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In iffy times, a bold magazine launch

Special to The Times

If “start-up” has an architecture, this office space is surely it. A converted loft space, it’s broken up by curving walls of unfinished wood planks, brushed steel doors and translucent plastic room dividers. Corridors are hardwood avenues wide enough for scooter traffic; a coffee bar beckons hipsters near the elevator. It’s the environment invented to house the high-tech boom of the ‘90s.

The dot-com that built this house buried itself long ago. And the new start-up in town, renting a tiny fraction of this cavernous space but garnering an infinitely larger amount of buzz, is the last thing anyone thinks will make it in these recessionary times. Enter Radar, a new magazine by editor-to-watch Maer Roshon.

Radar hits newsstands next week with a terror-alert orange cover layered with promises of “pop, politics, scandal and style” alongside a grimacing image of the ubiquitous Jennifer Lopez and a $3.50 price tag. “Fresh intelligence” is the magazine’s selected slogan, one that would’ve been printed on the spine if Radar were being bound in high-budget ‘90s fashion instead of folded and stapled. The cover pitches stories about human shields in Baghdad, Vermonter Howard Dean’s presidential bid and “65 maniacal moguls.”

Radar aspires to be a magazine for tabloid-sneakers who also cherish ideas, news junkies who hanker for gossip and humor, and style mavens who desire what he calls an “anti-glossy” antidote to the velvet ropes that cordon off the exclusive world of fashion and society mags. And given that Roshon was briefly at the high-profile helm of late-'90s Talk magazine, his newest venture has been highly anticipated and is being closely -- and skeptically -- watched in an industry that has printed more words of hype about Radar than exist in its first issue.

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“I’m not sure just what that void is that Radar is trying to fill,” says Folio: editor in chief Cable Neuhaus, who watches the magazine industry, “but you can create a magazine that creates its own market.”

That market would include people who simultaneously crave straight-ahead cover features, along with such details as the “Social Climber Crib Sheet’s” skinny that the Hilton sisters’ benefit at Le Meridien was last month’s worst party, the dope that Tom DeLay’s pastor is named Rambo, and that a “wildly unscientific poll” found that Americans believe Jacques Chirac smells worse than antiwar activists.

Roshon says the magazine will become a bit “newsier” -- at this point, the news is more Jon Stewart than Peter Jennings -- when it goes biweekly at summer’s end. If it lives that long. “I’m impressed that in this environment anyone can get any kind of magazine out the door,” Neuhaus says. “But I wouldn’t be shocked if this magazine didn’t make it through the year.”

“I’m just one of many people who say it can’t be done,” echoes New York magazine media columnist-guru Michael Wolff. “I mean, I’ve advised Maer not to do this an enormous number of times. Starting a magazine at any time is a highly unlikely venture, and especially at this moment in time.”

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He welcomes the challenge

“I can’t wait to prove Michael wrong,” native Angeleno Roshon says with a grin. In the low light of a shared conference room, Roshon is like a close-cropped and graying Cheshire cat, his enthusiasm electric. It’s easy to see why Tina Brown plucked this man from his New York magazine deputy editorship to rescue her sinking ship at Talk, when the publication, bleeding $50 million, cut costs and moved its offices from the Carnegie Hall building President Clinton couldn’t afford to a barren space farther downtown.

Roshon may have committed to the idea of Radar as he was watching his Talk colleagues box up their desks the day the magazine folded last year, but the idea itself was a long time coming. After all, Roshon is a guy who doodled magazine names in the margins of his high school notebook when other kids were sketching AC/DC logos and initialed hearts.

Consider Radar an amalgamation of Vanity Fair without the polo match, Rolling Stone without the rock show, Maxim without the breasts and testosterone. “This is for a generation that’s as interested in politics as they are in J. Lo and Ben -- that combination’s the cultural cocktail we’re immersed in and what this magazine is all about,” spins Roshon.

A good part of the magazine is straight-up insider gossip (most clearly its cover story, a no-narrative roundup of the very bad behavior of A-list divas and honchos, with a velvet-glove inclusion of its own editor) and other snarky snippets, paired with some odd feature choices. (Would you commit pages to a look at Noelle Bush’s drug problems or a nostalgia piece about a long-defunct New York nightclub in your launch issue?)

