Interview With Art Dudley
Listener magazine began life in 1994 as an inspiration from a deep love of music. As a musician, Art Dudley (with the assistance of his wife Janet) threw caution to the wind and began venturing into the wonderful world of print publication. Listener magazine had a virtually cult-like following reaching readers that desired an alternative to super mega-buck products and perceived advertorials as found in other media. In December of 1999 Belvoir Publications bought Listener from Art Dudley, keeping him as editor and allowing the magazine's writers and its direction to remain intact. While virtually doubling their subscription base, Belvoir Publications (under a subsidiary name Englander Communications) decided only weeks ago that continuing to publish Listener magazine was not in their best interest. We here at Enjoy the Music.com were partners with Listener as we are with many other audiophile print publications. We are deeply saddened to see the once great Listener now become part of audiophile legend.
Steven R. Rochlin: Art, what first brought you to love music?
Art Dudley: I'm not sure I can point to just one thing. I'm an amateur musician, having taken up guitar at the age of 16. When I was in my 20s I tried to make a living at it with my band, which was called The Norm. But our only claim to fame was that our manager, a fellow named Steve Rosenfeld, was also the manager for the folk duo Aztec Two Step — although they weren't exactly burning up the charts at the time. My great music career fizzled, and over the years I've made peace with my mediocrity as a guitarist and my even more colossal lack of talent as a mandolinist.
But records were always the most important things to me, as far back as I can remember. I bought my first one when I was eight or nine — the single of Roger Miller's "King of the Road," which doesn't embarrass me at all, although many of my subsequent selections certainly do — and that's carried me through to age 48. Recorded music has always been at the center of my life, not just in the background. I used to assume everyone was wired that way, although I don't anymore.
S.R.: At what point did you realize you wanted to begin your own magazine?
A.D.: Not until fairly late in life, like everything else with me. If I had thought about it, which I didn't, I would have rejected the idea of magazine ownership as almost exquisitely stupid. But then, in 1994, I was laid off from my job as a sixth-grade teacher, owing primarily to an alarming shortage of fifth graders....
Now, to back up: I had worked in magazine publishing before, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I worked for Backpacker Magazine, which was still owned at the time by a fellow named Bill Kemsley. And then in 1985 I worked as The Absolute Sound's Managing Editor, until I quit during an especially heated phone conversation with the then-editor. I kept my hand in, as they say, writing for a couple of small hi-fi mags that no longer exist, but I never did it to pay the bills.
Then came June of 1994, when I learned that my teaching job wouldn't be waiting for me in September. I had been paid through the summer, of course, and I was working on building a deck on the back of our house when the idea of starting a magazine occurred to me. I knew I could make money substitute teaching, but I also knew that substitute teaching would get really old, really fast. So I borrowed $5000, the bulk of which went to buy a copy of Aldus Pagemaker and to help pay the first print bill. And I just never looked back — although in August of the following year, the school system that had let me go offered me a job teaching third grade. I remember that as a difficult decision — and just lately I'm having a few doubts! [laughs]
S.R.: How did you decide on the name Listener?
A.D.: I can pinpoint the precise moment: I saw a magazine called Bowhunter, and the thought went through my head that, if a magazine about bow hunting is called Bowhunter, then surely a magazine about listening ought to be called Listener. Simple, right? So I called my lawyer that day and asked him to do a copyright search, and after a week all he turned up was the internal newsletter of some car rental company, called The Listener. Of course, the search didn't extend to the UK, and I later learned that the BBC's radio program guide was also called The Listener, but no one ever said anything....
S.R.: How many hours of hard work did it take at the beginning for each issue?
A.D.: From the beginning, during the years I owned the magazine it never ceased to require of minimum of 70 or so hours per week, but I wasn't the only one grinding away at it. My wife, Janet, who writes well and has a better sense of the visual than I have, devoted a great deal of her spare time, as did my mother, who is a spelling and grammar ace. And Rebecca Carrington, our advertising sales gal, would come over to the house and stuff magazines into envelopes or sort them out by zip code or whatever else needed doing.
S.R.: When did Listener become your day job?
A.D.: We were actually making a profit by late 1996. I think I took my name off the substitute teachers' lists of all the local school systems by early the next year, and that's when I started making my living off the mag — humbly, of course. But Janet had a job, too, and we didn't have children or a mortgage at the time. Now we have one of each.
S.R.: The direction of the magazine: Who really chose what would be reviewed and other subjects covered?
A.D.: It was a group effort, but I had final say — meaning, essentially, I had to be enthusiastic about a musical artist or a product or even a genre of products before Listener would devote any space to it. So we wound up with a mag that paid attention to affordable integrated amplifiers, single-ended triode amplifiers, efficient loudspeakers, cheap tweaks, high-quality turntables and tonearms... and yet which virtually ignored expensive digital separates, ultra-high-power amplifiers, $1000 AC cords, and those sorts of things. I really wasn't interested in the things I wasn't really interested in, if you see what I mean.
But the ideas — the direction — came from everybody at the magazine, not just me. Rob Doorack was the first Listener writer to express an interest in SETs, and he turned me onto that whole field, including what Joe Roberts was doing at the time with Sound Practices, which impressed me. Bruce Kennett was the one who went to France — literally — and discovered those interesting products from there, the Reynauds and the Audiomats. Pat Meanor's friendship with most of the great pianists of America and Europe — his face is well known in the "green rooms" of every major concert hall in the USA, I think — led to a series of great interviews and reviews, which also garnered Listener a great deal of attention from classical music labels. And, you know, Herb (Reichert) is Herb, and Harvey (Rosenberg) was Harvey... so, again, it's more a case of the writers influencing the editor than the other way around.
