Founder and Editor in Chief of the Online Magazine Salon, David Talbot.
Founder and Editor in Chief of the online magazine Salon, David Talbot. Last week the magazine had to lay off 13 employees because of financial problems. It was one of three online journalism sites to do so. Talbot started the magazine in 1995. Before that he was the arts and features editor of the San Francisco Examiner. Talbot is also the author of “Burning Desires: Sex in America.” This interview was conducted live before an audience and taped for broadcast.
Other segments from the episode on June 14, 2000
DATE June 14, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Talbot, founder and editor in chief of Salon
magazine, discusses the trials and tribulations of running an
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, David Talbot, is the founder, chairman and editor in chief of Salon
magazine, one of the first and most successful magazines to originate on the
Internet. Time magazine picked it as the Web site of the year in 1996.
American Journalism Review called it an online journalism pacesetter.
Entertainment Weekly describes Salon as one of the Net's few genuine
Salon started publishing in 1995. It covers books, entertainment and the
arts, as well as news. It's broken several major stories, including the
story of Henry Hyde's extramarital affair. David Talbot is a former arts and
features editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, and former senior editor of
Mother Jones magazine.
Last week, Salon was one of several online news sites that made news for its
financial troubles. Salon laid off 13 employees because of a financial
shortfall. The criminal justice site, APBnews.com, laid off its whole
staff and announced it would fold unless a funder stepped in. CBS' Internet
site announced layoffs, and NBC's Internet company has announced financial
On Monday, I spoke with David Talbot at the Annual Conference of the Special
Libraries Association, which is still under way in Philadelphia.
Salon really started as--well, what the word `salon' implies. `Salon' implies
that it's a place where Gertrude Stein and Hemingway are going to be coming
over for dinner and talking with Picasso.
Mr. DAVID TALBOT (Editor in Chief, Salon): Yeah.
GROSS: So--and Salon started off with an emphasis on books and arts, you
know, film reviews, TV reviews, book reviews, writing about the arts. Then it
moved more and more into news, as well, made a lot of big splashes with
certain news stories. And I was interested to read that most of the
content-related layoffs were in the arts area.
Mr. TALBOT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: A book editor, a book reporter, travel, well, the Mothers Who
Mr. TALBOT: Right.
GROSS: ...which is profiles...
Mr. TALBOT: We won't go there.
GROSS: Yeah. David's wife edited that, and one of the layoffs--but I was
interested that, you know, it was mostly the arts areas that were hit and not
the news area. And I was wondering if that is related to the number of hits
that each page got. You know, one of the interesting things about doing a
magazine online as opposed to in a newspaper is that you can literally track
how many hits each page gets. So in a newspaper, if you have a huge
circulation, you can just assume, `Well, my article's being read by a
gazillion people.' But if it's online, you can actually count the number of
hits that each page that you wrote has. But did you use that information to
decide who to lay off?
Mr. TALBOT: Well, we do and we don't. It's not quite that black and white.
We--for instance, the travel section, which we did close down. That was
heartbreaking because I think it was the best literary travel writing online.
GROSS: I'll just interrupt to say the travel section has gotten great
Mr. TALBOT: Yes.
GROSS: I mean, there's just, like, a lot of citations for it in print about
how good the section was. So I was very surprised to see that the editor of
that was laid off.
Mr. TALBOT: Exactly.
Mr. TALBOT: And Don George, who was the editor, is a terrific travel
journalist, and was very well-connected in the world of literary travel
writers. So Paul Theroux and Peter Matheson and Isabel Allende and a
number of writers who wouldn't normally write for Salon's modest rates would
write for Don.
The problem was that, again, I think we bear--what people expect from a travel
site is much more utilitarian. They want to book a ticket. And I think with
Salon it's a more leisurely read, travel journalism, and the circulation was
low there. Now we stuck with that for three years--more than three years.
But in the end, it is survival. It's survival of the fittest, and Salon had
to focus on those areas that were bringing in the most circulation.
You say we cut back on books, which is unfortunate. We did lose one book
editor. That still remains, though, a central interest of mine, a central
passion of Salon's. We have two employees that are still working full-time on
books. We will have a very vibrant book section. So you have to weigh these
My whole challenge with Salon is to create what I think--what I've been
calling a `smart tabloid.' That's tough, hard-hitting journalism,
investigative journalism, a kind of political coverage you can't get anywhere
else, serious work, serious cultural criticism, which we still are very strong
at. But also, you have to like a--you know, a New York or British tabloid,
get those readers, get them to buy the paper, so to speak, every day. And so
Salon does have to focus on some of the areas--like our sexual coverage, for
instance--that also brings in a lot of readers.
GROSS: Well, I'm wondering, you know, since this is the first time in
history, I think, that we really know, literally, how many people read each
page because we can have this tracking mechanism on the Internet that's more
accurate than, say, the Nielsens are in measuring TV. What, as an editor, do
you do with that information?
