Disclaimer: this is going to be a long story, so if you have short attention span, it’s not for you.
One of my dreams as a kid was working on a motorcycle magazine—which prompted me to leave Philadelphia for Los Angeles where it seemed my chances would be greater. The story of how I ended up in the Editor’s chair at HOT BIKE and STREET CHOPPER is a long story, but the part I will share is my interview with Steve Stillwell and Bill Porter (if you don’t recognize those names in relation to publishing, you are not as old school as you think). They sat me down in the conference room at McMullen Argus and handed me three copies of HOT BIKE, a legal pad and a pen. “Take about 30 minutes and write out what you would change in these magazines if you were the editor. We will be back” and they left. Summary of my notes: there were no bikes being ridden, even in the ROAD TESTS and the girls in bikinis had to go. They offered me the job on the spot.
This was May of 1996, and prior for those that don’t know, I had the privilege of learning from Frank Kaisler at HOT ROD HARLEYS serving as feature editor. Prior to that, I was the shop foreman at MOTORCYCLIST. I knew where I wanted this magazine to go. I wanted action, excitement, exhilaration—all the things motorcycles give you, especially when it is January in Philadelphia and you can’t ride, so you read and re-read your motorcycle magazines (firsthand experience pays). We put together a team that was all over the idea and we attacked the market. Now keep in mind the Harley world was EXPLODING at that time and custom everything was at a fevered pitch.
And the magazine grew. Another fun side note here: I was enthralled with seeing my pic doing wheelies, burnouts and any other cool thing on a bike in the magazine, and I wanted everyone to experience that when we shot their bike—so a new rule went into place. If your bike can’t be ridden, it can’t be in HOT BIKE (or STREET CHOPPER later on). So what did the REST of the Harley mag industry do? They started adding riding to their pages. Don’t believe me, grab your old copies of saved magazines going back to 1996 and take a look at 1997 and beyond. And the industry responded. Builders wanted pics of them doing burnouts in their bike features, excitement was taking over.
But, I am going to let you in on a secret about magazines, they are in print to make money. Whether it is by selling 40$ a year subscriptions or a ton of ads, the bottom line is they line someone’s pocket. Handsomely if done well. So we sold ads. And we did editorial that supported our advertisers. But here is the thing, and you can ask around the industry today and people will verify this, if you sent us a product that sucked, was garbage or didn’t do what you said it did, I wouldn’t put it in the magazine no matter how many ads you bought. We were not going to sell out. Fix it, reinvent it, change its intended purpose and we will look at it again. I pissed of a LOT of people that way, but I protected our readers. If I was going to support the people that supported the magazine, it damn well was going to be good stuff. So we supported our advertisers and promoted good products to our readers without writing negative stuff and slamming people. We took the first rule of business and built lasting relationships with our advertisers—and it worked.
So HOT BIKE kept growing and regularly seeing 240 plus pages each month. And the guys at IRON HORSE took offense. They slammed me for riding a Buell, wearing a full face helmet and promoting (their term) Easter Egg bikes—but such fat fendered, incredibly painted bikes were the core of the CUSTOM MARKET at the time, so we featured them. But we also featured choppers, Pro Street bikes and even baggers. But we were known for the coolest fat tire softails at that time. Fine, I was good with that, because we were seeing the coolest bikes in the industry. But the cats at IRON HORSE thought their market—garage built bikes with no new parts on them—was our market, but it wasn’t. So month after month they mocked me. And month after month I ignored them. We grew, they didn’t. Then one day they were gone. Funny thing about a magazine, it needs advertisers to survive and if you bash the people that would spend money with you, why would they. Now out of that old IRON HORSE crew, I remain friends with a few of the staff guys and we laugh about those old days, but the bottom line? They went away because they didn’t understand the business of a magazine. Do it right, make it interesting to the reader and respect, not serve, the hand that feeds you.
So, along comes another garage built magazine brought up from the ashes of IRON HORSE called THE HORSE. And guess what? They wrote about me all the time too. HOT BIKE was peaking around 300-352 pages a month towards the end of my time there, and EVERYONE knew it. Harley gave us exclusives, the manufacturers gave us first shot at their parts and generally we were the place to be for those interested in what the latest trend in the industry was –not garage built, no new part bikes. We had nothing against them and ran a few here and there when they caught our eyes, but we were focused on the business of providing a good magazine to the hundreds of thousands of reader we had.
I’m getting somewhere with all this now. Yesterday I was on the phone with a younger guy in the editorial world, explaining some things about us older mag guys and he told me that in the recent issue of THE HORSE, Hammer—Ralph Janus, the OWNER of the magazine, the guy who makes all the coin it generates—was ragging on me and praising Jeff Holt the current editor of HOT BIKE. He wrote the same stuff he has been writing about me for OVER 10 years, corporate, boring, blah blah blah. Now in the last 10 years since leaving HOT BIKE all I have done is write two books and maybe a dozen magazine articles. I should not be a factor in the magazine industry at this point, but he goes on and on, about me and the way I did HOT BIKE and how Jeff Holt (I have never actually met Jeff, and I am sure he is an OK guy, we chat on FACEBOOK once in a while and even talked about me doing an editorial in HOT BIKE, but I never heard back from him) is doing things that are so much cooler than I did. Well, guess what? Jeff is doing the SAME thing I did, but with a different trend in the market. MY time was the explosion of radical customs, Jeff’s time has the explosion of BORN FREE type bikes and FXRs. A different mindset, a different style of bikes to please the readers. Old Ralph, on the other hand, is still beating 10 year old story lines and attempting to generate sensationalism from readers he has had from the beginning. Great you have loyal readers that know my name, but shouldn’t your circulation have grown enough that your readers DON’T know who I am or what HOT BIKE was like OVER 10 years ago?
Remember Ralph, if you are using me to generate buzz in your magazine—that you own and make money off of, shouldn’t you be cutting me a commission check on the side? Shouldn’t your efforts be in producing a better magazine that grows a little? Better editorial, better photos, a greater reason to see people invest in your title? If you really want to sensationalize with my name, offer me a column in your magazine (paid of course) and I will spice things up for you. Otherwise, a line from one of my favorite movies says ….”10 years man, 10 years, 10 years, 10 years man 10 years 10 years”