James Baird/Times Advocate
“A lot of people we contacted about advertising said they wouldn’t go in with us because of Johnny Rodgers.”
The year was 1974, and J .C. Turner was a man with ideas, lots of them, and each new idea led to the formation of a new business — a practice commonly known as the shotgun approach. In this pursuit, the forty-four-year-old, Texas-born Turner had left behind a fairly impressive number of businesses at varying addresses — locations which shifted as regularly as his own place of residence. One such venture that year was the creation of a retail operation called Luft Products (now abandoned).
Tawfiq Khoury. Rodgers and Turner also did everything they could to keep Khoury’s involvement a purely private affair."
The year 1974 was also important to two others. Tawfiq Khoury, then relatively new to San Diego, started Pacific Scene Real Estate, an organization which would soon join a long list of other highly profitable ventures initiated by Khoury. At the same time, Johnny Rodgers — formerly of Nebraska — was busy playing football for the Alouettes, a Canadian football team, while awaiting an anticipated move to San Diego, where he would join forces with the Chargers.
“It was horrible. That Robbie the Robot column."
But that was 1974, and in that year there had not been any contact between these three individuals, and it seemed doubtful that they would ever meet. But with the arrival of 1975 and the creation of yet another idea by Turner, there began a series of events that would slowly draw them together.
Then the advertisers began calling us. It seemed that no one was calling them in response to their ads.
The idea was for a magazine called TV News, a local version of TV Guide. That such an idea was, indeed, developed during this time is certain. Who first came up with the concept, however, continues to be a matter of some debate. During a recent interview, Rodgers claimed that the idea was originally his, based upon his exposure to a similar Canadian magazine, TV Hebdo, which once featured a cover story on Rodgers. But Rodgers did not meet Turner until 1976, fully a year after Turner had officially filed papers of incorporation for his own idea. Further, although several local publications have printed Rodgers’ claim to having personally conceived the enterprise, an early interview with the Chula Vista Star News quoted him as saying that development of the idea was a joint endeavor between himself and Turner.
Having officially embarked upon his latest entrepreneurial adventure, Turner based his abortive TV News organization in Kearny Mesa at 4710 Ruffner Street, Suite C. But 1975 and 1976 were not kind to J.C. Turner. His attempts at establishing TV News were unsuccessful, and on May 5, 1976, Turner was convicted of “running a house of ill fame and pandering,” according to court records. He was sentenced to one year probation and received a $500 fine.
The year 1976 was also less than rewarding for Johnny Rodgers. He had reached a parting of the ways with the Alouettes — a relationship capped off by a still-standing $818,000 breach-of-contract lawsuit against the team — and came to San Diogo to join the Chargers. That was the good news. The bad news was that he left owing Revenue Quebec, the Canadian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, a considerable sum of money. Rodgers currently estimates the debt at approximately $65,000. Fearing arrest, he has not returned to Canada since then.
Meanwhile, Tawfiq Khoury continued to do what he does best — turn a profit.
As for J.C. Turner, never having been one to let the cruel vicissitudes of an unkind fate deter him from his ambitions, the ensuing years (1977 through 1979) saw him embarking upon even more ventures. These included Teko Products, at 4590 Jicarillo (now defunct); Angelo's Furniture, at 4401 Park Boulevard (now defunct); and Luft Auto Sales, at 5810 El Cajon Boulevard (now defunct).
Johnny Rodgers was also busy with some corporate ventures of his own, which included speculations in real estate during and after his tenure with the Chargers (an affiliation that ended in 1979 with a knee injury). These investments included the ownership of All Pro Realty, a San Diego-based real estate franchise, now defunct. But it was this interest in real estate that brought Rodgers into social contact with Tawfiq Khoury. Khoury enjoyed Rodgers’ company. Rodgers was. after all, a popular sports figure, and would soon go on to help Khoury in several land development deals.
Fully aware of the eccentricities inherent in the real estate profession, Rodgers pursued other sources of revenue. Having met Turner socially shortly after arriving in San Diego, Rodgers went into a formal partnership with him and. in May of 1979, the two created Coast Auto Repair, located at 2867 El Cajon Boulevard. Two months prior to this. Turner had renewed his legal filings on TV News. He knew that somehow, something would come of it, and he spoke of these ambitions to Rodgers.
It was at this point that Rodgers approached Khoury with the idea of a locally based television magazine, and successfully solicited his assistance. ("1 did him a favor, and so he did me a favor," Rodgers was later to remark.) As a show of his own commitment, Rodgers invested an initial $100,000, which went into renting an impressive suite of offices at 9420 Famham Street in Kearny Mesa, outfitting it lavishly (thick carpeting, fancy decorations, expensive desks, and other furniture), and in bringing in the initial staff. The concept of franchisement was quickly added, and the magazine's name became California TV News, San Diego County Edition, under the aegis of J.C. Turner Enterprises, with Turner as publisher, Rodgers as president and editor of the magazine, and with Tawfiq Khoury as a silent partner, Turner was given this position because, according to Rodgers, he was thought to have a solid business and management background. Khoury's financial involvement was to begin as soon as Rodgers’ initial investment ran out. And so began a new San Diego business enterprise, which, for a number of people, is when the trouble started.