Mr. TALBOT: Well, you--for one thing--it's interesting. When I used to work
at newspapers, we had studies that showed how many people actually jumped to
the `jump' page and how many people did you lose. And as you say, the
daunting thing about this new technology is you know exactly how many people
make the jump. And so what we try to do is end that first page just like a TV
show that breaks for a commercial, with something very enticing, you know.
And we have a little blurb, actually, at the end of each page to make you want
to make the next click.
Inevitably, you do lose a certain percentage of your readers. But what you do
is you try and train your writers to--you know, just like the old days of
journalism, how do you hold on to them? With a great lead, and then you have
to end that first page with a great tease. I think, actually,
newspaper--because they've become more and more monopolistic in their various
cities--have lost the art of holding on to readers. The Web, you have to do
that. It's Darwinian. And, actually, I think it imposes a useful discipline
on our writers and editors.
GROSS: Now Salon also made news recently because in May it redesigned its
home page and redesigned the site. And readers didn't like some of the
changes. They let Salon know that. And after about two days, I think, Salon
redesigned the redesign. So, David, I'm interested in hearing what some of
the things that you learned from the responses that you got recently to the
redesign about what readers online seem to like and what really irritates
Mr. TALBOT: Yes. We did learn very emphatically. A lot of our
readers--well, it wasn't just a mad experiment, as I later wrote in a letter
to the--a letter from the editor to our readers. We didn't put them through
this just for the fun of it. Salon has more and more material, and I'm sure a
lot of you with your home pages have this same challenge. How do you put all
the great stuff, the great content you have, on your home page without making
your readers scroll endlessly down that page? So it really is a design and
We also have this network of different sites. We have a mother site. We have
a technology site, politics and news, and so on. So what we were trying to do
was to disperse people to those various sites rather than making them come for
everything through the central home page of Salon. Well, it turns out they
don't want to be dispersed. They don't want to be forced anywhere. They want
to be able to click immediately from one story, whatever story it is, to that
story rather than being made to go through these alternate channels. So that
was one thing we had done which they were furious about, and they let us know.
The great thing about the Web is it is more plastic. It's more forgiving.
And so when you do make a design error as we did--not everything was wrong,
but some of the things needed to be fixed--you can, without spending millions
of dollars like a print magazine or a newspaper, go back into it. You know,
you have to make your designers put in more late nights. They're not happy
about it, but they can do it within a week. And within a week, we had changed
the design. So after--it went from being an avalanche of hate mail. And
people take things so personally. That's the great thing about the Web, too.
They let you know immediately what they like and don't like. They feel that
they are part of the Web site in a way that, I think, very few print
publications have that kind of engagement with their readers. They'll let you
know. They'll find my phone number. They'll e-mail me personally. They'll
threaten my dog. No, they...
(Soundbite of audience laughter)
Mr. TALBOT: They're very emphatic about their desires. And so we were able
to accommodate that, and it had a happy ending.
GROSS: Now when I read something on Salon--what I often do if I were to go on
to read the whole article as opposed to just skimming the first paragraph,
I'll print it out and I'll read it on paper at my convenience. And I'm
wondering, is that typical of your readers? Do you have any idea if most
people who are reading your online magazine read it on the computer screen or
do they want to print it out and read it on paper?
Mr. TALBOT: Well, I think that is true for our generation, Terry. For baby
boomers, definitely. I think they--for any piece that's longer than just one
page, I do that myself. I print Salon out--I read most of Salon in bed at
night on paper. Don't tell anyone, but...
(Soundbite of audience laughter)
Mr. TALBOT: But the surprising thing--and this is, I think, a whole new
generation that's coming up right now, is that almost 30 percent of our
readers, we're finding out are now accessing Salon through their PalmPilots
and cell phones, through their PDAs, which I am completely astounded by.
There's a software called Avantgo, and you can download Salon, specific
stories, right on your PalmPilot and read it wherever you are. And we get our
traffic figures every day. And the whole top half of our traffic logs are
dominated by Avantgo. That's because people are accessing us through Avantgo,
this PDA software.
GROSS: Well, getting back to the sex and celebrity thing, can you tell us
from the number of hits that you calculate how, say, the sex site compares to
a movie review?
Mr. TALBOT: Movie reviews, actually, are very popular.
GROSS: I'm sorry. I chose the wrong thing. That would be popular.
Mr. TALBOT: Yes.
GROSS: About, say, book reviews...
Mr. TALBOT: An investigative piece about...
GROSS: ...or investigative pieces about...
Mr. TALBOT: ...the world economy, you know.
GROSS: An investigative piece that isn't about somebody's sex life.
Mr. TALBOT: Yes. Gee, have we done those? I don't know.
(Soundbite of audience laughter)
Mr. TALBOT: Well, yeah. Certainly--for instance, we did, I think, a very
explosive story earlier this year about how the White House Drug Office
was basically paying off the TV networks to insert anti-drug propaganda into
shows like "E.R." and other prime-time shows. I thought this was astonishing,
you know, an astonishing compromising of the creative integrity, such as it
is, of Hollywood...
