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Rock icon rolls through a shifting landscape

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When the thousandth issue of Rolling Stone magazine rolls off the presses in May, its cover will feature an elaborate three- dimensional homage to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Drawing inspiration from the lineup of celebrities whose images graced that seminal Beatles recording, the magazine will tip its hat to the trove of musicians, entertainers and politicians who have inhabited its pages since its founding in 1967.

"It's going to be a version of the past 40 years of people who have influenced us and are part of our gestalt, our zeitgeist," said the magazine's founder, publisher and editor, Jann Wenner, his feet propped atop a table in his sleekly appointed corner office in Midtown Manhattan.

"It's Richard Pryor and Jimmy Carter and it's Billy Joel and it's Bono and the Beatles and the Stones and Ike and Tina Turner and Madonna and Prince. It's the big family."

Bouncy, verbose and boyishly handsome, Wenner is awash in milestones these days.

Over the next year he will orchestrate the run-up to the magazine's 40th anniversary celebration in 2007. The 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon, a Rolling Stone mainstay, passed earlier this month, and the gonzo maestro Hunter S. Thompson, one of the magazine's most famous essayists, committed suicide in February. About a week from now Kent Brownridge, the corporate yin to Wenner's creative yang, will retire after more than two decades as general manager of Wenner's publishing company, Wenner Media.

And in about two weeks Wenner, an emblematic baby boomer and the only person ensconced in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the American Society of Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame, will turn horror of horrors 60.

"We have evolved and transitioned well with a lot of cultural changes," Wenner said.

"And that's great because that is what we do. We do cover culture, and we are attuned to that so it keeps us young. It keeps us on the forward edge."

But as the media and cultural landscape surrounding Wenner shifts yet again, his stewardship of his company will be squarely tested in coming months.

For one thing, he will be taking on expanded editorial and management duties amid Brownridge's sudden departure and a daunting operating environment for magazines generally.

In Wenner's well-thumbed and sometimes loopy playbook, however, management has had a highly elastic definition.

Since starting Rolling Stone as an ambitious, roly-poly 21-year- old, he has kept his own erratic hours and recruited and disposed of legions of top-notch journalistic and business talent.

He has also partied heartily, shifted creative gears on whims and survived with brio, luck and great timing in an industry littered with corporate casualties.

Wenner's shop is built on the backs of three magazines, only two of which, Rolling Stone and the celebrity-gossip powerhouse US Weekly, have clear identities on the newsstand.

The third, the outdoor-adventure title Men's Journal, has struggled for years to find its voice. All of the magazines, whatever their merits, offer different strategic prospects.

Rolling Stone, for instance while remaining the heavyweight of music magazines, with circulation, influence, quality and profitability that towers over more newly minted competitors has gathered some moss.

The first names that spring to Wenner's lips as members of the magazine's "big family" are largely those of singers familiar to a more wizened crop of fans, not more au courant musicians like Usher, 50 Cent, Green Day, Alicia Keys or the Black Eyed Peas.

Readers younger than 40 are also apt to miss the significance of the coming "Sgt. Pepper's" allusion; the album came out before most of them were born. Rolling Stone's political and social coverage has been inconsistent in recent years and only occasionally evokes the heat that once made the magazine a centerpiece of the cultural dialogue for the under-30 set.

Within the Wenner Media firmament, US Weekly a darling among women decades younger than Wenner is now more profitable than Rolling Stone, according to current and former Wenner employees. US Weekly has also emerged as a more vibrant symbol than Rolling Stone of the company's mass-market traction. Brownridge's departure, which seems to have surprised almost everyone in the industry except Wenner and Brownridge himself, touched off a flurry of speculation in the media that Wenner Media might wind up on the auction block. A spokesman for Wenner Media said the company was not for sale.

The print media industry as a whole, meanwhile, confronted with rising costs and the migration of readers and advertising dollars to the Internet, is enduring a seismic reorientation. And Wenner Media is not immune, despite annual revenue of $300 million to $400 million, according to Wenner, and profit that current and former company employees said would be in the $100 million range this year.

"There aren't too many privately owned companies left, and Wenner Media does have a very special place in the industry," said Andrew Buchholtz, a managing director at Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a firm that invests in media properties.

"But the industry has issues, and there are many risks associated with the magazine business these days."