One of the first to be contacted by the new corporation was John Meyers of the John Meyers Advertising Agency. His role in the organization was to solicit advertising, arrange for trade-outs (radio air-time provided in exchange for advertisements in the magazine), and handle any additional publicity activities, including the production of commercials. "I blame myself for ever getting mixed up with people like that in the first place," Meyers recalls. "I was warned about doing anything with Johnny Rodgers; I was warned many times. My own son (an attorney] told me, ‘You’re a damn fool if you do anything with him.’ J.C. and Johnny Rodgers — they’re both high-rollers; they’re sort of throwbacks to the old days of wild gamblers and the Diamond Jim Bradys. There were driving the fancy cars and wearing the fancy clothes, but they could hardly afford to pay the hired help."
As a consequence of these warnings, Meyers was curious about the source of their finances. "Right at the beginning, 1 asked them what money they had. That was when Turner told me not to worry because they had Khoury involved in all this. But he was a silent partner. J.C. was the guy running it at the time, and he was trying to get everything for nothing." (Tawfiq Khoury now claims that he had no direct connection to California Radio TV News and does not remember ever meeting Turner, although he says that "I might have met him at a party some time.”)
The first priorities on Meyers’ list, as set down by Turner and Rodgers, were to produce a television commercial and to solicit trade-outs. For the television spot, they turned to Michael Thaller, an instructor in the telecommunications-and-film department at San Diego State University and an independent filmmaker. "One day I got a call from John Meyers asking if I could do a commercial for California Radio TV News," Thaller says. (The word radio was added to the name by Meyers.) When Thaller suggested showing Meyers a sample of his previous work, "he said he wasn’t interesting in seeing the sample reel. He was just interested in the price."
On February 28 Meyers called again, on Turner’s instructions, and convinced Thaller to lower the price to $550. But it wasn’t until mid-March that Thaller was given Turner’s conception for the commercial. "It was a thirty-second commercial with three scenes,” says Thaller, ‘‘and frankly, it reeked. Scene one was a spinning galaxy. Scene two was an explosion, followed by a robot walking around and talking about how California Radio TV News is sports and television and radio and all this. Scene three was a spinning graphic with the logo and the phone number. I thought to myself, ‘This is a pretty tacky commercial. Three scenes at ten seconds per scene is going to be pretty dull/ But throughout this whole thing, no one ever asked me for my opinion.”
Over the next several weeks, the artwork was assembled — by Turner. The main ingredient was an eleven-by-fourteen-inch spinning galaxy. “I recommended a poster from the Reuben H. Fleet Space Center,” Thaller says, “but Tumer thought he could get it cheaper. The problem was that the guy who did it was a sign painter, and three-by-four feet was the smallest he would work. It wasn’t a spinning galaxy; it was the artist taking a paint brush and splattering white paint on the board, creating a star field. The letters were hand-lettered, and when you zoomed into it to fill up the screen, it looked really bad. Meyers had to go over it with [pressure sensitive] press-letters.”
While the process of producing the television commercial went on. Turner and Rodgers found other activities with which to busy themselves. One of these was the task of assembling a dummy issue, a mock-up complete with articles, photographs (none of which had anything to do with the accompanying stories), and advertisements taken from other publications. “The issue was put together for the advertisers’ benefit,” says a former employee in the sales department. “The philosophy was, ‘Hey, these other magazines just give you a piece of paper and a description of the magazine. We’ve got the whole magazine.’ We knew it wasn’t going to look like that but we were told to tell people that it was gonna look like this, that this was the size, the thickness, and the quality of paper that we were going to use. But everyone knew that you can’t put out that kind of publication, with the quality bond they used in the dummy issue. You’d go broke on your first issue!”
A letter of introduction signed by Turner and published on the first page of the dummy issue promised “a projected 100,000-plus circulation in the San Diego area” and stated that “a test edition of the magazine sold over 25,000 subscriptions in a five-week period.” (Rodgers, who disclaims detailed knowledge of the letter, now admits that there had been no such “test” issue.) “Both Johnny and J.C. kept telling me to tell people that we were going to put 100,000 or 50,000 copies on the stands, even though they knew they would only have 25,000 printed, if that,” explains Brad Andrews, a former employee of the magazine who has requested his real name not be used because of concerns for his professional reputation. “Every time I went [to sell advertising space] to a new client. I was assured of the magazine being at the prime spots, at the checkout stands, at Safeway, Mayfair, Big Bear, Vons — all the big ones. This never came to happen.”
