Hearne: The Rise & Fall of the KC Pitch, Part 1

First Pennylane, now the Pitch

It’s been a rough year for aging, local pop culture icons. First the closing of Streetside Records (successor to Pennylane) and then the continuing long, slow demise and sale of KC’s first true alternative paper. For those inclined to take notice of such things, my ties to both the Pitch and the music store extend well beyond my 16 year run as a columnist at the Star .

The affiliation with the two began in the mid 1980s when, after trying in vain to buy an ad in the Pitch for a concert I was promoting, I pitched the owner to let me take over its advertising and promotion. And to a lesser extent contribute to its editorial content. There wasn’t a whole lot to the Pitch in those days, LeRoi‘s music reviews, Joe Bob’s Drive-In movies, record store staff writers and every once in a while someone like Jack Cashill would step in and take a swing.

The Pitch was little more than a device Pennylane’s owner used to pocket co-op ad dollars from small music labels. The dollar amounts were too tiny to make a radio buy, and if they weren’t spent they went away. So by having an in-house music pub in the Pitch, the dollars could be spent and retained at the same time.

That roughly was the Pitch of 1985…

After looking into things a bit closer – and looking at weeklies like St. Louis’ Riverfront Times – I decided to make a go of transforming the record rag into a full blown alternative newsweekly. I remember lugging the lone Apple computer and furniture from the basement of Pennylane across Broadway with editor Scott O’Kelley, up then stairs to the very first Pitch office above Arizona Trading Company on Westport Road.

I remember hiring Pitch editor C.J. Janovy on the strength (or lack thereof) of her having gotten a short piece published in the Wall Street Journal about Roseanne Barr grabbing her crotch after singing the national anthem. And I remember talking Streetside owner Jack Brozman into advertising in the Pitch.

Brozman and Pennylane/Pitch owner Hal Brody had been college chums in St. Louis and started Streetside. A bitter falling out sent Brody to KC where he founded Pennylane. To say there was bad blood between the two would be an extreme understatement. But I did the unthinkable at the time and talked Brozman into writing Brody a check each month.

How? Simple.

The Pitch was distributed in large part at the three Pennylane retail stores; Westport, Overland Park and Lawrence. If Brozman could go into his hated rival’s stores and post a giant ad sending Pennylane customers to Streetside would he do it? Of course he would. And he did, in the pages of the Pitch.

The move even stunned Brozman’s corporate manager at Streetside. Just as it had stunned Brody. And it led to a thawing between Brody and Brozman that culminated when Brody – wisely – saw the handwriting on the wall for independent music retailers, and sold Pennylane to Streetside.

Now here’s a little ditty not many people know…

Despite my successful efforts at diversifying the news, arts and entertainment content of the Pitch, bringing in new advertisers and expanding its distribution from midtown and Pennylane stores to Greater Kansas City, Brody had had enough. And when he sold Pennylane to Streetside, he tried to throw in the Pitch in with the sale.

But Brozman didn’t want it, wouldn’t take it.

I won’t go into the long story that followed of my falling out with Brody and subsequent hiring by the Star. Other than to say I’ve kept a watchful eye on the Pitch these many years. For example, the reason CJ returned to KC from Colorado and took over as Pitch editor was the result of my urging.

Janovy had moved to Denver in the late ’90s and become managing editor of New Times weekly WestWord. She was in love with a friend of mine, a former Star reporter named Shirl Kasper. The two had just bought a home there and the last thing C.J. wanted was move back to dreary Kansas City.

Brody had sold the Pitch to CJ’s boss, The New Times, and it was looking for an editor to replace Bruce Rodgers.

But as the weeks rolled by and New Times was unable to find one, it got ugly. Movie critics and other local writers were being laid off – kicking and screaming as loudly as they could as they left. Lame duck editor Rodgers was unhappy. It was an uncertain mess. All the while I’d been speaking with CJ about it.

"Why don’t you ride in triumphantly and clean this mess up?" I asked her. "New Times needs you."

But CJ did not like KC and did not want to move back and get stuck living here. Besides, she’d already been offered and turned down the editor position by New Times, she said.

As time dragged on I continued to persuade her. She wouldn’t be stuck here, New Times was buying up alternative weeklies around the country at a pretty fair clip. They needed someone here to get the Pitch up to their standards. Someone they could trust, someone who knew the town. CJ was the perfect candidate.

But they’d think she was flakey for turning it down and then coming back later and asking for the job, CJ worried.

Nonsense, they’d be so relieved to get the Pitch out of the shitter and on the right track, CJ would be a hero.

And rather than getting stuck here, her "rescue" of the Pitch would place her in good standing to move to a sexier market when New Times bought out another alternative weekly.

So CJ went back, took the Pitch job, returned to KC and made two bold strokes.

She helped hired Charles Ferruzza to write about food and she hired Greg Hall to cover sports. I had nothing to do with Ferruzza’s hire. In fact, I (wrongly) thought it was a bad decision. I had everything to do with Hall’s hire – which was a great one, I thought. But in the end, Greg’s fire and CJ’s intolerance proved to volatile a mix.

I was right and wrong about New Times buying more weeklies and CJ getting a chance to escape KC.

The company did buy at least two more alternative pubs, but instead of CJ getting  the chance to blow town, a highly-talented writer/editor named Tony Ortega soaked up the honors. First to South Florida and finally to New York to the helm of the Village Voice.