(Soundbite of audience laughter)
Mr. TALBOT: ...and something that the public should know about. There was a
lot of media. We led--Peter Jennings led that night with his ABC News program
with our story, to his credit, by the way--to ABC News' credit--because they
were one of the networks that had cooperated with the government. We got lots
of play, front page, New York Times. It was, you know, an editor's dream
because that's the kind of viral marketing, so to speak, that--the way that
Salon has grown, through word of mouth and through breaking stories.
But the hits were actually modest compared a story, say, about Britney Spears,
which we just recently did about, you know, `What is she marketing there?
What kind of sexuality--what kind of Lolita sexuality is she marketing?' And
that got, of course, off the charts traffic, more than this great
investigative piece. But again, my role as an editor has to be to find some
way to blend that into an interesting kind of mix every day.
GROSS: We'll hear more with David Talbot, founder and editor in chief of the
online magazine Salon after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with David Talbot, editor of the online
magazine Salon, recorded Monday at the annual conference of the Special
Now, David, you have said that Salon has moved away from being a magazine
format to that of a continuously published newspaper. And you told The New
York Times, `This is not a medium for a New Yorker type content. It's a
medium for newspaper type content.' You have edited Mother Jones magazine.
You were an arts and features editor at the San Francisco Examiner. So you've
had newspaper and magazine publishing experience. Now that you're publishing
on the Web, what are the differences, do you think, what works at writing on
the Web as opposed to print formats?
Mr. TALBOT: Well, number one, it's just very hard to establish a leisurely
voice the way you can in print, the kind of leisurely bond that a writer
telling you a story and taking his or her time to unravel that story can do in
print. Readers are often accessing us from work. They're looking over their
shoulder to see whether their boss is, like, you know, hovering over their
cubicle. They don't have a lot of time to relax over a story. That said,
they can print it out and hope that the boss doesn't find that they're
printing out Salon and taking it home with them.
But I think what they want is something that does--is more compulsory reading.
My inspiration here is the glory days of newspapering, the great writers,
writing-driven journalism, newspaper-driven. Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, Herb
Caen, that whole generation of columnists that kind of animated daily
newspapering for years that's died off and hasn't been replaced by new
So Salon was built early on, actually, around critics who had strong voices,
book critics, movie critics, TV critics and columnists, like Camille Paglia,
Philadelphia's own, who has a very, I would say, unique and emphatic voice.
Those of you who know her work would agree with me. Garrison Keillor, Annie
Lamott, these are readers--writers, rather, whose voices literally jump
over the screen. It's a cold medium, the computer, and unless you have a
vivid, colorful voice, a controversial voice, often, the reader's not going
to, like, stick with you.
You know, we--again, I come out of a tradition of liberal journalism,
left-wing journalism, Mother Jones, but I knew right away that that wasn't
going to be sufficiently interesting because you have to mix it up. I did
want to create a virtual drawing room, a salon, where people--you know, the
best dinner parties, of course, are those where people disagreed with each
other. If everyone's just nodding their heads in harmony all night long,
it's pretty dull. So right away, despite my own liberal background, I wanted
to bring in right-wing, conservative voices, libertarian voices, people who, I
thought, were intelligent and interesting and could take issue with each
GROSS: One of the things that keeps Salon and a lot of other Web sites afloat
are the on-site ads that are ads. As the Web gets more and more advanced and
gets more and more users, are the advertisers demanding things that they
didn't ask for early on?
Mr. TALBOT: You know, I'm a journalist and been, you know, a journalist for,
you know, my entire life. And I'm very well aware of that split, the church
and state split between, you know, the editorial side and the business side.
And it even--you know, it's often you're on different floors within the
company, you know, and never are you supposed to even talk to people on the
other side. The LA Times, you know, made this terrible mistake early this
year by having a--putting out a supplement for the Staples Center, the big
convention center there. And it turned out that even though it looked like an
editorial product, it was driven by the business side. And it caused great
shame for that corporation, and it should have. And I think it led, in part,
to the fact that the company was then sold by the family to the Chicago
Tribune Company later on because they were so dismayed by the kind of
management the company had fallen under.
So I'm very painfully aware of those--that tension between the business and
the editing side, the tension which in the Web has become a lot more amorphous
because the rules are being kind of made up as they go along. And I think a
lot of sites have gone over the edge in a way they shouldn't have.
That said, I'm actually amazed--because I wear two hats; I'm the chairman of
the company and the editor in chief--at how supportive most people in the
advertising community are for strong, independent journalism. They know it's
not even in their interest to have a site whose integrity feels wrong, smells
wrong to a reader. If you think you're just being given an advertorial
every day, you're not going to go to that site. You want to feel that that
journalism is not bought and paid for, that it has a fundamental integrity to
You might want to ask me about this later, Terry, you know, but we're known
for a certain story that we did last year that was very controversial
involving Henry Hyde. And after that story, there was a concerted effort to
boycott our advertisers on the part of some people, conservatives who were
unhappy with our coverage. I think we lost only one advertiser as a result of
that pressure. We were really in a steam cooker for months because of
that--the controversial nature of reporting. Only one advertiser left us. I
remember another advertising agency where I walked in after the story had
broken. I thought I was going to have to be putting out a lot of fires to
hold on to this--it was a major client for us, a major automotive company.