In addition to the inconsistencies about the projected press run, this mockup issue had other difficulties. There were no page numbers, photographs were apparently inserted without regard to the surrounding written copy, and one story was even laid out in incorrect sequence (middle page first, followed by the first page, and then the last page). Questions about the experience and background of both Rodgers and Turner were also raised at this time. “A lot of people we contacted about advertising said they wouldn’t go in with us because of Johnny Rodgers,” recalls a salesperson with the magazine. “They said, ‘What does he know about publishing? Who the hell is J.C. Turner?’ They asked me, ‘Who is going to be writing for it?’ All I could say was, ‘Some of the best free-lance writers in San Diego.' They’d say, ‘But who are they?’ And I’d have to say, ‘I don’t know.’ I couldn’t tell them anything. They [Turner and Rodgers] wouldn’t tell me.” Rodgers and Turner also did everything they could to keep Khoury’s involvement a purely private affair. “Right at the beginning,” Brad Andrews says, “I didn’t even know his name. I knew, though, that Johnny was constantly getting notes from Tawfiq. At one point, when I was in the process of getting hired, I wanted to get hold of him [Khoury] to find out if I really had the job or not. But Johnny wouldn’t even tell me how he spelled his name. In referring to him, all they would say was ‘the Arab.’ ”
As work on the magazine progressed, California Radio TV News contracted with Sportease, a local specialty T-shirt firm located at 9873 Carmel Mountain Road, to produce more than $1300 worth of T-shirts emblazoned with the magazine’s name. Trade-outs were arranged with the few broadcast stations willing to take a chance on the magazine, including KFMB, KOWN, XTRA, and KCBQ. Also, according to Meyers, “Easy to Assemble Furniture gave Johnny a sectional as a trade-out, which he, in turn, put in his home.” Oh . . . and the commercial?
After overcoming a variety of technical difficulties caused by Turner’s instructions and preparations, Michael Thaller was finally ready for some outdoor shooting. “The only live scene I had to shoot was this stupid mechanical robot, looking like he just landed from space,” Thaller says. “It shouldn't have been any problem." As it happened, however, a problem is just what it became.
“The robot was J.C. Turner’s idea," explains Meyers. “After the commercial got started, Johnny and J.C. had a brainstorm. They saw Mr. Trash and said. ‘We don't need a dummy.' They'd had a mechanical robot made up cheap. They said. ‘Let's get a real robot! We’ll go out and get Mr. Trash! ’ So we go out, and Mr. Trash (San Diego mime John Debrito) is contacted. Then they get the funkiest suit made up for him out of plastic and crap, and spray-painted it, and the damn paint just kept popping and peeling off — it just looked raunchy, like a Halloween costume put out by one of those dime stores.” Thaller was equally unimpressed. “The suit was some thick card stock shaped like legs, more card stock, some flexible plastic dryer hose for the arms — all painted silver — and the logo on his chest. It was just the most half-assed thing you’ve ever seen in your life. The costume had two Tupperware bowls glued together for the head, and the paint kept peeling off it. I kept thinking. Thank God no one 's going to know I did this!' “
At the last moment, however. John Debrito (Mr. Trash) turned out to be unavailable, so Meyers’ car mechanic was substituted for the scene, which was to be filmed on Harbor Island. “It looked awful," Thaller recalls. “We had to do several takes to get it right, and the robot couldn't walk backwards to do it over again. At one point the harbor patrol pulled over and asked us what the hell we were doing. It was pretty funny.”
Meanwhile, the April drive to obtain subscriptions in advance of the first issue was underway. The first radio commercials were being broadcast, and a special subscription rate of $14.95 for a full year (fifty-two issues) was offered. Then Rodgers developed yet another inducemernt for subscribers: hundreds of posters and flyers were printed, each proclaiming that for every one-year subscription. $ 1.45 (or seventy cents in the case of a half-year subscription) would be donated to Professional Athletes Community Effort (PACE), identified on the handouts as a nonprofit corporation According to the advertisements, PACE let youngsters work with professional athletes, sponsored weekend workshops, and would even “step in and help out” when an underprivileged child was injured in a sporting event and the parents’ medical insurance was insufficient to cover the expenses. There was just one problem: there was — and is — no such organization based in San Diego. “PACE was Johnny Rodgers.” says Andrews. “It was a great gimmick he came up with for subscribers. We kept telling him, ‘Look, Johnny, you can't just make up something like that. You’ve got to file for nonprofit status and create a whole separate corporation.’ But all he'd say was, ‘We’ll worry about that later.’ ” (Rodgers recently said that “there was an organization that was planned to do that, and it is still in the planning stages.’’)
It was also in late April, after nearly two months of last-minute changes by Turner, that Michael Thaller completed the commercial. “So finally we're going to show it to J.C. Turner,” he says now. “It was to be the first time I had actually met J.C. He had been directing the whole thing from a distance. So he comes to my house. I show him the spot, and he says, i can get this done cheaper at Channel 8.' and leaves! That’s when I thought, 'I don't think I'm gonna get paid for this.’ ” Needless to say. Thaller was not pleased at the prospect. “I had done everything I had been told to do, and the result wasn’t technically bad. It’s just that [conceptually! it was a stinker. It was poorly written, poorly planned, and everything else.” Meyers agrees. “Mike did as good a job as he could do.” he says, “considering that they didn't want to spend any money on the commercial.” Rodgers and Turner then returned their attention to the subject of the premiere issue of California Radio TV News, which would shortly be making its debut. In addition to the planned puzzles, quizzes, recipes, and multi-language articles, a weekly female centerfold was instituted. “J.C. had put together the idea of the centerfold so that he could see how many girls he could meet.” says Andrews. “He used to have all these pictures in his office and was always looking them up and down, saying he was going to take them all out. Every girl he talked to about the centerfold he tried to get a date with. That was the only reason he ever wanted that centerfold in there. That’s what he told me.”
