Decade o' BRO: Outdoor mag returns to its roots


It started as a thin bi-monthly insert in a local weekly paper, but this month Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine is celebrating a muscular 10 years on the stands– and nearly one year under new ownership.

"I guess I am surprised, but gratified," says founding editor John Blackburn, who now lives and works in Lexington. Back in the early 1990s, Blackburn and his roommate Greg Easley, both grad students, started writing about a topic they loved: the outdoors. Their original idea, he says, was to put together a guidebook. After shopping the manuscript around, Blackburn says then-C-VILLE Weekly editor (and current Hook editor) Hawes Spencer paid $900 for the rights.

In fall 1995, Blue Ridge Outdoors launched as an insert in Spencer's paper.

"I didn't think it would succeed," says Blackburn. "I had done a little market research, but I didn't have a clear sense of advertising demand."

After four issues, Blackburn says, he parted ways with the publication, which was th en overseen by Rob Jiranek, a newcomer to the parent company.

"There was the sense it was driving for a 'mystique'" says Blackburn, citing heavy use of outdoorsy lingo such as "rad" and "gnarly." Blackburn had envisioned something less about the extreme sport culture and "more about the activities."

When Laura Parsons (now the Hook's art critic) took over the BRO editorship in 2001, she says, she made a few changes.

"There were certain words I refused to use," she laughs, also citing the words "rad," "gnarly," plus the phrase "it's all good" as a few offenders. Working in an office that was 75 percent women was a perk.

"It became a little bit more of an equal opportunity publication," she says. It also became a bigger publication, with the 2002 expansion to Asheville, North Carolina, where a second edition of BRO is now published.

These days the masthead features mostly male names, following the March 2004 purchase by Blake DeMaso, who did not disclose the purchase price. Nonetheless, Parsons says she likes what she's seeing– in particular she cites a recent feature on a woman who hiked the AT in a skirt.

"It was less 'yaaaaah'," says Parsons, "and more personal interest."

DeMaso is a 32-year-old Charlottesville native who had launched a furniture magazine in North Carolina but wanted to come home to raise his family. He recently added BRO distribution in Atlanta, raising the press run to 105,000 with a presence in seven states: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia– plus Washington, D.C.

DeMaso says that having the two editions helps keep the content relevant for readers throughout the Blue Ridge. Content, however, is the easy part of his job.

"Our team of writers is excellent," says DeMaso, jokingly referring to his role as the "evil sales side."

"The only thing I could do by getting in there," he laughs, "is mess them up."

DeMaso confirms Parsons' impression that BRO is broadening its readership– in a sense, getting back to its roots.

"BRO was focusing on the elite athlete, the hardcore sports and outdoor enthusiasts," says DeMaso. "What I wanted to do was not alienate those people, but also grow the magazine– make it a little more mainstream."

Sounds like "it's all good" for the next 10 years. Rad!

Blake DeMaso hopes BRO will attract a broader readership.

DeMaso hams it up with B.R.O. staffers.