The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine
At 9:30 A.M., I entered the second floor of the carriage house at Fordhook, where Mr. Ball took residence. He waited for me, sitting at the end of the large overstuffed leather couch wearing a rather unkempt field jacket and worn jeans, stroking Lilly, the resident farm cat. His demeanor had an uneasy calm to it. Stoically, I sat and let him lead the conversation.
We began an involved discussion about a proposed editorial calendar where we’d strip Roadside down to the more basic elements — one feature instead of three, drop the back departments, eliminate the guest columns, etc. He wanted to know what we owned and what we didn’t. What stories had we paid for and accepted from their authors. What did we have ready to go. He had a poised a flip chart and took notes, outlining the contents of the next four issues.
I cooperated completely with this discussion, though I wasn’t happy about this new tack, and I was uneasy about his motives. Mr. Ball announced he wanted to publish a few stories that I felt had dubious merit in a magazine like Roadside. If it meant a initiating a form of production again, then it might be better than just sitting on my hands. After months of delegating authority to others, Mr. Ball now reasserted himself as the publisher.
When the subject of layouts finally arose, I asked him why he would want to further burden the designer at Ball Publishing. I figured my background in design and layout made me the obvious choice to perform this work, and with this stripped down version of the magazine, I’d have plenty of time. Though I had met the entire art department in Batavia the previous year, the name Mr. Ball mentioned didn’t ring a bell.
Mr. Ball responded that he thought this person would do a fine job and that there was no need for me to be involved in that. Given that this reduced editorial calendar meant that I would still have time on my hands, shoving this responsibility upon someone who knew nothing of the magazine made little sense. Therefore I decided to play the GHI card.
“Well, I have to tell you, George, that we have a little problem, then. You see, we don’t own the templates.”
He looked at me perplexed, his round head slightly cocked. “What do you mean?”
“Well, according to the agreement we signed with Gallini-Hemmann, we only license their work. They won’t turn over the original files to us or allow us to reuse what we have unless we pay them the equivalent of two issues’ work, or twenty thousand dollars.”
This gave the man some pause. He picked up a copy of issue 31, and asked, “Well, then. Let’s go through this. What do we own here, then?” He proceeded to turn pages and point to various design elements, asking about their ownership. I answered each of his questions truthfully and to the best of my knowledge. Finally, he concluded, “We’ll just have to design new templates.”
“Sure, we can do that, but it’s a lot of work. It took GHI a good month to flesh out what we finally used. It’ll cause a considerable delay, and I have to imagine with Ball Publishing’s reduced staff, there must be an incredible workload over there.” In fact, even after firing one-third of the staff, they continued to publish four magazines.
Mr. Ball shrugged it off. “Well, we’ll just have to figure something out.”
As the discussion waned, Mr. Ball suddenly asked me, “Randy, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
He had done this once before, ultimately wanting to know something of my financial background. “No, George. I don’t mind.”
“Do you come from a wealthy background?”
One part of me did not want to answer that question, but I had also thought it was rather stupid. Nevertheless, I had nothing to hide.
“No, George. If I had come from a wealthy family, I never would have sold you the magazine.”
He simply nodded and looked away. About that time, an hour and a half since we began the discussion, there was a knock on the door. It was Stuart Hopkins. This meant trouble.
Stuart had slumped into his chair, sitting perpendicular to Mr. Ball and me, and looking off into the distance. Mr. Ball then produced a sheet of paper from a manila folder and said, “Now, Randy, I’m afraid I have to tell you something. I’m letting you go – for cause.”
I sat up very straight, and listened incredulously as he cited his reasons, the first and most “damning” being my email to the readers two weeks ago alerting them of George’s decision to fold the magazine. Claiming this action was a violation of my non-disclosure agreement and that it damaged the company, he said had provided him with enough grounds for my dismissal. In other words, telling the truth to our customers violated corporate policy. I probably could have covered every one of those few refunded subscriptions with a week’s salary, which I would have happily sacrificed to fix this fiasco.
The morning’s agenda became painfully clear. The objective was ambush, intimidation, and humiliation. He had just spent ninety minutes extracting information from me, and he would now throw me off the train. Though my overall respect for Mr. Ball’s executive abilities had already sunk to a new low, my overriding concern had remained the magazine, its mission, and its readers. I just wanted to continue without jeopardizing the magazine’s integrity, and I only asked for Mr. Ball to keep his promises and honor his contracts.
I had been in these situations before. There was little point in arguing. I began to gather up all the papers and files that I still had at my disposal, and packed them back into my briefcase. When he ordered that I return the company car, I offered to buy it from him. He refused to sell, without citing reasons.
