The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Chapter 18

This is the postcard image of the Inn at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, PA.

We had assembled all articles and artwork for the second issue, and now Mr. Ball wouldn’t pay to publish it. I appealed to him to put out the issue on the grounds that if we published, it would at least buy us more time to find a buyer at a good price. If we folded, or worse, we retrenched, the business would be worth next to nothing. I had no real incentive to act as Mr. Ball’s agent except the hope of keeping my job.

But I made a fatally flawed assumption— that Mr. Ball and I still shared the best interests of the magazine and its mission. Given his assertions in the “Buttons of Happiness” interview, I thought I had good reason to make that assumption. I reasoned we would thus work in concert to get Roadside into the hands of someone who could carry on.

Mr. Ball and I met again two weeks later to discuss our plans for this new “reduced” form of the magazine. I again made my arguments as to the futility of this tack. In the meantime, Teri had informed me – and Mr. Ball in writing – of her resignation, thus ending her 8-year relationship with the magazine. She indicated she had no interest in working on a retrenched or reduced publication. It goes without saying that Mr. Ball’s recent decisions regarding Roadside did not fill her with confidence for the magazine’s future under his stewardship. Off she went to work for other clients. With Teri now gone, there was no staff, nobody left but me.  Thus I tried to explain that our best option rests with selling the magazine to someone else. Mr. Ball said he would mull this over.

I left Doylestown to spend a few days in Pittsburgh as part of a publicity tour. I learned that the City Council would pass a resolution making February 26 “Roadside Day” in Pittsburgh, thanking us for our coverage of that city’s true charms. So I found myself experiencing jarring sensations: pride in the current issue and pangs about the magazine’s very uncertain future. Upon leaving council chambers after the ceremony, a reporter from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette approached me, revealing that “someone called the newsroom and told us not to bother running the article because the magazine was folding.”

Very few people knew where I was, and even fewer knew about the impending article. If the tragedy of seeing this magazine fold wasn’t bad enough, now I had the absurdity of someone deliberately sabotaging my efforts to keep it afloat.

While I revisited Pittsburgh, Mr. Ball called me to schedule a meeting for early the following week. Up until that call, I had tentative plans to keep driving west, destination unknown. With no magazine to edit, I had only the website to maintain, and I could do that from anywhere I could plug my laptop into a phone jack. Instead, I drove a long arc across northern Pennsylvania and Southern New York, revisiting some old attractions and discovering a few new.

When we met again back in Doylestown, Mr. Ball appeared to have regained his focus. This meeting lasted barely a half hour, and at its conclusion, he told me he had decided to sell the property. We would abandon any plans to continue publishing and get the magazine to a new home. I emerged with a renewed sense of hope, thinking that Mr. Ball’s professional network would prove vast enough to find some interested party.

I hardly expected, however, one of those interested parties to be Daniel Zilka. Not long after the Worcester Telegram published an article about Roadside’s predicament, I had come to learn of an attempt by Zilka to persuade Mr. Ball to donate the property to the museum, presumably for the tax write-off. Though I continued to believe in the importance of such an institution, my observations of and experiences with Mr. Zilka forced me to come to similar conclusions reached by the other individuals responsible for repopularizing the American diner – that he and his activities were probably doing more harm than good. This meant that any attempt on his part to add Roadside to the museum’s collection was not motivated by any desire to assist me.

Later Mr. Ball would ask me about the museum and its board. “Are any of them of any means? Do you think they have any money?” he wondered. I replied that a couple members were successful businessmen, but that he should steer clear of the museum as currently managed.

“Daniel Zilka has a history of disregarding the Museum's bylaws,” I explained. “He seems to be using the museum to legitimize his collecting methods. I wouldn’t say that the museum’s a scam, but it operates in a manner consistent with one. That’s why I left.”

As the days passed, I became desperate to find a solution to this predicament. I sent out letters of inquiry to Yankee Magazine, to John Grisham, publisher and backer of The Oxford American; and several other magazine publishers. I assumed Mr. Ball was doing the same.

