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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2006

Creating a Clamor: The struggle to keep a Blue magazine humming in a Red state

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jen Angel, left, and Jason Kucsma edit Clamor from a downtown Toledo office. Jen Angel, left, and Jason Kucsma edit Clamor from a downtown Toledo office.
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The Fed Ex guy stopped. He put down his deliveries. He wanted to say something. He pulled out his clipboard and asked the recipient to sign. He looked around the office, at nearly every square inch covered in messages of protest and resistance, at the stark stencil art and posters listing 20 places the United States has bombed since World War II. He had wanted to say something, and so he said it.

"You don't support the war?"

Jason Kucsma looked up.

"Uh, no. Not really, no."

"Bet you don't like Bush."

Safe bet.

Then again, George W. Bush is the least of Kucsma's concerns. The man is running a deeply political activist magazine that sees politicians as dead ends, useless to anyone who wants to get anything of value accomplished. Yet Kucsma's far from cynical. Say the President's name to him, or start a sentence with "This Administration," or perhaps, simply say the letter W.

Kucsma gives you a long look.

He cringes.

He's cringing right now.

Clamor magazine, in its sixth year and published out of the old Hotel Secor Building on Jefferson Avenue, bills itself as "a DIY Guide to Everyday Revolution." After five years of publishing bi-monthly, then monthly, Kucsma unveils the slicker, redesigned Clamor at a relaunch party at Mickey Finn's Pub on Saturday. It is now a quarterly.

But you'd still be hard pressed to find Bush's name in the publication, let alone an article about the man. Once, before the election in 2004, Kucsma did an all-Bush issue. He sweated it. He hated doing it. He wondered if it was pandering or simply relevant. It's still Clamor's best-selling issue.

Which begs the question:

He's kidding, right?

In this age of Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, can a magazine survive on a purely activist agenda, earnestly pointing to injustice and offering solutions as opposed to snark and editorializing and pictures of celebrities? Can a magazine exist as a combination political do-it-yourself guide and self-help manual? Can there be a Martha Stewart Living for people who'd rather protest genetically altered crops in Zambia than make a wreath out of fresh cranberries?

Sure, of course, why not?

But no one said it'd be easy.

Kucsma insists on publishing a left-of-center periodical from not only a Red state, but Toledo. ("A bigger city would be more conducive but then we couldn't afford to do it at all.") He refuses to take cheap shots at Bush. He recently moved the magazine from its Adams Street office to a building where freight elevators creak and moan their way to the sixth floor. Also, Kucsma and Clamor co-founder Jen Angel have been married and divorced (to and from each other) in the five years they've run the magazine. Their covers aren't sexy (one headline: "We're All Going to Die"), and their writers rarely professional.

Their struggle to keep Clamor is endless. But they refuse to put a famous face on their cover. ("If we put Katie Holmes on the cover, our subscribers would shoot us.") They have trouble attracting advertisers because they refuse to confine themselves to an easy demographic. And bookstores often don't know whether to put Clamor in the political magazine section of the newsstand or the underground-punk-culture bin.

Getting a loan is tough.

Recognition is fleeting.

Changing the world is painful.

So Clamor is tiny. It has about 1,100 paid subscribers and costs $5.50 an edition. Kucsma sends another 4,000 to 6,000 copies to newsstands across the country. From 30 to 70 percent get sold. Even compared with the latest breed of activist magazines (most of which began during the Clinton Administration), Clamor is modest: Adbusters, an anti-consumerism publication from Canada, claims 120,000 readers. But that's a flashy, graphic-design heavy magazine. Stay Free, a consumer culture magazine out of Brooklyn with less visual bling, has around 6,000 readers.

If anything, Clamor shares a temperament with stalwart partisan mainstays like the 30-year old, Chicago-based In These Times (circulation: 21,000), with its stodgy covers and academic writing style. You often find them on newsstands squeezed into corners behind the grandparents of lefty political publications, Mother Jones (circulation: 260,000), American Prospector (circ: 60,000) and The Nation - which went from 94,000 readers at the time of Bush's first election to about 165,000 by the second.

"What's bad for the country is always good for The Nation," said Victor Navasky, publisher of magazine and director of the magazine program at Columbia University in New York City.

Clamor is nationally distributed, at neighborhood bookstores and the usual every-city behemoths; Utne Reader, the Reader's Digest of the alternative press, has been a big supporter, routinely nominating the magazine for its Independent Press Awards. But what it hasn't done yet is capitalize on George Bush. There was that best-selling cover; in fall 2004, Michael Moore's people contacted Kucsma for help in bringing the Fahrenheit 9/11 director to the Seagate Centre, and a month earlier Kucsma published a special issue to be distributed only outside the Republican National Convention.

Kucsma and Angel founded Clamor in Bowling Green in 1999, two years before the Bush White House. They published the first issues in 2000 and moved it to Toledo in 2002, and though the magazine's life has roughly paralleled the rise (and rise) of the Bush Administration, Kucsma and Angel wanted a pro-active publication from day one.

Easy gripes are discouraged.

Rather, think articles on gentrification in Boston; shopping-cart races; environmental justice; radical theater; Chicago street poets; the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty; NAFTA; HIV; SARS; hip hop; free jazz; sexual assault; Mexico, Haiti; upholstery; and, yes, cockfighting.

If there's a theme to a magazine this eclectic, said Linda Jue, associate director of the San Francisco-based Independent Press Association, "it's they're on a mission, they're very political and social-justice oriented - that's the majority of our members." The IPA represents more than 500 small to smallish publication (including Clamor).

And membership is up.

What the new generation of political magazines share is this: They want to be glossy, not a self-published 'zine slapped together at Kinko's (In These Times and counter-culture tracts of the '60s are inspiration, but only spiritually); they want to be distributed on mainstream newsstands. The publisher is often the editor (and the entire art department, as well as the entire writing staff).

