A Very Familiar Magazine

Radar's Summer 2003 issue, top, and Summer 2005.

It’s a little unfair to judge a magazine based on its debut issue. The Radar that appeared last week to considerable hoopla, however, was not, actually, its first issue but its third, following a two-year hiatus. And during those two years, Radar was mentioned so frequently in the Observer, the Times, the Post, and Gawker that it might as well have existed—it was using up its precious media air supply. For that matter, the first first issue of Radar was a kind of de facto relaunch of Tina Brown’s defunct Miramax magazine, TalkTalk’s editorial director, Maer Roshan, is the founder and editor-in-chief of Radar.

Being simultaneously brand-new and yesterday’s mashed potatoes is an awkward quantum state. Just as the magazine finally gets financed and starts publishing for real, Schadenfreudian New York media arbiters are inclined to declare this ingenue so over, a virgin and a whore.

But what about the actual magazine? Does it justify the kerfuffle? Is it any good?

There are lots of good things in it. I loved the nude porn-magazine photo of Mrs. Donald Trump, and wanted more. I enjoyed learning that Jennifer Lopez hated the documentary that her record company hired D. A. Pennebaker to make about her. Concocting a cheap, deliberately stupid knockoff of Damien Hirst’s shark-in-a-tank-of-formaldehyde was pretty funny. The pieces reported from Iraq were first-rate. And it was brilliant to ask 40 TV-news professionals whom they consider the stupidest, meanest, and vainest anchors.

But Radar’s fundamental problem is that all of it—the good, the bad, the mediocre—is extremely familiar. There is not a moment of shock or wonder, not a whiff of the strange or novel. At a time when glossy journalism tends to be very dull and similar, Radar is, alas, a wholly recursive exercise in recombinant magazine-making. We have seen every bit of it before.

Some we have seen before in Radar. The summer 2003 issue had Paris Hilton on the cover, with a cover essay arguing that today’s celebrities are second-rate, and a dopey story about “gay” animals. The next and latest issue—summer 2005—has Paris Hilton on the cover, with a cover essay arguing that today’s celebrities are second-rate, and a dopey story about “gay” corporate logos.

It’s one thing to rip off oneself; almost everyone does that, although usually not in such instant, shameless fashion. But this new cover story isn’t as good as the first iteration; it’s both more duh-obvious and conceptually fuzzy. Zeitgeist-tracking pieces like these are the soufflés of journalism, either delicious and impressive or, like Radar’s, flat, edible but not much fun.

Nine of the ten long features could easily appear elsewhere—GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, the Times, some of the women’s magazines. And if, like Radar, you posit yourself as the smartest, hippest, sharpest truth-teller in a room full of earnest weenies, you cannot afford to pack the front of your quasi-debut issue with glossy-magazine Styrofoam. You can’t resort repeatedly to lazy, second-rate journalese like “power lunching,” “pens an intimate portrait,” “penned a [screenplay],” and, in a could-run-absolutely-anywhere rundown of six forthcoming books, declare that “summer … is for zoning out.”

Reading a great magazine is like reading a great book, with the clear sense on every page that a skillful control freak with a Big Idea is in charge. But reading Radar, when I encountered two expensive gatefolds with six unexceptional full-page portraits of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, I only wondered … why?

Combining the serious and the funny in one package can work fine, as The New Yorker has demonstrated for 80 years. But it will not do, if irreverence is a defining principle of your self-conception, to default to the strenuously jaunty auto-humor of alliteration and puns: In Radar are “couture cutups,” “supermodel smackdown,” “amateur axman,” “malapropist mewling,” “The Real Diehl,” “The Tools of Attraction,” and “Knauss On Fire.” And when actual humor is attempted, it is unforgivable to publish cretinous joke-book tripe, such as the comedian Jeffrey Ross’s squib about the secretary of State: “Condi … was having her lips surgically removed from the president’s ass.”

“I think magazines today,” Maer Roshan told the Sun, “are much too serious.” Does he mean serious in the sense of running long, complicated stories about climate change and the Middle East? Or serious in the sense of eschewing humor? Either way, he’s wrong: In my lifetime, there has never been more unserious major-media tonnage—in both senses—than right now.

And now that almost every media channel supplies amusing and unflattering bits of information about the famous—“Page Six” and half the Post, the Times’ “Boldface,” Us Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, the mainstreamed Star and Enquirer, this magazine, the Observer, Gawker, Wonkette, E!—what is the unique selling proposition of Radar’s ration of scurrilous, smirky gossip?