It was at this point that John Meyers decided that he wanted out. “Finally, one day I said to J.C., You know, I don’t like what you’re doing. I think it’s bullshit.’ So he wrote me a letter — a real hot and heavy one — that said from now on I didn’t represent them in any manner, shape, or form. I said, ‘Fine. I don’t care.’ ”In that letter, dated April 21, Turner wrote that “we are completely stunned at your ineffectiveness. As a matter of fact. John, you have been a detriment at every turn along the way. We feel confident we would have been much further ahead without you.” There was, however, one issue that had not been addressed in Turner’s letter: Michael Thaller and his commercial. “I figured that somebody owed me money,” Thaller says. “Normally. I bill through the advertising agency that hires me. But then John Meyers tells me that his partnership was dissolved, and so my argument now was with J.C. Turner. At that point, I thought, ‘Now I’m in big trouble.’ ” Then California Radio TV News hit the local newsstands with its 128-page May 3-9 premiere issue. The edition contained TV and radio listings, several lengthy editorials, such features as “Suzanne’s Recipes,” “Military Spotlight,” an advice column called “Ask Shonda,” and the “California Angels” centerfold, which featured nineteen-year-old Irene Haplem, a student at Grossmont Junior College. The issue — which sold for forty cents — featured a cover story on Michael Tuck, and the first installment in a series of columns by the magazine’s mascot. Robbie the Robot, which read, in part, “All information is data based and designed to help you arrive, without speculation, as we evolve into the twenty first (21st) Century. We are going to panic-proof your life by keeping you two steps ahead of each crisis that affects California from any part of the Universe. You people are just experiencing the realism that it is possible for your whole world to commit suicide, therefore you’re forced with that striking new concept called “Reality.’ ”
To address the matter as charitably as possible, that first issue left much to be desired. Not only was the content lacking considerably in quality, but the occasional translations of English articles into Japanese were printed sideways, the listings for San Diego television stations appeared less than thirty percent of the time, the centerfold was little more than a badly cropped photo of Ms. Haplem placed atop a seascape. “It was horrible,” says Meyers. “That Robbie the Robot column — Johnny and J.C. worked that one up themselves. I don't even know what the hell it came out of. I didn’t know they were going to do it. All that stuff like ‘Ask Shonda’ and that other crap — it came about later. I didn't know anything about it. All of a sudden I see the first issue and I can’t believe it. It was just horrible!” Meyers was not alone in his assessment. Similar appraisals were made throughout San Diego — particularly in the office of Tawfiq Khoury. “I told Johnny then that I could only support the effort if it was a different magazine,” Khoury said recently. Rodgers was then informed by Khoury that this was to be thconly issue of California Radio TV News, that his business relationship with Khoury would be terminated unless he cleaned up the organizational mess, and that J.C. Turner was to be fired. “When everything started falling apart, Tawfiq pulled the plug on Johnny Rodgers,” says Andrews. “He told Johnny, in essence, ‘Either straighten things out or the whole thing is going to go down the tubes.’ So Johnny Rodgers fired J.C. Turner. (“It was my money that was invested in all this, so I could fire him,” Rodgers recently said about his ability to fire Turner when the entire effort was under the jurisdiction of J.C. Turner Enterprises, and Turner was technically in a superior position. “He was never over me,” Rodgers continued, “but he had full run of the situation. All the liabilities and responsibilities were mine.”)
Thus did California Radio TV News reach its end within days of its birth. To assist Rodgers in reorganizing and establishing a new publication, Khoury brought in Tom Gable of the Gable Agency, who set about redesigning the magazine. Khoury himself took over the financial obligations of the organization because Rodgers’ own funds had been very nearly depleted by the debacle. In addition, the remaining staff — those who had not already resigned — were fired en masse by Rodgers within a week of the magazine’s debut.
Michael Thaller, however, still wanted his money. “So I hired a lawyer and went into small claims court and did all the things that I’m supposed to do to get everyone into court. I wrote them a letter, told them that I’d fulfilled my commitments, done what they'd told me to do, and to pay me within ten days. I never got a response.” When a registered letter returned unclaimed, a marshal was sent on July 7 to serve papers at the magazine’s offices at 9420 Famham. In an incident that Rodgers currently claims he does not remember, the marshal arrived at the office and asked, “Is this California Radio TV News?’ ’ After hesitating only a second, Rodgers, who was in the presence of a couple of transitional employees, including Brad Andrews, replied, “There’s nobody here with that company any more. They still have their name on the door, but we don’t know where they are now.” Satisfied with the response, the marshal left.
As a consequence, only Meyers appeared in court, and the judge ruled Meyers liable for payment. “Nobody from California Radio TV News showed up,” Meyers says, “and since I was there, and since somebody had to pay Thaller for his services, I was the one who had to pay.” Finally, after six months had passed since his initial contact by California Radio TV News, Thaller received his $550.