If each issue of Listener was like a pop record — and, I admit, that's how I thought of them, each with its different mood, different feeling, different cover art, slightly different mix of talents — then they were never solo albums. It was a band.
S.R.: Eventually your own resources, time, and money, were at full tilt. Is that when you decided to find a buyer...?
A.D.: By early 1999 I was tired out. I was writing, editing, laying out the mag, doing the covers, doing the photography — badly, I admit — taking subscription orders, selling the back issues, working with printers, working with distributors, stuffing envelopes...and still dealing on the phone with hundreds of audio manufacturers, many of whom, it must be said, thought I "owed" them an hour-long chat session every week or so. That attitude was gaining popularity among some readers, as well, and as much as I tried to be gracious, there would always be someone who would take advantage of me, and test the limits of my "niceness." [laughs] It was crazy. My daughter, Julia, had been born the previous year and I wanted to be with her as much as I could. But too many people — people who weren't busy enough themselves, I think — were stealing my time, and I wound up having to stay in the office late every night and throughout the weekends, just to keep up with the writing, let alone get anything else done. I'm afraid that's how I came to look at it, and not without justification: People were stealing from my family, just as surely as if they were reaching into our pockets. Something had to change.
And a change came that Summer, when a very nice man who shall remain nameless called me up and asked if I would be interested in selling Listener to him. He wound up not being the buyer, but he "courted" us for a while, and in meantime a second company, which had been considering buying that fellow's operation, became interested in buying Listener themselves. That was Belvoir Publications, to whom I sold Listener in December of 1999. They published it under a subsidiary name — Englander Communications, named for Robert Englander, the owner of the company — and hired me to stay on as Editor. The truth was, the job entailed more than just being Editor, but it was still less work than I had been doing, because they took over most of the circulation work. It was an improvement in my working conditions, and it was a guaranteed salary.
S.R.: Do you regret selling?
A.D.: [long pause] No. [laughs] No. I mean, that's like asking if I regret losing my hair, and the answer is: It was inevitable. Sure, a different outcome would have been nice, but everything dies, whether it's a follicle or a magazine. If I hadn't have sold it, Listener wouldn't have lasted as long as it did, period. I did the right thing, given my choices.
S.R.: Did Englander Communications make any effort to "rope you in"?
A.D.: No, not really. In one issue they made me tone down my response to a letter from an irate audio manufacturer — a real crackpot, in fact, who inexplicably carries some weight with a couple of amateur audio reviewers elsewhere in our community — and that didn't sit well with me. I wanted to go after the guy, but my bosses didn't want to risk a lawsuit, even though they agreed that we would probably win if it came to pass. They were probably right, of course. But, no, I was never asked to pull my punches in a product review.
Of course, some of the folks at Englander made it clear they didn't like the covers I was doing — the covers were a bit obscure and occasionally lacking in clear references to audio equipment, I admit — and they loathed the first cover I did for them in particular. That was the little girl with record player and the butterflies, which I sort of liked. They predicted that it would die a thousand deaths on the newsstand, because no one would know what the magazine was about. My response was that anyone who couldn't tell what a magazine with a record player, a human being, and the word LISTENER on the front was all about was not a reader with terribly great, um, potential in the first place. [laughs] I still feel that way, even though, in retrospect, I see that some covers were more successful than others.
Art Dudley And Friend Discuss World Issues :-)
S.R.: Which are your favorites?
A.D.: I thought the one with the jar full of lightning bugs was great — that was a lot of work, drawing all those little tubes and making the photo of the record look like part of the painting — and I think the Magritte style one with the Lowther and the daffodil was nice. The "naked girl" cover back in 1996 was nice, too, although she wasn't really naked for the photo shoot: I just removed her halter top in Adobe Photoshop. I remember being embarrassed while I did it, too.
Some others were, in retrospect, either bad ideas, or else I didn't have the skill to pull them off. The Bosch thing didn't work, although I was proud of the way the logo came out. The Amish buggy cover fell totally flat. But the final one, with the Carfrae, came out all right. Nice to leave on a good note.
S.R.: One more question: What's with the bunnies?
A.D.: [laughs] That started with the November/December 2001 issue, the one with the J. Peterman style cover — which I also like. For some reason the letters for that issue were unusually cranky and whiny: People were going off on me for all kinds of junk. During the proofreading stage, before we went to press — this would've been very late August — Janet pointed out to me that my printed responses to the doofier letters were too long and too angry. "Why let someone get your goat? Why print a response that was longer than the letter itself?" Good questions, both — but it was too late to change the layout very drastically, and I needed something to take the place of the vitriol I then removed from my responses. I've always loved animals in general, and bunnies in particular, so I decided to "give" them away to these readers who seemed to be taking themselves too seriously, and who needed a bit of deflation. That's what Listener was always best at, anyway: deflation.
Of course, by the time the issue came out, September 11th had happened, so in a way I was glad not to have added to the sum of misery and anger and self-seriousness by insulting someone in the pages of a hi-fi magazine. I'm glad I gave out bunnies instead. Most people responded well — I lost count of the number of bunny photos and even stuffed bunnies that some very nice readers sent me — and by the end, even people who didn't "need" them were asking for bunnies. The nicest send-off we got, when the news of Listener's demise was announced, was a reader who posted a sweet picture of a bunny next to a clock, saying something to the effect of, "This bunny has come to say that time has run out for Listener...."
S.R.: A sad day...?
A.D.: An very sad day.
I miss it already, and I suppose I'll always miss it. It had a great mix of personalities, and somehow, I think we came up with the right attitude at the right time. But in the end, it's just hi-fi, and Listener was just a hi-fi magazine, albeit a pretty good one. I'm sure there'll be others.