50 Years of Soundings

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Articles include photos from old issues of Soundings.

Inaugural issue

It began in the spring of 1963, when three intrepid dreamers launched a skinny little boating newspaper named Soundings. The first run of 10,000 eight-page tabloid newspapers were given away free at marinas and boatyards that got free classifieds for displaying the new monthly publication at their cash registers.

The inaugural issue of Soundings carried the New London and Bridgeport, Conn., tide tables; classified ads for 150 used boats; a few display ads; several cartoons; and a short column called “Spray” that was its sole editorial content — reports on new waterfront eateries, oyster landings and other salty tidbits of Long Island Sound news.

From that modest beginning, Soundings has grown into the national boating magazine that you read today. It has navigated through five owners, three recessions, several size changes and numerous redesigns and other permutations. It has spun off two other magazines — Soundings Trade Only and Woodshop News — and delved into new media with websites, e-newsletters, video, blogs and digital editions that can be read on your smart phone or tablet. And it won’t end there, that’s for certain.

The trio who launched this little juggernaut consisted of suburban weekly editor John P. “Jack” Turner (Soundings’ publisher), life insurance salesman Scott Hyfield (advertising director) and Hartford Times ad layout artist Bill Morgan (production manager). And they reputedly fortified their resolve to act after polishing off a quart of gin one night at Turner’s kitchen table. They could not have known that the night’s reveries — and revelries — would plant a seed that would grow into a national magazine and bear fruit for half a century. Who’da thunk it?

Turner, who was publisher for 34 years, often said timing had much to do with Soundings’ early success. “There is absolutely no way we could succeed in starting Soundings today, or any time in the last 20 years, with the lack of capital and lack of knowledge we had back in 1963 when it all began,” he said in 2003, two years before he died. “But by sheer luck, our timing was perfect. The boat business as we know it today was an infant. We caught the huge expansion in the industry on the rise and rode it all the way to the top.”

And what a rise it was.

Turner said he knew he had a winner when, after publishing the first issue and bringing in enough revenue to pay the $300 printing bill, Burr’s Marina & Yacht Haven in New London reported 50 calls for a bargain-priced Blue Jay advertised in Soundings. It was the first inkling of what would become one of Soundings’ great strengths: its thousands of classified ads for used boats, marine gear and boating services.

The man who started it all, Jack Turner.

“CBS news icon Walter Cronkite was a fan of Soundings who was said to stop by the booth at the New York Boat Show in search of a paper,” recalls Bill Tuttle, who became Soundings’ senior news editor during an eight-year stint in the 1970s and ’80s. “One Saturday, I was alone in the office in Essex [Conn.] and answered the telephone. It was a guy who sounded like Walter Cronkite. And it was. ‘This is Walter Cronkite,’ he said in sonorous tones. ‘I would like to place a classified ad.’ And I took the first and only ad in my life as a journalist. Walter was looking for a captain for his boat.”

Church and state

In time, Soundings’ commitment to journalistic integrity and covering real boating news — good and bad — became another of its strengths. Turner, with his newspaper background, said his template for Soundings was the Maine Coast Fisherman, then a salty little monthly tabloid devoted to news of commercial fishing and lobstering. Turner wanted to do the same thing with Soundings that the Fisherman did but for the recreational boating community.

“Soundings was first and foremost a monthly newspaper, combined with being the best boating classified publication anywhere in the 1970s,” says Rodney Johnstone, who worked at Soundings for seven years as an ad salesman and distribution manager before joining brother Bob to found J/Boats, the performance sailboat builder. “The lead time needed for publication of articles and ads was much shorter than any other monthly boating publication at the time. The editorial content was news and always readable.”

Johnstone remembers Turner as the “consummate newspaperman. … He would squash efforts by his advertisers and ad salesmen to include ‘boilerplate’ articles as a reward for big ads. As Jack called it and enforced it, the ‘separation of church and state’ — editorial and advertising. Everyone in the Soundings office knew which was which. His discipline and sense of mission in this regard was unprecedented in boating journalism and may still be. It set Soundings apart from any would-be competitors and defined its uniqueness.”