But there were other matters left unresolved. According to Phil Underwood, president of Sportease, Inc., “The contract I had with California Radio TV News was that I would produce 300 T-shirts for a total of $1380.32. In return, I was supposed to receive that much in advertising, which I didn’t see..There has been no payment of any kind made. I haven’t heard from them at all.”
John Meyers also tried to intercede. “That $1300 is a lot of money to Sportease,” he says. “That’s like maybe $200,000 is to Tawfiq Khoury. They worked damn hard, sitting there night after night, putting on those special decals with those hot irons. They were the best material you could buy, the logos were made up special, and the finished products were beautiful. And they were still wearing them. Johnny told me that he was wearing one, his kid was wearing it, and that he hadn’t given them away. So I said, ‘Well, aren’t you going to honor the debt?’ He said, ‘No.’ I asked him about honoring the [radio] trade-outs. He said, ‘I don’t think so.’ ”
“I don’t know anything about Sportease,” Rodgers recently said. “Sportease has never contacted me about no money or no nothing.” To date, less than half of the radio trade-outs have been honored. “The rest of the stations wrote off the loss as a bad investment,” according to Meyers. While Rodgers claims that original agreements, trade-outs, and contracts have been honored in “at least forty to fifty cases,” at a cost of * ‘around $40,000,’ ’ he declined to supply any names or lists to support his claim.
In order to avoid the possibility of further lawsuits, the finances of California Radio TV News were drained and the bank account closed so there was nothing remaining to be attached. (To this date, official bankruptcy proceedings have not been initiated, although Rodgers anticipates that such a move should begin soon.) The remaining monies were then redirected to the new publication, now called Tuned In, a name which was created at the Gable Agency. The corporate offices remained at the same location on Famham Street, the furniture and equipment remained there as well, and Rodgers assumed the title of publisher. (The $900 worth of furniture Rodgers had been given for a trade-out by Easy to Assemble Furniture remained in his home, although he had never honored the trade-out.) New employees were hired and were generally told as little as possible about the earlier magazine, often to the point of not even letting new employees see that premiere issue until long after their hiring. According to an interim employee, “The attitude was one of, “Hey, we’ve never been in town before. We don’t know who this California Radio TV News is, but we’re better than they were.” Rodgers himself continues to insist that “there is absolutely no connection between this magazine and California Radio TV News. None whatsoever.”
The fresh faces included two secretaries; an advertising sales manager — Terry Larsen, formerly of the Pennysaver and San Diego Home/Garden; and an art director, Norbert Jobst, who relocated from Los Angeles and who had been one of the guiding forces behind Playgirl magazine. (Because of his affiliation with Playgirl, Jobst was required to sign a contract which included a morality clause specifying that he could be terminated for anything that came within groping distance of moral turpitude. Although Rodgers denies the existence of any such contract, Jobst also says that the contract specified that if he resigned within six months — something he would later wish to do — he would personally have to assume the costs of his relocation.)
After these and several support positions were filled — including some commissioned salespeople and an assistant for Jobst — there was only one vacancy remaining. Someone had to be hired as editor. That’s where I came in.
• • •
Selected comments by Johnny Rodgers:
“Look-, Joe, if I were you, I wouldn’t do anything slanderous or that would make a lot of negative things come down on us. I’d remind you that Tawfiq Khoury’s a powerful man and he’s got a long arm and he can find you in Los Angeles or anywhere else you go.
"You realize that if this article comes out in the Reader in a negative way that I’ll have to sue. This will be the second negative article that’s been published by the Reader, and since I’m the only black publisher in San Diego, I can only take that sort of thing as a racist attack, and I’m sure the NAACP would agree. I could keep the Reader in court a long time, and 1 don’t think they — or you — want that.”
“To be totally honest with you,” Rodgers said during my interview for the editorial job, “I’d rather have a woman in the editor’s position. I think that, overall, a woman is a lot more flexible and can be more open to changes and that sort of thing. I really feel, though, that you know the town and you’ve got the connections, so as far as I’m concerned you’ve got the job.” As it turned out, Rodgers’ decision was not final in and of itself. Before my hiring could be made official, I had to pay a visit to Tawfiq Khoury and Tom Gable.
The suite of offices at Tawfiq Khoury’s 3900 Harney Street address looked rather modest from outside. Its interior offices, however, particularly those of Khoury himself, spoke strongly of the presence of money. Khoury proved to be a short, sharp-eyed man with a penchant for plain speaking. “I had become involved with the previous magazine,” he said during our interview, “and it did not live up to its expectations. This time, however, I am putting my name on the magazine — and nothing that I have ever put my name on has failed. Do you understand?” I nodded. “Good. Now, tell me — do you really feel that there is a place for such a publication? In a town as admittedly small as San Diego, would you not sooner or later run out of ideas? What do you think the chances of such a magazine succeeding are?” There was a barrage of questions. Although it was evident that he, through Tom Gable, had researched the topic, he admitted he had never before started a magazine and was thoroughly unfamiliar with the market. I worked my way through the questions as best 1 could. Though Khoury seemed as implacable as before, my answers appeared satisfactory, and after three-quarters of an hour I left for my appointment with Tom Gable.