While he continued to blather on about my non-compete and my obligations to the company, reading my employment contract back to me verbatim, I stood up and said, “George, you’ll never get this thing printed for less than twenty thousand. You’re going to need the diner advertisers to renew, and when they find out you’ve fired me, they’ll never sign on.”
“Randy! Don’t you try to destroy the magazine!”
“George, I’m not going to have to destroy the magazine. You’re doing it for me.”
With that, I turned to walk out. As Mr. Ball frantically called for me to return, my emotions overruled any sense of diplomacy and protocol. I left him with these parting words:
“George, you’re a fucking idiot.”
Then I walked out.
I faced yet another emotional five-hour drive back to Worcester. I discovered that during the two hours I met with Mr. Ball, the company had turned off my cell phone and denied me access to the web server and email. I found this last point most disturbing, because the web server itself was still in my name and on my credit card. Ball Publishing routinely reimbursed me for the monthly charge, but they did not have my master password (they never asked for it) as the account was still personal. The content on that server belonged to Ball, but to assume control, according to the service provider, XO Communications, someone had to provide either the master password or the credit card number. Since I regularly submitted credit card receipts for expenses, I deduced that the company made unauthorized use of my personal information. To this day, I haven’t found a lawyer that can decipher the legality of that maneuver.
With no cell phone, I made frequent stops at payphones to call all those concerned about this news, especially Teri. Roadside was dead and its “proud papa” had killed it. His question about my background simply gauged my ability to fight him in court. With the contract in force in Illinois, I did not have the personal resources to engage that battle.
The year that started off so hopeful and triumphant became a quagmire of wasted time and effort — not just for myself, but for Mr. Ball as well. Though I acknowledged the financial difficulties of Burpee, we could have worked together to resolve this problem and not cheat and disappoint the readers. With subscriptions still coming in, and the publicity still generating response, all indications pointed to a potential publishing phenomenon. Rather than firing Christine, we could have brought her back to Batavia and folded the enterprise back into Ball Publishing, especially with Martens and Derryberry out of the picture. I could have lived without the office in Worcester if it meant that Mr. Ball remained committed to giving Roadside the chance it deserved.
If Mr. Ball ever considered these options, he never discussed them with me. Of all the businesses he still headed at that time, Roadside was one of the few that actually showed some potential, but it had little relevance to the business of horticulture, which made it expendable.
The following month, in June, I had agreed to give a speech at Diner-Rama in Pittsburgh, on the condition to the board of directors that they commit themselves to cleaning up the organization before the end of the year. About the same time, I launched a new website, roadage.com, with the main intention of informing readers about what had happened to Roadside Magazine and how to reach me.
Soon after going online, I got wind of Mr. Ball’s intention to continue publishing Roadside with someone named Edward Montague as its editor. I soon learned that Montague had previously worked for Mr. Ball on a low-budget, low-quality gardening magazine. I next learned that Mr. Ball intended to send him to Diner-Rama to recruit contributors. This struck me, and others sympathetic to Roadside’s plight, as a spiteful exercise. To the best of my knowledge, this Mr. Montague knew nothing of roadside culture and would find himself at an event where he’d meet 50 people hostile to his goals. Mr. Ball also couldn’t possibly hope to make money with this exercise. With his other businesses in trouble, spending money simply to merely keep Roadside on life-support made for an irresponsible use of finances. I should know. I did it for nine years before he bought it.
Evidently, Mr. Ball and Mr. Montague reached this same conclusion, for when I arrived at the event, Mr. Montague was a no-show.
After that, no more was heard. Except for one brief announcement declaring the magazine had been “suspended,” Ball publishing closed the Roadside website. Mr. Ball apparently directed his attentions to the financial crisis at, Burpee. In the succeeding months, the Burpee Garden Stores closed down and the company further downsized, firing employees who had worked at Burpee long before Mr. Ball entered the picture. With that summer’s sale or transfer of Ball Publishing to his sister Anna Ball, Mr. Ball’s short and muddled career as a magazine publisher came to a close.
As for me, my story is an old one. Little guy starts business. Big guy buys business. Big guy fires little guy from business. Little guy starts over. My decade with Roadside amounts to a passage through publishing school, and I remain grateful to Mr. Ball for paying a big chunk of my tuition.
Roadside was not primarily a “travel magazine.” It was a lifestyle magazine – one that illustrated to an expanding market of concerned individuals that true prosperity depends upon the preservation and cultivation of community. I steadfastly maintained that Roadside was never about diners as much as it served as a testament to the hardy souls who brought those gems to life and made them thrive – infusing life into their neighborhoods and making people happy. I sought simply to do justice to their efforts and to hold these true heroes up as examples for the rest of us. All that apple pie and coffee was just a nice bonus.
And now, little guy starts over.
©2001 Randy Garbin