Though the magazine had stopped, the publicity machine kept rolling on its own residual momentum. After issue 31 shipped, articles about the magazine and me appeared in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Radio stations from across the country called me asking for interviews, but I left those calls unreturned. I couldn’t lie to people. The publicity did, however, attract great numbers of people to the website, a few thousand requesting sample copies, and our latest direct mail piece continued to bring in new subscribers. Roadside was a hit, but its owner was leaving it hanging. Ball Publishing had stopped mailing out copies to those who requested, despite the fact that over 3,000 copies of issue 31 sat in boxes in their basement.

Then in April, I received a fax from Mr. Ball with an offer. He would agree to publish Issue 32, providing his out-of-pocket expense did not exceed $20,000, if I subsequently agreed to purchase the magazine from him for $50,000, and relinquish my employment contract. The offer shocked me. He had already broken a five-year lease with the Printers Building. Did he now seek to break my employment agreement? I immediately phoned Stuart Hopkins, Burpee’s director of human resources, asking him if they intended to honor my contract. Stuart assured me they did.

I then made a counter-offer to Mr. Ball: Grant me a 75% stake in the enterprise and cash out the remainder of my contract. Since he showed little serious interest in selling the magazine, my offer would hold Mr. Ball to his obligations while giving me sufficient incentive and authority to broker deals with potential investors. His remaining stake, I reasoned, would provide him with the best chance of seeing any return on his investment. I hardly expected him to agree to all my terms, but I thought it might at least open up negotiations. But I was wrong. In a telephone conversation, Mr. Ball dismissed the idea out of hand, and would engage in no further discussions.

Finally, I drafted and faxed a letter to Mr. Ball, wherein I asked flat out: What are we going to do? He responded, “If we don’t find a buyer in two weeks, we will fold the magazine.”

Two weeks passed with no buyer. I concluded that Roadside was all but dead. I then took the initiative based on the authority Mr. Ball had delegated to me seven months before, and I notified a small number of readers subscribed to the RoadsideOnline Yahoo Group — about 300 — that the magazine had folded. Paid subscribers were now entitled to a refund. I had always run the magazine on the philosophy that one does not go out of business by being fair to customers.

A week after I sent that message, in late April, I Mr. Ball telephoned.

Setting aside any of his customary small talk, Mr. Ball got straight to the point. “Randy, I’d like you to meet with you to talk about printing issue 32 and the resto of the editorial calendar. Come down to Fordhook and bring with you everything you have on the magazine; all stories, photographs, and anything else.” Hardly a week passed without a surprising new development. What next? I wondered in frustration. This roller coaster ride had completely undermined my ability act or plan, and worse, it made me look foolish before our readers and vendors.

This time Mr. Ball stated his intention to continue publishing, albeit in reduced form, providing that we can keep the cost under $20,000. I knew we could do this, providing we managed to sign up all our previous advertisers, consisting mostly of diners. Still, I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea.

Intrigued by this latest about face, I sensed something was wrong. Mr. Ball, again, spoke with that unsettling urgent detachment. This conversation contained no small-talk or questions about how things were going, and it seemed uncharacteristically urgent that I show up at the meeting no later than 9:30 that morning.  I knew he was up to something, and by now, I grew to completely mistrust his intentions.

Mr. Ball had said on the phone that he would have a designer at Ball Publishing lay out the magazine, yet this raised a legal problem. Under the terms of their agreement with us, GHI granted us license to use the design templates providing we retained their services exclusively. Transferring the templates to any other designer entitled GHI to charge us $20,000. To avoid this, we would have to create entirely new designs to meet Mr. Ball’s conditions. This charge would make it impossible for Mr. Ball to keep the expenses under his limits and redesigning the templates would create a great deal of unnecessary work.

I saved this information for the meeting. I wanted to see first what Mr. Ball had up his sleeve.

Next time: End of the road.