Reading, Rising, Arithmetic/Tales of the Unread | Media | Chicago Reader

Reading, Rising, Arithmetic/Tales of the Unread 

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Reading, Riding, Arithmetic

Pure journalism--journalism obligated to nothing but truth--should be taught in schools in the same spirit as the square root of minus 1. As crucial but imaginary. Consider the position Cy Griffith finds himself in. He means to put a worthy new magazine on its feet. And he sees but one road to survival--which is to increase the level of financial support from the industry he covers.

The industry is mass transit, the CTA specifically. Griffith brings to his job a vision and a theory: "They're doing a much better job, but the public perception of what the CTA is doing hasn't changed a bit. The only way to change that is to deliver information to the public that's credible and thorough and fun to read at the same time, and that's what we're trying to do."

You might suppose that's also what the CTA is trying to do. Alas, says Griffith, "They don't know how."

Griffith's a former options trader who'd had previous brushes with journalism, and his latest began on the el. "I was taking the Ravenswood and I had nothing to read. So I started digging through my wallet and found an old Jewel receipt, and started checking prices for want of anything else to do." It was a pathetically desperate act, and it got him thinking. Last September, bankrolled by some marketing work and bartending he'd been doing, he launched Transit Times, a free monthly that's not merely a few intellectual cuts above a supermarket receipt but umpteen.

Griffith proposes an old-fashioned "one hand washing the other" relationship with the CTA. Full of positive news and advertising, Transit Times will blanket the CTA system. What a welcome sight it will be to the teeming masses parched for reading material--a journal crammed with humor, history, inside skinny, and appeals to esprit de corps. "It's similar to Amtrak Express magazine in that you have a captive audience and put something in front of that audience that makes them want to use the service more and feel better about it," Griffith told us. "Customers see what's happening, and then they're less likely to bitch if their bus is late."

The press run for the June issue was a paltry 30,000 copies, and Griffith hadn't even published in April or May because he couldn't afford to: he hadn't sold enough ads. But from issue one the contents have been full of promise. There's a column each month by Aaron Freeman (in return for an ad touting whatever show he happens to be doing), and stories by modestly recompensed free-lancers. The June issue offers a "rider profile" of Chicago ballet's Madame Elizabeth Boitsov, a look back at streetcar service to Midway Airport, a cover story on the Stadium Express, and even a knuckle-rapping editorial. Transit Times deemed the CTA's PR department "asleep at the wheel" for failing to hawk rapid transit as "Chicago's (environmentally) Green Machine."

Griffith mused, "If the CTA would come in now and say, 'We agree--we have to market our stuff better,' they could even call their own editorial shots. Not all of them, but some of them. What they've failed to recognize is that they really don't know how to sell their services. Environmental issues are next to the economy as the top thing on people's minds, and here's this 'green machine' and they don't even know there's a PR angle that's fallen right in their laps.

"Their official response is 'We like what you're doing, kid. Keep it up.' Transit Times does one thing--it promotes the use of CTA services. And they've thrown a minuscule amount of support behind us. It's chicken feed."

Actually, the CTA already calls some of the editorial shots. Ron Weslow, acting supervisor of marketing, suggested the story on the Stadium Express. Weslow spends a certain amount of time at a computer terminal each month digging up facts to plug into Transit Times stories. He's the magazine's friend.

"In truth, I think he has a very, very good product," Weslow told us. "We have a very small budget here, but one thing his magazine does that other magazines don't is it focuses on the business we're in. If we had the funding I'd love to see this thing at every CTA rail station and many bus stops. It could eventually serve as a forum for feedback between CTA riders and the administration. He's hit a niche. He just needs to get bigger distribution."

It's obvious to Griffith that the downtown trolley project is spending a nice piece of change to promote itself, and he's after a slice of that pie. He's also going after business from Southwest Airlines, which will be only 20 minutes from the Loop as soon as the new Midway line opens. "We have to come up with as many angles as possible," he says.

So he finds it odd that the CTA, with everything to gain from Transit Times's success, doesn't advertise massively in it, while LaSalle National Bank has been there from the first issue and is now a fixture on the back cover. "It seemed to us like the back page was kind of neat," says Emil Zbella, the bank's vice president for advertising, "because if the thing was thrown around or was left lying on the seat the chances would be 50-50 they'd be seeing your ad."

