2004 Interview with Tom Mehren

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Sound RIDER! 5 years later

An interview with the publisher, Tom Mehren

The July 2004 issue of Sound RIDER! marks the 60 th issue and 5 th anniversary of the publication. In the dot com realm where online publications have come and gone over the years, Sound RIDER! continues to grow and be a force in the Northwest motorcycling community. The following interview with SR! publisher reveals some of the thinking that has gone on for five years as the magazine has grown to 60,000 monthly readers over five years. The questions as well as photos are culled from over the last 5 years by various individuals.

SR!: Why Sound RIDER!? What were the beginnings of the publication?

MEHREN: After 20 years in the music business, I decided it was time for a change. I began a company called Mixed MEDIA and created a business plan to launch not one, but three online magazines. From January to July of 1999 all three magazines were developed and came online. It was a huge learning curve and still is today. You realize that what's good for one publication is not for another.

SR!: What were the other two magazines and what's their status today?

MEHREN: The first publication that came up was called Sounds of Seattle and was designed to promote local area musicians to anyone who wanted to know more about them. We launched it in January of 1999 and it had some success. In the summer of 2001 The Rocket, a local print entertainment publication went under. The music industry was into its downward spiral that it's still dealing with today because of illegal downloads. The money in the music industry was drying up and we decided to terminate the publication in 2003.

In the spring of 1999 we launched Seattle DINING! which continues today with a restaurant directory of 800 places to eat in and around Seattle, editorial about local restaurant- and food-related businesses. Connie Adams has taken the helm as senior editor and is doing a knockout job shaping the online publication into a force that companies like Northwest Source, City Search and even Seattle magazine are having to reckon with.

SR!: So there really is more than one person making all this happen?

MEHREN: Indeed. I call a lot of the shots both editorially, marketing- wise and technically, which has led some to think I do it all myself. I don't. There have been a number of people who have been key to getting where we are today. The contributing writers have provided some excellent material which we have been able to archive so new readers can dig in and see what they missed. There's been a number of girl-Fridays and boy-Fridays who have come in to edit content and assist with the used bike and calendar databases.

Photo: Test riding Tigger three-up with Marilyn and Connie in Fall City.

SR!: Do the writers get paid?

MEHREN: Unlike a lot of print and online publications, we have always paid our regular contributing writers with either barter or cash. It's never a lot but I can't fathom just taking one free story after another and running them. Remember, I came from the music industry, I despise free MP3 downloads and have always fought for an artist's right to be paid for their work. It's the same with writers. In comparison to a Cycle World, or Motorcyclist magazine, our writers don't get rich, but if they're getting paid in cash it's always been enough to keep gas in their tanks all month.

SR!: How have you seen the local industry and community develop over the last five years?

MEHREN: The internet had a huge effect on the way owners run their shops and the way riders get their information. The dealers who got websites up and running were amazed at how they got much more action on their used bikes, riders started getting a lot more information from the web about proper riding gear, riding skills and where events were. Print motorcycle magazines in the area, at best, have a reader rate of maybe 10,000, but online anyone can get the news and find out what's going on without having to go find the latest copy of a print rag. For dealers, inventories are turning faster. For riders they're attending more events because they know about them and they're smarter about how they ride and what they wear.

SR!: With paying sponsors, why did you add an online store in 2002?

MEHREN: We were running across new items that were right for motorcyclists. Things like Nikwax, headlight modulators, carrying straps and otherwise. We wanted to produce editorial, but when we went out to dealers they didn't have the product in stock. So we created the store as a means to provide the items we believed in to the readers. It was always my hope that if the product was successful it would catch on at dealers and indeed we've seen this happen with Nikwax waterproofing products. We still carry the product, but I suspect it won't be long before the product saturates at retail and we discontinue it. We've never entertained carrying boots, helmets, jackets or pants because that's our sponsors bread and butter and we don't want to infringe on that. The latest thing for us has been some multi-lens eyewear that can even be used by people who need to wear prescription. It's a product we get great response on and we're excited. The other intriguing item of late is the 2004 Washington Road and Recreation Atlas. The publisher updates it every two years so it's very current.

SR!: Who were some of the first sponsors? Was it easy getting them to bite?

MEHREN: Our very first paying sponsor was Cascade BMW. Paul Baker called over one day and we had him on the magazine by that afternoon. He was a sponsor until the dealership closed last fall. Some of our other longtime sponsors include Ride West BMW, Eastside Harley Davidson, Cycle Barn, Destination Harley Davidson, I-90 Motorsports and Hinshaw's. It wasn't always easy hooking in a new sponsor, but over the years we've proven our worth and have always been flexible to the needs of each account. With the exception of one dealer, every sponsor we've ever brought on is still with us today.

Photo: Routing the 3 Pass Blast for 2003 near Mt. Rainier.

SR!: What about your print competition – how do you compete against them?

MEHREN: I'm something of a Taoist when it comes to looking at my competitors. I watch what they do, sometimes wonder why and then get back to my business. For me I know I'm here to enrich the lives of riders in the Northwest. That's the driving force behind what we do. If I spent too much time watching everyone else I'd probably lose my focus and mess this up based on outside input.