Gable was, admittedly, less than impressed. He looked over my resume and samples of my previous work again and again, and after about ten minutes I was ushered out. But the process was now complete and I had been hired as editor of Tuned In. (In its new incarnation. Tuned In was a ninety-page, pocket-size magazine that covered the TV. radio, sports, music, and entertainment scene in San Diego County. Each issue would contain an article in each of these areas, as well as a calendar of events, restaurant and movie reviews, in addition to its seven-day TV and radio log listings.)
The debut issue was set to appear during the first week of September, 1980 — two weeks after my hiring. The articles for the first few issues had already been assembled by the Gable Agency, which, I learned quickly, was both good and bad. It gave me the chance to catch my breath, but the articles had the look and feel of press releases. While there was sufficient time to rewrite considerably the material for the following two issues, there was nothing that could be done for the first one. whose premiere was set to coincide with two big media bashes sponsored by Khoury. During those first two weeks, however, I kept getting the feeling that something was wrong, that something was being buried under a mountain of media hype, fancy commercials, and a new name. There were phone calls from people who muttered unpleasantries about unfulfilled subscriptions to a previous magazine, calls received for someone named J. C. Turner that were dealt with brusquely, press packets and letters arriving addressed to employees of the previous magazine that I’d never heard of and got little information about upon asking.
The first issue of Tuned In arrived at the office on a Friday. (The cover featured a photograph of the San Diego Chicken. Someone had led Harold Greene of Channel 10 to anticipate his visage there instead. The result sent Greene into a snit.) When the magazines were delivered, we discovered that they had been shipped on pallets instead of in boxes. As a result, Rodgers ordered the accompanying forklift to enter the office building and deposit the magazines at our door — a move with nearly disastrous consequences for the carpeting, which wasn’t the same for weeks afterward.
Many of the magazines were given out at the two media parties hosted at Tom Ham’s Lighthouse during the first week of September. The gathering gave Tom Gable the opportunity to show off the television commercials he’d made for Tuned In (lots of stars and flashing lights, but no Robbie the Robot). But there was a quiet shadow over the proceedings. Khoury buttonholed Rodgers and me during the party and took us to one side. “Have you read this thing?” he asked, indicating the magazine. “It’s terrible. Terrible. It is bland, boring. When I saw this, I had to go home and jump in the pool. It was the only way I could cool off.” Rodgers and I attempted to placate him as much as possible, explaining that I was bringing in other writers to replace the material provided by the Gable Agency. Khoury seemed uncertain. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. But we are not going to go through all this a second time.” I wondered what he was referring to but decided to let it slide. He was not in the mood for questions (even his name had been misspelled in the copy). Besides, that gathering was probably Tuned In's finest moment.
After the first issue appeared at local newsstands, we found ourselves with 20,000 extra copies, even after another 10,000 had been bulk mailed to randomly selected homes. Nearly 5000 of these leftover copies were given out at a special “Sell-A-Thon” held inside the Sports Arena on September 13, and about 15,000 more copies were handed out at a Chargers game on September 14. In some cases, passers-by were given two or even three copies of the issue in an effort to get rid of the things. It was hoped that the handouts would help gain subscriptions. It seemed curious at the time, however, that there would still be so many extra copies from a print run in excess of 30,000 copies, nearly all of which were supposed to go to the newsstands.
It was several weeks later when I learned the answer. Our advertising manager, Terry Larsen, came into my office and sat down. “I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer we can keep a lid on all this.” I asked him what the hell he was talking about. “Look,” he said, “we’re selling ads based on the premise that we’re putting 30,000 copies on the stands. But do you know how many we’re really putting on the stands?” I waited. “I’ll tell you: 8500. And if the advertisers ever find out about that, we’re sunk.” I said that I was surprised that the fabrication was necessary — we seemed to have enough ads not to have to worry about stretching the truth. Larsen laughed. “You mean those ads for Tops ’N Travel, Pacific Scene, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Meadow Run? They’re all owned by Tawfiq, my friend. We don’t get any money off those at all. The inside front cover is an ad for ourselves, and the only reason we have Seaport Village on the inside back cover is because Tom Gable handles the Seaport account. ” I asked him if Gable was aware of the number of copies he was getting for his client’s money, but Larsen declined to answer and soon thereafter left the office. I was stunned by the information but agreed, against my better judgment, to keep it quiet. However, I still didn’t know why this had come to be.
Then, over the following weeks, the truth began emerging. With a bare handful of exceptions, the points of distribution — retail outlets where the magazine would be sold for thirty-five cents each — had not been set up in advance of the initial publication. Because of the limited outlets, San Diego Periodicals, the firm Tuned In had contracted with to distribute the magazines, refused to take more than 8500 copies. So during the first two months of Tuned In’s history, the staff was constantly scrambling to establish new outlets. In the interim, though, the word from Rodgers was clear: stonewall. If anyone asked, we were putting out 30,000 copies. Period.