And the entire staff of that ad agency as I walked into this boardroom to,
like, you know, allay their concerns rose and gave me a standing ovation.
So I think what's weird is that the ad community--the ad industry in the last
10 or 20 years has actually become more bold in terms of the kind of creative
kind of advertising they're doing and the kind of ways they're engaging with
their readers than the media community, than the news community, than my
colleagues, than journalists. I think journalism has become timid. I think
journalism has become dumbed-down. It's become banal. And I think the
advertising community is actually more cutting edge now in some ways than
people in the media.
GROSS: Let's talk about Henry Hyde. The most attention-getting story that
Salon broke was about Henry Hyde's secret affair 30 years prior to the Clinton
impeachment hearings. And this is, of course, when Henry Hyde was chairing
the Judiciary Committee that was investigating Clinton on impeachment charges.
The story--tell us how you got the story, and why you decided to go with it,
because it was very controversial within the journalism community.
Apparently, this story had--other newspapers and magazines, I believe, had
decided not to go with this story because--well, you can tell us why other
journalists didn't and why you did.
Mr. TALBOT: Well, you're right. We got the story because a gentleman who
was a tennis partner--two retired gentlemen who lived in Florida, and one of
them happened to be a tennis partner of a man whose wife had gotten
involved years earlier in Chicago with Henry Hyde. And the affair had
shattered his family. And this gentleman had never talked to the press
before, but was obviously very aggrieved whenever the name of Henry Hyde would
come up. He was particularly aggrieved when he started seeing Henry Hyde on
television as this "Lion in Winter" figure who was going to, you know, in an
august fashion, evenhanded Solomonic way preside over, basically, a sex
trial of the president.
And so he finally decided to tell the story. He told it to his friend. This
friend came to, as you said, 54 different news organizations before he found
his way to Salon. And not one news organization felt this was--that the
American people had a right to know about this. And I think the reason why is
there's a Beltway culture, and a very strong cultured--news culture there that
decides what, in their august wisdom, the American people should know and
shouldn't know. And for years, this filter has worked very effectively. And
they found that the real script that they wanted to go with was a script that
The New York Times--The Washington Post was writing, which was Henry Hyde was
going to be very judicious. He was going to above partisanship. He was
another Sam Ervin type character. That was the script they were writing for
him as the impeachment trial started to get under way in hearings.
And we felt that wasn't the case. We thought that like most people, the whole
circus had gotten out of control, that it was time to bring it to an end and
the fact that Ken Starr had not put one thing in his final report about
Whitewater or any of the other non-sexual areas that he was supposedly
investigating, it all had come down, finally, to Monica Lewinsky and Bill
Clinton. We thought the country was on the brink of madness. And most of the
country felt that same way, except the Beltway culture. There was this huge
disconnect between the American people and between the political and media
culture elite. So we felt that this story was important for people to know
because if you're judging someone on their personal conduct, then I think the
American people have a right to know about the personal conduct of those other
officials who are sitting in judgment on them.
GROSS: We'll hear more with David Talbot of Salon magazine in the second half
of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, bringing classic movies to cable TV. We talk with Pat Davis of
American Movie Classics and Charlie Tabesh of Turner Classic Movies. Also, we
continue our conversation with David Talbot, editor in chief of the online
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to the interview I recorded Monday with David Talbot, editor of
the online magazine, Salon, which covers books, the arts, entertainment and
news. We spoke at the annual convention of the Special Libraries Association,
which is still under way in Philadelphia. When we left off, we were talking
about how and why Salon broke the story of Henry Hyde's extramarital affair.
The story came out as Hyde chaired the House Judiciary Committee presidential
impeachment hearings. It was disagreement within Salon magazine about whether
this story should have been published.
I should mention here that Salon's Washington correspondent disagreed with the
decision to go with that story. I know there was a big argument within Salon
over that, and he ended up leaving. He offered his resignation and I think he
was surprised when you accepted it. I think that's not necessarily what he
was looking for. But anyway, so you ended up writing the story yourself.
Mr. TALBOT: I did.
GROSS: What kind of--there was a firestorm after that. It became a big
story within the press and even the press who declined to take the source's
lead covered it after you initiated it. What happened at Salon? I mean, what
kind of threats did you get? What kind of response did you get?
Mr. TALBOT: Well, there was enormous fury directed at us from our media
brethren. People felt we were off the ranch, that we shouldn't have done
this. And to me, this is one of the great things about the Internet because
it is a much more democratic medium and you--it's not just that's the way it
is, Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather telling us the way it is. There are ways
for information to get out. And I think that's part of the fury that was
directed at us from the media establishment, was a sense that they were losing
control of the flow of information.
But there was obviously a number of conservatives in the country who were very
upset as well. What we got, we were in the eye of a hurricane, we were a
small organization and we were tossed and tur--I woke up one morning to see
Tom DeLay on CNN on the floor of Congress calling for an FBI investigation of
Salon. I wanted to get back into bed.
