A decade ago, Whittle Communications ruled Knoxville. Only this dynamic, fast-growing magazine-publishing and TV-producing company could coax us into closing a downtown street for their palatial new international headquarters, which opened to great fanfare in 1991. At its height, Whittle Communications—originally known as 13-30—employed hundreds, perhaps half of which were professionals recruited from out of state. It pumped millions into the local economy. Its national projects—magazines, television and, ultimately, schools—got Knoxville's name into the New York Times more than any other entity except, maybe, the Vols.
Then, in stages from 1992-1995, Whittle went out of business. They left a giant vacant building downtown, eventually converted into the federal courthouse. Most of the company's products that were still viable—the Edison Project, Channel One, Physicians' Weekly—moved to other parts of the country. Even Chris Whittle pulled up his deep local roots and moved to New York. Whittle Communications died.
Or did it? Deposited in this fertile muck of Whittle's former home city were hundreds of wriggling larvae. Whittle's demise had stranded hundreds of editors, art designers, and other communications employees here, many of whom had bought houses and gotten used to the idea of living in a place called Knoxville.
Today, those larvae have matured and infested nearly every corner of Knoxville to an extent that would make a McCarthyist want to double-check his facts: the Chamber Partnership, WBIR-TV, the News-Sentinel, UT, TVA, KUB, HGTV, the Knoxville Museum of Art, Moxley-Carmichael, iPIX, McCarty Holsapple McCarty, Ntown, Goody's, Bush Brothers Beans—all these institutions employ former Whittlefolk, many of them in prominent positions. For one example, Tom Ingram, recruited from Nashville to oversee Whittle's magazines, is now chairman of Knoxville's Chamber Partnership.
They've also started their own businesses: for the last five years, perhaps dozens of "little Whittles" have been growing throughout the city, adding to Knoxville's economy in ways that are hard to calibrate, and contributing to the city's reputation—one that would have seemed unlikely 20 or 30 years ago—as a media-savvy town.
If you were to gather all these Whittle refugees together into one big downtown building and let them just do what they're all doing anyway in 2001, you might have a fight, but it might just look and feel a whole lot like Whittle Communications in its salad days. It might even be a good deal more interesting.
Media South keeps offices in a renovated walkup in one of the oldest buildings on Gay Street, an ancient pool hall refinished in knotty pine and exposed brick. About a dozen employees work on the second and third floors.
President Barbara Penland can see the old Whittle building out her window. A UNC grad, Penland went to work for 13-30 in 1978, and eventually served as managing editor of several different magazines—sometimes as many as 29 at a time.
She founded Media South (originally Penland Associates) with the help of four other Whittle survivors, shortly after they lost their jobs. One of its logos features a dart in the bull's eye of a dart board. "Custom targeted media" is the motto. Penland has nothing against the modus operandi of the company that laid her off.
"We were skilled at launching new properties, taking risks, moving quickly," she says. "It just seemed a natural." In 1995, they launched Economic Edge, a bimonthly sponsored by TVA which highlighted successful business and industry in the valley. The magazine, which won awards for its content, lasted only five years, a respectable run by Whittle's old standards. TVA phased it out as the agency placed more emphasis on its website, which Media South designs and edits. TVA remains their biggest client.
"We were trained to move rapidly," Penland says, recalling the days when Whittle launched 13 new magazines in one year. "In a company that grows at that rate," she says, "you never think something's not possible."
Several of her colleagues are former Whittle employees, including director of operations Sheila Thigpen, art director Sara Christensen and creative director Ken Smith.
"Our specialty is targeted publications," she says. "We are living the Whittle tradition." Jeered as weirdly mercenary 25 years ago, when Whittle pioneered the medium, targeted publications are now mainstream.
"There's an incredible depth of talent here," Penland says of Knoxville, "thanks in large part to the training we got at Whittle, and the networks formed there."
She's not in touch with everybody who ever worked for Whittle, but she has an almost den-motherly interest in their continuing careers. She offers to jot down a few names of former Whittlites still in Knoxville, actively working in media-related businesses. Penland looks down at her paper and seems a little surprised, herself. She has written down more than 90 names. As she talks, she keeps penciling in more.
Media South itself employs seven of them, and a visit there can easily give a former Whittle employee a sense of deja vu. But it's not Knoxville's biggest employer of former Whittle types, by a long shot. That's HGTV.