Then the advertisers began calling us. It seemed that no one was calling them in response to their ads, and since the number of calls an advertiser receives are indicative of the number of people seeing the ad in question, they were getting nervous. In order to forestall the advertisers while circulation was being built up, the secretaries — Linda Bona and Laurie Anderson — were asked to telephone the advertisers-under assumed names, often with altered accents, to tell them that they were calling in response to the ad placed in Tuned In and that they wanted more information.
From that point on matters did not perceptibly improve. Rodgers was away from the office most of the day, almost every day. leaving the rest of the staff to run the magazine in his absence. Although I was greatly in need of an assistant to help with the task of editing, assembling, and virtually managing the magazine, my request was denied. Khoury, it appeared, was attempting to keep the operating budget to a minimum in case Tuned In took a nosedive. While Tom Gable was listed in the staff box as editorial consultant, his contributions in this area were minimal. I grumbled at this but was promptly informed by Rodgers that Gable, despite his lack of input, would continue to be listed as editorial consultant “for as long as Tawfiq wants him there. “ As it turned out, Rodgers himself was little pleased with Gable and, in an effort to eliminate his reliance on the Gable Agency, launched an abortive attempt to start an in-house advertising agency to be called Tuned In Communications. Khoury indicated he would not support the idea and thus it died.
Weekly staff meetings were set for 8:00 a.m. Monday mornings — a good idea in itself. But the meetings were closed to criticism, which Rodgers interpreted as negativity, and which we, in turn, could interpret as the potential for unemployment. The meetings turned into lengthy harangues or pep talks by Rodgers, who advocated positive mental energy. “If we all concentrate hard enough,” he said at one meeting, “we can lift this plant here on my desk with just our thoughts. ” I was relieved when he did not attempt this trick. To assure that no one missed or was late for a meeting, Rodgers implemented and, at least once, enforced a rule that anyone late to or absent from a staff gathering would be fined twenty-five dollars.
Cautious after the financial debacle of California Radio TV News, Khoury attempted to trim operating expenses at every opportunity. One result was that there were never more than two functional typewriters in the offices at any given time, wholly inadequate for our needs. Expenses were cut on absolutely necessary supplies, including art supplies, a situation which led art director Jobst to make vociferous objections during a taped — and later aired — segment of Jack White’s Journal on Channel 10. In stark contrast, large amounts of money were being spent on image-making, in order to get as far as possible from the shadow of the previous magazine. A phenomenal $50,000 was spent on advertising during the first month of Tuned In's history, followed by an additional $25,000 each month thereafter. But where the money was needed most — for the actual operation of the magazine — it was least given. The paper on which it was printed was generally of an inferior bond and weight, and as for the television listings ... let me tell you about the listings.
Sometime during the second week in October, a woman called to inform me that Channel 39 had been almost entirely omitted from a recent issue. I tried to venture that there probably wasn’t anything worth watching on 39 that week anyway. She hung up on me. She and other frequent callers were irate, and with considerable justification. A survey of our fifth issue showed 102 individual errors. Further, someone — we never could determine who — had applied for a fourth-class mailing permit (junk mail) instead of second-class (printed matter), so many issues were arriving in subscribers’ mailboxes as long as two or three weeks after they’d expired . . . when they arrived at all, that is. We, of course, blamed the problem on the post office. My own work was considerably complicated by the fact that Rodgers would often tell people that an article would be written about them — sometimes even telling them that it would appear within a week — without informing me of that fact, a situation which led to some rather embarrassing phone calls to my office from expectant nightclub owners wanting to know where their article was.
Despite the fact that the articles were being well received — we got positive letters of support and congratulations from members of the general public and from such media personalities as Michael Tuck and Marion Ross of ABC-TV’s Happy Days series — we were falling into uncomfortable times. None of us was entirely certain that Tuned In would last past October. Part of this concern was based upon the fact that the magazine cost nearly $23,000 per week to operate — an expense far greater than Khoury had anticipated, based upon initial expense evaluations provided by Tom Gable, which Khoury later found were much lower than actually was required.
Throughout this period, Rodgers told everyone not to worry. Khoury, he explained, was only a backer, and that he, Rodgers, was really the owner of the magazine. But what none of us knew at the time was that, while it was acknowledged that Tuned In was a publication of Jetpro, Inc., Khoury was the only chief executive officer named on the document of incorporation filed in Los Angeles in July. (The only acknowledged shareholder in Jetpro, which was created to accommodate Tuned In, was Pilara, another firm owned by Khoury.) This would seem to contradict Rodgers’ claims to ownership, but Rodgers dismissed the seeming discrepancy. “Khoury and I have an understanding,” he said, “and it doesn’t matter if you or anyone else understands it. We know who we are.”
We continued to receive calls asking about our connections to California Radio TV News. Usually, unless the caller could pin us down, all connections were denied. Many of these calls, which were alternately taken by the secretaries and, upon occasion, by myself, were from members of the community who had previously subscribed to California Radio TV News and who wanted their money back. (Some were, indeed, refunded, while others were given subscriptions to Tuned In. One subscriber, however, had to resort to the Evening Tribune's “Action Line” before matters were straightened out. and another enlisted the assistance of the city attorney’s office.) While Rodgers continued denying to anyone who asked any outright connection between the two publications, we were still opening and using material addressed and mailed to California Radio TV News.