Turner abhorred stuffiness and stodginess. His marching orders to the editorial staff as they reported stories: “Be lively!”

Keith Taylor, Soundings’ editor from 1968 to 1974, remembers a foggy day one year at Block Island (R.I.) Race Week, where Soundings produced a Block Island Daily of race results and scuttlebutt from the docks. The racing had been canceled, the Block Island ferry had smashed into its dock, sinking several small boats, and America’s Cup sailor and balloonist Buddy Bombard’s hot-air balloon had been grounded, spoiling the day’s entertainment.

“In late afternoon, as we contemplated a paper without sailing, John Lannan, one of our stringers, bounded into our little waterborne newsroom [a Carri-Craft houseboat],” Taylor recounts. “Lannan at the time was science correspondent for the Washington Star. ‘I’ve got it!’ he exclaimed while hammering on a typewriter. ‘Buddy Bombard can’t get it up! The BI ferry can’t get it in, and the Race Committee can’t get it off!’ John’s piece led off our front-page story the next day.”

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Turner believed that if you worked at Soundings, you should enjoy yourself. It was, after all, a boating magazine. A bear of a man, he sported an unkempt white beard and flowing locks, and he wore dungarees and boat shoes — no socks — to work most days. He enjoyed life whether he was publishing, cooking, playing the piano or saxophone, woodworking or building a boat at home — all of which he did.

“My dad would tell my sister and me, ‘If you do what you love, the money will come,’ ” recalls Turner’s son, John P. Turner. “He loved newspapers, and he loved boats. The two of those worked well together for him.”

“Jack did make it fun,” recalls Sue Evans, who started out selling Soundings subscriptions at boat shows and capped her 35-year career as an ad sales account executive. “Jack had that unique ability. No matter what you were doing — whether it was answering the phone, proofreading ads — you had fun.”

“It was a lively place when I arrived,” says editor-in-chief Bill Sisson, a 30-year-veteran. “The staff was young. It was a good place to learn the craft, make a few mistakes, work to high standards and have some fun. When Jack raised the conch shell and let go a blast after we shipped an issue, the grog flowed freely. Jack truly was a one-of-a kind. Smart, creative, quick-witted and physically imposing. He was a natural contrarian who loved a good argument.”

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The rush to deadline — writing and editing copy, selling and drawing up ads, laying out pages, shooting the photographic plates of pages and driving them up to Hartford for delivery by bus to the printer in Pittsfield, Mass. (or Brattleboro, Vt.) — was frenzied. After deadline, “Jack would say, ‘OK, let’s have a drink,’ ” Evans says. “He had a conch shell he’d blow when we met a deadline” — and did it without descending into chaos.

“When I first got there [in the fall of 1977], Soundings in many cases was like a scene from ‘M*A*S*H,’ with a carton of Mount Gay rum and other potables in the galley for impromptu parties,” Tuttle remembers. “To borrow another military simile, the production process was like a carrier landing. But crashes were minimal, type and photos were found, and somehow the edition was put to bed.” The staff would then catch their breath and retire for the evening for drinks at the Griswold Inn in Essex, the town in which Soundings landed after stints in Wethersfield and Rocky Hill, Conn.

Real news for boaters

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Soundings pioneered nuts-and-bolts boating news coverage — accidents and accident investigations, government regulation and boating safety, access and economic issues — in a genre that until then had focused more on personalities, new boats, races, lifestyle stories, and technology and design matters. Tuttle saw Soundings’ influence grow as it tackled such issues as fuel rationing, Coast Guard certification of inflatable life jackets, industry boatbuilding standards and the growing popularity — and hazards — of single-handing and around-the-world racing and cruising.

“There was feedback,” Tuttle says. “A news or feature story in Soundings gained impact within various stakeholder communities, from government enforcers and regulators to manufacturers and industry trade associations.”

Over the years, a lot of young journalists, ad sales people and would-be publishers passed through Soundings’ doors. “For a time, it felt like we were the farm team or developmental league for the publishing side of our industry,” Sisson says. “A lot of talented people who stayed in boating got their start here.”