(Soundbite of audience laughter)
Mr. TALBOT: I--the--we got bomb threats, our building had to be emptied, our
landlord wasn't very happy about that, didn't want to renew our lease after
that. I received death threats, my children received threats, we, you know,
had to change our phone number. There was one time I remember, I was by tape
on one of those shows and every day I felt like I was screaming on one of
those shows "Hardball" or Chris Matthews or--defending what we'd done. I
was on one of these shows screaming one day and this guy phoned up and said,
you know, clearly about to threat to kill me, you know, `Are you Dave Talbot?'
I said, `No, I can't be Dave Talbot. I'm on TV right now.' And he goes, `Oh,
right.' And he hung up. So sometimes they're easily diverted, but not other
A more worrisome aspect was an organized boycott attempted to put pressure on
advertisers to stop advertising at Salon. But I wear this all with a badge of
honor now. We did get through it and I think if you as a new organization
that comes into the world, a new media operation, don't take risks and don't
stories that no one else does. There's no reason for you to have come into
existence, there's no reason for me to be doing this, you know, unless we made
a difference in some way in the world, unless we were reporting stories that
no one did. So I'm very proud of it.
GROSS: Do you think that the story played out any differently in terms of how
you covered it or the reaction to the coverage because you were on the
Internet as opposed to a print magazine or a print newspaper?
Mr. TALBOT: Yes. Absolutely. Because the Internet still is suspect.
That's changing somewhat. And there's reasons why the Internet should be
suspect. I mean, you have to every day decide whether a source of information
on the Internet is valid or not. And print tends to have more credibility.
There are fact checkers with print operations. There are lawyers, there are
reporters and editors who are well trained. Salon has tried to adhere to all
those basic professional standards because we do need to build, you know, a
sense of credibility and--with our readership. But there are many Web sites
that don't. So I don't fault people for having some suspicion of what we're
reporting. But clearly we're not Matt Drudge, we're clearly not a site that
just puts up whatever we've heard, you know, whatever gossip we're hearing.
We do have a filter.
I didn't go with the Henry Hyde story till Henry Hyde himself told me it was
correct. I called up Henry Hyde before we went with the story, talked to his
press spokesman, we were minutes away from posting that story. I talked to
his chief aide--his press aide, he said, `What do you have?' I told him what
we had, he said, `Do you have--is it really locked down?' I said, `I have
photographs. I have, you know, eyewitnesses.' He said, `I'll get back to you
in 10 minutes,' and he did with a statement--the now famous statement from
Henry Hyde about youthful indiscretion which became, I think, a buzz word
for--buzz phrase for a while. So even there, we wouldn't go with that story
until we--the person himself had confirmed it.
GROSS: So you're saying that just because you're online doesn't mean that you
don't use the same standards of journalism...
Mr. TALBOT: Exactly.
GROSS: OK. Before we run out of time, there's a question--I'm gonna stray
from our subject at hand. I don't know if you're aware of this, but David
Talbot is from a very interesting family. His mother was a chorus girl in the
movies. His father, Lyle Talbot, acted as a contract actor with the Warner
Brother studio. He appeared in some of those cliff-hanging serials like
"Batman & Robin" and "Superman." He was Ozzie's friend on "Ozzie and Harriet."
And he appeared in two Ed Wood movies, you know, the "Plan 9 from Outer Space"
and "Glen or Glenda." And, of course, there's recently a fiction film about Ed
Wood. Whenever there was a movie festival of like the worst movies ever made,
they'd be headlined by Ed Wood movies. So you actually have a great story
about meeting Ed Wood. I guess this was after he made "Glen or Glenda." "Glen
or Glenda" is about someone who is a transvestite and secretly cross dresses
Mr. TALBOT: Yes. Well, I think Ed did that particular movie because it was
a culture that he was uniquely fascinated by--personally fascinated by. This
story that you mention is my dad, who was quite a drinker and quite a partyer
in those days, and was probably drinking that night to forget he was in the
movie, I think. But Ed has somehow convinced him to be in both "Glen and
Glenda" and "Plan 9 from Outer Space." "Plan 9," by the way, is famous
because I think it was Bela Lugosi who died...
Mr. TALBOT: ...halfway through the movie, and then Ed Wood played the rest
of the movie himself with a cape--a cape around his eyes, around his face.
Anyway, it was after the kind of glamorous, you know, premier of one of those
movies that my father and Ed got very drunk, came stumbling home to our house
when I was asleep, I was probably three years old at the time--my brother and
I upstairs. And my dad insisted that Ed Wood stay and spend the night because
he was too drunk to drive. How my dad was so lucid to give him that kind of
advice, I'm not sure. So Ed Wood crashed on our living room sofa and the next
morning, my brother and I went into the breakfast room where my mother was
making pancakes. Now my mother was a very sweet and innocent woman. My dad
was on his fifth marriage at that point. He was in his mid-40s. My mom, he'd
married when she was 18. She was a chorus girl, but she was still I think
very, very innocent chorus girl and was not used to the Ed Woods of the world.