Founded in Knoxville just as Whittle was going out of business, the Scripps-owned TV-producing enterprise has grown to be one of the stalwarts of national cable TV. HGTV's offices are literally, and in other respects, miles away from Whittle's old downtown headquarters. Located on the west end of Sherrill Boulevard, on the very brink of I-40's Pelissippi Parkway exit, the building is unlikely to distract merging motorists. But get closer—and to get much closer you'll have to talk your way past a guard—and you'll see the grounds sport a large pond, with a paddle boat and geese. The interior is fascinating, something from a high-concept postmodern science-fiction movie. Display windows expose the core of the business, the computers and technicians that run the programming for the popular cable channels.
There's not just the one, but three of them now: HGTV (Home and Garden Television, founded here six years ago), DIY (the newer Do It Yourself network), and the Food Network, started elsewhere but bought by HGTV. Though most of the shooting is done in California and various other locations, the shows are organized and put together on cable here.
Supporting the television shows is a colorfully elaborate website. On hgtv.com, you can input the dimensions of your yard and find out exactly how much grass seed you need, or spy on the dissembling of the floats in the Rose Parade in Pasadena. There's also a mini-chatroom, where people share household advice. hgtv.com gets one million hits each month.
Also accompanying the television base is a magazine. A real, off-line magazine, made of paper, with staples. HGTV Ideas bears a striking resemblance to several classic Whittle magazines: lots of bright color and short, practical, quickly readable items, even with similar fonts, contrasting colors, playful illustrations, and marginalia.
Still, the most Whittlish thing about the magazine is its masthead. Its entire editorial staff is made up of former Whittle employees, most of whom were working closely with each other downtown a decade ago. Its editor is Anne Krueger, a Wisconsinite who moved to Knoxville to work for Whittle (and later worked as editor of Parenting in San Francisco before returning here); its art director is Tom Russell, who moved here from Virginia for the same reason. (HGTV Ideas differs from most of Whittle's giveaway products in one big respect, though, and that's the fact that 70,000 people pay for subscriptions to it, if only $10 a year, and get it in the mail.)
In addition, marketing and circulation chiefs Robyn Ulrich and Tammy Esser are also former Whittlites. Once a Whittle print manager, Ulrich is now an HGTV vice president. She's from Ohio, but says she'd probably be living in the Knoxville area, anyway; she came here first with Phillips, but got her job with HGTV through her connections with former Whittle employee Steve Hicks, who was one of HGTV's early executives.
Some believe HGTV owes some of its success to the fact that it was growing rapidly as Whittle was declining and shedding experienced editors and art directors. However, none of the people who started HGTV were connected to Whittle Communications. Though Ulrich doubts the influx of former Whittle employees changed the course of HGTV—the magazine, she says, would have been produced anyway—the availability of experienced media people certainly made things easier. "We hired people like Anne and Tom who, without Whittle, we wouldn't have been able to find locally," she says.
For HGTV and for many laid-off Whittlites, the timing was serendipitous. Evelyn (Herald) Bennett was copy chief, as well as many other things, in her 13 years at Whittle. "You really had to be a chameleon to work at Whittle," she says. She now oversees HGTV's incredibly busy website. "I think my brain size tripled at Whittle," she says. Websites like the one she works on daily didn't exist then; some think Whittle was a little too far ahead of the high-tech curve to profit from it. Whittle editors were rigged with e-mail as early as 1991, but it was useful only in-house. Still, Bennett says flatly, "I wouldn't be here if I hadn't been there."
One thing she finds remarkable: "I work for the guy who called me to tell me I didn't have a job" when Whittle closed down in 1994.
That would be Jim Sexton, who's editorial director of all HGTV's non-TV products, including HGTV Ideas and that elaborate website. He came from a PR job in Michigan to work for Whittle in 1987, and after Whittle closed in 1994, he went to Washington, D.C., to work as editor of USA Weekend. Sexton has worked all over the place, but he grew up just down the road from HGTV, in Cedar Bluff; he's a Farragut High grad. "I go other places, and then I get homesick for Knoxville," Sexton says. "I've moved away from Knoxville three times, and I've moved back three times."
"I think Whittle was a real coming-of-age experience for me," he says. "Whittle was the place where I learned how to be a real journalist and editor."
In many cases, former Whittlites' jobs are only tangentially related to what they're doing now. Marie Hofer was a fact-checker at Whittle. She's now gardening editor at HGTV Ideas. Originally from the D.C. metro area, she says, "I had no intention of staying in Knoxville," but she was drawn into the excitement of the business. Even now, she says, "It's extraordinary that, per capita, there's such a talent pool in editing and graphics."