Through the staff meetings, we knew that Khoury would only renew his commitment to the magazine in February, 1981 — when his initial agreement expired — if it could quickly begin showing >a profit, which is difficult, if not impossible, for any magazine. Then, on October 24, a “Tuned In Magazine Progress Report” was issued by Rodgers and circulation manager Larry Stuardi, stating that we had achieved a sixty-one percent sales rate and were San Diego’s number-three magazine in overall sales. This news buoyed the staff, and the projections for the magazine’s longevity were increased. The figures were quickly released to the local media through the Gable Agency, and popped up in articles published in the Chula Vista Star News, The Communicator, and other publications, as well as in a “newsmagazine” spot aired on Channel 10. Our advertisers were also informed of the development.
However, it was soon discovered that the figures were highly inaccurate. (Rodgers then placed the blame on Larry Stuardi, and now places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of San Diego Periodicals, which supplied the raw information. In a private conversation, however, Rodgers later stated that the figures had been slightly altered for the benefit of Khoury and the advertisers.) The actual sales figures were closer to thirty-five to forty-five percent, a situation that sent Khoury into action.
Suddenly we were receiving calls from Khoury’s office, and over a period of several days all of our sales figures, subscriptions, expense accounts, cost-and-profit figures were coming under an intense scrutiny that lasted for the next several weeks. Concerned about the slim sales figures, Rodgers began casting about for ideas .that might bolster subscriptions. Every day he said that he wanted the stories “more sensationalized, bigger than life.” He considered returning to the California Radio TV News formula of recipes, quiz games for kids that offered cash prizes, and so forth, but was stopped by a show of direct opposition from the staff, a couple of whom considered quitting in this eventuality. “I sure know I wouldn’t cook anything I saw written up in Tuned In," remarked one of the secretaries.
Something was going to happen, would have to happen, soon. Since Khoury had to decide on any further financial commitments in February, an extensive subscription drive was slated for January — a win-a-trip-to-Australia sweepstakes linked to subscriptions. This drive, which Rodgers estimated would cost approximately $75,000, would have to bring in at least 20,000 subscriptions in order for Rodgers to argue convincingly that the magazine could, indeed, survive. But January was a long way off. Something needed to be done in November to convince Khoury that Tuned In was undergoing a positive reformation. As a demonstration of this new direction, the office buzz was that someone was going to get the axe. The question was, who?
Then, on a Friday afternoon in the first week of November, Rodgers called me into his office — the same office that had once been J. C. Turner’s. “Joe,” he said, “you’re a good guy. I like you.” (I always get nervous when someone starts a conversation like that.) “You get along fine with everyone and the articles have all been really good. But I’m going to have to let you go.” The sacrificial axe had fallen. I asked for a reason; after all, if the articles were good, then I had been doing my job. “Well, we just need more, that’s all.” More what! “Well, I don’t know. But if we had it. I’d know it.” At that point I stopped fighting it. The magazine wasn’t living up to Khoury’s expectations — however unrealistic they might be — and someone had to take the rap. Besides, frequent firings have always been part of the publishing business. Harboring no ill feelings, I even offered to stay on for a while and help orient the incoming editor, who would otherwise be walking face-first into a buzz saw. Rodgers agreed. My last day as editor of Tuned In magazine ended at 5:45 p.m. on November 14.1 had put out exactly twelve issues.
More firings followed my departure. Dissatisfied with Gable’s underestimate of production costs. Khoury allowed Rodgers to terminate the contract with the Gable Agency. Larry Stuardi was also fired and has moved to Philadelphia to pursue a degree in law. To compensate for the losses, Terry Larsen was made general manager for Tuned In, working in collaboration with the magazine's new editor, Bernadette Guinling, who relocated here from Orange County. Amidst the corporate reshuffling, nearly half a dozen writers have ceased contributing to the magazine, including two weekly columnists, several of whom cited a lack of professionalism in the new corporate format as their reason for leaving.
The $75,000 media blitz is now underway in an attempt to generate the needed 20.000 subscriptions. The campaign consists of a series of print, radio, and television advertisements. (For those interested in such things, if you look carefully at the beginning of the long television ad for Tuned In, you’ll see the singing newsboy hand a copy of the magazine to a couple walking by — the male half of the couple is Johnny Rodgers. Larry Stuardi and Laurie Anderson appear in a restaurant scene following them.)
Inaccurate reports about Tuned In’s circulation figures continue to make their way into the local media. A report in the January 13 edition of the Evening Tribune quoted Rodgers as stating that circulation started at 30,000 with the first issue and has increased by 5000 copies each month, when in fact it started at only 8500 and, according to Rodgers’ own progress report, continued to hover at 14,000 well into the second month of Tuned In’s history. Circulation is only just now starting to exceed the 30,000 mark — a considerable difference from the 55,000-copy figure contained in the report published in the Tribune. Also, between the twelfth issue and the current issue of Tuned In, the number of paid advertisements — the life blood of any magazine — has decreased by nearly twenty-five percent. The office practice of posing as readers and calling advertisers continues.