Under the Radar

The media-shy Yusef Jackson, third son of the famous reverend, takes a curious venture into publishing by pumping money into Radar, the on-again, off-again celebrity-driven magazine

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Yusef Jackson acknowledges that his interest in Radar may seem anomalous, but he says he likes the media business-it’s talking to reporters that bothers him, going back to his days as a freshman linebacker at the University of Virginia. “Given my family’s background-and we are a very public family and very public people-there has been a general interest in my story, and sometimes those stories have a tendency to drown out the products you’re offering,” Jackson says. “Often the stories are wrong and misleading, and I’ve even chosen not to correct them. I think the actual facts and the honesty and integrity of my intentions will over time outlast any particular story.”

A lawyer with a degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, Jackson in person is thoughtful, confident, and soft-spoken. When he talks about magazine publishing, he sounds anything but romantic, and he insists he brings to Radar the same attention to detail and bottom-line results that drive his principal business, River North Sales & Service, the profitable Anheuser-Busch distributorship he owns with his brother Jonathan. (The oldest Jackson son, Jesse Jr., is the congressman from the South Side and south suburbs’ 2nd district; he flirted with a run for mayor last year.)

River North Sales occupies space on two floors in a converted warehouse building west of the Loop, under the el tracks on Lake Street. Inside the front door, a flat-screen television mounted on the wall offers closed-circuit programming from Anheuser-Busch, with up-to-the-minute stock prices and slick features on the latest promotions for Budweiser distributors and retailers. The office, done in exposed brick and wood, is as businesslike and orderly as Jackson himself. His communications assistant, a young woman named Jennifer Donahoe, tells me the interview will begin “in six minutes,” and she fetches me in five. We walk up a flight of stairs to Jackson’s spacious office, which seems big enough to handle a Frisbee toss while you throw back a few Buds. We settle in on a couch and chair in the middle of the room, our conversation intermittently drowned out by the passing el train.

“If Radar didn’t learn from its first two iterations, then shame on Radar and shame on me,” says Jackson, who maintains that the magazine needs to broaden its editorial approach by appealing “to as many people in Kansas City as New York City.” He adds, “If I can develop a business infrastructure around smart circulation, not ego-based circulation -that is, focusing on bookstores and airports, versus spreading it to the mass markets too early-then we have an opportunity for success.”

Conventional wisdom in the media business holds that it takes gobs of money to sustain a consumer magazine until you can attract the right kind of readers-and enough of them-to make advertisers drool. Charles Whitaker, an authority on magazines and an assistant professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, points out, for example, that Condé Nast has spent between $100 million and $125 million to launch Portfolio, a business-meets-celebrity title that targets a readership similar to Radar’s. “They’re betting they’re going to be hip and smart,” Whitaker says. “But they’re Condé Nast. They have very, very deep pockets.”

Jackson says that won’t be Radar’s approach. “Conventional wisdom has large media companies, with portfolios of magazines, starting new ones and investing two years before they put out the first issue. This isn’t that. This is an independent magazine, and it can’t live by that model. We wouldn’t last a day under that model.”

Instead, Jackson says, Radar will attract an audience by breaking news on its Web site, generating buzz about its print articles, and seeking partners who can deliver its stories through cell phones, online television, and other means. The Wall Street Journal reported that AT&T had invested more than $10 million, perhaps with an eye toward using Radar’s content to boost the company’s Internet presence. Kevin Belgrade, a spokesman for AT&T, confirms the investment, but not the amount-nor the company’s plans. “This is what our customers say they want, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Radar does,” he says.

“If Radar didn’t learn from its first two iterations, then shame on Radar and shame on me,” says Jackson, who maintains that the magazine needs to broaden its editorial approach by appealing “to as many people in Kansas City as New York City.”

Whitaker also points out that it helps to have a gifted editor with the vision to make the magazine stand out from its newsstand rivals. That’s Maer Roshan’s role. Radar is his baby (some would say his obsession). Roshan raised enough seed money from friends and family to publish two issues from his living room in 2003. The magazine emerged again in 2005 with the help of the real-estate and media mogul Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of the New York Daily News and U.S. News & World Report, and his partner, the financier Jeffrey Epstein. The two men pledged $25 million, but pulled the plug after three issues, claiming the advertising dollars weren’t there.

“I owe Mort a lot for taking a chance on this idea, but I am frankly mystified why he pulled out,” Roshan says. “Anyone who works at magazines can attest that three issues will not tell you what you need to know.”

Jackson and Roshan had met previously in New York, and Roshan says a friend of a friend brought them together. “I didn’t have a real great appetite for once again [recruiting] the people who had worked really hard for years without knowing there was someone who believed in the concept and would give it a real fighting chance. That’s what Yusef promised,” he says.

One source close to the magazine, who asked to remain anonymous to preserve relations with the principals, told Chicago that Jackson and Roshan have clashed over such issues as selecting vendors and making timely payments. Both men say it isn’t so. “Yusef has been true to his word,” Roshan says. “He has been supportive, with how much money we have to work with and how we’re going about [our business].”

Adds Jackson: “I control the budget and finances, and [Roshan] controls the editorial content. I think we’re doing fine.”

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Radar’s circulation strategy begins online. With Jackson’s backing, Roshan relaunched the magazine’s Web site first, in September, and started breaking stories and making some noise. They included a piece on the CBS news anchor Katie Couric’s hairdresser, who pitched a fit when she had to fly coach on a Couric assignment to Jordan; Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly’s overblown claims that he was on Al Qaeda’s hit list; and Random House’s proposed settlement of fraud claims related to James Frey’s discredited memoir, A Million Little Pieces.

The site is averaging 755,000 unique visitors each month, and Jackson wants those numbers to double or triple. Still, Radar online got people talking, generating enough buzz for Roshan to put out his first relaunched print edition in March, followed by the June/July issue that hit the streets in May. A third issue is scheduled for September.

Roshan says the magazine aims for readers who like both celebrity gossip and in-depth journalism. “You have Us Weekly and you have The New Yorker,” he says. “But why can’t you appreciate JLo and be interested in the Iraq war? Why not merge those interests in one publication? It doesn’t mean they deserve equal treatment.” For example, Radar’s June/July issue-the one with the cover story on the celebrity-paparazzi war-offers a strong investigative feature on how street gangs, including the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples, are infiltrating a U.S. Army desperate for new recruits.

Both in print and online, Roshan says he’s trying to combine the best of old media-serious, careful reporting, fact checking, and copy editing-with new media’s ability to deliver entertaining content in multiple ways. The multiplatform approach targets an audience the advertisers should love: urban, 25- to 39-year-old professional men and women, the so-called cultural influencers who have plenty of disposable income and are comfortable with blogs and online videos. The 120-page first issue had 31 pages of paid advertising, including ads for HBO, Showtime, Perrier, and tequila makers, and, not surprisingly, Budweiser Select. The second issue, at 112 pages, had 28 pages of ads.

“We knew that coming out of the history of the magazine, getting ad revenue would be very difficult, especially with a summer issue,” Jackson says. But he adds that the revenues for both issues were about the same, and he expects Radar to run more than 40 ad pages in September.

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