The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine
In June as I waited to board my plane to start my California trip, Jennifer called to tell me about the upcoming focus group sessions.
“You’re kidding, right?” I responded.
“No. It’s George’s idea.” Her dismay sounded genuine. “The sessions will be videotaped. We’ll send you a copy.”
I almost laughed, but in resignation, I said, “Well, I’m not a big believer in these things, but sure, send me a copy.” I also thought they’d just waste more money.
Fresh from two weeks exploring the left coast, I received the videos. The four sessions, two in Chicago and two in Milwaukee, put ten people in a room and had them discuss their “ideal travel magazine.” At this point, Ball Publishing hadn’t yet prepared a basic mock-up of the magazine, displaying only a sample cover design and a table-of-contents spread. Typically, a company commissions a focus group when its product nears completion. Ball Publishing put little more in play than a thinly described concept. Heaven forbid that they show them the last issue of Roadside.
The moderator hardly helped matters. She harvested little from their collective efforts, except to find that many of the participants didn’t like to travel, and those that did often preferred visiting Disneyworld and the Grand Canyon over places like the country’s oldest mini-golf course or a hot dog joint in the heart of downtown New Haven.
The focus group also killed Eddie Longo. The moderator handed out a photocopied version of an old, black and white Eddie strip, and after quick glances, the group nixed the idea. I had fought hard to get Eddie. From the day Mark Zingarelli’s package landed in my mailbox in 1993, I had vowed that as soon as I had the money, I would put Eddie in Roadside. At first, Jennifer gave her blessing, albeit with palpable reservation. After the focus group, Jennifer called with the bad news. Already enduring the pain of a large C-clamp gripping my head, Jennifer had turned the screw a full rotation.
As crazy as the focus groups made me, it later proved useful in my own attempt at Machiavellian maneuvering. Before leaving Pittsburgh, I finally connected with Mr. Ball and scheduled a brunch with him at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, the inn and estate he had purchased from the Burpee family the previous year.
By this time, I had almost concluded that Martens and Mr. Ball had seen eye-to-eye on the direction of the magazine. Martens certainly had more opportunity to press his case than I did given Mr. Ball’s frequent visits to his native Chicagoland and their lengthier professional relationship. I began to question this assumption during our meal. Noting that I met her in Pittsburgh, he asked what I had thought of Christine.
“She seems very nice,” I responded tentatively.
“How old is she?”
Mr. Ball’s eyes, already set in a permanent expression of astonishment, nearly popped from his skull.
And later, when Mr. Ball made a disparaging remark regarding the focus group sessions, I had further reason for optimism.
I found it difficult to keep a straight face whenever I ate with Mr. Ball. At the time, I believed that his animated nature and fastidious regard for those who served him simply indicated a benevolent eccentricity. I preferred to think that when one operates in the echelon he did, it required a polite but assertive demeanor. I neglected to factor the origin’s of Mr. Ball’s status and its potential effect on his personality. Mr. Ball’s wealth came primarily from inheritance and not from the merits of his own abilities. He operated on a higher plane than me, but he stood on the shoulders of others.
When Mr. Ball took fifteen minutes to discuss a perceived aftertaste in the breakfast sausage with the hapless but precisely deferential innkeeper, I couldn’t help but laugh. He couldn’t possibly be serious, I thought. One saw these scenarios played out only in a mad-cap theatrical performance. This, I thought, was simply Mr. Ball at ease, harmlessly teasing the innkeeper, and that at the conclusion of the performance, he’d just eat the sausage.
Conversation with Mr. Ball often required Herculean efforts to maintain focus. His penchant for speaking in tangents often made quick meetings next-to-impossible. Fortunately, his experiences made for interesting stories and enhanced his considerable charm. Though it often took extra effort to reach a conclusion, I rarely felt I wasted time during these discussions. I felt I had much to learn from this man.
Mr. Ball fit the caricature of the mad genius — brilliant, a fount of ideas, but unfocused and easily distracted — but when the need arose, the guy could get down to business. I had to believe this. I had entrusted him with my life’s work.
We finished our meal, with Mr. Ball leaving behind a plateful of sausage, and moved to the inn's study where W. Atlee Burpee himself once worked. Sinking into the overstuffed leather chair, Mr. Ball began. “So, how are things going with the magazine?”
“Well, George, actually, I thought I’d ask you that question. How do you think things are going with the magazine.”
He went on to express his unease about its direction. Having sat behind the two-way mirror himself, he recounted a crucial moment during a focus group session.
“At one point the moderator looked for story suggestions, and I heard one woman suggest something she saw in an airline magazine, a story about ‘four days in Chicago with Laura Flynn Boyle.’ I thought ‘what a terrible idea,’ but then I looked over at John and Jennifer and I see them nodding their heads and taking notes! I thought, ‘No, no. That’s not the magazine I bought!’”
I realized then this was going to be easier than expected, and I opened the floodgates. I went on to express all my “concerns” about the magazine, including the propriety of Martens putting his non-employee girlfriend in charge of the project. Despite John’s endorsement, I did not think that Jennifer had the proper experience to publish Roadside. Her age and her personal relationship with Martens would make it difficult at best to attract anyone with any real experience to work for the magazine. Our staff would end up more qualified to publish Sassy magazine.
Mr. Ball sat calmly, listening, taking notes. “So,” he said when I had finished my litany, “what do you think we should do?”
Throwing caution to the wind, I seized the moment. “I think we should pull this out of Batavia and set up a semi-autonomous entity here in the East. Maybe even Worcester.”
Much to my surprise, Mr. Ball responded, “Okay. That’s what we’ll do, then.” Then he thought for a moment, “What about Christine? What do you think of her?”
“To be honest, I barely know her, but I’m willing to give her a chance. I think she’ll work out.”
“Do you think she’ll relocate?”
“That I don’t know. We’ll have to ask her.”
I drove home feeling cautiously vindicated. Up until that point, whatever Mr. Ball promised, he seemed to deliver. On the other hand, my familiarity with disappointment clouded my optimism. Teri’s vocal caution also nagged me. Though she also benefited financially from this new reality with a market-rate monthly retainer, she harbored a certain distrust of Mr. Ball’s ultimate intentions.
Mr. Ball then put Christine on a plane and flew her to the Burpee offices in Warminster. There they discussed the state of the magazine, what he intended to do with it, and emphatically promising her that he would see this project through. Christine, finding herself in the middle of intra-office political struggle, had good reason to simply leave. Dana Duffield, the new associate editor starting that day did exactly that. Indeed, Martens urged Christine to quit, because, he contended, Mr. Ball would likely lose interest in the project.
The following Wednesday, Mr. Ball called me at my home, heralding some very good news: “Randy? George here. Coffee Cup Publishing is back in business!”
“What do you mean, George?”
“Roadside is no longer a part of Ball Publishing. We’re going to set this up separate from that, and you’re in charge.”
The adage, “Be careful what you wish for,” immediately crossed my mind, but I was elated, and indeed, I received no more calls or emails from Jennifer or John. At least in terms of the magazine’s editorial management, I had successfully regained control.
We would still use Ball Publishing as a business address and they would continue to handle our expenses, but Martens had no more say over the direction of the project. My ducks, it would seem, were firmly in order.
Within three days, the headaches finally stopped.
©2001 Randy Garbin