Ask any random gathering of people what annoys them about the media, and you'll get a lot of different answers. Arrogance, hypocrisy, trashiness, bias. But there's one conspicuous feature of the modern media experience that irritates almost everyone: advertising.
The media space is choked with ads. They've conquered most of the television and radio universe. On some popular radio shows, ads now eat up one-third of every hour, and some highly successful magazines are so larded with ads it's hard to locate the articles.
Ads can be fun, beautiful, and instructive, but in recent years they've been colonizing new territory in ways that often seem sneaky and insidious. There are stealth ads, the so-called product placements that have become common in movies and on TV. Countless major magazines blithely publish advertorials, those tricky ad sections that try very hard to look like editorial content. At a recent magazine-industry conference, Magazine of the Year honors went to Lucky, a magazine about shopping in which all the editorial content looks and feels like advertising.
And the Internet has brought us several new kinds of ads, including some specifically and rather brazenly designed to blot out the content you signed on to see in the first place.
But if ads rule the media kingdom, there are pockets of resistance. Through TiVo and similar devices, millions of TV viewers now filter out commercials. Ad-blocking software does the same thing for the Internet.
Even more intriguing is that exotic species of media with no ads at all. Some outlets see the public's ad fatigue as an opportunity, and offer part or all of their content ad-free.
These adless oases are not new. Some have been around for years and are tremendously popular, not to mention profitable. In 2002, the Reader's Digest Association bought Reiman Publications, a Wisconsin-based publisher of a dozen homespun lifestyle magazines with such titles as Country Woman and Taste of Home, all immaculate of ads (except "in-house" ads for Reiman's own products). Rather than rely on the ads it says "clutter" other magazines, Reiman makes money from subscriptions. To grasp how profitable its magazines are, consider what Reader's Digest reportedly paid for them: $760 million.
There are not many Reimans. At this point, the ad-free category represents such a small slice of the media universe, it's little more than a curiosity. But it's a curiosity with magnetism and growth potential.
Curious about what it's made of, I visited three media outlets that have done fascinating work in the ad-free zone. While vastly different in style and substance, they're united by the belief that consumers increasingly crave media products that are all content, with no ads, and are willing to pay for that purity. If this is true, these outlets may offer a glimpse of a future in which adless media loom much larger than they do today.
Consumer Reports: It's All About Integrity In the laboratories of Consumers Union, the nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports, they don't have food tasters, they have "sensory panelists," who work in booths specially designed to minimize the smells and colors of the food being tested, so the taste can be isolated. One of the cardinal rules of sensory testing is, it's not about whether something tastes good or bad. "Yum" and "yuck" are verboten reactions.
What Consumers Union seeks in this lab, and in the dozens of other product-testing facilities that fill its 250,000-square-foot headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., are precise, dispassionate product ratings that have the authoritative air of science. Thus, a good sensory panelist knows the difference between a score of 1 or 2 for saltiness—and never, ever swallows the food. Why not? "It has to be what happens on the tongue," my tour guide explained. Once the tongue has done its duty, everything goes into a special "expectorating cup."
This sounds comical, but CU is no joke. It was founded in 1936 by a bunch of idealistic Labor-movement types with the mission of defending consumers against big, bad corporations. CU is still fighting that fight, with great earnestness—the magazine's studied drabness is, for many readers, part of its appeal—and a fierce dedication to its ethical principles. This outfit cares so much about not corrupting itself that it won't accept free products from manufacturers for testing purposes. It pays retail, through clandestine shoppers in 30 states who are under strict orders not to reveal their purpose.
And CU's media products accept no outside advertising. The organization pays its bills—its annual operating budget runs to $163 million—through donations, subscriptions, book sales, and other spin-off products.
The public seems to appreciate all of this effort and scrupulosity. Consumer Reports has more than 4 million paid subscribers, and "pass-along" estimates push the total readership to 16 million. The Consumers Union Web site has another 1.3 million paid subscribers, making it the leader among fee-based media Web sites.
"In our experience, readers are smart," Joel Gurin, CU's executive vice president, told me. "If you're reading some article about a great new car and you see an ad for that car three pages away, people wonder, and they want to know if there's a connection.... For the reader, it's like a breath of fresh air to be in an environment that doesn't have that. Our credibility is strongly linked to our independence, and the lack of advertising is critical to our independence."
