Mitch Boehm gave up the editor’s desk at Motorcyclist in 2007, but far from sitting back with his feet up since then, he’s been busy putting out his own magazine, Moto Retro Illustrated. We caught up with him for a sit-down—or rather an email exchange—to find out how that’s going for him, how well it’s been accepted, and where it’s headed next.
Cycle Guide Magazine: Some background first. What’s your history in motojournalism?
Mitch Boehm: I lucked out and got a job right out of college with Motorcyclist in July of 1985. It’s amazing how much Art Friedman and Dick Lague changed my life by giving me a chance. I spent four wonderful years there (a Mr. Jerry Smith worked there briefly, too) as road test editor, and then took a job with American Honda’s product-planning department in 1989. That was very cool and I learned a lot, being on the inside of the bike-development process from the sketch stage all the way to production.
But after three years I’d had enough of the corporate thing (and they’d had enough of me), and I accepted a job in 1992 from David Edwards as managing editor of Cycle World. That was a great gig, and if I hadn’t been offered the editor’s chair at Motorcyclist a year later by Friedman and Lague, I might still be at CW. After 13 years as editor, Art Friedman wanted to simply write stories and be done with the hassles (budgets, personnel, planning, corporate BS), so he asked me to run Motorcyclist. I’d started there eight years earlier and had a strong connection to Mr. Petersen and that magazine, so I agreed.
|Boehm at Daytona, 1995|
Like Friedman, I spent 13-plus years running Motorcyclist, and I’d like to think we did a good job. Circulation improved while I was there, and we had our first (and only) million-dollar issue—and the first 100K-selling issue on the newsstand since the early 1980s—during my tenure. Plus we brought some very neat people and stories into the mix. I hired Gordon Jennings to write a monthly column and features for us in 1994, and he was there until his unfortunate death several years later. We also featured 13 or 14 iterations of the Roberts Chronicles pieces, which Kenny Roberts penned himself. That sort of journalism is hard to come by these days in a world filled with comparisons and bike tests on motorcycles that are so functionally competent their performance has very little to do with the type of riding most riders do.
But after 13-plus years of running the show there, and having to deal with the unbelievably disruptive management changes that resulted from several different sales of Petersen Publishing over the last decade (there’s a book in all that), I stepped down from the editor’s chair and simply wrote stories while Brian Catterson—who we’d hired a few years earlier—stepped into the leadership role there.
CGM: What made you decide to create Moto Retro Illustrated? And wasn’t it called something else originally?
MB: For several years I’d been pushing the powers-that-be at Primedia/Source Interlink to do a really nice retro/vintage magazine that would focus on the bikes and moto-culture in the two decades from 1965 (when the Japanese really started to make their presence known) to 1985, when things began to change drastically and technology really came to the fore; the advent of the aluminum-framed GSX-R750 in ’85 really helped morph things into the modern era. My concept was to focus on the entire biking culture of that era, from streetbikes to dirtbikes to minis, all the stuff we baby boomers grew up riding and thinking about as kids and teenagers. That era was life-changing for millions of riders, and I wanted to capture it in a glossy, large-format magazine that really dug deep into the back stories of the bikes and events and men (and women) of the era.
Finally, in early 2008, the publisher gave me a green light, and I launched Motorcyclist Retro from the Source Interlink offices. We did three issues in 2008, and they were quite successful for a start-up, each selling more than 20,000 copies on newsstands across the country. I’d been pushing them to offer subscriptions in 2009, and they finally agreed to that, too. But during the fall of 2008 the economy was in the process of tanking, and the guy running the magazine division (who was fired last year) freaked out and cut all new projects, six or eight in all, including Motorcyclist Retro. They wanted to concentrate on “core business,” and I can appreciate that. Retro was going to be successful for them, but they threw away the baby with the bathwater and killed it in December of 2008. They had no idea what they had.
I was bummed, but after a couple months of sulking, my wife and a couple of close friends suggested I re-launch the concept under a new name. And so in the middle of 2009 my wife and I launched Moto Retro Illustrated, a glossy, oversized quarterly featuring the same basic editorial angle as before but a magazine with an entirely different business plan.
