Whenever I really like someone — the kind of like that translates into shared cups of tea and old Flight of the Conchords episodes — I’m liable to raid my paper archives and show off my few remaining copies of Choice. Consider it my first news endeavor: a monthly fanzine assembled with electric adolescent fury and lots of glue sticks chronicling a slice of the North Texas punk scene from 1986 to 1988.
While I was learning how to weave together band interviews, crass cartoons, and questionable teenage poetry, a couple of alternative weekly prospectors were flooding a downtown Broadway Avenue basement with light, humor, and sweat as they started pumping out a weekly alternative newspaper that would over the years make just enough friends to be fun while getting thrown out of enough establishments to maintain its muckraking cred.
Original owners Linda Matys O’Connell and her husband Geoff launched on the wings provided by a gaggle of high-profile attorneys, including Gerry Goldstein, Pat Maloney, and Phil Hardberger, who themselves were responding to the O’Connells’ promises to take on tort reform. In some cases the very writers who would struggle to fill the pages week after week were putting personal money in, as well, all to offer the city something a little more colorful than the transcription service that too frequently defined the daily journalism of the time. When the premier issue hit the streets of San Antonio on April 3, 1986, with an illustration of prominent Council critic C.A. Stubbs wringing the neck of the Tower of the Americas like a gargantuan Col. Sanders dispatching another unlucky cluck, the paper was described as “an idea whose time has come.”
“At the time, San Antonio was the most interesting city that didn’t have an alternative newsweekly,” Geoff O’Connell told former Current editor Lisa Sorg. The couple wanted to “give the cultural community a focal point,” he said, “and to connect to the community as opposed to being a generic left-of-center paper.”
A “Sandinista Watch” opened up the first issue’s news section. Staff writer Reed Harp (seen blowing through town recently, possibly on his way back to Mexico) satirized the Cameron County Sheriff’s stockpiling of Uzis and M-16s as President Ronald Reagan painted Nicaragua as a “privileged sanctuary for terrorists and subversives just two days drive from Harlingen.” It would seem the Current has always been good at lambasting inane fear mongering.
Contributing writer Steven Kellman (the only first-generation contributor still riding the wave with us) remembered those heady days for the unusual direction he got from the the O’Connells. “They said I could write as much as I wanted about whatever I saw that weekend.” Thankfully, his pick turned out to be Ran, now considered Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece. He stretched out with more than 2,000 words. This was indeed something different.
By the time the fourth issue hit the streets, the Current was unveiling its cutting-edge bulletin board system, sort of like a pre-internet website. To submit a press release to the paper, contributors were asked to dial the paper’s seven-digit number “with parameters on 8 data bits, one stop bit, no parity, at 300 or 1200 baud.” We can only assume this meant something at the time. Readers could even log on to read Current stories ahead of the print version, though if more than one reader dialed in at a time they’d get a busy signal, said former staffer Dwight Silverman, who set up the service.
Now a tech columnist, blogger, and blog editor at the Houston Chronicle, Silverman had left the San Antonio Light to work for the Current. The O’Connells “waved a lot of cash” in those start-up days, he recalled. Unfortunately, it was money that evaporated quickly, with most investors, some of whom came in for as much as $25,000, losing their shirts.
When staff found the doors of the office padlocked by creditors, it was Silverman that broke in to grab the accounts receivable files for the O’Connells.
Despite Silverman’s early contributions, by the time the paper was purchased by its current owners in late 1999, the paper had no website (much less any baud to speak of) and was losing money by the year. The Current had been through its paces under various owners, at times struggling to fill 12 pages and looking more like a hungry neighborhood shopper than the opinionated agitator it had started out as.
“We were kind of like the third owner in a very short period of time,” said Don Farley, family-owned Times-Shamrock’s group publisher over alternative media. “What we came into was a paper that was not structured very well, was not financially healthy, and then it just needed a kick in the ass.”
Consider our ass kicked.
Though the paper had done a Best Of issue for years, it had never held a Best Of party until after former publisher Chris Sexson arrived in 2003. Ale Fest started during his Sexson’s tenure. As did Very Vodka. “I knew it was something that they needed,” Sexson said. “The Current was a great product and a great paper, but it was kind of … I’d introduce myself, ‘Hi. I’m Chris from the Current,’ and they’d be like ‘From what? From where?’ We were swinging a big stick, but it just wasn’t loud enough.”
During Sexson’s tenure, the Current started to gain broader notice … and finally quit bleeding. “We were losing money for a number of years,” Farley said, “and then we started to make money and we went into the black and continued to improve performance and the paper has been in the black since that point.”
And while the paper has had to grunt through at times (including belly-crawling through the fall and winter of 2010 with no dedicated staff writers), the first quarter of 2011 was even more profitable than the same period in 2010. “It took us a few years to evolve, evolve, evolve — to kind of get the right people in the paper that had the passion for the paper, had the passion for the alternative industry,” Farley said. “The advantage the Current has had is it did eventually evolve into good people and Times-Shamrock has supported it along the way.”
From a writer’s perspective, the Current has been a place to experiment with voice and explore new styles. “I probably learned more about journalism and the business working there than any other place,” said Silverman. “The Current changed the way I write. It kind of made my voice more distinctive.”
These days, the Current continues to serve as an incubator for hard-charging and entertaining writers, but thanks to a lot of hard work by a lot of folks across the company we’re happy to report our collective breaking-and-entering skills are headed for a state of atrophy.
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