Anyway as she's mixing the batter for us, and my brother and I are eagerly
awaiting breakfast in the breakfast table, who should come stumbling out of
bathroom in dressed in my mother's negligee but Ed Wood. He couldn't resist,
you know, it was--and she later told me she destroyed the negligee, she never
wore it again.
(Soundbite of audience laughter)
GROSS: I just want to ask you one more question. You--you've talked about
earlier there were quotes--let's--seeing if I can find the one I wrote down
here--about how much fun it is to do a publication online and surely you're
one of the pioneers of online publications. Is it still fun? Now that things
are so competitive on the Internet and now that financially keeping afloat is
so important and so involved with like, not only advertising, but partnering
and branding and all this. Is it still fun?
Mr. TALBOT: Yes. It is fun. I can't imagine doing anything else. It's
like--I think--I do kind of liken to it my father's experience. It is like
putting on a show every day. It's like the curtains part every day when you
put up a new issue. You immediately get the applause or the boos or whatever
you're going to hear. There's--it's like, you know, that enthusiasm that
Johnny Depp captured in the movie "Ed Wood," you know, `It's a wrap,' you
know, at the end of this terrible scene that he just presided over as a
director. Hopefully we have a little more higher quality. But we--I do have
that feeling every day that it's a wrap. We open the curtains and there it
What's really hard and, you know, the great thing about the theater world--and
I think this is true about journalism--you have a troup of people and those
people came with from the other world, from the print world and they took a
lot of risks in doing it. The worst thing in the world for me is to be a
businessman and do what I did last week, which is to lay off people who are
very near and dear to me. And it's incredibly painful. There's a discipline
that the world of private enterprise imposes on you that is very hard for me
as a creative person and as an editor, as someone from this kind of show biz
like world where you're all a family. It's very hard for me to do that. So
when last week, I think, was probably the hardest week of my life at Salon.
Other than that--and we're still here--and the rest of us are going on strong,
the show must go on.
GROSS: David Talbot is the founder and editor in chief of the online
magazine, salon.com. Our interview was recorded Monday at the annual
conference of the Special Libraries Association.
Coming up, bringing classic movies to TV. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Pat Davis, American Movie Classics and Charlie Tabesh,
Turner Classic Movie channel, discuss scheduling and acquiring
classic films to be shown on cable TV
(Excerpt from 1944 film, "Murder, My Sweet")
Unidentified Man #1: Well, it was about 7:00, anyway it was dark.
Unidentified Man #2: What were you doing at the office that late?
Unidentified Man #1: I'm a homing pigeon. I always come back to the stinking
coop no matter how late it is. I've been out peeking under old Sunday
sections for a barber named Dominique whose wife wanted him back. I forget
why. The only reason I took the job is because my bank account was trying to
crawl under a duck, and I never found him. I just found out all over again
how big this city is. My feet hurt and my mind felt like a plumber's
handkerchief. The office bottle hadn't sparked me up so I'd taken out my
little black book and decided to go grouse hunting, nothing like soft
shoulders to improve my morale.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: That's Dick Powell in a scene from the 1944 film, "Murder, My Sweet."
The best repertory movie house in America is probably your TV if you have
cable. You can find movies dating back to the silent film era, including many
movies not available on video. We invited two of the movie programmers to
talk with us about how movies get on TV. Pat Davis is the vice president of
scheduling for AMC, American Movie Classics. Charlie Tabesh is vice president
of programming for TCM, Turner Classic Movies. I asked them how they acquire
film. Pat Davis began by explaining who AMC licenses film from.
Ms. PAT DAVIS (American Movie Classics): Well, we get them from several
sources, obviously, all the major studios--Paramount, Fox, Universal and the
list goes on, Warner Brothers. And if we want a specific film for a specific
program block that we're looking at, then we do go out and acquire those.
Obviously, there's always more movies. There's--I don't--I'm sure Charlie
will agree with me, there can never be enough movies. And so we're always
looking for new avenues to explore to get more movie product.
GROSS: And how many movies do you currently have licensed?
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, it's in the thousands. I couldn't really give you a number.
It's definitely in the thousands, though, that we have under license right
GROSS: And you usually have them for how long?
Ms. DAVIS: They really--they range from having films for six months to five
years. It just really depends on the studio, on the source of the material
that we are, you know, licensing. So they run the gamut of all kinds of
different, you know, periods of time.
GROSS: Now, Charlie, I know that Turner bought the MGM archives. Does
that mean you have all the MGM movies?
Mr. CHARLIE TABESH (Turner Movie Classics): Yeah. It's really great. I
mean, I've very lucky as a programmer; not only MGM, but all the Warner Bros.
pre-1948 films and all the RKO films, so that's 3,000 right there that we
have in our library, and actually, what I think what makes me feel even
luckier is the fact that we're allowed to go out and supplement that by
licensing films from all the major studios and then a lot of the independents,
a lot of the--you know, we'll go out and get the more obscure silent films and
foreign films and supplement our library with everything else, because we
really want to be about the history of film, and we really try to show, you
know, all of film and film history on our channel.