See, most mainstream magazines rely primarily on advertising for revenue. Publishers basically give the magazines away (thus, cheap yearly subscriptions and cover prices at the newsstand) and generate the majority of income from ad sales. I felt that, given the size and relative affluence of the baby boom market, I could produce a higher-end product with superb writing, photography and physical properties (thick paper, oversize trim size, glossy stock) and actually charge for each copy what the magazine is actually worth. A crazy concept, I know. So while we’re planning to be tiny compared with the bigger magazines out there, we’ll be able to a) weather any more economic storms and a lack of advertising due to them and b) keep the magazine’s ad-to-edit ratio very low so readers get a ton of retro material in every issue. Our first two issues, for instance, have only 15 pages of ads each, and a whopping 85 pages of edit. That’s a lot better than the 50/50 mix of edit and ads you see in more mainstream magazines. Our readers love this, and I’m hoping it continues to help our growth down the road. We’ll probably cap advertising to 20 pages in each issue; that will not only please readers, but it’ll make each of the ads even more special and exclusive, as they won’t have to compete with so many other ads for readers’ attention.
Since we’re small, we’re not on newsstands per se. We are available in a handful of dealerships and shops around the country. But the majority of our sales are subscriptions and single-copy sales, which come to me via our website (www.motoretroillustrated.com), through the mail or via email (snail and email addresses are on our site) or by calling me (ditto). When you call Moto Retro Illustrated, you’re calling my cell phone, and I answer it! Subs are expensive—$40 for four issues—but I’ve gotten only a tiny bit of price pushback, and only from those who haven’t seen and held and read the magazine. Once folks see what we’re doing, they immediately want to subscribe. And most do. The feedback I’ve gotten over the last year has been simply unreal. It’s a large part of what keeps me going!
CGM: What challenges did you face starting Moto Retro Illustrated? Was it hard to drum up enthusiasm and financing for a new print magazine in the digital age?
MB: The biggest challenge was figuring out all the foundational elements: Who’d print it? How would I store the extra magazines? How would I deliver the magazine to subscribers? Who would design it? Luckily, having been in the publishing biz for so long, I knew where to look. Our printer’s in Denver. We’re using the U.S. post office for U.S. deliveries, though we’re about to change our foreign method because it’s taking too long. Alice Sexton, who’s a retro fan herself and who’s worked as an art director and a marketing person in the motorcycle industry for many years, is doing our design, and doing a great job. There’s nothing fancy here and no need for it; just large (and superb) photos, large type on white background (for baby boomers’ aging eyesight!) and great stories. Art Friedman and David Edwards taught me that a long time ago. Story is key. We’re not doing superficial stuff on bikes and people and events. We’re digging deep, getting the story on the bike or its development (or a race, or a person) you haven’t read before. There’s so much good information out there on that era that was never written about; I call what we’re doing “moto archeology,” and I think that’s a good way to look at it. Our Lawson/ELR piece, our DT-1 story, the Roberts feature, the Carlsbad then-and-now piece—those are great stories, and long stories, too. We gave the Roberts piece 18 pages; you’d never, ever see that in a more mainstream magazine, and that sort of commitment allows us to “go deep” informationally.
The actual writing and research comes easy for me, and it’s fun, too. Just last month I arranged a meeting with Roger DeCoster, Lars Larsson, Mike Runyard and Barry Higgins at Tom White’s fantastic museum to interview them for a piece coming up in our third issue (out in late June). It was a gas to have all those heroes in one place. Hanging with Roberts for the Roberts Now! piece was a gas.
The hard parts for me are the rest of it, the business stuff: keeping the books, managing the subscription lists, selling all the ads, doing all the promotion. As a one-man show (I’m the only employee), it’s difficult to fit it all in while I try to freelance as much as I can. The magazine isn’t making any money yet, and may not for another year, so I need to make money another way. Cash flow is enough to keep the magazine going, but there’s no salary for me. But eventually, once subs get to a certain point, it’ll start paying off. But you’ve got to build it up first, and that’s what I’m doing now.