But alongside the fun fluff there are certain pieces, big and small, that may have never found a home elsewhere. Primarily, there’s the sort of celebrity-skewering that most star-pandering magazines, including Talk, would never dare to run. But there are smaller graces as well, like a cleverly subversive map tracing what U.S. cultural products are banned internationally (think a “why they hate us” feature paired with Harper’s Index), and a wistful examination of Kinko’s culture by the New Yorker darling Meghan Daum.

The Kinko’s story is no accidental topic, and certainly one Roshon would not have seen from his perch atop the ‘90s. After quickly agreeing on the magazine’s concept with some friends and former colleagues, Roshon was equipped with an idea he believed in but had no way yet to support it. He drew up a business plan and found himself at Kinko’s at 4 in the morning on Memorial Day, copying the fruits of his labor while a homeless man watched and a young woman snorted lines of cocaine off a nearby computer terminal desk. “Let’s just say it was one of those many moments when I thought, ‘God I hope this is the right thing to be doing.’ ”

Roshon drew strength from business partner and chief operating officer Paul Fish, the Brit who found stunning success when he started up Maxim in the States six years ago. Fish had burned out on the industry since Maxim’s stellar launch, and was lying on the beach in Santa Monica when Roshon tracked him down. The exec hopped a plane back to New York, and he and Roshon pooled their personal savings to open a bank account. Many Kinko’s runs later, investor Michael Fuchs, former HBO chairman, came through with a significant chunk of change.

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“Even still,” says dark-suited Fish, “I would call up Maer and say, ‘This is insane -- which one of us has another hundred bucks to put into the bank account today so we can fund this week before the next investor’s check clears?’ ”

Fish and Roshon continued pounding the pavement, landing start-up capital to the tune of $1.7 million but speaking mainly to people who thought they were nuts to launch a magazine in this market. “I knew all the reasons not to do this too,” says Roshon. “Yes, there’s a recession. But in the end, I think that makes it easier to start a magazine. The staff costs less. In fact, many costs are lower.”

An impressive roster

Even though Roshon announced that he wouldn’t pay writers more than $1 a word to write -- half what most competing magazines pay -- he quickly lined up a roster of contributing editors such as Mim Udotvitch, Bret Easton Ellis, Candace Bushnell and his former boss (and college term-paper subject) Tina Brown. And Radar was able to cheaply hire a full staff away from magazines like Glamour and Us -- in part because of Roshon’s reputation and his personal relationships with the bright young things now populating his masthead.

Senior editor Christopher Tennant was at Talk when Roshon was able to boost its circulation before the magazine folded. He says Roshon knows what readers want -- “You know, people who are too smart for Us but don’t identify with the world expressed in Vanity Fair or Vogue.” He says the experience of this start-up has felt “more than a little bit like being in college again.” “It’s good none of us ever got too used to car services and expense accounts,” chuckles Roshon.

Point of contrast: Remember the hoopla over Talk magazine’s fortune-spilling launch party that drew Madonna to party down with Hillary Clinton? Consider it a symbol of a bygone age. Radar spent $100 on drinks for editors when the debut issue went to print a couple of weeks ago, and the bar kicked in for the rest of the bill. Fish’s wife baked a cake and frosted it with the Radar logo. And that was it.

“It’s important to show that this magazine is a different business model. It needs to prove itself as an entity and a concept, not just that we can throw a really good party,” Roshon says.

That model -- of independence, not corporate excess -- is just what makes Wolff wonder if someday he’ll be eating his pessimistic words about the magazine’s potential for success. The magazines that truly shape our culture, he says, are independent ones -- like Wired or the Source -- not the In Style and Oprah corporate creations that exist under a well-funded umbrella. “The only way an independent magazine succeeds is because it makes the right mistakes,” Wolff says.

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“Take Maer. He knows, practically speaking, nothing about starting a magazine. He’s not a business guy. But not knowing anything means that you can go forward on an enormous amount of energy and bravado and enthusiasm,” he says. “And if you’re lucky, you’ll hit it and affect the culture.”


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