Cover Story: Wheelin' and Dealin'

Snowboarding, skateboarding and Hip Hop aren't immediately associated with Cincinnati. But a local magazine has taken those elements to forge an unlikely business success story

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Nicole Wetsch

We're living in a time when the general public is more informed about the goings-on behind the entertainment industry than ever before. In our "information age," powerful people who normally take the behind-the-scenes positions, are suddenly finding themselves celebrities. Case in point: the magazine publisher/editor.

Look at the news in the past month. While surely known more as "American royalty" than a publisher, George magazine's editor-in-chief John F. Kennedy Jr. assured himself the story of the year when his plane went down near Martha's Vineyard, killing him, his wife and his sister-in-law. This week, Tina Brown was all over the news when word spread that the inaugural issue of her new publication Talk features an interview with Hillary Clinton in which she both chastises and defends her infamous husband for the first time in a public forum. On the local front, hometown boy and major publishing mogul Larry Flynt continues to make headlines with his bratty attempts to keep his newsstand open downtown.

Another local publisher might not have the cash, celebrity or editorial money shot to garner national headlines, but he's quietly building his magazine into the latest local success story.

Christian Strike founded Strength Magazine, a glossy skateboard, snowboard, music and cultural publication, about four years ago, and today it's a thick book, filled with massive editorial content and advertisements from major skate and snowboard gear companies, as well as major and indie record label spots. The 26-year-old and his staff of nine (plus dozens of national free-lance writers and photographers) work diligently to put the hip mag out every four months, covering everything from underground Hip Hop music to world-class snowboarding events with a personal, conversational style that is addictive.

Business, Boards, Beats and Babes
As a photographer starts to shoot Strike during our interview, he abruptly puts an end to it.

He politely explains he doesn't want it to seem like Strength is a one-man show. "Let's get everyone in the shot," he says, later gathering his troops for an awkward team photo. Part tough boss, part den father, Strike seems especially proud of his renegade squad.

While Strike may run the show, Strength is indeed a total team effort, with editors Matt Deak, Chris Nieratko and Katie Struckel — along with Strike — shaping the editorial content, which includes features, profiles, columns, industry news updates and record reviews written mostly from a first-person standpoint. There are similarities between the mag's editorial style and early skate magazines and Xeroxed 'zines of all types: They're injected with a inclusive sense of humor that isn't so inside that only the hippest will laugh along.

In the latest issue, Nieratko seems to have a hand in writing a majority of the content, which ranges from an interview with rapper C-Murder (during which he has the line of the issue, asking if the "C" stands for "cookie") and an interview with a Jersey-based skater, Fred Gall, where they talked as much about getting drunk, strip clubs and Ozzy Osbourne as they did skating.

Articles from the past include everything from a straight story on the Muslim religion and the Nation of Islam (with various converted Hip Hop artists weighing in) to a history of the Washington, D.C., Punk scene. Regular columns include "Contributor Personals" (call and leave a message for your favorite staffer) and "Girls You'd Want To Chill With," featuring cool regular gals Strength thinks its readers would like to kick it with. A running gag has been at the expense of The Beastie Boys, who have declined to be interviewed ("THE BEASTIE BOYS," screams a cover headline, followed in small print by "Turned us down again so we settled for," followed in large print by "SEBADOH").

The magazine is also attractive to young people (the average reader is 19 years old and male) with its overt sexuality: A "Sex Sells" issue with porn star Raylene on the cover sold well (surprise!), and Raylene is featured in every issue with a sex advice column. Of course, well-informed sports coverage and stunning photography are the keys to the publication, putting it in the same league as the granddaddy of them all, Thrasher, as well as relative newcomers like Slap, Heckler and Big Brother (published by Larry Flynt's company).

This brings us back to the big question: How on earth did a magazine about snowboarding and skateboarding emerge from the middle of the country? In an industry based exclusively in Southern California, why would someone even dare to start such a publication in a conservative, out-of-the-way haven such as Cincinnati? And how could it not only survive, but remain in business and succeed?

Well, first things first: Strike is a native Cincinnatian and he likes it here. That's the short answer for Strength's locale. In his last year at a small liberal arts college in New England (he declined to say which one), Strike hatched his idea. He'd been doing little homemade 'zines for fun, and he had a love for board culture.

"These subjects are things that had always been hobbies of mine and things I was involved in," Strike says, kicking back in Strength's cozy yet professional HQ. "And I wasn't going to make a living doing any of these things."

Strike knew he liked to write, and the magazine industry simply seemed interesting to him. So he dove in head first, bright-eyed but never carelessly.

"Now you have to understand," Strike continues, "I was a history major, I knew nothing about business. Nothing. I didn't even take an (economics) course. I had no experience in the publishing industry. I had no connections. I was just a kid basically who was into that shit."