Most of HGTV's offices are gray carrels, minimally personalized; late on a weekday morning, you hear the hush of rapid whispering. People are busy here, but they're not noisy. It's a contrast to Whittle, where employees were known to decorate their carrels with chicken wire, dead bats, folk art, and inflatable dolls.
"HGTV is not as flamboyant as Whittle was," acknowledges Sexton. "Maybe not as open. There's not chicken wire on the carrels. The similarity is, it's got the real go-go culture. We're trying to improve the things we're working on every day."
He sounds as if he's sometimes surprised to step outside the often-hectic building and see Cedar Bluff, his childhood home.
"It's like going to work in New York City, and then when you leave work, you go home to Knoxville."
There are lots of phone numbers in Sexton's rolodex that don't need an area code in front. Scattered across town are other companies that, perhaps thanks to old Whittle connections, have contracts with HGTV.
Perhaps the most unusual, unmarked by any sign, is located in half of a small office for a mini-warehouse near Kingston Pike, a couple of miles from HGTV. Animagic is, basically, one still-young man named Todd Schott. Originally from Chicago, he was a Florida grad whose parents had moved to Knoxville before Whittle hired him in 1990—accidentally, he thinks, mistaking him for another artist.
Ten years ago, Schott worked in Whittle's photo shop and was known for his spot-on caricatures of colleagues. Now he is, perhaps, Knoxville's only full-time professional animator. Schott's TV cartoons have advertised the Knoxville Museum of Art (that one won a local award, an Addy, a couple of years ago) and are also used in introductory segments for national cable TV shows like TNN's auto-advice show "Crank and Chrome" and HGTV's fashion show, "Into the Closet" (hosted by model Kathy Ireland, whom Schott insists he has never met).
Schott says his four years at Whittle were a boon. "I learned a great deal about computers and the use of color, things I didn't learn in college," he says. Though he works with several computer monitors, he still makes his cartoons the same way Disney did in 1930—he draws every frame.
Schott admits he rarely sees the shows his cartoons introduce; he doesn't have cable. From the sound of it, he wouldn't have much time to watch it. His office walls are papered with lively cartoons from another project, a promotional piece for a feature-length animated film he hopes to sell as a major release someday. It's a huge undertaking, and one he's not ready to talk about.
Before he stepped out on his own, Schott worked for a now-well-respected downtown company HiRes. Co-founded in 1995 by former Whittle photo-shop employees including Katie Musgrave and Paul Kedrow, it employed several Whittle employees and a good deal of equipment they purchased from the dying company. Business has boomed. HiRes now employs 16, one quarter of whom used to work for Whittle. They've outgrown their original Old City headquarters and weren't unhappy when the bakery next door moved out of the neighborhood. HiRes acquired it as their new entrance, and are looking to expand further. Asked how many clients HiRes has, Musgrave says, without sounding like it's necessarily a big deal, "about 750." Some of them are as big as Pilot Oil, which orders HiRes graphics for its 150 locations. They even do fashions for Dandridge-based accessory designer LeSportsac.
Much of her business comes from contacts she made at Whittle; she estimates that, through her business, she keeps in touch with 150 to 200 former Whittlites. "If they decide to do a reunion or something, we'd be a good way to get them all together."
She mentions a challenging new project; a hot-air balloon firm in North Carolina has contracted with them to print balloon-sized logos on the fabric, before stitching. To do it, they'll rely on a large four-color machine called a Vutek; she says it's one of only 12 in America. HiRes still has a few of the pieces of equipment from Whittle that helped them get started in '95, but she admits they're mostly outmoded: token relics from the bygone early '90s, useful only occasionally.
She thinks the Old City's a good place to run her business. "We've got designers across the street, TVA around the corner," she says. "There's a lot of art-related business right here." One client, Metro Pulse, is just a few blocks away. But she doesn't turn down business that's not within walking distance. One of their current projects is a stadium graphic for the Denver Broncos.
Downhill from Gay Street, in the part of Central that's shaded by Plaza Tower in the late afternoon, is a new business called ColorCentral. Opened just this past summer by ex-Whittle photo-shop worker Tammy Henderson, it already employs 11, and sports a bright, whimsical interior design with lights like tulips. It looks like a Whittle graphic you can walk into.
Compared to its rival HiRes, which has a hard-working industrial feel, ColorCentral seems more like a Montessori School for gifted adults. There Henderson has tried to recreate the whimsy she enjoyed at Whittle. The computer-monitor room is painted black, with glow-in-the-dark stars.
