magazine bigger, more colorful, and covering a wider scope, but I had some concerns about alienating the core readership.

Teri and I completed Issue 30 much as we did most of the issues before it. Produced from my home computer, printed in Worcester, and distributed through my home office. From an editorial standpoint, I felt we did justice to all the others we published together, though it bothered me to some degree that Ball Publishing would not spend an extra thousand or so dollars for any additional color within its $6 million budget. That issue featured a story on Googie architecture by Ron Saari illustrated with striking color images that deserved the extra spending. Instead, and for the first time ever, I posted a feature online simply so that people could see these photographs in color.

Though Issue 30 bore the mark of Ball Publishing, it closed the chapter of Coffee Cup's independence.

Also, our story on the Collinsville catsup bottle gave me yet another opportunity to publish a story that covered a part of my cross-country trip. Readers responded well to the cover image of the dedicated volunteers who helped save the bottle set against the looming restored image of the water-tank-as-icon.

With that, a chapter closed on the magazine’s history. It had then officially grown out of its cottage industry roots. Roadside, we thought, was about to step out.

About this time, the word “quirky” entered everyone’s description of the magazine, as in “Roadside is a quirky travel magazine.” After a couple of weeks of that, I began to wince every time I heard the word, and I desperately searched for a proper synonym. As Ball Publishing struggled to target a specific demographic, I tried my best to describe the Roadside reader, mainly based on the fact that I had met a significant number of them – at Roadside events, at Diner-Rama, and during my tours of the back roads visiting diners. I knew both instinctively and by observation, that Roadside had a well-educated, typically professional, and extremely literate audience. I saw them as older baby-boomers who had grown weary of the commercial landscape and looked for escape. Roadside helped point the way.

That wasn’t good enough, of course. Martens at this point introduced his latest corporate mantra, which he chanted at every opportunity: “I’m selling access to an audience.” It seemed extremely important to him that I tow the line on Roadside’s description as a travel magazine. “I can sell a travel magazine,” he would tell me more than once. “I can’t sell a lifestyle magazine.” For me, Roadside hardly fit into any easy genre. I saw it both as a travel magazine for people who lived a certain lifestyle, or conversely a lifestyle magazine for people who traveled a certain way. Either way, really, it didn’t matter. I felt certain it would find its audience.

But to make Martens happy, I assured him that I would regard Roadside as a “travel magazine.” Whatever. Just let me go get the stories.

 Next time: The storm brews