Gay Talese’s Basement
Radar’s new website launched in early May 2005, and the first issue hit the stands on May 24. On the cover, beneath the big red Radar logo, was a doctored picture of George W. Bush clasping a medal around Paris Hilton’s neck. Inside was the typical Radar mash-up, including an article on anti-gay politicians with gay children and a piece on behind-the-scenes sex, drugs and booze among Disney’s character impersonators—the people who don Mickey Mouse or Pluto costumes and roam the park. “Several told me that marijuana, cocaine, and other psychopharmaceuticals are common at character gatherings,” Tyler Gray wrote, “and that sneaking out to smoke pot between sets is de rigueur among a few.” Some design kinks were left to be worked out, but for the most part, Radar was what it set out to be: funny, serious and interesting. It was a good read, and it sold 71,000 copies on newsstands, about half of its initial rate base of 150,000.
“I think everybody was really excited about the editorial promise of the magazine,” said Remy Stern, who worked closely with Roshan on the business side. “Everybody was pumped up early on.”
Radar’s editorial team functioned harmoniously, but weaknesses on the business side and in the art department dogged the magazine from the beginning. The art director, Lisa Steinmeyer, hired by Roshan in January, wasn’t working fast enough to prepare for the launch in May, and there were complaints that Linda Sepp, the publisher, wasn’t selling enough ads. Steinmeyer eventually left and was replaced briefly by Richard Christiansen and then permanently by Mark Michaelson and Nicholas Rhodes, who did an excellent job, according to several former staffers.
Sepp, meanwhile, was a friend of Zuckerman’s who had been publisher of Fast Company when Zuckerman owned the magazine, which netted him more than $350 million when he sold it in 2000. Nevertheless, she was forced out by U.S. News and Daily News higher-ups in April, after a long-running argument with the magazine’s advertising director over low ad sales.
The advertising director “had a terrible relationship with the people in the ad department and with Linda Sepp, who I’ve worked with for 15 years,” Zuckerman said. “She was a person who was not delivering.”
Bill Holiber, the president of U.S. News, briefly took Sepp’s place before Grayle Howlett, formerly associate publisher of Sports Illustrated, came on board in May.
The magazine also suffered from a difference in philosophy between Radar’s editorial staff and the U.S. News people in charge of business and marketing. Zuckerman had saved a lot of money by shoveling Radar’s work on his own staff, but it soon became clear to many Radar staffers that the people at U.S. News didn’t understand the magazine. They came up with a media kit—later scrapped—illustrated with antique line drawings, an aesthetic that didn’t fit with Radar’s splashy, modern feel. Advertisers weren’t buying it, and Roshan soon found himself doing double duty, editing the magazine and also going out on ad calls to explain what the magazine was.
“My agreement with Mort and Jeffrey specified that I was strictly an editorial employee, with no authority over Radar’s business side” Roshan said. “But after Linda left, the magazine was basically left to run on autopilot. They provided little day-to-day management or financial oversight. By the end I was spending over 60 percent of my time on advertising and marketing and everything else.”
Three issues of Radar hit the stands in 2005—in May, August and October—and despite the internal problems, it appeared to be doing well. By the second issue, newsstand sales continued to be healthy and even Gawker, the Manhattan media-gossip blog that had savaged the magazine while giving it a ton of buzz, was starting to dig it. “We finagled a copy late last week,” says an Aug. 15 post, “and we have something astonishing to tell you: We kind of like it.”
As October approached, however, there were signs behind the scenes that the magazine was in trouble. Bill Holiber, appointed by Zuckerman to oversee the magazine, told staffers to stop sending him e-mail about Radar. In November, Roshan said he got a call from Zuckerman saying that Epstein was pulling his investment and Roshan would have to raise more money to keep the magazine afloat. Zuckerman didn’t give a deadline, but Roshan figured he’d need at least a few months to secure new backing. At this point, he was working almost nonstop to save the magazine, sleeping a few hours a night if at all. He deftly concealed all the turmoil. Only Remy Stern and Julie Bloom, Roshan’s editorial assistant, knew what was going on.
In those desparate months, Roshan offered to cut the budget by $1 million to appease Zuckerman, a deal the owner accepted. Later, they agreed to cut an additional $2 million, to go into effect the following January. Those cuts came too late, though, according to Zuckerman.
“We said costs were too high for revenues,” he said. “If he had made cuts earlier, he may have been able to save it for a couple more issues.”
Although Zuckerman appeared to be impressed with ad projections in two meetings with Roshan and the advertising staff in November, he began to get antsy as December drew closer, telling Roshan he had three months to find new money. By the beginning of December, the deadline was reduced to a matter of weeks, and then, after another meeting at the end of the first week of the month, Zuckerman said he was closing the magazine.
“He was worried about ads being soft, so [the advertising staff] went to his office to show him how much things had improved. They showed him the new ads we had signed up and the revenue we were bringing in, and he seemed thrilled,” Roshan said. “That night Bill Holiber called to say that Mort was so impressed that maybe we could prevent Radar from closing. But then at 8 a.m. the next morning their security people were on their way to shut the magazine down. I called Mort and traded in my salary to buy us an extra week.”
On Dec. 14, however, Radar closed for good. “I was devastated,” Roshan said.