For his part, Brownridge, slumped behind his desk and pondering an interviewer's questions with an exacting mirthlessness worthy of Emperor Palpatine, concurred.

"We're primarily a magazine publishing company, and magazine publishing as an industry is facing huge, serious challenges," he said. "We're all like little ships on the sea, and the sea is rough."

Wenner Media remains, of course, Wenner's baby. He is the company's controlling shareholder, and his magazines' financial fruits have taken him from blue jeans and San Francisco's old warehouse district to bespoke suits, a private jet, luxurious homes and Manhattan power lunches. Comfortable with numbers though hardly a numbers-cruncher, Wenner plans to take on most of Brownridge's financial chores while juggling the lead editing role at Men's Journal after abruptly firing its editor in October.

Unexpected comings and goings have been common at Wenner Media over the years, and many current and former employees, who requested anonymity because of concerns about retribution, complain about what they describe as his mercurial proclivities.

Wenner brooks none of this. He acknowledges that he may have been fickle in his younger years but says he no longer launches his missiles without warning.

He has stayed in business for 40 years, he said, because he respects and nurtures creative people.

"I don't want to get into individual cases, but I would tell you that in terms of the handling and the management of talent, and appreciation of talent, I think I'm great at that," he said. "I know how to handle it and do it correctly and how to stay out of the way of it and how to bring it along and not smother it and not compete with it."

And the future, he says, is rosy. "They'll be around forever, magazines, for a long time, for as long as there are trees, they'll be around. Because they do different things than the Internet," he said.

"It's all organized for you and well selected and it's cheap still and it's just an efficient way; carryable in your back pocket. It's still a good technical product."

Wenner's influence over Rolling Stone, however inspired during its salad days, has also been limiting. He passed up the opportunity to be an early investor in MTV because, he says, he felt that the channel was too commercial. He has also been overly tentative about expanding onto the Internet, where musical downloads, streaming video and blogs have come into their own.

The Rolling Stone brand, still potent but lacking the oomph of old, was never extended into radio or cable television, and the magazine, which maintains a masthead that has historically been largely white, has been slow to cover musical genres like hip-hop.

"I still think Rolling Stone is the most important music magazine there is," said Toure, an African-American contributor to the magazine who recently wrote one of its infrequent hip-hop cover articles.

"At the same time, it is not as influential as it was in the '80s, and it's sort of dwarfed by what it was then."

Wenner says he has not ignored nonrock genres like hip-hop, even though his core readership does not have a significant interest in them.

"There's not a group, a musical style, a cultural moment that's come along that we have missed and that includes hip-hop, which we were on very early," he said. "We have given hip-hop an extraordinarily large amount of space."

Wenner acknowledged that his editorial pool at Rolling Stone was primarily white, but he added that it was hard to recruit a more diverse staff.

"The competition for good editors and writers who are black is so intense. I mean, everybody wants them," Wenner said.

"It's not conscious, and it's odd because we as a magazine have probably covered black culture with more depth, more frequency, more volume than any other magazine in this country in the last 40 years other than ones that are strictly black publications."

Wenner says he now sees the Internet as a "powerful threat" to print media and television. Over the next year, he says, he will devote ample resources and time to increasing all three of his publications' presence in cyberspace.

As he does so, he will be doing it without Brownridge, who has been with the company since 1974, serving as general manager and Wenner's de facto No. 2 since 1982.

While many current and former Wenner Media employees use the words "ruthless" and "tightwad" to describe Brownridge, just as many others say he brought an invaluable business acumen and competitiveness to the company that kept the editorial and publishing trains, as well as Wenner himself, running on time.

They voice concern that Wenner may have difficulty in juggling Wenner Media's properties without his deputy.

Wenner notes that Brownridge is 65, that both men agreed that the time had come for him to retire, and that he will stay on as a consultant.

Brownridge himself hesitated when asked if he was ready to step down.

"In some ways," he said. "In other ways I feel that it will be a personal adjustment and a professional adjustment that will take time getting used to."

Asked whether he felt a sense of loss at Brownridge's exit, Wenner is unusually succinct.

"I'll miss Kent, but a loss like I'm mourning something or a death or something, no, not at all," he said.

"There's no executive shake-up going on, no savior is coming in from the outside, every position here is solid, his duties can be easily redistributed."

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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