Like Whittle did, she lets her workers go nuts with decorating their work spaces. "When you spend 12 to 14 hours a day in a place," she says, "it needs to be yours, and it needs to be pleasant."
They have lots of fun, but they also have lots of contracts: Ruby Tuesday, Berkline Furniture, HGTV.
"I wish Chris Whittle could see what he's actually spawned," says Henderson, who's originally from Rutledge. "We're a Little Whittle." She says many of her business relationships with suppliers and contractors date back to Whittle days.
"It's almost incestuous," she says. "But in a good way. I wouldn't have all this without the prior relationships I formed at Whittle."
Another Whittle spin-off that profits from close local relationships is Radiant Media, a firm employing four in the Bearden area headed by former Whittle art directors Doug Renfro and his wife Bette McLean, both of whom moved to Knoxville to work for Whittle. Today they design everything from restaurant logos to corporate videos. He remembers someone asking, how are we getting along without Whittle? "I said, 'We're not. We're getting along with them." Much of his business, both in town and out of town, is through Whittle connections. Right now, he's working on a Whittlesque project called Exam-Room Network, based in Cincinnati. He contracts with iPIX, Goody's, and other firms, but about 20 percent of their business is for the current-day Whittle project: Edison Schools, a project the otherwise sarcastic Renfro believes strongly in ("it's a terrific program," he says).
The previous three firms have all done work for Edison Schools, formerly known as the Edison Project. Once considered Chris Whittle's craziest idea of all, the step that convinced many he'd finally gone 'round the bend, the network of privately run public schools is growing, now with 113 schools and tens of thousands of students nationwide—if not in the city where the concept was born. Thus far, Knox County has rejected Whittle's proposals to start a school here. However, Edison still maintains a small branch of its national headquarters in downtown Knoxville's Plaza Tower. Laura Eshbaugh, one of the leaders of 13-30 and Whittle Communications from its days in a South Knoxville pillow factory, works there—she's executive vice president of Edison Schools—along with five other Edison employees, including Chris Whittle's longtime personal assistant, Crystal Shipe.
Edison Schools are different from conventional public schools in many ways, including a longer school day (up to eight hours) and a much-longer school year. Edison Schools concentrate on reading and math, and they provide computers for home use.
"We have schools all over," Eshbaugh says. "From San Diego to Duluth to Miami to Dallas," she says. "We'd love to see Edison Schools here. We already have one in Atlanta, and a few in North Carolina."
From here, Eshbaugh handles much of the business side of the Edison Project, financing and investments, and deals with attorneys. She also does some research and development work.
Edison's main headquarters is in New York, where the bulk of Edison's employees moved in 1994. The Knoxville office appears to be here, mainly, because Eshbaugh and some of her colleagues just didn't want to leave. "We recruited from all over," she says, "and it was only with reluctance that people left." She stayed, in part, because she had a daughter in school here.
"We think we enriched the community by the quality of the people we brought here."
Two floors down in the same building is one of Eshbaugh's old colleagues. On the 10th floor of Plaza Tower is the world headquarters of William Rukeyser, Inc. The well-known Fortune editor who founded Money magazine, Rukeyser was one of Whittle's most surprising hires.
He came to Knoxville in 1988 purely to take the editorial reins of Whittle's magazines and its then-new book-publishing project. Even during Whittle's salad days, many wondered how long Rukeyser would be content to stay in Knoxville. It's now been more than 12 years, and counting. Rukeyser has been in Knoxville longer as an ex-Whittlite longer than he was a Whittlite.
His spartan office faces the river. One framed cartoon depicts a man playing a dollar sign like a guitar. He moved in only recently and hasn't decorated much. He answers his own phone.
"William Rukeyser, Inc." he says, "is, basically, me. Catchy, isn't it?" One of the more dignified and better-dressed of Whittle's former employees, Rukeyser is still the wry, deep-voiced New Yorker who was the top editor at Whittle when the company was publishing the likes of George Plimpton and John Kenneth Galbraith. "I founded this company for the purpose of owning my own equity in Whittle Communications," he says. "When Whittle went out of business, I was able to immediately seek employment with William Rukeyser, Inc."
The corporation's involved in several things at the moment, including a new project about which he'll say only that it concerns "a technology that greatly facilitates the use of on-line auctions." Rukeyser, Inc.'s day job is a magazine that's frankly, not for everybody: Corporate Boardmember, a national magazine for directors of public companies and for which Rukeyser is editorial director. It has a circulation of 60,000. Perhaps to contrast it with the numerically comparable readership of Metro Pulse, he adds, "60,000 very interesting people." It's much livelier than most magazines of its ilk, and each issue includes an essay by Rukeyser himself.