And as she’d feared, CJ got stuck here in KC.

Let’s leave for now on this note…

Anyone who didn’t see CJ bailing for KU Med last year as a sign of how bad off the Pitch is, wasn’t paying attention.

I’ll have more on the current state of the Pitch shortly.

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8 Responses to Hearne: The Rise & Fall of the KC Pitch, Part 1

  1. Rainbow Man says:

    boulevard brewing
    They really screwed up when they wrote a cover story slamming Boulevard Brewing for no reason… and then they promoted some St. Louis Brewery… very strange…..

  2. chuck says:

    Good story.

  3. newbaum turk says:

    I love the Pitch. Please don’t go away.

  4. jjskck says:

    Good Stuff
    I look forward to your next chapter on this, as I’ve met a lot of Pitch folks through the years and am rooting for them against the odds they face (and have been facing for some time).

    Could you expound on what you mean by “Greg’s fire and CJ’s intolerance”? Just a personality clash?

  5. Bruce Rodgers says:

    Why Christopher isn’t a journalist
    Of Course, Christopher wasn’t there so he writes like he thinks he knows what went on. And he fails to mention his own ill-fated attempt at being an alternative newspaper editor and how that quickly went down the tubes. The New Times (Village Voice Media) bought the PitchWeekly (as it was then known) to make money, and in late 1999 at the time of the sale, the paper had been growing 25-35 percent a year. There were over 50 employees and the paper was firmly positioned in the city’s political and cultural life. With the sale came a corporate structure than ended such things as political endorsements by the Pitch and the cultivation of homegrown writers and journalists. CJ is a fine journalist and would likely still be there if the paper was making the kind of margin VVM wanted. It was sold for one reason

  6. Bad Ass Jew, Berkowitz says:

    Hearne is Well Known, Bruce Is Not
    For all the noise made about Hearne Christopher being a jerk, a poor jounalist, a poor little rich boy, the guys one of our cities all time best known writers. I was at a restaurant in Overland Park with my wife, Beth, a new spot, when I overheard someone next to us talking about how the food and service sucked. Next thing they said was, “lucky Hearne hasn’t been here, he’d write a death blow article on this joint.” Just his first name and everyone knew who they were talking about.

    Bruce this website has had some damn big names reading it, as far as I can see by the comments. I hear about articles from this site all the time. Hearne’s story on Jerry Mazzer. that was very interesting and nowhere else to be found. The fact Hearne was smart enough to bring Craig Glazer on board. My God that guy is kinda a legend in our city now. Again, like him or not. So Hearne has learned how to play the game. Maybe from his days with the New Times. Bruce I doubt hardly anyone remembers you sir. I don’t mean that in a a harsh way, you are just basically unkown and Hearne is well, a name. Course so is Whitlock and look where that got him.

  7. Hearne Christopher says:

    Ah, I wasn’t there, so I don’t have a clue. Yet you haven’t been there for like 10 years or longer – and you do? Sounds logical.

    Here’s the deal; I was talking all thru this period to CJ AND Bruce and the various players behibnd the scenes. Bruce was on death row once the Pitch was sold, and while I was sympathetic to his plight (as I remain), it was clear New Times wanted a real editor by their definition. Unlike Bruce during this period, I was talking to both him and CJ. While New Times was planning his demise.

    CJ did OK but never got the promotion she wanted out-of-town like Ortega did. And since I worked with her – hired her – unlike Bruce who mrely competed against her, I’m familiar with both her talents and her limitations.

    The latter being that she had no broad ties or interests in the community. So instead of leading, CJ played by the New Times rules and re-enacted the New Times cookie cutter formula until everybody ran out of cash. Then she fled for a great gig that on paper, she really isn’t qualified for.

    Kinda like Mike Hendricks at the Star when he told that PR chick in – what, Topeka? – that he was really more qualified for the position above the one he was applying for. Which of course, was her job

  8. Hearne says:

    Uh, thanks Berk – I think
    Whitlock and I are essentially blogging for chump change, so no touchdown dances here.

    But you don’t last at six figure incomes at The Star for 16 years like we did no reason. Bruce is a good guy, an angry guy by nature. Probably didn’t like finding out 12 years later that I’d been urging CJ to come take his job. But no way were the New Times guys gonna keep him – he didn’t have the horses.

    Yeah, the Pitch was growing. What I put in place was the right idea at the right time. When the record store owner backed out of our handshake deal, I got hung out to dry. Bruce had been working at a small competitor paper that we smoked and was hired at the Pitch only after I left and took CJ and the majority of the editorial staff with me.

    The Pitch was growing then because it was the right basic idea at the right time and had been positioned to grow. Not by Bruce and not by the record store owner but by the team I’d assembled.

    While I wouldn’t have taken it in the direction New Times did – very hippie, cookie cutter and formulaic, it was far better run by the professionals than the homeboys CJ replaced.

    Tony Ortega – my god – that guy totally rocked. And look where he is now; running the Village Voice.

    Last I saw Bruce he was a cook on 39th Street but was running a print tab called Explore Kansas City, which he migrated online. Now it looks like he’s got a blog called KC Active. Say this about Bruce; he’s passionate, he’s dead serious and he’s still kicking!

    Way to kick, big guy

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