GROSS: Are you in competition for the same films?
Ms. DAVIS: I guess...
Mr. TABESH: I think...
Ms. DAVIS: ...probably we are sometimes.
Mr. TABESH: I mean, you know, sometimes, we are, but generally, what will
happen, I think, you know--like I said, we start with this huge library and so
I think we do less licensing from the other studios, but the other studios
generally will create windows...
Ms. DAVIS: Correct.
Mr. TABESH: ...so a film might be on one of our channels for a couple of
years and then go to the other channel for a couple of years.
GROSS: When I was growing up, a lot of the local TV stations, plus the
networks, had a lot of movies in their archives and there was "The Late
Show" and "The Early Show" and "The Late, Late Show."
Ms. DAVIS: And "The Million-Dollar Movie."
GROSS: And "The Million-Dollar Movie," of course, so there were lots of
classic movies on TV all the time. I'm wondering if any of the broadcast
networks or local TV stations still have access to a lot of films?
Mr. TABESH: I know that PBS has access to a few of them, but these films, in
general, I don't think are played very much on the broadcast networks.
Ms. DAVIS: No. I don't think so either. And I think, you know, Terry, years
ago, when I was growing up, they were throw-away programming. These wonderful
classic films were kind of just filler programming on RKO Channel(ph) and on
Channel 2 on a late Saturday night. That's what really changed over the
years, that these are--we consider these so wonderful and such gems now.
GROSS: Pat, I'm glad you brought up the idea of how a lot of classic films
used to be shown just all the time as fill basically on broadcast TV. And I
know I grew up in New York and I think, Pat, you might have...
Ms. DAVIS: So did I.
GROSS: ...too, yeah there was something called "Million-Dollar Movie," where
Ms. DAVIS: Yes.
GROSS: ...the same movie all evening through the week...
Ms. DAVIS: Correct.
GROSS: ...every weekday night. They'd show the same film...
Ms. DAVIS: And then Saturday and Sunday all day.
GROSS: Exactly. And Saturday and Sunday all day and all night.
Ms. DAVIS: Right. Right.
GROSS: And some of the typical films you'd see, "King Kong," "Mighty Joe
Young," "Godzilla," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Invaders from Mars," the
James Cagney gangster films, plus, "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the Astaire and
Ms. DAVIS: Yep.
GROSS: And it was fantastic. And, you know, in retrospect, TV was this great
repertory movie house, which is how I've come to see your channels, AMC and
TCM. I'm wondering if you could share some of your memories of watching
movies on TV when you were growing up. What was the kind of fare you came of
age with on television?
Mr. TABESH: Well...
Ms. DAVIS: I am probably older than Charlie, so I came--basically, I spent
most of my time with "Million-Dollar Movie" and with "The Late Show." I have
a mother who was a great movie fan and she and I would set our alarm at night,
and at 11:45 or whenever the movie would come up, the alarm would go off and
we'd get up and watch these wonderful old movies on CBS. It was CBS at that
time on "The Late Show." Or, of course, every night when--at 7:30, we would
watch a movie on "The Million-Dollar Movie" and all day on Saturday and
Sunday. So I grew up with "Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" and "Mr. Blandings
Builds His Dream House" and all the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. And
that's how I began my love with--you know, my love of film was just watching
those films over and over and over again and loving the clothes. The clothes
were a big deal for me. I always loved the beautiful clothes that were in
these '30s and '40s movies.
GROSS: Charlie, what about you?
Mr. TABESH: Well, for me, I grew up in Los Angeles, and I was an only child,
so I think I had a TV on constantly, and I remember Channel 5 had a weekly
movie showcase with someone named Tom Hatten, who would introduce the
movies, and I remember the "Francis," the talking mule, movies were probably
the first ones that I saw. And then "Godzilla" movies, the Marx brothers
movies. I even got into the Doris Day-Rock Hudson, you know, '60s sex
comedies. Those were some of the earliest ones that I remember watching.
GROSS: What's the demographics of your audiences? Do you know? I mean, some
people might assume that most of the viewers are older viewers who lived
through the era that some of the classic movies were made in. Is that true?
Do you know the age of your viewers?
Ms. DAVIS: It really depends on what you're showing. I think, as Charlie
was mentioning, the John Waynes, I think that just goes across the spectrum.
I think you have young viewers, old viewers. I think things like the Stooges,
it's amazing how young, you know--there's a real young viewership for
something like the Stooges. It really depends on the programming, what your
demographic for each--your demographic for different movies can be different
ages. For example, for "Rockstock(ph)," it'll be, you know, a younger
demographic probably than it would be for something about, say, D-Day or
something like that. It does depend on what you're showing as to, you know,
what your age demographic is, I think.
GROSS: My guests are Pat Davis of AMC, American Movie Classics, and Charlie
Tabesh of TCM, Turner Classic Movies. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about classic movies on TV.
