Muscle Mags, cont.
By Archie Bland

Two and a half years later, Muscular Development was All Natural no more. The general public appeared unwilling to be convinced of the appeal of bodybuilding, and in such an incestuous world, the consequences of freezing out most of the industry’s recognizable stars on account of their refusal to submit to drug testing were severe. To much less fanfare than the previous makeover, the magazine replaced the natural bodybuilders on the cover with mainstream athletes like Mike Piazza and Oscar De La Hoya when it removed the first half of its title. “As the baby boomers start to age,” Blechman firmly explained to the Dallas Morning News, “people are not as serious in competitive bodybuilding as they once were. We have thrown out the hype of the muscle book. We are geared to sports.”

Thus Muscular Development’s schizophrenic phase began. In 2000, the sports covers began to give way to bikini babes, a period that reached its nadir with February 2003’s BREAST ISSUE EVER, featuring a “Playboy Model Gone Bad” and probable-non-musclehead Sandra Westgate. (“We prefer to stay away from relying on sex to sell our product,” Blechman had said when Penthouse had threatened to break into the bodybuilding market in 1999.) In 2001, Blechman had bought the publishing business, Advanced Research Press, from his brothers at Twinlab for $1 million. Freed of its prior obligation to the supplement industry, the magazine began to head for the territory it occupies today. Its slogan, “BUILD MUSCLE—BURN FAT—BE FIT,” underwent a telling change: The new version read “BUILD MUSCLE—BURN FAT—NO BULLSHIT.” (The expletive last syllable was dropped on the cover, beginning with the October 2005 issue.)

Whatever the thinking behind the “No Bull” slogan was, the previously garrulous Blechman has never revealed it. Unlike the earlier rebranding exercises, this one came with minimal press attention, and since then, Muscular Development has focused its marketing endeavors strictly on the core readership via the editor’s monthly letters and postings on internet message boards.

One vital aspect of this energetic spin doctoring has been the publisher’s determined attempts at drawing Muscular Development’s statelier rival, Flex, into a war of words. Flex has generally ignored the bait, following the same principle that leads politicians with an advantage in the polls to refuse debates against small-fry opponents. In September of last year, though, Blechman and his cohorts finally succeeded in drawing a reaction from their determinedly dignified competitors with the front page headline “IS MD BUYING FLEX?”

Questions in headlines, of course, are nearly always accurately met with the answer “No”; the article inside did not buck this trend. Instead, senior editor John Romano (covered by that “ironclad” no-censorship agreement, a regretful Blechman later explained) wrote an amusingly pungent reconstruction of a lunch meeting that Blechman and his wife had with David Pecker, the chairman and CEO of Flex’s publisher, and an unnamed Pecker flunky. Romano was not there, but he waxed lyrical about Pecker’s moral defeat in the face of Blechman’s heroic (and, it must be said, wildly unrealistic) takeover attempt, reserving his greatest relish for an account of said flunky’s departure after his boss had rebuffed the Blechman offer and stormed out. “He sluggishly got all of himself up off his comfortable chair, like he was going to miss it as much as the half-eaten prime beef he was leaving behind, and left,” Romano crowed, “his gaze moving not ahead, but toward the study of his shoes. He studied them all the way to the door and out of sight.”

Flex had had enough, and shortly thereafter an article titled “Setting The Record Straight” appeared on the magazine’s website, although never in print. (To listen to Romano defend his article, click here.) It questioned the veracity of almost every element of Romano’s account. In it, Peter McGough quoted the flunky, identified as Kevin Hyson, the magazine’s chief marketing officer. “While I naturally enjoy a good meal,” Hyson sighed, “I don’t remember, as Romano alleges, eyeing the plates like I just got rescued from a desert island.”

“Such a clumsy unprofessional manner,” McGough concluded, “is not surprising for observers of the usual lowbrow train wreck that is MD. Editorially, they have gone in more diverse directions than Dolly Parton’s main assets in a raging wind tunnel.” Unfortunately for Muscular Development, Flex’s parent company also runs Olympia, the biggest bodybuilding competition of the year. “No press passes will be approved for any MD staff,” McGough wrote. “We hear on that very weekend that the Disney Channel is running a Mickey Mouse marathon, so if you’re really attentive you may pick up some tips on how to upgrade your operation to that level.”

Blechman and his cohorts bought tickets to the Olympia and covered it from the stands. “With Per [Bernal, photographer] and his zoom lens, it was no different than not being denied press credentials,” Blechman airily announced in the next issue. “We had to be more creative and work harder and just do it better than everyone else. So, we did.”

Whether Blechman was ever serious about buying Flex is a moot point. It’s true tha Flex and its sister publication, Muscle and Fitness, are available for sale. AMI lost $161,000 last year, and both publications’ circulations are shrinking. On the other hand, the losses that Flex sustained were buffered by a broad portfolio of publications that includes National Enquirer and Shape. Blechman, whose only other interests with Advanced Research Press are FitnessRx and FitnessRx For Men, seems unlikely to be in a position to expand his empire. According to Angelo Gandino, most bodybuilding magazines are thinking hard about downscaling their newsstand presence in favor of an expanded internet edition, and, in recent months, Muscular Development has significantly upgraded its online offerings, which may be a sign of things to come.

These are tough times in the hardcore musclehead market. But Blechman, as always, remains a Panglossian optimist, using his editor’s letters to enthuse about Muscular Development’s health. “2006 was MD’s best year,” the May 2007 missive runs. “And 2007 is already exceeding ’06.”

Perhaps that attitude is the ultimate manifestation of the bodybuilder’s underdog spirit; to Blechman, it’s just another example of Muscular Development calling it like it saw it. “We’re a no-bull magazine,” he once explained, “and not everyone’s going to like what we say. But all that means is that some people don’t like the truth. And there’s nothing I can do about the truth.”


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