Talking to Strike, it's clear he has a wealth of ideas. During our conversation, he expounds on three or four different points at once, driving tangents around like a New York cab driver, before landing right back on the question originally asked and tying it all together. He's not hyper — his speaking tone is casual but precise — but, let's just say that Attention Deficit Disorder would have been his downfall.

What sets him apart from the usual twentysomething aspiring to be an entrepreneur is his lack of slackerness. Starting the magazine, Strike knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it.

"I started to do research into what you had to do," he says. "I learned the printing process, I learned how to get it distributed and circulated, bought a computer and actually laid the first issue out. I sold some ads for it, sent out mock-ups of it to all the companies I wanted to advertise. Through that I got enough money to print the first issue. I printed 10,000 copies and we had orders for it from places like Barnes & Noble and other chains like Tower and Borders. And it just kinda grew from there."

The first issue in 1995 was a shadow of the current size, but it was still glossy and in color, far from a 'zine, and it blue-printed Strength's brash style. At this time, it was a one-man deal. "I did all the printing and circulation. I wrote. I did layout, shot photos, sold all the ads," Strike says. And, as more issues followed, people bought into his maverick vision of youth culture.

Board Certified
Strike cites Strength's Hip Hop-heavy music section and the sheer amount of articles as a reason for its success, making it stand out from the competition (many of the SoCal mags feature mostly Punk and Hardcore musical acts, though more are picking up on the Hip Hop/skateboard connection). It's sort of like the anomaly of an independent on the presidential ballot or the success of rappers from America's Southern states: It creates a curiosity factor that draws people in. While not necessarily an "underdog," Strength has a certain "outsider" quality that helps shape what they put out and which is certainly a plus to what is still a subculture.

"We have a very objective editorial point of view," Strike says. "It's funny: A lot of people see us as a really East Coast magazine. We have this gritty, urban, Hip Hop feel or whatever the fuck you want to call it. So, we try to exploit that when we can."

Besides not being able to take lunch with a potential advertising client (most of Strength's advertisers are also California-based), being in a "small town" thousands of miles away from your competition can have its drawbacks. On the day we talk, Strike is coming off several days of shuffling his staff. Though he says he's had only minor turnover when it comes to employees, he confesses that the transient nature of recent college grads (the usual Strength staffer) sometimes means people use the magazine as a stepping stone.

Strike often hires from the local colleges and, while he likes their rawness and ability to be creative with ideas with no preconceived notions, he sees his competitors as having a leg up, not only location-wise, but financially as well.

"I don't have the resources to hire 'experts,' " he says. "We're going up against companies like Times Mirror that have been around forever and have a hundred titles. They're multibillion dollar international corporations. There's nothing wrong with that: It's just hard to compete with that when it comes to hiring.

"There's plenty of people in Cincinnati who skateboard, but there aren't plenty of people in Cincinnati who know about skateboarding and can be effective in a work environment."

Competition-wise, it's certainly a David vs. Goliath situation, making Strength's continued survival for four years all the more implausible. Still, boarding is a relatively underground phenomenon.

But there are signs in pop culture that point differently: ESPN covers the X-Games featuring skating and boarding, and soda companies and other manufacturers exploit so-called "extreme sports" in their commercials, ad nauseam. As yet, the bigger companies won't advertise in magazines like Strength, which actually lends credibility to the mags. Kids who read these magazines are susceptible to advertising, but not the kind that forcibly bombards them with clichéd images. As the scene becomes more exposed and exploited, it will only mean tougher competition in all areas of the industry.

"Skateboarding, snowboarding and Hip Hop: Those are the most popular trends in youth culture today," Strike says, his entrepreneurial instinct on full display. "So there's money to be made there, and there's a lot of competition, whether you're a clothing company, a shoe company, a snowboard company or a magazine. When something's hot or popular, money's being made there somewhere."

Casual Every Day
It's a business-as-usual kind of day at Strength. Web Master Ronnie Patton tools away on the magazine's Web site, tweaking designs and features with Art Director Joel Porczak peering over his shoulder. Features Editor Matt Deak is calling record labels to get review copies sent to the office. And Strike is coming out of a meeting, but he's still continually interrupted by phone calls and is mulling over a doctor's note from one of his employees.

During one call with a video company, Strike runs across another of the stumbling blocks presented to a Cincinnati business in a coastal industry.

"C-I-N-C-I-N-N," he rattles off, while giving a mailing address. Strike slows it down, "Okay, you ready? One more time — C-I-N ..."

Strength's Norwood offices share space with a cleaning company and several other businesses in the American Laundry building. Cubicles are up, but the room — a former industrial kitchen — is still open and airy, conducive to constant communication.

Strike's office has a door but it's only closed during meetings. Sporting shorts and sneakers, Strike alternates between a floppy army cap and a baseball hat, covering his thinning hairline. The office is sparsely decorated, but still has the elements of a hip corporate bigwig's: a putter and putting cup with an automatic golfball return sits in the corner while a New Age sand garden is on the coffee table in front of the office futon.

