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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2005

Small, hip magazines target ethnic and cultural audiences

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Eric Nakamura didn t start Giant Robot, a magazine about Asian pop culture, to change anyone s world. It just kind of worked out that way.

From when we started to now, he said, I ve gotten handwritten letters: Giant Robot changed my life. I always thought that being Asian was not cool, not special, but after reading your magazine I realize that it is really interesting, really cool.

The Los Angeles-based magazine remains small, with a circulation of only about 50,000, but it is one of a handful of hip, edgy publications targeting a particular ethnicity, culture, or religion that has made its way to Toledo to provide a whole new take on cool.

They come with titles like Giant Robot, Heeb which bills itself as the New Jew Review and the Scandinavian-oriented Nordic Reach, whose most recent issue balances an interview with the Swedish founder of IKEA with a breezy essay on The New Nordic Man.

In some ways, they re just another example of media fragmentation, the idea that there could be a magazine for every type of person.

We re really down in the micro-niches with some of these magazines, said Abe Peck, chairman of the magazine program at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. You could do left-handed midgets left-handed, vegetarian midgets probably.

But it s more than just that.

Heeb, which takes its name from an ethnic slur for Hebrew, may have started out in 2002 as a voice for Jews in their 20s and 30s, but some Jewish organizations (including one funded in part by a foundation established by Steven Spielberg) have supported it financially because they see it as hope for young Jews who might be drifting away.

We talk about cultural and social things that aren t necessarily Jewish, but we try and look at them from a Jewish angle, said Jessie Bodzin, managing editor. We ve been contacted by [Jewish organizations] who would like to use Heeb to get in touch with this group of people that they ve been having trouble reaching.

The 20,000-circulation magazine has received some general acclaim it was named by the Chicago Tribune this summer as one of the 50 best magazines but its attempts at irreverence and its decision to name itself after a slur have brought controversy as well.

The current issue offers a glimpse of the Beastie Boys playing the game dreidel. Inside, there s an interview with the group referencing the Jewish signposts in their new album, sprinkled among ads for matzo and a feature on "Jugayica," products catering to gay Jews.

"I think it's fine," said Rabbi Barry Leff, of Toledo's Congregation B'nai Israel. "They're trying to reach out to sort of the 20-something young Jews and show that being Jewish can be cool ... In that sense, I think it's positive."

Chad Silver, a Sylvania Northview graduate now attending Ohio University, picked up a copy during a visit to a Los Angeles Barnes & Noble.

"Just looking at the magazine rack, it stood out and caught my eye," he said. He was most interested in the Beastie Boys, but enjoyed the humor and the fact that every article had something to do with the religion or culture.

At Giant Robot, the creators take pride in spotting cool Asian trends. They were writing about Hong Kong films long before the likes of Jackie Chan or Jet Li or even Harold and Kumar were popular in the U.S.

The current issue is varied, ranging from an interview with Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, to the advice column "Ask Eman," from American sumo wrestler Emanuel Yarbrough.

The goal, said Mr. Nakamura, 35, isn't to try to make Asian culture cool. It's just stuff the writers like.

"What we do is just write about things that we like. I'm Asian, so a lot of it does revolve around Asian culture," said the co-editor and publisher. "We're not making things up for people to swallow; this is real."

And that's perhaps the key to the success of most magazines like these.

"They get started not to be consumer magazines, not to sell people products, but the creators just have things they want to say," said Chris Dodge, librarian and columnist for Utne magazine, which gives awards for theindependent press.

Northwestern's Peck added, "You have to be who you are and people must adjust. They have to be authentic. You can't fake the funk."

That's what drew Audrey Wideman, of Marion, Ohio, to Giant Robot. A former Chinese major at Ohio State University - but not Asian American, like almost half of the magazine's readership these days - she's followed it for years for its authenticity.

"It's really good because people get tired of the preachy stuff," she said.

Many of the people targeted by these magazines live in places like L.A. and New York. But they don't have to. These magazines have made their way to communities like Toledo through independent booksellers, comic book stores, and some chains.

Just ask Daryl Yourist, proprietor of Leo's Book Store in downtown Toledo, which carries Giant Robot, Heeb, and Nordic Reach.

"People ask for them specifically," he said, "and we bring it in for them."

Contact Ryan E. Smith at: ryansmith@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.



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