Alt-media maven Stephen Mindich, longtime publisher of the Boston Phoenix, in 1976. (Peter Simon)
I spent the morning of March 14, 2013, working my staff job for the Boston Phoenix, interviewing pushcart vendors in Downtown Crossing, the somewhat bleak, half-mile-long shopping concourse in the neck of the Hub. Days earlier, the vendors had been told by the private Business Improvement District that their licenses would expire forever in two months. Some proprietors had hustled there for decades, selling everything from earmuffs to sausages through cold winters and recessions. But when a host of corporations in the nearby skyscrapers pumped the bid full of big bucks, it was decided that all carts had to go.
Since Filene’s department store was shuttered seven years ago, Downtown Crossing has lacked the draw of a flagship merchant. On the depressing edge of the crater where that Boston landmark once stood, street vendors have since accounted for some of the only commerce. But now that H&M and other multinational retailers had moved in, the bid was discarding these merchants like rubbish. It was ripe for the Phoenix, which specialized in covering vulnerable underdogs who got clobbered by greedy, plutocratic interests. During my years on staff there, I had covered countless once-vital Boston institutions that were disappearing with little public attention or notice—from dive bars to the graffiti scene to the imminent extinction of the silversmith trade.
I realize the irony in paying more attention to Downtown Crossing than to the ominous mass email I received from Phoenix managers the night before, summoning all staffers to a mandatory meeting. My only concern, at least at the moment, was for the pushcart vendors, and I was nearly through writing my column about them when Stephen Mindich, longtime publisher of the Phoenix, walked into the newsroom and asked for everyone’s attention. The Phoenix, he announced, had printed its last issue. We were all out of a job.
The aftermath has been bittersweet. Thanks in part to our robust alumnae network, many of my colleagues landed gigs within weeks of our closing. We still drink pitchers every Thursday, though, cherishing our time together like separated foster kids visiting siblings. We moan about the quirky editors for whom we’re now slaving, and about how our ideas scare the shoes off of them. We’ve found that it’s generally considered bad taste to smoke pot in the bathrooms of our new workplaces. Mostly, we commiserate about the state of journalism. In its essence, it’s the same conversation that alt-media masochists have been having since Sam and John Adams were hanging at the Green Dragon tavern, guzzling ale and gunning for the Stamp Act in their own weekly, the Boston Gazette.
Though I’ve long considered myself an inheritor of a broad alternative tradition, after being laid off, I realized that I actually knew little about how various alternatives got started, about the cult characters behind them, and other details that might help me contextualize my place in time. With that in mind, my gut move after the Phoenix folded, after getting good and drunk a few times, was to spelunk my history in an attempt to understand whether fringe media—and fringe journalists like me—had a future.
I first cracked John McMillian’s excellent 2011 book, Smoking Typewriters, which bolstered my knowledge of the impact that the underground press had on the ’60s. Next, I turned to David Armstrong’s 1981 bible on alternative American media, A Trumpet to Arms. This was the book I’d been searching for to help chart my professional course. A Trumpet to Arms, like Smoking Typewriters, is based on a series of interviews with alt-media pioneers. A former editor of the influential Berkeley Barb in the mid-’70s, Armstrong was able to leverage his credentials and connections to score revealing stories from a wide range of counterculture stalwarts: the political cartoonist Ron Cobb; Steve Post, a free-form radio pioneer and early WBAI host; and John Shuttleworth, the former ad executive who started Mother Earth News out of his Ohio farmhouse in 1970, to name just a few.
Where Trumpet differs from McMillian’s work, however, is in its sense of history and scope. Smoking Typewriters focuses primarily on the 1960s as the defining decade for the underground press. But A Trumpet to Arms begins long before Vietnam radicalized Baby Boomers, and addresses alt-media developments all the way through 1980. By covering underground feats from the American Revolution, to the women’s suffrage movement, to the age of nuclear proliferation, Armstrong connects rabble-rousers throughout history—and makes clear that the alt-media ethic existed long before the Summer of Love.