Most of the staff didn’t know the magazine was shutting down until its last day. That afternoon, Roshan called everybody into his office and broke the news. Two days later, Zuckerman came to the office—it was the first time he had visited, as good an indication as any of the extent of his attachment to the magazine—to answer questions and justify his decision. A lack of ad traction, he told the staff from the head of the conference room table, was the reason he could no longer support Radar—it had brought in an average of $143,000 per issue, far short of $500,000 per-issue projections. He also said he had told Roshan of the magazine’s uncertain future months before. “English is the language I know best,” Zuckerman said. “I made it clear to Maer that costs were at the upper end of projections and that circulation and ad revenues were going down.” It’s an account Roshan vehemently disputes. “The idea that I would wait for four months after being told the magazine was going to go under without raising hell, which I did when I was informed, is ludicrous,” he says.
Circulation, too, was “a big problem” for Zuckerman. He put sellthrough—the percentage of magazines that sell on newsstands—at 25 percent and declining, well short of the 36-percent target. This directly contradicts Roshan’s assertions—and the healthy circulation numbers cited by Radar in press releases and given to advertisers.
As soon as the magazine closed, theories on the real reasons Zuckerman and Epstein pulled out began to circulate. According to one, they wanted to close it before the end of the year so they could claim it as a tax loss. Some of Zuckerman’s powerful friends, including Mike Ovitz, David Pecker and Ron Burkle, complained about articles in the magazine, another theory went, and Zuckerman soon grew tired of having to placate them. Radar’s website had picked up the story that Pecker, whose company publishes the National Enquirer and Star, made a deal with California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to “lay off” him in the tabloids in exchange for adding the ex-bodybuilder’s name to the mastheads of such Pecker-owned magazines as Flex and Muscle & Fitness. Burkle, meanwhile, reportedly threatened to sue over a story in the magazine about his friendship with Michael Jackson. “They definitely received many complaints,” Roshan said. “But whether they were too many for them to deal with, I don’t know.”
“We got maybe three complaints,” Zuckerman counters. “We get three complaints a week at the Daily News. I have no problem saying I leave decisions to the editors.”
Zuckerman admits, though, that he once interceded with Radar, blocking the publication of an item he objected to. “I do want fair and accurate reporting,” he said, “and there was one case where I was able to come to the conclusion through reporting that we did not have all the facts in the case. In that particular case, it wasn’t published.”
But what was even stranger to Roshan was that while he had found investors interested in taking over the magazine, he said Zuckerman wouldn’t return their calls and seemed intent on shutting it down. “It was very strange. They could have made some calls,” he said. “But even when we did find interested investors, they weren’t called back. It didn’t seem like a good-faith attempt.”
While it is possible that Zuckerman grew tired of assaults on his friends and wanted to be done with Radar, it’s also possible that Zuckerman did make a purely economic decision. “I do not think it was anything where if only Zuckerman had committed another $5 or $10 million it would have been successful,” Sam Schulman, a media investment advisor with DeSilva & Phillips, said. “I think that Zuckerman decided that there was no amount of money that could protect the investment.” Zuckerman says that’s an accurate portrayal of his position. “We got to the point where we looked at the situation and found that if we put in another $10 million, it wouldn’t make any sense,” he said. “Sure, advertising would have gone up slightly, but we would still lose $6 or $7 million a year, which is not a good way to go forward.”
Most likely, though, the whole range of problems factored into the decision: missed ad-revenue targets, complaints from powerful readers, problems in the business and art departments, taxes and uneasiness with Roshan’s editorial independence, something he had fought for in his contract. Zuckerman and Epstein probably didn’t foresee that Radar might take digs at their friends, and they balked when it did. Zuckerman dropped a hint to that effect when I asked him why he thought the magazine wasn’t selling: the magazine’s biggest problem was the small gossipy items, he said.
“There was an attempt to provide humor or wit, but too much of it came across as sarcastic or mean-spirited. This was a problem with the magazine. The larger pieces were very good, but the smaller items in the front weren’t [working].”
The purely financial theory doesn’t make as much sense. With the business side in constant turmoil, the fact that ads didn’t come quickly to Radar shouldn’t have been surprising to a man as astute as Zuckerman. But even if the precise reasons behind Radar’s shuttering are never known, its demise speaks to a wider trend in the magazine industry—the near-insurmountable challenges independent startups face. In this age of conglomerates and big bucks, it’s hard to go it alone, especially with a general-interest magazine, and especially when it’s not perfectly managed.
“The reality is that the days of independent publishing—being a Jann Wenner or a Hugh Hefner—are gone,” said Aaron Sigmond, who was Radar’s first publisher in 2003. “Basically, being a competitive independent in this marketplace is impossible, which is why the failure rate is something like 90 percent.”
Since Radar folded, Roshan has been taking it easy, writing and working on various projects. “I’m enjoying the brief hiatus,” he said recently. “When I raise the possibility of bringing back Radar my friends suggest I take a vacation instead.” And indeed, he went to Morocco to cool off after the magazine closed.
But Roshan is back in New York, and word was that he was in talks with, of all people, Ron Burkle, to resurrect Radar, phoenix-like, for a third run. Yes, that’s Zuckerman’s buddy Ron Burkle, the supermarket magnate who reportedly threatened to sue the magazine. And that was even before Burkle threatened to sue Page Six in an extortion scandal this April, which led to his soapboxing on the ills of gossip journalism. All of this would seem to cast doubt on any relaunch. Yet a source close to the negotiations says the deal’s still on, and that Burkle is just one of five investors (Yusef Jackson is reportedly another). But even if it comes off as planned, considering the magazine’s dismal history and the rough road independent startups face in today’s magazine marketplace, one has to wonder whether Roshan’s resolve and Burkle’s bucks will be enough. Roshan may have just as much genius and energy as Hef or Wenner, but he hasn’t proved it yet, and the fact that it’s 2006, and not 1956 or 1966, might be the one hurdle that even energy and genius can’t overcome.
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