Soundings broke new ground publishing that daily newspaper of race results and goings-on during Block Island Race Week in the early ’70s. Taylor remembers well the herculean effort that went into reporting on the day’s events, writing the copy, laying out pages, setting the type on-island with a newfangled IBM Selectric Composer, and putting the mechanicals on a boat and ferrying them to Newport, R.I., where the Newport Daily News printed and delivered 2,000 papers in time for some of the staff’s teenage children to deliver them by dinghy to every boat before the start of racing. The news always arrived fresh in the morning, in the cockpit for the sailors to read about the previous day’s action — on and off the racecourse.

Johnstone remembers one year at Block Island when Turner faced a dilemma. “Some drunken sailors who were very upset by what they deemed a horrible performance by the race committee the previous day led a horse from a nearby field to the end of Champlin’s dock onto the stern of the large race committee boat at about 2 a.m.,” he says. During this operation the horse “freaked out,” jumped into the water and swam ashore while a search party gathered and scoured the harbor for hours for the missing horse.

“Although the perpetrators could not execute their planned photo-op of the ‘horse’s behind’ on the committee boat, and the horse was once again wandering safely somewhere on Block Island, word spread fast on what would have been a sure-fire front-page story,” Johnstone says.

Soundings’ reporters were hot on the story, but at the last minute race organizers implored Turner not to run it. He complied — most reluctantly. “But at the bottom of the last page of the next day’s paper in tiny print appeared the two words, ‘What horse?’ ” Johnstone says. “Jack could be brutally frank and very funny at the same time. Traits I admire. He was a great friend and a great boss.”

Soundings developed a reputation for innovation over the years: the oversized tabloid format; zoned editions with a wraparound section of national news and ads, and an inside regional section of news and ads specific to where the reader lives; a waterfront section with stories about homes on the water and — a la Soundings classifieds — waterfront real estate listings; a Trade Only edition, now the marine industry’s bible of boating business news; and a website — one of the first — devoted to online classified boat ads.

Ted Turner

“There was never a dull moment at Soundings,” Evans recalls. Turner always had a couple of new projects percolating. He wrote a cooking column for Soundings, parlayed his interest in woodworking into a successful woodworking publication — Woodshop News — and with son John and nephew Peter Blossom built a 33-foot ocean-racing trimaran, Foxy, in his backyard. The yacht was the talk of the newsroom as it came together over a half-dozen years, although Turner never got to sail it much after its completion.

“What we really loved was building it together,” son John says. “My dad was a builder. He built Soundings. He built a lot of things. He was an amazingly creative guy.” But by his own admission he was never much for counting beans.

The balance sheet

As a yacht broker before joining Soundings, Johnstone remembers Hyfield offering him three free classified ads in return for putting 25 copies of Soundings on the counter, along with a small paint can with a slot in the top — one of Soundings’ early efforts to convert from a free to a paid-circulation publication. “The red-and-black label on the can featured the Soundings logo and a plea for 25 cents for each paper taken,” Johnstone says. “By 1970, I think the can said 75 cents.”

After joining Soundings, ad salesman Johnstone was expected to collect quarters from the cans each month as he made his advertising rounds. “Very few quarters were ever collected,” he says. “This tradition lasted until October 1970, when I refused to waste time collecting and counting quarters because it offered no prospect of income for me or the paper. As a result, I was awarded the title ‘distribution manager’ — no pay involved — for putting all boatyards, marinas and other distribution points on UPS and charging them half price for the papers.” The distributors got to keep the rest of the price as the papers sold, Johnstone says.

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As the advertising and circulation base grew, so did Soundings’ aspirations. Aiming for a national circulation, the coverage was expanded, with editions beyond Long Island Sound and New England in the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and Florida and the Gulf states. “The concept Jack had was to be as local as we could be and set ourselves up like newspapers, with bureaus and an ad sales representative and an editor in each office that knew boating, knew the local waters, talked with boaters and reported interesting stories,” says Christine Born, Soundings’ executive editor from 1976 to 1989 and now a publications director in Atlanta. “It gave us a different perspective. … Soundings was really an everyman’s publication for boaters.”