Why advertise at all? we wondered. "Well, of course it's very cheap," Zbella said. He elaborated, "It tends to reach kind of a commuter market that comes into the Loop. We've got several offices downtown. You can find the right newspapers for the suburbs, but it's been difficult for us to zero in on that [Loop] market. I don't think we've gotten the distribution or circulation figures yet we've been wanting, but the quality has been really nice."

We told Zbella that for whatever reason the CTA wasn't as eager to advertise in Transit Times as his bank.

"Maybe we've got something to sell," he said.

Tales of the Unread

Host: Welcome to Book Nook. I'm Willy Oxford and tonight's guest is James Joyce, author of a new book a lot of people are talking about, Ulysses. Quite a story, Mr. Joyce.

Joyce: Thank you.

Host: As we grapple with the economy and try to get this country back on its feet the story of Ulysses is a story that speaks to all Americans. It's a story about fortitude and steadfastness and a turning away from profligacy, much like the 12 years of profligacy that placed this nation squarely betwixt the Scylla of debt and the Charybdis of joblessness and in desperate need of a new economic direction. It's a story about marriage and courage and loyalty to hearth and home. It's by no means an extremist sort of story. It's a tribute to values I'm sure were valued just as highly among the Trojans as the Greeks and are valued today by Americans of all persuasions. And I just want to say I'm behind your book 100 percent.

Joyce: Thank you.

Host: I'd like to read a couple of excerpts from Ulysses to give you the flavor of what Mr. Joyce has written. And by the way, have I mentioned that I met James Joyce years ago when I was visiting Trinity College and we've been friends ever since? He's one of the finest men I know. Now let's see . . . [Opens book to tab A] "History," Stephen said, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Now I think this speaks to all Americans. After 12 years of do-nothing, trickle-down government that has left our great nation the world's leading debtor, recent history is a nightmare from which this great nation is trying to awake--and may I add that we will succeed only if rubbing our eyes and splashing water on our face becomes the common purpose of every American. Which is why, Mr. Joyce, all Americans will admire the note of affirmation on which your fine book ends. [Turns to tab B] "And yes I said yes I will Yes." That's very much to the point. This is my philosophy. It's certainly the philosophy of the American people, whatever their party and whatever their politics.

Joyce: And yet I have critics in the U.S. Senate no less who believe Ulysses must not be published and anyone who tries to sell it should be arrested.

Host: That's criticism I just don't understand. I would go to the wall for your book.

Joyce: Some of them will even try to take your program off the air.

Host: Will they? Hmmm. Of course I respect these critics, and I want to make it clear to them that no offense was intended by asking my friend James Joyce onto this program today. And I apologize if any was taken. But their denunciations vex me. There is indeed violence in the story of Ulysses and there are moments of sexual allure, but these elements are presented in a context tailored to the tastes of the American mainstream that Book Nook serves. A strong moral thread--the thread that I might say binds together Americans of every region, race, sex, and ethnic heritage--runs through the ageless myth of Odysseus and Penelope.

Joyce: And so it does. Yet if I might venture an impression, I don't believe you've read my book.

Host: No, but I was briefed on it, and you're an old friend.

Joyce: You might want to skim it before you make more of a fool of yourself than you already have.

Host: It's very thick and I have other duties.

Joyce: Then just read the last few pages.

Host: [Doing so] Hmmm. Ahhh. Sooo. Hoo-boy.

Joyce: I think this passage is risky but magnificent. With your permission I'd like to read it aloud and let your audience decide.

Host: I don't see what that would serve. No. You've done Book Nook enough damage already. Of course I as host take full responsibility for all the damage Mr. Joyce has done to this distinguished program by his assault on the spirit of artistic inquiry we try to celebrate here. But I cannot in good conscience provide him with a forum to propagate divisive literary experiments I do not endorse. However, let me make it clear that Mr. Joyce is a distinguished writer and I wish him well in his battle with the censors and thought police, whose cause is not without its merits.

Joyce: I won't leave quietly.

Host: That is certainly your right. Why don't you sit there in front of the camera and make an obscene gesture at my expense while we bring out our next guest. She's just written a heartwarming salute to American democracy. She's my friend and I love her. A big hello for Lani Guinier!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.

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