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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

(page 2 of 3)

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.

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