Q&A With Kent Brownridge of Alpha Media

Talking about Wenner, Bonnie Fuller and magazines.

Former Wenner Media general manager Kent Brownridge returned to publishing in 2007 when private equity firm Quadrangle Group bought Blender, Stuff and Maxim from Felix Dennis for an estimated $250 million and formed Alpha Media Group. As chief executive officer of the company — which now just comprises Blender and Maxim after Stuff’s closure last year — Brownridge runs a men’s lifestyle multimedia firm that reaches more than 15 million sports, women and entertainment-obsessed readers. He celebrates his one year back in business today, and here talks about the state of the business.

This story first appeared in the August 15, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

WWD: How would you describe your first year in business?

Kent Brownridge:
Hard. It was a little harder than I thought it would be because some of the rebuilding initiatives took a little longer than I perhaps naïvely thought they would. By rebuilding, I mean restaffing. All of a sudden, plopped on top of this, we had this funny little event happen called the recession. If you talk to anybody in our business, they would say it’s been pretty hard. But we had the rebuilding overlayed along with that. It hasn’t been frustrating or discouraging. It’s just been hard.

WWD: You came out of retirement in 2007 to launch this company, after more than 30 years working at Wenner. What about the publishing business excites you?

I got down to my beloved 200-acre farm, where the Hazel River runs through, and after about a day and a half, I discovered that I hated it. And I still get a little nostalgic when I think about my farm. But I wasn’t happy. I didn’t like not working. The publishing business is very complicated, intensive, and it’s hard. It’s a lot of thinking quickly, strategizing and creative approach. It’s very competitive, which I like. I started out my career in politics, which is the ultimate winners and losers sport. Publishing is kind of like that, but not quite as final and definitive as politics.

WWD: Speaking of competition, do you feel that your former boss, Wenner Media founder Jann Wenner, is your biggest competition?

K.B.: No, I don’t. We’re in competition with Esquire and GQ and several other magazines for the women we put on covers. Those are our chief competitors. We’re in competition with lots of people for readers, but they’re mostly men and mostly young, a great percentage of them are under 30, so we’re certainly not in competition with Jann for that — Us Weekly is mostly women and Men’s Journal is mostly older guys. And for advertising, we’re in competition with a wide list of people, including Rolling Stone, but our leading competitors are ESPN the Magazine, Men’s Health, GQ and Sports Illustrated, so Jann’s not somebody that we’re sitting here thinking about very often.

WWD: Have you spoken to Wenner since you joined Alpha?

K.B.: When we successfully closed our deal and bought this company, I got a nice e-mail from Jann. I saw him once at Michael’s. It was about four months ago. As luck would have it, not planned. Jann was great, he came over and we talked for about 10 minutes. I happened to be having lunch with Bonnie Fuller just before she left American Media Inc. [Fuller was formerly editorial director at the company]. She looked like a little cat that swallowed the canary at the lunch.

WWD: Have you met all of the goals that you set forth for yourself for the year?

K.B.: No. I’m never satisfied.

WWD: What goals did you miss?

K.B.: I didn’t make as much money as I wanted to make.

WWD: Is Quadrangle putting pressure on you to turn around Blender?

K.B.: No they’re not. All pressure on me is self-imposed. The pressure on me that’s self-imposed has been there from Day One. I like to win, I like to succeed, I like to do well and I like the people who work for me to do well and not only share in that but get the credit for that. That’s always the mantra. I’m pleased with the progress and success and forward progress we’ve made with Blender. A lot of it comes from editor in chief Joe Levy, creative director Dirk Barnett and from Ben Madden, the publisher, and his group of people. Quadrangle is a very supportive owner. They are helpers and advisers and partners in what we’re trying to do. They’re not pressure-putters.

WWD: What new things are happening at Blender?

K.B.: Blender has undergone the biggest restructuring and restaffing. A new publisher, creative director, editor and positioning platform. The repositioning is that it’s the music magazine for the download generation. It pretty clearly differentiates it from the other music magazines. We think putting the download cards from Rhapsody [a card offering 10 free music downloads comes with each newsstand copy] in each magazine is the breakthrough step in making Blender [stand apart from its competitors]. Blender went up to 900,000 circulation this year, and is going to 1 million with the January issue. I’ve been delivering a bonus on the 900,000 for a while now.

When Alpha Media Group first started, critics were quick to point out how the “laddie” style of magazine that Maxim was known for was dead, as men have gravitated more toward fashion and lifestyle titles. How have you evolved Maxim to be relevant for today’s male audience and is that evolution complete?

Men’s Vogue is a derivative of a women’s book operating to get incremental business left over from women’s lines. Maxim is a young men’s lifestyle magazine. It’s not for some little strange segment of guys down in TriBeCa. It’s for guys who want sports and gear and entertainment and girls. I don’t think you get 2.5 million readers if you’re covering something obscure that not too many guys are interested in. Rolling Stone, 40 percent of those readers are women, and half are over 35. Men’s Health, they’re doing a pretty good job. They’re pretty big, they’re more there than the other guys. So is ESPN the Magazine. ESPN suggests these guys like sports, and Men’s Health suggest these guys like to look good with their bodies. Maxim is more a mulitplatform men’s lifestyle magazine than any of the other ones. Every issue has sports, some coverage of fitness, every issue has pretty good coverage of automotive, a lot about gear, some entertainment, and girls! Young guys love girls. The human race depends on it.

When will you launch other magazines or Web sites?

Probably not launching, but more brand extensions, and probably acquisitions. Things that are for sale that we can make money at. Alpha is about men, so our interest would be in the men’s space.