The Media Guy

Wait, What the Heck Is a Pop-Up Magazine?

ESPN The Magazine and a San Francisco-Based Troupe of Media People Take the Stage in New York. Hilarity (or Something) Ensues!

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If you're in New York City Wednesday night, you're invited to sit back and enjoy a special edition of Pop-Up Magazine. It's not available on newsstands and you can't subscribe, but you can buy a ticket to what's being billed as "The Live Issue: ESPN The Magazine + Pop-Up Magazine," a 90-minute stage show at New York University's Skirball Center.

As Pop-Up Magazine Editor in Chief Douglas McGray explains, "We're a small group of old friends -- writers, editors and designers who have worked for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, 'This American Life,' The Atavist, Wired, Spin and Interview. On a whim, we decided to launch a magazine that would exist for just one night, live on stage. A live magazine. Nothing would get published, nothing would go online. Instead, we would present a rapid-fire series of new stories, images and ideas in an evening that unfolds like a classic print magazine."

After four editions in San Francisco, tomorrow night's special edition with ESPN The Magazine represents Pop-Up's first major collaboration. Even as he was prepping for the big event, McGray graciously answered some of my questions this morning:

Simon Dumenco: At these shows, do blow-in cards fall from the ceiling onto people's laps?

Douglas McGray: [laughter] We've actually joked about that . Also, spraying people in the face with cologne samples. But we haven't gone that far yet.

Mr. Dumenco: Someday! So, when was the first show in San Francisco?

Mr. McGray: Spring of 2009. We thought it would be at a bar, then all of a sudden all these great contributors wanted to participate, and we figured we should be in a theater instead. And then it grew from there.

Mr. Dumenco: How big has the audience gotten?

Mr. McGray: Issues 1 and 2 were at the Brava Theater in the Mission, a beautiful, old, intimate place, about 350 seats. Issues 3 and 4 were at Herbst Theater, just under 1,000 seats. Now we're doing this special issue with ESPN The Magazine at Skirball [which seats 860]. And then Issue 5 will be at the San Francisco Opera House, which has 3,200 seats.

Mr. Dumenco: That's pretty amazing circulation growth. Are you giving away a clock radio shaped like a football or something?

Mr. McGray: [laughter] You know, it has really been driven by the audience. It has become a community. We always throw a big party after our San Francisco shows, so audience and contributors can get drinks together. It's social media! People have really gotten behind the show and spread the word to friends. We've never had a growth plan. We've just grown.

Mr. Dumenco: You seem almost bizarrely religious about the live-ness of the event in that you don't record the show -- no audio or video. So you don't have an online social-media element in terms of shareable artifacts like YouTube videos and such. Which seems both admirable and vaguely insane to me.

Mr. McGray: Do you mind if I steal that for a cutline? "Pop-Up Magazine. Admirable and vaguely insane." It captures what we're going for better than anything we've come up with.

Mr. Dumenco: Sure, be my guest. Stick it on your MySpace page. [laughter]

Mr. McGray: We're actually kind of a mix of old and new. We sell so many tickets through Twitter and Facebook. Our show may be totally offline, but when tickets went on sale for Issue 4, Pop-Up Magazine was trending on Twitter in San Francisco. And we love the internet, we love technology. We just like the idea of making something different. Where everyone unplugs for a night and participates in something ephemeral.

Mr. Dumenco: It's kind of touching, actually.

Mr. McGray: You know, people have responded to it. Both the audience and the contributors. It's just different. It's not better, just a change of pace. And it lets you try some different things.

Mr. Dumenco: What can people expect tomorrow?

Mr. McGray: Basically, we try and translate the idea of a magazine to the stage. It's not a superslick, heavily produced show. It's meant to feel casual and handmade and intimate. The night opens with a front of the book. A bunch of quick stuff. Then there's a feature well. Everything still pretty short. We host stories and ideas in writing, documentary film, radio, photography and art -- the elements you'd find in a great magazine. And, of course, it will have a sports theme. We don't generally do themes, but ESPN The Magazine approached us about this collaboration, and we met them and liked them. And it seemed like sports would give us an opportunity to have a lot of different kinds of stories.

Mr. Dumenco: Maybe there could also be a spontaneous mixed-martial-arts match between, say, Davy Rothbart and Alex Gibney? Which reminds me, tell me everyone who's taking the stage tomorrow night.

Mr. McGray: Sure. Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, author and New York Times Magazine writer Nicholas Dawidoff, "This American Life" regular Starlee Kine, New Yorker writer William Finnegan, Grantland writer Katie Baker, artist Andrew Kuo, Found magazine creator Davy Rothbart, ESPN The Magazine writer Alyssa Roenigk, the New York Neo-Futurists, New York Times Magazine writer Jon Mooallem, Radiolab producer Pat Walters, artist Jenny Odell, Slate's Daniel Engber, Wired correspondent Steven Leckart, photographer Andrew Hetherington, ESPN columnist Paul Lukas, journalist Paul Wachter, ESPN The Magazine writer Seth Wickersham, filmmaker Ursula Liang, artist Jason Polan, filmmakers Luke Poling and Tom Bean and more.

Mr. Dumenco: Awesome lineup.

Mr. McGray: Thanks!

Mr. Dumenco: Is there something sacred to you about the idea of magazines or magazine-ness?

Mr. McGray: I don't know -- in the Bay Area, we're not that big on sacred. Things change; they evolve. As long as they stay good and interesting, I'm happy. What we believe in is stories and ideas. And we think they're a great way to bring people together. And it turns out that the classic idea of a magazine, live, is a pretty fun format. We haven't figured out all we can do with it yet. If we ever do, maybe we'll move on to live newspapers.

Mr. Dumenco: I'd like to see the Cathy cartoon done live. So, yeah, please do newspapers next. Cathy and Garfield.

Mr. McGray: Ha!

Mr. Dumenco: OK, one last question. I've heard a rumor that Newsweek/Daily Beast Editor in Chief Tina Brown might show up to do a surprise burlesque number. Is that true, or is that maybe something I just made up?

Mr. McGray: No comment.

BONUS Q&A: I emailed ESPN The Magazine Editor in Chief Gary Belsky to ask him how he decided to collaborate with the Pop-Up crew. His answer:

I heard about Pop-Up last year, from a friend in San Francisco named Deborah Schneider, who is a big fan. She kept hocking me to come out and see a show, but I couldn't make it work. But after reading about it and hearing about it I realized that this was something we'd like to do here. Although ESPN The Magazine and ESPN in general are what you might call mainstream, broad-reach media businesses, we're always being encouraged to experiment. We did last year's NBA season preview in tandem with Marvel Comics, for example. So we were very interested in the idea of experience as content. Anyway, we reached out to the Pop-Up folks, who were intrigued and, as it happened, planning a trip to New York. We arranged a meeting, and 30 minutes later we had a partnership.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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