Radar “is aimed at young, urban readers with a special sensibility,” Roshan told the Sun. Young urban readers with special sensibilities already have, among other publications, The Source and The Fader and Vice, indisputably original, authentically generation-specific magazines—and it seems telling that while Radar has an ordinary Q&A with the front man of the eighties band New Order, the profoundly irreverent Vice has a piece by the guy in its current issue.

Radar “has a little bit of an Internet sensibility,” explains its co-owner Mort Zuckerman, and that’s true—but it may be misguided as a basis for a new bi-monthly magazine in 2005. I wonder if radio executives in the fifties pitched new shows with the promise that they had a little bit of a television sensibility. In fact, Radar’s Website is entertaining and robust—and by its very existence suggests that online is the more appropriate medium for the Radar idea.

But enough about you.

“Of course,” Roshan said to the Sun about his magazine, “there are bits and pieces of other magazines.” According to Radar’s media kit, “We’re poised to become one of those rare titles—like Rolling Stone in the 70s, Spy in the 80s and Vanity Fair in the 90s—that define a cultural moment by getting there first.” I guess the present cultural moment must be extremely similar to the cultural moment of the eighties, because Radar has quite a few rather striking similarities to Spy.

This may be graceless of me to point out, since I co-founded Spy nineteen years ago (and a decade later hired Maer at this magazine). However, I have always been delighted by Spy’s various influences on other publications. And maybe Radar is the very sincerest form of flattery, like a tribute band.

Yet Spy itself, although influenced by The New Yorker and Time and Mad and Private Eye, digested those influences to create something more or less original. That’s what any new publication ought to aim to do—you may or may not like Wired, Maxim, Martha Stewart Living, Fast Company, In Style, or Lucky, but each was a sui generis creation, not a sampled and remixed cover version of another magazine.

Radar officially describes itself as “Funny and Fearless,” half of Spy’s founding slogan. At its launch party were life-size cardboard cutouts of Paris Hilton with which one could pose; at Spy’s were life-size cardboard cutouts of Tina Brown and William Shawn. Radar contains a dozen funny charts, and many dozens of small, silly, silhouetted photographic heads; Spy essentially invented both forms, as it did the comic real-world hoax, each of which was labeled “A Spy Prank.” In the new magazine, a stunt involving fake celebrity-branded bottled water is labeled “A Radar Prank.” Radar opens with an essay that archly stitches together stray bits of recent news, just as Spy did. Its cover package resembles several Spy cover packages, as well as one of Spy’s NBC specials (How to Be Famous). Radar’s Four Seasons VIP seating map is reminiscent of Spy’s Russian Tea Room VIP seating map. (Spy billed itself as “The New York Monthly,” and embraced its parochialism unabashedly; Radar is launching as a national magazine, and it’s possible that some people beyond the metropolitan area may not be desperate to know where The Four Seasons’ owner would seat Leslee Dart and Bonnie Fuller.) Radar’s joke clip-out form for libel plaintiffs appeared in Spy in 1989, and its piece about William Shatner self-parodically remaking his career was done in Spy in 1991. Radar’s clever back-page index to the issue is an innovation since the last issue; Spy’s started appearing in 1990. And so on.

Yet if you’re going to simulate Spy, you can’t also be, oh, Details-like. After thirteen pages of nonstop smarty-pants skepticism, you can’t suddenly run straight-ahead puff pieces about the director of Donnie Darko (“living with buddies in a Venice Beach … bachelor pad”) and up-and-coming rock acts (“The New British Invasion: Introducing five bloody good U.K. bands”).

Like Talk before it, Radar seems beset by a fundamental uncertainty about what it’s supposed to be. Talk’s raisons d’être were Harvey Weinstein’s burning desire to own a magazine and Tina Brown’s burning desire to start her own company at a moment when everyone appeared to be getting rich starting a company. Radar seems driven by Roshan’s burning desire to start a cool magazine, not by any singular, fresh editorial vision. Mort Zuckerman, more power to him, is candid about his own jones. “I am insane,” he told the Sun when he was asked why he had funded Radar. “I have been in the magazine business for 30 years. And wanting to be in this business is not rational. But I love it.” In other words, having sold The Atlantic and Fast Company, and failed to buy New York last year, Zuckerman, left only with the also-ran tabloid (the Daily News) and the also-ran newsmagazine (U.S. News), hankers to own a publication that his friends might read or talk about. The financial risk for him is minor—the launch and four issues published this year shouldn’t cost more than a few million. I’m glad there are still angels like him around, rich guys willing to underwrite irrational, mischievous long shots, and that there are smart, passionate editors determined to start new magazines. It’s too bad, though, that this particular long shot is more of a revival than an original show.

A Very Familiar Magazine