CGM: Are you writing and producing the magazine alone, or do you have a staff?
MB: Aside from Alice, who does the art direction on a freelance basis, I’m writing 90-95 percent of the magazine. I have some help from some longtime friends and colleagues, including Dexter Ford, David Edwards and Charles Everitt. They do the occasional feature piece or column, and are great. Davey Coombs from Racer X has been a huge supporter, as have a bunch of advertisers and friends. But it’s mostly just me.
CGM: Japanese bikes from the 1970s and 1980s are becoming very popular lately. Why do you think that’s happening now?
MB: It’s been coming for a long time now. It’s all about demographics, and the massive imprint Japanese bikes—dirtbikes, streetbikes and minis—had on our collective psyche in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Think about it—bikes such as Elsinores, RD350s, Honda Z50s and CT70s, Kawasaki H1s and H2s, Suzuki’s TM and RM motocrossers. The Euro motocrossers such as Bultacos and Maicos and Huskys—even Hodaka Super Rats. Those bikes, plus movies such as On Any Sunday and riders like DeCoster, Hannah, Smith, Roberts and Lawson—man, we lived for that stuff back in the day, and our whole goal at Moto Retro is to rekindle those glory years and make them special again with new information and coverage.
|Boehm racing in Ohio, 1978|
CGM: It seems there are more vintage motorcycle events now than ever before. Why is this?
MB: Same thing. Boomers want to revel in the bikes and the era that was so special to them back in the day. And now that they have some time and money they can focus on their passion more and more. Events like Vintage Motorcycle Days in July is such a cool event, as is Barber’s event in October, the Mountainfest event in West Virginia, and the Road America vintage bash in June. Cool retro events are happening all over the country, and it’s good to see.
CGM: The collector-car market has seen a sharp rise in prices since the advent of events like the Barrett-Jackson auctions. Will collector-bike auctions do the same to the price of vintage motorcycles?
MB: I think we’re already seeing higher prices for really rare motorcycles from this era. But in the end, even a collector bike is within reach of the typical enthusiast. A first-year CBX, for instance, can be had in great shape for under 10 grand. A first-year CB750 in similar shape can be had for less than $20,000. H1s are in the same league as the CBX, as are a whole range of legendary streetbikes. Dirtbikes of all sorts are cheap, relatively speaking, even rare ones. Same with minis, though some are pricey. Still, bike prices are nothing like muscle-car prices, which have skyrocketed. Bikes like Broughs and Vincents? They’re way out there, but that’s a different sort of person.
CGM: How is Moto Retro doing in terms of sales and reader acceptance?
MB: Readers flat-out love what we’re doing. I’ve had one —and I’m being honest here—guy who read the magazine and complained; he didn’t like it because it didn’t have any Moto Guzzis in it! He thought we were going to cover all those Brit and Euro bikes the other vintage magazines have been covering for decades now. That’s it. Everyone else loves the flavor, the bikes, the treatment and the heft and quality of the printed product. It’s a nice thing to hold, to look at, to read, and to just have. Folks are asking about binders to keep them in. That’s a good sign.
CGM: What’s coming in future issues of Moto Retro Illustrated?
MB: Oh, man….stories on Honda Interceptors, Mini Trails and CT70s, Gold Wings and Benlys and Scramblers and more. Suzuki’s GT two-strokes, GS streetbikes, early motocrossers of the ‘60s, and the first GSX-R. Kawasaki’s triples, its early minis and dual-purpose bikes, and the very first Ninja. Yamaha’s two-stroke scramblers, the legendary Genesis FZ750 of ‘85, the XS-11 and YZ motocrosser stories, and so on. All sorts of dirtbike stuff, from events to bikes (Japanese and European) to famous happenings, features on the legendary riders such as DeCoster and Hannah. We’ll show you what so-and-so is doing now, and we’ll try to sneak in a bit of restoration tech and vintage-oriented gear. Keep tuned to our website for news and notes about what’s coming up, and to subscribe or buy a single copy. Issue three will be out shortly (late June or early July), with issue four following in the fall.