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The Self-Made Man: Jann Wenner

wenner2Rolling Stone magazine has been around for so long that it’s easy to forget how, at one time, it was the project of an entrepreneur who wasn’t sure if he would succeed or fail. It’s also hard to imagine Rolling Stone as a folded, unstapled tabloid newspaper with only one color highlight, instead of the glossy, 85%-cologne-ad magazine we know today.

Much of Rolling Stone’s development was overseen by its founder and chief editor Jann Wenner, who is this week’s Self Made Man.

Wenner was born in New York City and grew up in boarding schools after his parents’ divorce, eventually moving to California to attend UC Berkeley. As a college student, Wenner took part in the Free Speech Movement and had a column, titled “Something’s Happening,” in Berkeley’s student-run paper.

I also had a regular column in my school newspaper, and part of me wonders if Wenner’s column was as bad as mine. Giving a 20-year-old boy a weekly vehicle for shooting his big fat mouth off is never a good idea.

Wenner didn’t last at Berkeley and dropped out, but his his mentor, San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason, got him a job working on political/literary magazine Ramparts, and the two went on to create Rolling Stone in 1967.

Rolling Stone was initially a magazine that reported on California’s hippie counterculture, particularly the music, but Jann always had bigger plans for it. Unlike more underground newspapers with similar coverage, Wenner’s magazine held itself to higher journalistic standards and stayed away from overtly radical politics (although contributors like Hunter S. Thompson would skirt that line a lot).

Speaking of Thompson, he was part of the group of then-young writers brought in to cover politics during the 1970s, which is when Rolling Stone really hit its stride. Again, it was all by design. Jann had a great eye for talent and, more importantly, saw what was lacking in mainstream political coverage: energy and relevance to college students and young voters, whom both political parties all but ignored during that time.

Wenner has always said that his magazine “is not just about the music, but about the things and attitudes that music embraces.” While Rolling Stone has gone through up and down cycles over the years (and appears to be stuck in a Baby Boomer rut whenever their Best Of lists come out), guys like Matt Taibbi have made it relevant again, and they demonstrate that Jann Wenner still has his finger on the pulse, even if it slips off from time to time.

Here’s a short interview snippet from the Adcraft Club, in which Wenner talks about the early days of Rolling Stone.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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