Gay Talese’s Basement
The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall and—maybe—Rise of Radar
by Asa Fitch
Radar covers news, trends, and celebrity culture with a bracing honesty and irreverence increasingly absent from other magazines. Like our readers, we’re fascinated by both Bill Clinton and Bungalow 8, Martha Stewart and Modest Mouse, “Entourage” and Iraq. In a sea of bland magalogs, celebrity weeklies, and cookie-cutter clones, we stand out by taking a stand.—Radar press kit, 2005
It was January 2005, and Maer Roshan had just reopened the offices of Radar magazine on West 23rd Street, a block from Madison Square Park. Mort Zuckerman, the real estate developer who owns the New York Daily News and U.S. News and World Report and Jeffrey Epstein, a Wall Street money manager, had agreed to put $10 million toward the fledgling magazine. To a drumbeat of buzz in print and online, Roshan, the editor whose mischievous genius made Radar what it was, began to shape the magazine’s tone and design. “The spirit will be here—honest and irreverent and kind of fun and smart,” Roshan told The New York Sun in October 2004, “the kind of magazine we all wanted to work at.”
The magazine’s new incarnation, christened with a gala at a Midtown hotel last May, was a triumph for Roshan and a vindication of the no-holds-barred journalism he wanted to do. In Zuckerman and Epstein, he had found backing from two men who, it seemed, could afford the risk of a new magazine in an uncertain, shifting media climate. Epstein pledged $5 million in cash and Zuckerman $5 million in cash and services, drawing on his U.S. News business and production staff while housing the magazine in office space he owned. The launch was slated for May 2005, and the plan was to publish four times in 2005 and 10 times in 2006 before moving to a monthly schedule when advertising jelled.
“I thought we had a talented editor, though I hadn’t worked with him before, and I thought it would be an interesting magazine in a new area for me,” Zuckerman told me. “I had not been in this social zeitgeist area before. I thought it was great art and could make money.”
But despite its financial backing and ambitious editorial vision, Radar didn’t survive long. On Dec. 14, 2005, almost exactly a year after Roshan opened Radar’s new offices, Zuckerman and Epstein pulled the plug, citing a lack of “advertising traction.” Yes, it was true that Radar hadn’t attracted a solid base of advertisers, but the shuttering left Radar staffers and some media observers mystified. Just three issues had been published, and the magazine had secured $1.7 million in ad commitments for 2006, including $390,000 for the February/March issue and $420,000 for the April/May issue. Radar’s revenues were on the upswing, and even the most successful magazine startups take three to five years to turn a profit.
The simple math of ad numbers didn’t explain why Zuckerman and Epstein gave up so soon. There were certainly market forces working against Radar, but for someone like Zuckerman, who once owned the money-losing Atlantic Monthly and is known to invest in pet projects that give him cachet, the cold logic of business never tells the whole story. When Radar folded late last year, much attention was given to its bottom line, but its obituary was never fully written.
“I don’t know with certainty what happened,” Roshan says. “It’s puzzling why after the money and time and passion invested into this project, it seemed like it was closed almost on a whim.”
Roshan, 38, was born in Tehran, moved to Long Island in 1979 and attended NYU before rising through the magazine ranks at New York and then at Talk under Tina Brown. He conceived Radar in 2002, shortly after Talk folded. Roshan was by then a star editor, having earned a reputation for revamping Talk during its final six months. He could easily have taken a high-on-the-masthead job somewhere, but he chose a less traveled road instead, throwing all his passion and skill into a new magazine.
The magazine’s first version, in the form of two test issues in 2003, had made a splash. On the cover of the inaugural issue was a menacing photo of a pursed-lipped Jennifer Lopez, who was called out in its pages for her “cynical bid for urban authenticity.” It was a celebrity magazine for people who dislike annoying celebrities—those uppity types who mistreat their underlings. At the same time, it was an enterprising political magazine, publishing an early profile of presidential hopeful Howard Dean and a story about antiwar activists who became human shields in Iraq.
After the first version ran out of money in the summer of 2003, Roshan spent nearly a year courting investors. The first inklings of a second incarnation of Radar came early in 2004, around the time when Zuckerman and Epstein, along with a cadre of wealthy friends, tried to buy New York and make Roshan its editor. Bruce Wasserstein won the magazine with his $55 million bid, but Zuckerman and Epstein remained interested in Roshan. When he suggested that they help him resurrect Radar, they agreed. “This is essentially about talent,” Zuckerman told The Wall Street Journal. “More than anything, I’m backing Maer Roshan.”
When the magazine’s new offices opened in January of 2005, Roshan thought he would have two or three years of unflinching support from Zuckerman and Epstein. While there was no formal agreement to keep the magazine afloat for that long, the investors appeared committed and excited. Zuckerman even said in a New York Times article last April that he would give Radar “whatever it needs” to get to profitability. According to its business plan, Radar would need a $20 million investment to get there. “There is no formula for these things,” Zuckerman said in the article. “The good news for them about my business history is that the average real estate project takes seven years” to start making money.
Zuckerman later told Roshan he was misquoted by the Times, which had earlier reported that Zuckerman and Epstein were “committed to spending up to $25 million” on the magazine, according to “two executives involved in the negotiations.” The inflated figure propagated in the media throughout Radar’s brief run.
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Photograph by Patrick McMullan