Advertising revenue is low.

The politics are progressive.

And the only formula is that there is no formula, and the publishers wouldn't know where to look to find the formula (or the money to develop one) anyway.

Big media conglomerates that fund start-ups and keep smaller publications going until they are profitable - "those kind of guys are not looking for things like Clamor or Punk Planet," said Daniel Sinker, publisher of the underground-culture magazine Punk Planet. "They want really vapid magazines. I've been doing this for 12 years and I can't imagine anyone wanting to buy it from me, even with media companies obsessed with what's hip. But that's because you get into this not to get rich but to get your voice heard, and your voice doesn't sound like their voice."

If this new generation of politically minded magazines has a common problem, Jue said - and it's kind of hard to pick just one - it's a problem of form leading function. Because these publishers tend to be "vision driven, they can't survive the fine line between being creative and original and being marketable. They find they can design a magazine on their laptop but they know nothing about publishing, or they produce a beautiful magazine and learn they don't understand distribution."

Oh, and another thing: these magazines have, if nothing else, the courage of their convictions.

"I'm not in the business of rehabilitation," Angel said on a recent afternoon. "And in Bush's case, I'm not sure rehabilitation is worth the time it would take. I have used 'radical' and 'progressive' to describe us, but I think radical alienates people and progressive is more liberal, and liberals believe in reform. We don't spend much time on that."

She sips her coffee.

"The thing is, no matter who is in office, I'd be opposed to them. That's kind of the way I'm built."

Squeaking through

At Christmas, Angel (whose legal name is Engel; Angel is a high-school nickname that stuck) returned to her family's home on the east side of Cleveland. After dinner, they played a game: What's your most embarrassing story? What's your favorite family memory? When it was Angel's turn, she asked her mother: What was her proudest moment of her? Her mother considered it. She came up with a distant high-school memory.

Angel thought to herself: I've been doing a magazine for six years! And been writing longer!

Kucsma tells a similar story.

Although his family gave him a check in 1999 to help fund the first issue of Clamor, his father, he said, sounds more excited he's working part time in the development office at the Toledo Museum of Art. Kucsma shrugs.

Angel is 31 and short, with a friendly face and a direct, blunt nature. Kucsma, 32, is more retiring, with a flop of hair and big blue button earrings and a weariness about him. They knew each other through the regional 'zine scene, and started hanging out after attending a media conference in Kansas City; she studied journalism and political science at Ohio State University, he majored in American Culture Studies at BGSU. Clamor was born, they say, from a desire to hone the empowerment that a lot of activists were feeling after the 1999 protests of the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

"If Clamor appeals to a demographic, it's the one that came of age during the time of the Clinton Administration but didn't view Democrats as representative of their views," said Keith McCrea, the magazine's review editor (who, in his day job, is the legislative director for the Toledo City Council). "They don't think in terms of partisan politics but what they can do in their own communities, as opposed to going to Harvard Law and then running for Congress. They don't sit around waiting for answers."

Basically, that was the pitch.

Some start-up money came from friends and family; about $8,000 worth of $50 and $70 donations. The rest came from a $20,000 Small Business Association-backed loan Angel regrets: "We raised $30,000 and put some on credit cards, but we should have raised more. We should have asked for $100,000. We had no idea how much money it would involve. It would have been easier to get [more] back then, than ask for more now."

Try this: Go into a bank in Toledo and ask for a $100,000 loan to fund a magazine dedicated to radical politics and activism. Banks are not generally bastions of lefty sympathizers. Kucsma is still shocked they squeaked out $20,000. "The problem with getting more, they tell us," he said, "is we don't have collateral. We don't have a $3 million printing press. [Clamor is published through a distributor in San Francisco.] We have the cultural capital, this magazine that progressive artists support and donate money to, but it doesn't translate to security on a loan."

So Kucsma works part-time at the museum; Angel, who was recently laid off by Planned Parenthood, is unemployed. She takes no salary from the magazine. Kucsma, who runs more of the day-to-day office work of the magazine, takes a minor salary.

Less than $400 a month.

Everyone else is a volunteer.

Writers get 4 cents a word.

Which, in the past, hasn't always translated to great writing.

"When Clamor was just Jen and Jason with none of the editorial help they have now, it showed," said Chris Dodge, an editor at Utne Reader. "Yes, they had fresh voices who hadn't written before, but how much editing did it take to articulate a point? They've come along in many ways. They found editors."

But that's the nature of independent media, said Catherine Komp, the magazine's media editor (who works from her home in Virginia). "You don't have a lot of money in your savings account. But you know there is a need, it resonates, and you're not always looking toward the bottom line."

Clamor's revenue is now derived partly from subscribers and partly through advertisers, a few donations, and an online consignment shop Kucsma organized with authors and artists all around the country; he takes roughly 40 to 50 percent from every book, poster, or CD sold.

Things are always hard.

Their readership, today, is primarily 18 to 35 years old, more female than male, and more white than anything else. For some reason, they say, they have a huge following in Lawrence, Kansas. "Our contributors," Kucsma says, "are ethnically diverse - they're basically what we'd like our readership to look like."

Angel and Kucsma's divorce, which came last summer, was tough at first: "If you didn't want to see that person that day, you didn't really have a choice," Angel said. And last fall Clamor came as close as ever to folding; no money was coming in. So they cut back to publishing quarterly, and Kucsma finally decided he could admit that editing a magazine is a nightmare.

"I've thrown pride out the window. We struggle on a daily basis. We do. And it's not because we're not careful and efficient or pay bills on time. We are and we do. It's because we're trying to do something not easily marketed that should exist, but you know, it's just really hard for it to exist."

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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