He does most of his work from Knoxville. He and his wife, Elisabeth, who accompanied her husband here and who now happens to be the state Commissioner of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, live in the Rocky Hill area. "I'm able to arrange my priorities in a way that keeps me in Knoxville," he says. Why? "It certainly isn't because it's easier to do business here," he says. "It's not an easy place to get in or out of by air."
For a year and a half, when he was doing a financial news show for CNN in the mid-'90s, he commuted to New York and back every week. Now he goes to New York once or twice a month.
He enumerates his reasons as precisely as you might expect from a corporate boardmember. "First, it's beautiful," he says. "Though I don't include all downtown architecture in that." He says New Yorkers train themselves not to notice beauty, but says he's still touched by "mist rising off the river and mountains in the distance."
Second, he says, "People really are—and I'll try to avoid the N-word," but then he uses it anyway. "Nice," he says.
Third, he says, it's cheap.
"There are more interesting, creative media people in Knoxville than in most towns of its size," he says. He has a theory that people who were married, especially those who had children, tended to stay in Knoxville after the Fall, and those who were single tended to move elsewhere. (With some exceptions, it seems to hold water.)
"Knoxville is a very open community," he says. "If you want to participate, you can participate. It's receptive to new people." Mentioning his wife's activities, he adds that he has served with several charitable organizations, himself; he's now on the board of the Knoxville Museum of Art as well as the board that governs UT Medical Center.
Rukeyser says some of his New York friends were astonished when he and his wife moved to Knoxville. Now, he says, "It's regarded an acceptable eccentricity."
Go in the building next door—Plaza Tower's modernist step-sister the Riverview Tower—and damned if there aren't more prominent Whittle people there. Called U30, it commenced about four years ago when former Whittle CEO Ed Winter and old Whittle colleagues Janet Shoemaker and Dick Nye took their marketing know-how and started a firm strictly to do marketing research. But their target is a very different demographic from Rukeyser's.
U30's name reflects its interest: the company concentrates on the under-30 crowd. They spend much of their work week interviewing young people and selling the information they gather, largely for the purpose of product development. Among the most geographically expansive of the Little Whittles, Knoxville-based U30 is an international company with satellite offices in Nashville, Chicago, and Amsterdam. U30 employs about 15 in the Knoxville office, not including several interns; almost weekly, they deal with a dependable pool of 8,000 young interviewees around the world. Several of the full-time employees in this youth-oriented company are too young to have worked for Whittle.
Winter admits his company is based on his experiences at Whittle. "When I got there in 1984, it was 13-30," a corporate name picked to reflect the company's age demographic. "13-30 was successful when that audience wasn't even growing," as it is now, he says. "That was before Whittle got big and messed up." He still believes Whittle's strength was in reaching the youth market, and admits he's trying to replicate Whittle's early success. Recent clients have included Frito Lay, Rebok, Pizza Hut, Pepsi, Levi, Sam Adams, and Mars Bars. He says U30 is doubling in size every two years or so, especially after establishing a relationship with an old Whittle advertiser, Procter and Gamble.
Winter came to Knoxville from Dallas. When Whittle closed, he had a job waiting for him at Channel One in New York, but Winter, recently married to local photographer Christine Patterson (a native Knoxvillian but also another former Whittle employee who has made a name for herself), didn't want to go. "The quality of life in Knoxville, I couldn't find anywhere else," he says. "Knoxville's just so grounded. I'm quite happy here."
Just down Gay Street, four blocks and several solar systems away from the mirrored towers where Rukeyser, Inc., Edison Schools, and U30 keep their offices, is a place called Yee-Haw Industries. In the display windows of this old storefront on the otherwise quiet 400 block are dozens of large, colorful, wildly primitive-looking posters depicting Cas Walker, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens—plus a big pig head from a circa 1950 Piggly Wiggly sign. Yee-Haw is the only letter-press shop in East Tennessee; there are few places anywhere that do what they do.
And what they do bears no resemblance to anything Whittle Communications ever did. Walk in, as they hope you'll do—their work is, after all, for sale—and you'll smell the ink and hear the rumble of a huge press that's rolling most of the day.
"Synergy" and "proactive" aren't words you're ever going to hear at Yee-Haw. Using antique processes and often antique equipment, they print posters and cards. They set the type, much of which is carved from wood, by hand.