During our talk, Strike continually brings up Procter & Gamble to make the point that his business is as professional and real as the next. He professes to be hard on his employees, pushing them as much as he must to get the job done. Associate publisher and recent Miami University grad Jeff Seiple has only been here for two days, and he concurs with Strike's self-assessment.

"Christian threw the book at me the first day. I'm already kind of overwhelmed," he says. He hadn't heard of the magazine, and he doesn't skate or snowboard. But now he likes the publication as well as the working atmosphere, and he seems eager to be there.

Strike knows the magazine is attractive to young people just entering the work force for the first time. "Like the way we dress," he says. "People just wear what they want to wear ... I'm actually dressed-up for today.

"Just imagine coming out of (college), seeing the magazine and thinking, 'Oh, cool magazine. It'd be fun to work there,' " he begins. "They have a degree in, let's just say, marketing, so they come in looking for a job in the marketing department. They come in and they see the way we dress and they've never worked in a real office. So when they come in, it's hard for them to see that we're just as serious here as they are at P&G. I run this business just as seriously as P&G runs theirs."

While the magazine is the flagship, Strike has also helped to build his humble empire into a miniconglomerate. Under the umbrella of Delinquent Publishing, Strike has branched out to offer other services. Atlas Media helps companies market their product to the skateboarding community by directly connecting with them on a street level with aggressive stickering and postering, ad design and many other options. Atlas' services have been used by Adidas and Airwalk, as well the Hip Hop group Wu Tang Clan's clothing line.

Strike sees Atlas as potentially more than a side project. "Actually, it could eclipse the magazine's revenue in about five years," he says.

The magazine also has linked up with several Hip Hop and skating events that provide exposure not only for the events but for Strength as well. The magazine is sponsoring and selling sponsorships for the International Turntablist Federation's worldwide DJ competitions as well as Nine Yards, a series of shows in Los Angeles and New York featuring Hip Hop performers and DJs and co-sponsored by Kalodge Projects, who were responsible for the successful Lyricist Lounge tour and album. These events, Strike says, "bring the skate culture together with the Hip Hop culture. There's a lot of crossover there." Strike will also executive produce an underground Hip Hop compilation called Strength Magazine presents Subtext, due from London Records in the fall.

When asked about a five-year plan, Strike seems caught off guard. Perhaps with all of the things going on in his mind, he just simply hasn't had time to look beyond the millions of other things he has on his plate, including trying to go from being issued quarterly to putting an issue out every two months (that change, according to Strike may go into effect as early as the next issue).

"You're very busy," I say.

"Too busy," he says quietly, with a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration.

"To be honest, I'd like to see it keep going on the path that it's been on," he finally offers. "This company grows, its worth grows from year to year. I get all my satisfaction out of watching the business grow out of something that was once just me."

The Big Picture
Of course, if Strength continues to be successful, Strike says Cincinnati might not fit into his future. He wouldn't hesitate to relocate the business, but he sounds like he wouldn't mind trying to stay here in his hometown as well.

"It might reach the point where we just have to (move)," he says. "We're in the entertainment and sports industry, and there's only so much you can do from Cincinnati. We're getting to that point. It's distributed in 30 different countries. Our circulation's really competitive. It's right in there with our top competitors. But maybe we can do it from Cincinnati, who knows?"

A lot of Cincinnatians fail to grasp "The Big Picture." Some say Cincinnati breeds contentment. It's not a bad thing, but the almost snobbish, almost blind satisfaction with staying in the city seems to be contagious, and you can't help but think that it isolates some very talented people with something to offer on a bigger level.

Strike says he likes Cincinnati ("It's cool, it's fine"), but he doesn't understand the lack of motivation he sometimes sees. He says, "It's easy to live well here," and he understands why someone would stay, but he admires how people like the rap trio Mood, The Afghan Whigs and many graduates from UC's DAAP programs move beyond the city's confines, if not literally then at least by trying to spread themselves out from their home base.

"I just wish there would be more people here who have personal interests like mine, whether it's music or whatever, and really assert themselves," he says. "I would like to see more people locally look at the bigger picture, because there's a much bigger picture. I'd like to see people who have a real passion for whatever their hobbies are, if they want to take a crack at making a living doing it, then do it. Because you can do it."

Strength has proven his point, infiltrating the geographic monopoly of the skate and snowboard culture without compromise. It's an against-the-odds kind of story without any melodrama, and Strike wouldn't have it any other way, even if it does make him feel like he's lost his mind from time to time.

"Sometimes I feel like we're in The Twilight Zone," he says. "To do a skate or snowboard magazine or music magazine, and do it in Cincinnati ..."

He pauses and rolls his eyes, then smiles broadly.

"It isn't crazy, but it isn't the most logical place to be either. ©

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