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Changing of the guard at BSR

BSR founder Dan Rottenberg’s farewell

6 minute read
Meet Alaina Johns, BSR's new editor-in-chief, as of December 1, 2018.
Meet Alaina Johns, BSR's new editor-in-chief, as of December 1, 2018.

Have you heard the rumors of management changes here at Broad Street Review? Those rumors are true — even if, as I think you’ll agree, the changes aren’t all that cataclysmic. They just happen to be occurring at the same time.

About a year ago, I told our board I wanted to step down as president, a title I’ve held since launching BSR 13 years ago. I figured it was time: of the seven publications I’ve edited over the past half-century, this is my longest tenure. As Portia Sperr remarked when she left Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum (which she founded in 1976): I’m a pioneer, not a settler. Time, I told myself, to practice the generations-old Rottenberg family tradition of recharging one’s batteries every dozen years or so by kicking over the traces of a secure career and starting again from scratch. I figured it was just a matter of waiting for the right moment when all the pieces of our team were securely in place.

This year seemed like such a moment. Sid Schechter, our capable publisher since 2016, was ready and willing to succeed me as BSR’s president and CEO. Neil Bardhan, our social media manager — a polymath who enjoys close ties to Philadelphia’s arts and nonprofit communities (not to mention a Ph.D. in brain and cognitive sciences!) — agreed to assume a new role as our executive director.

Best of all, Wendy Rosenfield, our astute and dedicated editor since 2016, seemed ideally suited to lead BSR for, oh, the next 30 or 40 years. Better still, Wendy was perfectly supported by our multitalented associate editor Alaina Johns, who created our “What’s New, What’s Next” section and has filled half a dozen editorial roles here since 2010, when she made her debut with a provocative defense of Jane Austen’s prose.

Job openings

I should have known better than to assume any organization ever has all its pieces in place — especially an organization like BSR, whose part-time staff consists entirely of freelancers with diverse commitments. So as of December 1, just as I’m relinquishing BSR’s presidency, Wendy too is stepping down as BSR’s editor, due to some pressing family obligations.

The good news is that Wendy and I both plan to keep our hands in at BSR, as our time and energy allow. I will remain on BSR’s board of directors and will continue to contribute commentaries as events (not to mention Donald Trump) inspire me.

The better news is that Sid Schechter and Neil Bardhan are better equipped to steer the business side of this operation than I ever was. Management has never been my forte, to put it mildly. To paraphrase Portia Sperr again: I’m a journalist, not an executive.

The best news is that Alaina Johns is ideally suited to step into Wendy’s shoes as editor. As any writer who has worked with Alaina can testify, this woman bleeds Broad Street Review red. Our biggest challenge in this transition will be finding an associate editor to replace her, not to mention finding a social media manager to replace Neil Bardhan. (If you’re interested in either position, click the links above.)

My selfish purpose

Above all, Alaina appreciates that BSR, like every publication, is a living organism that constantly evolves to address the needs and interests of its readers and writers. When I created BSR in 2005 as a forum “where art and ideas meet,” my purpose was selfish: to foster my own intellectual growth. This I would accomplish through a continuing dialogue with a circle of erudite writers capable of teaching me things I didn’t already know.

After one BSR transition, we emblazoned Billy Penn's image on T-shirts and tote bags, but chances are we'll change our look again. (Image by Hannah Kaplan.)
After one BSR transition, we emblazoned Billy Penn's image on T-shirts and tote bags, but chances are we'll change our look again. (Image by Hannah Kaplan.)

In practice, this approach inclined me to seek out writers even older than I (I was 63 at the time). The nucleus included a history professor (Robert Zaller), an author (Tom Purdom), a musicologist (Dan Coren), a playwright and theater biographer (Carol Rocamora), and a former public-radio producer (Steve Cohen). Instead of assigning stories, I encouraged them to pick their own topics. Contributors would write not for the money — then as now, we usually paid a mere $50 for reviews or $100 for essays — but for the showcase, the sophisticated audience, the professional editing, and the freedom to write whatever inspired them. Instead of pontificating like cultural high priests, we and our readers would debate with each other.

But we would also disagree in conversational tones, unlike the hyped-up journalese favored by most mass media and cable TV. This process of creating an “Internet for grownups” — a community dedicated to the search for truth — mattered more than any specific truth we might discover. In effect, we elders would seek to answer the ultimate question — “What was that all about?” — before our brief sojourns on this planet concluded.

Different visions

In a city that was then blessed with two daily newspapers, two alternative weeklies, and one local magazine, BSR necessarily functioned as a peripheral observer of the local arts scene. But today, Philadelphia print media have slashed or abandoned their arts and culture coverage, even as Philadelphia’s arts community exploded. The Inquirer is down to four full-time arts writers and has followed BSR into the wonderful world of not-for-profits (as a subsidiary of the Lenfest Institute). The City Paper has folded altogether. In this brave new world, some 30,000 people now visit BSR every month, and scores of arts journalists rely on our once-token fees to help pay their bills. Consequently, BSR now plays a vital supporting role for Philadelphia’s creative community as well as the city’s writers.

Not surprisingly, the editorial visions of my successors differed from mine. Judy Weightman, BSR’s editor from 2014 to 2016, brought younger and more diverse writers into the mix. Wendy Rosenfield brought her passionate belief that BSR should provide Philadelphia’s underappreciated arts and culture community with the kind of major-league coverage this city richly deserves. Alaina will take that mission a step further: to do justice, as she puts it, to “the city as it really is, full of artists and makers of all races, nationalities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, ages, income levels, and abilities.”

Parents and kids

So, yes, BSR’s mission has changed radically over the past 13 years. What hasn’t changed is the passion we apply to our mission. BSR remains an urban crossroads where art and ideas meet. And it’s still a place where I might learn something I didn’t already know, by listening to new voices I barely noticed back in the day.

All this cultural and technological tumult hasn’t yet transformed BSR into a “well-oiled machine,” as Donald Trump once described his White House. And I hope it never does. Instead, I bequeath to you a shamelessly flawed and unabashedly human operation. To Alaina, Sid, and Neil, I say: may we at Broad Street Review continue the struggle to get our act together, even if we never achieve that goal. May we continue to search for truth, even if we never fully grasp it.

To you, I entrust my baby, in the full awareness that kids rarely turn out the way their parents expect — and sometimes they turn out much better.

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