They're a media company, sure enough, but about the only thing Yee-Haw has in common with Whittle Communications, L.P., is national scope and a degree of fame. That, and Julie Belcher. Ten years ago, the West Virginia native was an art director for Whittle's Special Reports.
Yee-Haw has done Christmas cards for the Wall Street Journal; they do business cards for everyone from Farrah Fawcett to ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons; they regularly make show posters for Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Southern Culture On the Skids. This weird little place on Gay Street was featured on the cover of the national trade monthly Print in 1999; more recently, the Washington Post ran a feature about their operation.
Belcher was not long out of college when she went to work as an assistant art director for Whittle in 1988. During the crest of Whittle's wave, Belcher worked long hours using computers to design slick magazines for middle-class housewives. When she left Whittle during its final throes, she moved to New York, where she worked for another slick, consumer-oriented magazine for American females—Seventeen—as she got a degree in computer graphics from the School of Visual Arts.
"Working on a computer all day was ruining my body," she says. "It really messes you up." She wanted a job that was more physical, and she found one. "It's a perfect combination of using all you know," she says, "with going back to 15th-century technology."
The office, which might seem chaotic only to a newcomer, is lined with hundreds of long drawers, each of which is full of metal, wooden, and linoleum pieces of type, many of them antiques; much of it isn't available to modern computer typesetters. "Some of them are fonts we don't even know the names of," Belcher says. "They just never translated to the digital world."
She seems happily stunned by the turns her career took at the end of the millennium. In Corbin, Kentucky, she and Kevin Bradley, a veteran of famous Hatch Show Prints in Nashville, started their own letter-press company. Two years ago, they moved Yee-Haw to downtown Knoxville, where Yee-Haw employs four, plus an intern. They were hoping to find a place with walk-in trade, which has been disappointing; Belcher and Bradley have also been frustrated dealing with redevelopment plans for their block, which so far have ignored Yee-Haw.
Asked whether Yee-Haw would be here if she hadn't worked for Whittle, she says, "That's kind of a hard question...."
It is for a lot of others, too, especially those, like Belcher, who moved away after Whittle's collapse and then came back. Many say they can't answer that question for certain. But those who can answer it for certain all say, "no."
One of those is Bill Gubbins, who had been working for FTD in Detroit when recruited by Whittle to be a high-ranking group editor in 1984. He's now a senior vice president at iPIX, the Oak Ridge-based high-tech firm that has pioneered the 360-degree image. Like HGTV, iPIX started without Whittle influence, but gained from the talent pool created by Whittle's downfall.
Gubbins works in selling and explaining the technology, which is now used in a variety of formats, especially on the internet: from the Dixie Chicks website to the Lord of the Rings website. They recently made a 360-by-360 video of Phil Fulmer giving a pre-game pep talk.
Though iPIX wasn't started by former Whittlites, it now employs three in high-ranking positions. Gubbins says working for Chris Whittle was "like playing with the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan." He adds, "If, It's A Wonderful Life-style, Whittle had not existed," he wouldn't be here, and wouldn't know many of the professionals he knows now.
He considers his Whittle years the turning point in his career. "It's with me every day," he says.
Steven Friedlander is another who might never have even stopped for lunch in Knoxville had he not been offered a job at Whittle. He and his wife, successful freelance magazine writer Katy Koontz, had been making a living as journalists in New York when Whittle offered Friedlander a job in 1988. He thought he'd stay for two years, gather some experience, then move on. But he worked for Whittle for over six years. "I'm pretty sure I was the last editor out the door," he says. He was still working for Channel One's print division in mid-'95, months after the rest of Whittle's editorial departments had disbanded.
"I really didn't consider moving," he says. "I think Knoxville affords us a life we would not have in other places. And we don't have to put up with the magazine world of San Francisco and New York." He mentions colleagues who've been unexpectedly laid off or transferred.
After some years of freelance projects, some big, like the "Wal-Mart 1998 Tax and Savings Guide," which circulated two million copies, Friedlander is now editor of On the Road With Hampton, a brand-new quarterly provided to Hampton Inn customers, with a circulation of 1.5 million. This first issue is just out this month, and he's already gotten response to it. He does it all from his home in West Knoxville.
"I couldn't have done this 10 years ago," he says. "I can today because the technology allows me to do it. I do everything via email."
Californian Randall Duckett came to town in the early '80s to work for 13-30. He liked Whittle so much he expected to stay with the company throughout his career, but it didn't work out that way.
