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Dawn of the Dead

The scuttlebutt is that today marks the re-launch of perennially-becoming Radar Magazine, at least in its [online] incarnation. As of this writing (early Tuesday a.m.) their site is still having fits, so whether Maer Roshan’s long-gestating baby ever sees the dawn is up in the air. The overly-publicized [history] of this misadventure has already become legend in New York media circles. The ratio of product to hype is startling: since its original debut in 2003 there have been exactly 5 issues published, and despite talk about upwards of $25m having been committed to it, probably no more than a fifth of that has actually been spent (a guestimate from reading various sources). Why does this drama get so much play? I think because it’s a landmark in the evolution of media in this country. But not in the way its creator thinks…

Why so much effort was made to launch a new general audience magazine is in itself astonishing. In an era of niche marketing, it made little sense and one can’t be surprised that the promised ad pages never materialized for earlier investors. Media planners worship differentiation even more than low CPMs — they want to know their target is seeing their ad — but there was not that much that differentiated Radar from the other celebrity-obsessed rags. Roshan said he was targeting a young affuent “with it” audience — but the people he describes increasingly get their information online and delivered in mindless little chunks delivered to their always-on cell phones. They don’t subscribe to newspapers or magazines.

But this was never about business to begin with. For Radar to be successful it would have been launched as a (relatively) low-overhead website that targeted, on the low-end, Gawker and PerezHilton.com and all the other hangouts for gossip junkies, and on the high-end, readers of Vanity Fair and New York by offering more information online than they do and good quality writing — building a strong brand that could then have been built out to print, if that seemed economically viable. Instead, Roshan launched print (twice) into an unfavorable environment and tacked on a website almost as an afterthought. It’s significant that once upon a time the magazine was being funded by Mort Zuckerman — the definition of a New York media macher. Now it’s relying on Yusef Jackson, a Midwest beer distributor. New York has voted on the likelihood of success.

I don’t think Roshan wants to be successful as much as he wants to have been successful. A legend. He wants to be seen as a Jann Wenner, Graydon Carter, Tina Brown — someone who created a seminal magazine that acted as a cultural touchstone for an era. The time for such things may have passed. New media is the present and the future and new media brands are too ephemeral and niche to be relevent to a large mass of people. For all its talk of being New, the appeal of Radar is basically nostalgic. We’d like to think that we’re witnessing the birth of the new Spy or Vanity Fair, that our media choices will not be reduced to small grafs delivered to us in tiny type on a glaring screen. But Spy has been dead for a long time and we already have a Vanity Fair — and who knows for how long? That Radar cannot gain traction is the story of Radar. That the old model of building a general audience magazine cannot keep the interest of media planners and investors is the lesson to be taken away. The tide has turned.

Roshan’s quixotic quest is probably doomed, the question is whether he can wake from his nostalgic dream in time to salvage a career. New York admires perseverance and dedication — but it admires success more.

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