35 Years and Just Getting Started: The J. Gordon Holt Interview Page 3

Stone: How did things change when Larry purchased the magazine?
Holt: Very early on he got disgusted with me as an editor because I was really very bad at it. I didn't really want to edit the magazine. I wanted to play with expensive equipment and write about it. So he asked me who he should bring in as editor. My choice was John Atkinson. He was editing Hi-Fi News & Record Review in England at the time. The big question was, why would he come to Stereophile? He presumably had this high-paying, cushy job in England---why would he come to the US? But I guess Larry made him an offer he couldn't refuse. The rest is, you know...history. JA made the magazine go.

Stone: Do you have any regrets about selling the magazine?
Holt: My only regret is that I didn't hold out for a little more---like an interest or something like that. I mean, if I had, I'd be able to buy a Nagra. [laughs] Actually, I thought I was coming out of it very well. The only misgiving I had was that Larry would be upset when he found how much more he paid for the magazine than he should have. I'll tell you, for the first couple of years he worked his ass off.

Stone: By that time The Abso!ute Sound had begun. Harry Pearson's famous story is that he got tired of waiting for his issues of Stereophile, so he decided to start his own magazine.
Holt: [laughs] Yeah, actually, I'd forgotten exactly what it was about, but we published a letter from him when he started TAS, and the gist of the letter was something like, well, when are going to get your act together? He found it wasn't as easy as he thought to get issues out. [laughs] It takes a tight ship.

Stone: You're still listed on the Stereophile masthead as Founder and Chief Tester, but what does Chief Tester mean?
Holt: It just means Chief Reviewer, I guess. I don't know. I'm not even Chief Reviewer. I mean, in terms of output, John Atkinson and Tom Norton and Bob Harley and Wes Phillips all contribute more reviews than I do. They're the main producers. I tend to do fewer reviews, but, in many ways, more complex ones. Because, you know, I think I was the first person to do a full surround system. And there was so much there that I was unfamiliar with that it took me a long time just to get my thoughts together and ideas down before I could start writing the review.

Stone: We published a letter a while back from the late Raymond Cooke, in which he took umbrage at the idea that the vocabulary of high-end reviewing was something that you had developed.
Holt: I never claimed to have developed it. I just expanded on it. Actually, when I put out the first issue, a lot of the language I used in there had been borrowed---well, you might say stolen---from a 1953 book called the Radiotron Designer's Handbook, written by a whole bunch of people. It was published by the Amalgamated Wireless Valve Company in Australia.

Stone: What do you think of the ways in which Stereophile has changed since 1962?
Holt: Oh, god. Apart from the fact that it comes out on time? One of the best things that JA did was get the magazine out on schedule. He and Larry also both share my feeling about the way a magazine should be done---which is, it should be written for the subscribers, not for the advertisers. They have managed to preserve that very, very well, I think. The magazine has changed a lot in detail, but it's still basically the same magazine.

Stone: The reviews were quite short in the early issues.
Holt: Yeah. [laughs] That was mainly because it was a lot harder to run off at the mouth on a typewriter. Word processors seem to encourage people to just write until the cows come home. If you want to change something, you just go in and change it. You don't have to cut it up with scissors and paste it together and then retype the whole page. That's the way I started putting the magazine together.

Stone: How did you initially solicit equipment for review?
Holt: Telephone. Also at that time there were hi-fi shows that used to be held in New York once a year---precursors of the Consumer Electronics Show. Of course, you'd go to those things and they were a good place to solicit equipment. But at first none of them knew about the magazine. I used to have to go with a whole bundle of Stereophiles under my arms... "I'm editor, you know. I'm publishing this magazine, you know?"

Stone: Initially you didn't have any advertising.
Holt: Correct. We finally started taking ads in, I guess, 1975 or '76. We didn't take ads initially because we wanted to establish our credibility. We knew very well, even back then, that consumers were very cautious about the relationship between advertisers and publishers. They just assumed that any magazine that took ads was heavily influenced by advertisers. And my experience at High Fidelity had indicated that this was true.

Stone: So how did you make sure that advertising didn't influence the reviews?
Holt: I didn't read 'em! [laughs] It wasn't a matter of trying to play it close in or anything like that. It was just that I wasn't really interested in the ads except as a vehicle for bringing in money. I always had a policy sheet that we sent out that said purchasing an advertisement will have no effect one way or the other on editorial policy. This is something I really think we ought to be doing now. Maybe we are. But for a long time a lot of manufacturers who submitted equipment to Stereophile would be surprised that we would give them a bad review, considering the fact that they were regular advertisers!

Stone: Stereophile has a current policy in terms of the number of retailers that a manufacturer has to have before a product is reviewed.
Holt: Well, I can understand that. But in a way I disagree with it, because originally one of the functions I saw for the magazine was to help get really worthy designs or designers off the ground and up and running. So if someone brought in a product that sounded really, really good, my feeling was that it was our obligation to promote it.

On the other hand, there is the consideration that if you promote a manufacturer who turns out not to have any business sense, what you're going to do is saddle a lot of your readers with equipment that will become orphaned. So you've screwed them. But in view of our circulation now...when I was publishing, a rave review might sell 10 products. Now a rave review in the magazine might sell a hundred or a thousand. Everything's gotten bigger.

And Stereophile, compared with what it was when I sold it, is showing what you might call a case of incredible bloat. I had no idea---it has, what is it now? Over 80,000 readers? I don't think even Larry ever imagined that. When he bought it in 1981, I thought the circulation was about 4000. It turns out, when he went through all of the cards---now remember, we were mailing by third class, so we never got returns---he found almost a third of them were duplicates. So there were really only about 2500 subscribers.