"Whittle pushed us out of the nest," says Duckett, who worked as an editor at Whittle for more than a decade. "And a lot of people, like me, found out we could fly. We found that we had skills and experience that we could sell on the marketplace." Duckett and his wife Maryellen, also a former Whittlite who now happens to be calendar editor for National Geographic Traveler, live in Powell and have jointly written two books, published by Rutledge Hill: 100 Secrets of the Smokies and 100 Secrets of the Carolina Coast. Husband and wife were both students at Boston University but hardly knew each other until they came to Knoxville to work for 13-30. They married and have three children, who are now adolescents.
"Knoxville has become our home," he says. "It is an extremely livable place.
"We've built a life here," he says. "Fortunately, we've also been able to build our careers here. We had professional connections here. You can do a lot of work, nationally, out of Knoxville."
Duckett is connected to Laine Communications, a firm that does a wide range of public relations and publishing work.
As of February, Duckett will become editor of 16-year-old advertorial magazine, Cityview, which is circulated to certain neighborhoods free through the mail. "I'm going to change the flavor of it," he promises, "make it more magazine-like."
Former Whittle editor George Spencer was from Virginia by way of Saudi Arabia, New Jersey, and Iran, when he came to work for Whittle in the '80s. He made an unusual career shift, getting a J.D. from UT. He's now a lawyer. But he couldn't stay away from journalism. Until recently, from his Fountain City home, he had done an admirable job of reviving one of Whittle's flagship magazines, Travel Life, a travel magazine for travel agents. He restarted the magazine as a bimonthly in early '98. "It was totally a Knoxville project," he says, naming half a dozen editors and art designers he recruited to start the magazine under the auspices of the Time Inc. empire. Unfortunately, it's been on ice since an advertiser withdrew in late 2000, and he doesn't have high hopes of reviving it again.
Paula Spencer and Dorothy Foltz-Gray meet for coffee at Litton's in Fountain City. They're members of a small sorority of Knoxvillians who are contributing editors of national magazines. ("Contributing Editor" is a title given to a regular writer who is sometimes consulted on magazine matters.) When Spencer and Foltz-Gray get together at Litton's, they represent five national magazines, only one of which is based in Knoxville.
Originally from Detroit, Spencer (who's married to George, above) came to work for Whittle in the booming '80s. When Whittle went out of business, she hit the ground running. She has been a contributing editor for Woman's Day for six years, writing as many as a dozen features for that popular monthly each year. She's also contributing editor for Parenting and Baby Talk. She says she's excited that Woman's Day has just given her her own monthly column, starting in April: "The Mom Next Door."
"They named it," she says, as if to apologize. "It's a first-person column about family matters." Spencer is also author of five books, several of which are about pregnancy (one is about pregnancy etiquette).
Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a contributing editor for Health, as well as decorating editor for HGTV Ideas. She also writes, on occasion, for Ladies Home Journal and Redbook. Originally from Philadelphia, she moved to Knoxville with her husband Danny years ago. Hers is something of a Cinderella story. In the '80s, she was already a mom, approaching 40, and manager of Knoxville's Sidewalk Dance Theater. She had little reporting experience—one piece in Popular Computing—when she got an internship with Whittle's two-year experiment with publishing fiction.
She rose in the ranks, made friends. Whittle's demise left her family in turmoil, as she interviewed for other jobs in other cities. "In between interviews," she says, "I'd get an assignment to write a story," often an assignment from one of her former colleagues. "I wrote for Health, Outside, Parenting." As she interviewed, a reality dawned on her. "All of a sudden, I said to Danny, 'I have a job!'"
She's been doing that job out of her North Knoxville home ever since.
Some of Foltz-Gray's original contacts at the big magazines were former Whittlites. Several locals are happily part of the complex network of former Whittle editors around the country, a web of relationships that several blithely described as "incestuous."
Others, if you'll pardon a shift in metaphor, are comparatively out in left field. Wayne Christensen, from Minneapolis, was once an executive vice-president at Whittle. Shortly after the Fall, he started a magazine called Baseball Parent, which he originally saw as a potential full-time job, a nationwide publication to serve the families of the 20 million kids who play baseball in America. He overestimated the demand; Baseball Parent has a present circulation of about 25,000. After seven years, though, it's still in business. Christiansen produces the magazine from his Sequoyah Hills home, but now he calls it a "hobby." His full-time job is as executive director of Knox Youth Sports, an organization of children's baseball and basketball teams involving more than 1,000 local athletes.