Soundings was turning a decent profit until the early 1980s recession and oil shortages put a pall on boat sales. That, along with a too-rapid expansion to the West Coast, put the company in a financial bind. Dick Lightfoot, owner of a chain of radio stations, and then in 1984 publisher Don McGraw, chairman of Nautical Quarterly, bought interests in Soundings, throwing a lifeline to the struggling magazine and helping to pull it out of the red. To augment income during the McGraw era, Soundings added the Waterfront section and Woodshop News, which still operates with a separate staff under the Soundings umbrella. Soundings recovered its footing and moved forward.

“We worked it back into the black without cutting staff or skimping on quality, and by the time we sold to Trader [Publishing], the company was doing more than $10 million annually and showing a profit of close to 7 percent,” Turner said in 2003.

Over the horizon

Trader Publishing Co., of Norfolk, Va., then America’s largest publisher of classified and photo advertising publications with 675 titles, bought Soundings in 1997 from Turner, McGraw and Ben Hammer. Used-boat listings sparked the synergy between the two organizations. Adding Soundings’ listings to its own, Trader became owner of the world’s largest used-boat database — 85,000 listings — and Soundings gained the backing of a billion-dollar company. Nine years later, Trader split its holdings between Landmark Communications and Cox Enterprises, and Soundings became part of Landmark’s Dominion Enterprises, along with 442 other publications.

In 2011, Active Interest Media — the consumer enthusiast media company that publishes such magazines as Backpacker, Yoga Journal and American Cowboy — acquired Soundings, Soundings Trade Only, Woodshop News, PassageMaker and PassageMaker’s Trawler Fest events from Dominion.

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Another powerhouse, AIM has five publishing groups — Equine, Home Buyer, Healthy Living, Marine and Outdoor — that together reach more than 10 million readers in 85 countries. The AIM Marine Group also includes Power & Motoryacht, Sail and Yachts International magazines, which along with PassageMaker give Soundings a stronger connection to the yacht, superyacht, trawler and sailing communities.

The Marine Group also includes BoatQuest.com, an online boat-listing service, and Show Management, which produces the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, the St. Petersburg Power & Sailboat Show, the Yacht & Brokerage Show in Miami Beach, the Palm Beach International Boat Show and the Suncoast Boat Show in Sarasota, Fla. — all opportunities for Soundings to connect with more boaters, boats and boating businesses.

During the past 15 years, Soundings has broadened its editorial and advertising reach through forays into digital and social media: SoundingsOnline.com, the magazine’s website with news, features, columns, blogs, boat reviews, video reports and classified ads; Dispatches, a weekly e-newsletter reporting a variety of stories and video; TradeOnlyToday, Trade Only’s daily e-newsletter for the boating industry; Twitter feeds and Facebook pages; and digital publications, including digital editions of the print magazines. Soundings continues to change and innovate as it prepares to serve readers for another 50 years in the new-media age.

“One of the constants here has been change,” says Sisson. “And it’s been that way from the beginning. Jack wasn’t afraid to try new things, to embrace new technology, be it in boat design, boatbuilding, starting a new magazine or programming an online database of used boats. We’ve tried to stay true to that ethos, which I think has helped us stay relevant as we transition into the digital age of publishing.”

“Today it is a reporter’s dream, especially with the electronic and multimedia aspects,” Tuttle says. “My background was daily journalism. A journalist’s instincts are to put the story right out there. Writing for the monthly print edition meant it [might] not see the light of day for a couple of months. It is terrific to have the ability to actually break news electronically, at the same time having the printed pages for a more lasting presentation.”

We hope you, our readers, find the mix a boon, as well. 

See related articles:

- Forever grateful - Eric Colby

- From ad sales to J/Boats - Rod Johnstone

- Pioneering at Soundings - Keith Taylor

- Heart and soul - Charles Barthold

- Out of the blue, into the mix - Steve Knauth

- Soundings flashbacks - Bill Tuttle

- Soundings enters the digital era - Lisa Cook (June 2013 issue)

- $8,500 would get you a nealy new Chris-Craft 26 - Eric Sorensen (June 2013 issue)

May 2013 issue