SR!: A reader recently wrote and applauded how the magazine has kept its focus. Would you agree?

MEHREN: I suffer from mild A.D.D. so when someone suggests there's focus here, sometimes I have to laugh. But there is focus for the long term. As to how we arrive at that, it can be twisted and re-shaped on an hourly basis.

SR!: Over the years Sound RIDER! has added a number of events for riders. Why get into the event business?

MEHREN: While it's fun having an online magazine, just putting out editorial, used bike ads and calendar listings every month puts you in the same boat as everyone else. I realized a long time ago that the web can get real stagnant if that's as far as one goes. I wanted Sound RIDER! to be a two-way street for readers. To do that we began putting together events that filled the gaps. Our bike displays at IMS each December have been applauded for their diversity. We don't just show old bikes, or only custom cruisers, but instead provide 60 unique bikes each year that make people perk up and see what else is out there.

No one was running an endurance event that would appeal to the average rider so we created the 3 Pass Blast. There's some innovation going on here by virtue of giving people the opportunity to compete anytime between June and September, changing the route every year and offering an event that you don't have to be an Iron Butt rider to enjoy. We patterned it off the original endurance runs in the Northwest put on by the Seattle Motorcycle club starting in 1910.

Sportbike Northwest came from the fact that no one was putting on a multi-day sportbike rally like the ones we were seeing in Canada. We went to work and pulled off a decent event last summer and we're going to do it again.

If someone has a good idea, I'm always willing to listen. If I don't hear any for a while I sometimes make up my own and see what happens.

Photo: Scouting 2004 locations for Sportbike Northwest with David Hough, Scott Reneaud and Harvey Gilkerson.

SR!: Speaking of diversity, why do you attempt to appeal to all riders, instead of a single segment?

MEHREN: The Northwest is not a huge place. In order to make this work from the get-go I knew we had to be diverse coming out of the gate. Those who have focused on a single market in the past and then tried to broaden afterward have always failed. It's not about what you ride, it's about community. We have lots of subscribers who own two or more bikes and often those are entirely different machines. One reader who owns a TTR225 might also ride a Harley Springer Softail. A Hyabusa owner could also own a sidecar rig, so why pigeonhole someone who can't be pigeonholed?

SR!: Since its inception in 2003, the News Bytes column has caused occasional controvery. Why take chances?

MEHREN: For me it's not about taking chances, it's about letting people know what's going on inside. Sometimes that's not pretty to some of the parties, but useful to others. What's right for the customer, our reader? That's where the choice is made on the content. The information that comes up in News Bytes are the things you won't find in the daily paper, but to our readers they are important. Typically when a customer buys a bike from a dealer they feel like they are buying a relationship. The dealers who understand that are not the ones that show up in News Bytes negatively.

There are times I find myself in a 'from-where-I-sit' position. I know a lot of people and I'm privy to many things that are going on at any single time. There have been many times when I realized I probably understood more pieces of the puzzle than any individuals involved because I get a much broader view about what's going on as a whole. When this occurs I can usually predict the outcome and I'm often right.

SR!: Who would you say you've shaped your publishing style after?

MEHREN: Heh - how about 1/3 William Randolph Hearst, 1/3 Hugh Hefner and 1/3 Hunter S. Thompson? Truthfully, a lot of the basis for my publishing style has been to shoot from the hip. There's never a time I stop and say - 'what would Hef do now.' Because it's an online magazine, we're dealing with a whole hybrid of publishing that didn't exist 10 years ago. Because its online, you can afford to shoot from the hip, because if something needs to get corrected, you can do it in about 60 seconds. Who can I turn to as a figure for guidance? People all over the world read Sound RIDER! While I fully understand our appeal should be to the Northwest, I know someone in Michigan or Australia is going to log on and read a David Hough article and I have to consider them, too.

SR!: When you're not doing Sound RIDER!, what are you doing with your free time?

MEHREN: Food, music and motorcycles has been the basis of my existence over the years. I like cooking at home as much as dining out; from November to May, I host an acoustic house concert in my home each month; biking, hiking, photography and all the usual things mid-40s guys wish they had more time to do.

Photo: Post house concert banter with Seattle musicians Jonathan Kingham, Willow and Kevin Wood (who rides a BMW).

SR!: What bikes do you own?

MEHREN: That's a common question and one that is always changing. I enjoyed restoring a 1972 SL350 a few years ago which is fun and I always have a scooter in the fleet. I'm more partial to smaller bikes so you probably won't see a Rocket III in my garage anytime soon. As of late I've been on a Honda NX craze.

SR!: What did you start out with?

MEHREN: I cut my teeth on Honda Mini Trail 50s and Trail 70s. How's this for goofy? - I rode an XL100 from the time I was 18 until I was 30.

SR!: Why have you stayed away from the womanizing tactics that some other two-wheel publications dive into?

MEHREN: I've never been enthralled with that sort of editorial and artistic slant to begin with and I respect the 12% readership of ours who are female. If I had to pinpoint an editorial slant, I'd probably say we're here for the pragmatic motorcyclists. If that alienates a potential reader who needs to see busty nude babes laying out on bikes month after month then he can go somewhere else to get that.

Photo: On the beach at Carkeek Park with Connie

SR!/Summer 04

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