He and his wife Sara (the aforementioned art director at Media South) didn't feel married to Knoxville after Whittle's demise, and tarried partly because their son was still in high school here. They considered a return to their home in Minneapolis. But reconnoitering there, they were disappointed. "The city didn't speak to us in the same way it once did," he said. "The interstates had replaced some of our favorite roads." The sobering visit prompted them to "appreciate Knoxville for what it is."
Warren Guy is another who wouldn't be here today if not for the Whittle experiment. The former Philadelphian and New Yorker moved here in the '70s when, he says, he was the only real adult at 13-30; he worked for 13-30, and Whittle, for 18 years. His perhaps quixotic attempt to start a magazine boosting civic pride, Celebrate Knoxville, didn't last, but he broadened its focus and morphed into a perhaps more practical bimonthly, Weekend Escapes. Supported by a website, it's a slick, pictorial survey of vacation destinations throughout much of the Southeast. Guy puts it together out of his office at Lavidge and Associates in Bearden.
He markets it with a strategy, and a sales pitch, that's familiar to Chris Whittle: "We leave them in waiting rooms, large numbers of copies," he says. "Rather than sending them into people's homes, where they'd never get read." (There are several theories about why Whittle failed, but it wasn't because people don't read magazines in waiting rooms.)
David Brill came from Cincinnati to work for Whittle in the '80s. Unlike many of the others we interviewed, he didn't like it much, and quit. That was 15 years ago. He now works as an editor for UT's Energy, Environment, and Resources Center and is author of two nationally known books: As Far As the Eye Can See, his first-hand account of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, earned national accolades and made him a quoted expert on the trek. More recently, the former Farragut resident wrote a personal story A Separate Place, about a dad building a home for himself in the woods near a rugged river bluff in Morgan County, and the family troubles that coincided with it.
Wendy Lowe Besman was one of Whittle's chief editors; she left the company almost 20 years ago, but still lives in Oak Ridge. Her new book, not to be confused with Brill's, is A Separate Circle: Jewish Life In Knoxville, Tennessee, soon to be released by UT Press.
To be thorough, of course, we'd also have to include Metro Pulse among the Whittle-influenced media companies. Though none of the people who started this paper in 1991 were connected to Whittle, the weekly was in the right place at the right time to work as a parachute for suddenly unemployed editors and art directors, including longtime Metro Pulse editor Coury Turczyn, who came to Knoxville from Detroit to work for Whittle (he left the paper last summer); his girlfriend, former restaurant critic Bonnie Appetit, who sometimes wrote freelance features under her own name; staff writer Lee Gardner (now at City Paper in Baltimore); longtime production director Martha James; our art critic, Heather Joyner, a former Whittle photo researcher; this reporter; and, over the years, about a dozen freelance writers and photographers.
Our award-winning art director, Lisa Horstman, is an Ohio native who moved here to work for Whittle. If she didn't work here, she'd be a big part of this story. A confirmed North Knoxvillian, she also writes and illustrates children's books; her Fast Friends won the 1994 Dr. Seuss Picturebook Award. The Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball is available through the park service, as will be her soon-to-be released The Troublesome Cub, which will be marketed in national parks coast to coast.
As we suggested, this isn't a complete story. Numerous freelance designers, among them Deb Hardison, Jim Phillips, and Susan Brill, have recently done work in town. Several others work for various media companies, including Rob Lundgren, who works for River Media. There are creditable rumors that The Big Picture, a Whittle poster publication for grade school kids, is still in production somewhere in Knoxville, and that Good Stuff, a Whittle-bred marketing package for college students, is still assembled here, and that at least one person in town still works for Channel One.
It is, however, possible to exaggerate how much of an impact Whittle Communications had on Knoxville. Some dynamic media companies in Knoxville have no direct connection to Whittle Communications. Cable-television producer Jupiter Entertainment, for one example, is a cable-TV production company ("City Confidential," "The Competition") with a national reputation. They are largely made up of youngish people from out of town. However, none of their full-time employees used to work for Chris Whittle. Some local writers and designers are annoyed when people assume that any artistically talented individual between 30 and 50 surely used to work for Whittle.
Still, Knoxville may make a case study to examine a theory in modern civic economics: when a company the size and scope of Whittle Communications goes out of business, it doesn't necessarily go all the way out of business. Former Whittle employees may be contributing more to the Gross Knoxville Product now than they were then.
Some are in touch with each other every day; some are surprised to hear that some of their old colleagues are still in town. Most are sanguine about their Whittle experience, but several remain bitter about certain aspects. But they're still here, over 100 of them, and they're doing some very interesting work.