My guest, Pat Davis, is vice president for scheduling at AMC, American Movie
Classics. And Charlie Tabesh is vice president of programming for TCM, Turner
Sometimes your channels have coming attractions for--the original coming
attractions for the classic movie or old shorts that used to precede the
movies at the movie houses. Where do you find those?
Mr. TABESH: Well, for TCM, in addition to our library of 3,000 films, we've
got about the same number of shorts. So we pull from that library. And then
we also have trailers in our library and we get trailers from the studios as
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah. And, as you know, we license our films, so we--it's the
same. We are licensing these shorts or they come--like the trailers come from
the studios where we've licensed our films.
GROSS: So are they hard to find? Are a lot of them destroyed?
Ms. DAVIS: They're around, yeah. You might have to look a bit to find them,
but they're there. And they're very popular with viewers. We've got monkeys
dressed up as people, chimpanzees, and people really love that--you know,
those shorts. They love seeing those old shorts, and we have something called
modern science and unusual occupations, and they're things that people really
enjoy watching, the older shorts.
Mr. TABESH: And it's like that will be...
Ms. DAVIS: Because you don't see them anywhere else.
Mr. TABESH: Right. That'll be one of our themes for next year, and we're
going to give that the full treatment, like we do everything else, and in
prime time, show a lot of the greatest shorts ever made, because they're
really great movies, and people sort of forget about them, so we want to give
them the opportunity to watch them when we have an original documentary on the
subject that we're working on right now.
Ms. DAVIS: And, you know, where else can you see them? There's no place else
where you can see this product, you know.
GROSS: Having watched a lot of old coming attractions for classic films, how
would you compare current and old coming attraction?
Mr. TABESH: It is interesting, because there's a big difference, and, I mean,
I notice just in terms of action, the action and the quick cutting that's in
the current coming attractions, whereas before, it seemed to be more about
the story and more about the stars, and I've noticed a big difference between
older coming attractions and current ones.
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, yeah, I agree.
GROSS: They didn't used to give away as much plot as they do now.
Mr. TABESH: Right.
Ms. DAVIS: And it was always in the old trailers, it was always the best and
the greatest and the biggest and the gigantic and...
GROSS: Yes, that's right.
Ms. DAVIS: ...they always had these wonderful superlatives that they used for
every single film, which I don't--you know, I think today it's much more
action and much more driven by the action theme than by the story.
GROSS: There was a time when Turner was colorizing movies, something that was
very controversial. A lot of people really hated the idea of taking old black
and white movies and colorizing them.
Mr. TABESH: Yeah, me, too.
GROSS: Yeah. And that was discontinued, wasn't it?
Mr. TABESH: Absolutely. And on Turner Classic Movies, we give these movies
the full treatment as art, so like I said, we'll show them letterboxed. We
won't interrupt them. We don't edit them, and we never, ever will or have
shown a colorized movie. Now they exist somewhere. I don't know. I'm sure
they show up sometimes on local stations or something like that, but on TCM,
we never show colorized movies at all.
GROSS: I remember seeing a colorized version on TV of "Casablanca," and I
think there was a scene where Ingrid Bergman was wearing like a yellow dress,
and I'm thinking yellow has no place at all in this movie.
Mr. TABESH: Oh. Yeah, it's--I couldn't agree more.
GROSS: So were you around working for TCM during the colorization era and did
TCM take a strong stand against the...
Mr. TABESH: Well, I was not around, but TCM did take a strong stand against
GROSS: But how did that go over with Ted Turner, who was behind the
colorization? I mean, Turner owns TCM.
Mr. TABESH: Because, you know, he understands the role of the channel, I
think. I mean, the channel's philosophy predates me so I can't really talk
too much about what happened or how it came about, but, you know, Turner
Classic Movies was launched with the idea that it was about the history and
art of film and that, I don't think, was ever too big an issue with Mr.
Turner. I think he understood that and understood that the colorized versions
may have a place on other channels elsewhere.
Ms. DAVIS: And AMC has never shown a colorized film. That was not a problem
for us because it just never came up. It was never even anything that was
discussed at AMC. We just always felt that that was doing something to a
film--to a classic film like that just was not part of our philosophy.
GROSS: Do you get much response from actors who are in some of the classic
movies that you show who are still alive and really enjoying the movie
Mr. TABESH: All the time.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. TABESH: It's actually--I'm sure AMC does and we do. You know, we do a
lot of--like during the day, if it's somebody's birthday, we'll do...
Ms. DAVIS: Yes.
Mr. TABESH: ...you know, a series of their films, that sort of thing. Or we
just--a lot of older actors that see themselves on TCM and call up, and we
have a lot of friends of the channel. The current actors, too, and directors,
who really appreciate seeing the older films are big fans as well.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah. We have the same thing. Sometimes a star's husband or wife
will call and make sure that we haven't forgotten their birthday. You know,
these are maybe the lesser-known stars, but we always try to, during the day,
you know, do a small birthday tribute to the stars who made the films because,
you know, they're very important to us, of course.
GROSS: Pat Davis is vice president of scheduling for American Movie Classics.
Charlie Tabesh is vice president of programming for Turner Classic Movies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.