The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Chapter 9

Roadside branches out into covering old movie theaters. Though the cover depicts the Palace in Syracuse, New York, we focused on the efforts of the McMenamin brothers' Bagdad Theater in Portland, Oregon.

Sometime in the spring of 1995, Teri Dunn delivered devastating news. She, her husband Shawn, and their new child, Wes, were moving to Oregon. Living in Rockport, Mass., Teri didn’t exactly reside around the corner from me, but I treasured our monthly meetings at the Bel Aire Diner in Peabody. Most Roadside contributors lived in various Northeastern locales, making any “face-time” a precious commodity for me. To keep Teri from bolting the the region, I’d consider sacrificing my right hand. Our working relationship felt effortless. I rarely had to explain anything to Teri, and I had complete confidence in her abilities. Her knack for reigning in my more caustic rants probably saved my behind more times than I care to think about.

This was a career move for Teri. Though I paid her a modest monthly fee for her services, the amounts could hardly support anyone. Like me, Teri did this for the love of it. The enterprise generated little revenue, and strictly in terms of compensation, I probably paid Teri more than I actually paid myself. It killed me that I couldn’t pay her enough to keep her in Massachusetts.

I had lost other talented contributors for similar reasons. Denise Rocco, one of the best photographers of the roadside genre, left Providence for San Francisco. Tory Wesnosfke, similarly had to pay bills as well, and became a staff photographer for the Lowell Sun  with little time to volunteer her services for the cause. Several others who enthusiastically contributed also fell off the radar in search of real careers. That I couldn’t afford to keep these talents in my orbit frustrated me to no end. Now facing the prospect of losing Teri, I couldn’t sleep.

Happily, we adjusted to the situation. She and Shawn headed west, and we resolved to maintain our working relationship via the internet. Already more or less a virtual company, Roadside now stretched coast to coast. Teri became our eyes and ears of the Pacific Northwest and someone to visit when I ultimately made the trip out there myself.

In this post-tabloid period, Roadside broadened its scope outside of diners. Most, though not all, of the covers depicted topics further relating to the more generalized roadside aesthetic. Roadside featured the first of the “urban profile” stories with an exploration of the Cleveland comeback. Though most of the country and the world focused on the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Jacob’s Field, Roadside Magazine ventured into the neighborhoods, guided by the inimitable Steve Harwin. With this story, we established the pattern of covering diners as a part of the entire experience. Plus, having draped ourselves in the mantle of preservation and urban revival, we explored those issues more in depth.

it cost us about $7,000 to print and ship each issue, and while that’s nothing to Conde Nast, we simply did not attract enough new subscribers and advertisers to easily afford this and all the other overhead expenses of publishing. With every issue, we depleted the bank account and started over from scratch.

We followed Cleveland with a cover feature about Syracuse, New York. Initially, it surprised us that we received much more attention and publicity from that city’s local press than the Cleveland story attracted from theirs. After some thought, the reasons became obvious. Cleveland at the time enjoyed a flurry of attention from national media. Drew Carey’s program had people dancing in its streets. In the face of all that, the attention of our little magazine hardly mattered.

Syracuse, on the other hand, feasted on any scraps of good publicity tossed its way. I had meant every kind word I expressed about that city, but clearly Syracuse was adrift. The real movers and shakers of that town put more faith in the expansion of its already obscenely oversized mall than in the restored charms of its Amory District or its vital, historic neighborhoods.

Still, all the attention and praise bestowed upon Roadside from that story pointed the magazine in a new direction. From that point on, we hunted for other similar, small-to-mid-sized cities making honest efforts at revival outside of a top-tier media market. That both Syracuse and Cleveland each had a tidy cluster of diners didn’t hurt either.

Logistically, the idea posed a serious problem for us. Unless we had friends in the targeted town, lodging and meals would make these stories prohibitively expensive.

We did put Teri’s new situation to good use, however. Her feature about the McMenamins’ Bagdad Theater in Portland, Oregon gave us our first major west coast coverage. Mostly devoid of diners, Teri kept the magazine in tune with that city’s penchant for sound urban planning and great beer, two things dear to my heart.

 Meanwhile, with such a small staff and limited resources, magazine production had crawled to a point where we just barely published three issues in one year. Rising paper prices also hit us hard. After issue 24, “Minors and Diners,” I scrapped the glossy cover because doing so almost halvedour printing expense. Even so, it cost us about $7,000 to print and ship each issue, and while that’s nothing to Conde Nast, we simply did not attract enough new subscribers and advertisers to easily afford this and all the other overhead expenses of publishing. With every issue, we depleted the bank account and started over from scratch. Debts began to pile up.

I always told people, “Roadside’s greatest asset is its readers.” I thought, perhaps, that the time had come, in a sense, to cash in on that asset. I figured that in eight years of publishing, I must have crossed paths with someone in a position to help us out of this malaise and push Roadside to the next level. I knew that Roadside had attracted a small, but relatively prosperous audience, which even included a handful of bona fide celebrities. I thought someone in this group would come to the rescue, so in January 1998 I drafted a letter in which I asked the following questions:

    Can you suggest any individual or company that might be interested in acquiring or backing Roadside?

    Can you give me any advice on how to pursue this information?

    Do you agree with me that Roadside remains a valid and relevant publication that has yet to find its natural market?

And I sent it to a very select group of people, including George Ball.

The conversation I had with Mr. Ball had recently come to the fore of my thinking, and I had noticed that I neglected to put him on our mailing list. Teri advised me to simply send the letter to his office at Burpee, which I did. Other than Mr. Ball’s ownership of Burpee and his apparent regard for Daddypop’s, I knew nothing else of the man.

Then in March, I received a call from John Martens, who introduced himself as the president of Ball Publishing, located in Batavia, Illinois.

“George Ball asked me to call you,” he began, his voice sounding reassuringly mid-western, like Tom Brokaw’s. “He said I should take a look at your magazine. Can you send me copies of some issues?” I promptly sent the copies with a rather lengthy letter of introduction explaining our mission in great detail.

Then I waited.

Meanwhile, by this time, I had begun to hedge my bets with an earnest search for a “real job.” For the first months of 1998, I was sending out an average of five resumes a week to design firms and ad agencies all over the country. I didn’t really want to work for someone else, but I felt I had given Roadside my best shot.

Weeks passed, and I heard nothing from Martens. I pressed on, selling ads, writing stories, eating in diners, taking road trips, and publishing a magazine about this peculiar lifestyle, but while I fretted about the magazine’s prospects, the debt load continued to mount. I had become the master of the credit card rollover by then, a skill I shared with filmmaker Robert Townsend, who had financed his first movie “Hollywood Shuffle” with Visas and Mastercards. I supported the monthly payments for five credit cards at this stage, and my life-long aversion to debt threatened to douse my enthusiasm for continuing this enterprise.

Then, out of the blue, some unexpected but welcome news arrived. Teri and Shawn had decided to return to Massachusetts. After more than three years in Oregon, they wanted to come home. They missed their friends, the Red Sox, and real diners.

Next time: What value Roadside?