It was 30 years ago this week — February 16, 1989 — that a stalwart band of dreamers snuck out in the pre-dawn darkness, setting up newspaper boxes all over Memphis and filling them with the first issue of the Memphis Flyer. Later that morning, thousands of Memphians woke up to find a new voice had come to town — one that was progressive, provocative, edgy, and much more free-wheeling than traditional local print media.
It was a year that certainly needed a new voice. The remnants of '80s music still dominated the pop charts — Paula Abdul, Roxette, Fine Young Cannibals, Bobby Brown, Milli Vanilli (Fake Music!), Madonna, Richard Marx. The grunge years were just around the corner.
On the political stage, Ronald Reagan had just exited, stage right, making way for the transitional four-year presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush. Americans had no idea what was to come. The Clinton years were just around the corner.
The new paper was a melange of serious news, trivial stuff (celebrity birthdays, anyone?), gossip, movie reviews, art reviews, record reviews, a nightlife column, sports, News of the Weird, and video reviews. Remember when we rented videos? Yeah, that was cool.
Many of the contributors to that first issue are still around and still doing good work: Dave Woloshin, Tom Prestigiacomo, Tim Sampson, Joe Mulherin, Cory Dugan, to name a few. There was a column by former Commercial Appeal editor, Lydel Sims, who quoted legendary ad-man John Malmo as saying all Memphians should "think outrageous thoughts" about their city. I just saw John on the elevator this morning. He's still around and no doubt still thinking outrageous thoughts. The editorial cartoon was by now-noted actor and illustrator, Chris Ellis.
The cover story, by David Lyons, took a hard look at a local chemical company, Velsicol, and its alleged sales of a banned chemical to third-world countries.
The advertising staff back then, led by Jerry Swift, even managed to sell a few ads: Opus 2 Computers, Breakaway Athletics, Zinnie's, Flashback, 1910 Frame Works, Huey's, R.P. Tracks. Is it a coincidence that all those businesses are still around? I think not, my friends. Behold the power of Flyer advertising!
There was also a letter from publisher (then and now) Ken Neill, explaining just what the heck Memphians were holding in their hands. Literally. "Right now you hold in your hands the first edition of the Memphis Flyer, the city's new weekly newspaper," Neill wrote. "We hope this first issue gives you a feel for what the Flyer will be: bold, sassy, controversial, entertaining, and informative ... "
Thirty years later, I'd say mission accomplished. We've weathered five presidents (though the current one has been something of a strain), at least twice that many mayors and county mayors. We've survived where other print media have fallen prey to the digital revolution. We've seen the city of Memphis boom and grow in ways we couldn't have imagined in 1989. And we've seen some of the city's intractable problems endure.
We're planning to celebrate the Flyer's 30th anniversary throughout the coming year with promotions, events, a spectacular Best of Memphis party this fall, and a special anniversary issue on April 25th. (If you're a business or organization interested in becoming part of that issue, contact our ad director, Justin Rushing. If you're an individual who's just looking to support our journalism, check out our Frequent Flyer program on the Flyer's website.)
As always, we're looking ahead — and looking forward to another 30 years. We believe the Flyer is an essential part of the news fabric of this town, a necessary progressive voice at a time when regressive and xenophobic policies are being pushed at the highest levels of our government. The way in which we get our news and information may change, but we plan to stay "bold, sassy, controversial, entertaining, and informative." And we hope you'll stick with us.