XM Satellite Radio: It's All About Quality The headquarters of XM Satellite Radio is an enormous old industrial building in Washington where issues of National Geographic magazine were once printed. In the hands of XM, an ambitious media company founded in 1997, the place has been transformed into a temple of hip business style: waxed cement floors, exposed bricks and girders, and sleek conference rooms named after musical heroes of the last century. There's a Hendrix Room, a Beatles Room, a Sinatra Room, and so on.
XM uses its two satellites (named "Rock" and "Roll") to beam 101 channels of music, news, talk, and other content to its 1.2 million subscribers, most of whom pay $9.99 a month for the service. General Motors and Honda now offer the service as an option in their cars. XM's rival, Sirius, has a similar service and its own deals with carmakers.
Thirty-six of XM's channels are currently ad-free. When I interviewed XM Vice President and spokesman Chance Patterson, he made it clear the company knows that this is a major draw: "Having dozens and dozens of ad-free channels is critical to our mission to deliver a new kind of radio experience."
People come to XM, Patterson says, because traditional commercial radio caters to least-common-denominator tastes and is packed with ads. You want all Sinatra all the time, with an encyclopedic DJ? All reggae, with Bob Marley's former guitarist as one of your hosts? All opera and choral music? It's all yours, for a fraction of what cable TV costs, and often with no outside ads. I tried the service for a few weeks, and my only complaint is there are so many options—seven channels of jazz, each catering beautifully to a different taste—that just choosing can be overwhelming.
But having a lot of high-grade choices is the point. "People are paying for quality," says Patterson. "You're asking somebody to give up $9.99 a month, the programming better be interesting."
XM basically tries to offer a channel for every possible taste. Subscribers not only get to sate their specific cultural cravings, but they can also, in some cases, override their own demographics. If you happen to live in a market that won't support the kind of radio station you'd like—say you're in northern New Hampshire and you love Tejano music, or you're a stock-car fan stuck in Georgetown (there's a hugely popular NASCAR channel)—this is a way to get it, in a really pure form.
Businesswise, satellite radio is not yet a sure thing, and XM has been through some rough times. But its numbers are growing rapidly. If it follows the path of cable TV—which many said could never compete with free television—it might represent the future of radio. And if that happens, a good chunk of that future could be ad-free.
Cook's Illustrated: It's All About Recipes "In the last 50 years, publishers have destroyed their relationship with readers, because they're so ad-driven," says Christopher Kimball, the editor and publisher of Cook's Illustrated magazine. "I think readers are looking for someone they can trust who is not ad-driven."
Cook's Illustrated, a magazine constantly searching for the ultimate recipe—for pot roast, chicken soup, chocolate-chip cookies, and so on—has no ads, except ones for the other products in its rapidly growing empire. Since its founding in 1993, Cook's has grown from a circulation of a mere 25,000 to more than 600,000 today.
For a bimonthly, its subscriptions are pricey—$24.95 a year on average—but renewal rates are high, thanks to the magazine's fanatically dedicated audience. There's also a Web site, a booming in-house book-publishing business with dozens of titles (some of its cookbooks have sold in the 100,000-plus range), and a television show called America's Test Kitchen, which stars Kimball and airs on most PBS channels.
Cook's, which has a distinct look that relies heavily on old-fashioned drawings, is produced in the very boho, loftlike setting of a renovated broom factory just outside Boston. Its ethos has a little of both Consumer Reports and XM Satellite. On the one hand, its core business is a scientific approach to cooking, which Kimball says appeals especially to men, who are about 40 percent of his subscribers. On the other hand, like XM, it serves a well-defined audience with very specific needs: prosperous, well-educated folks who don't have the time or interest to attempt elaborate Julia Child-style cooking. They want clear practical advice for cooking at home with fresh ingredients and the best recipes.
Kimball is also on something of a mission against the processed food that he says is damaging American's health and is about to become as big a public-health issue as cigarettes. When your cause is that serious and you're trying to attract followers, the ad-free approach provides an air of authenticity and ethical clarity. No need to worry about offending the food industry, because it's not supporting the magazine—the subscribers are. And, judging from the success of Cook's, those subscribers adore getting their cooking ideas unaccompanied—and Kimball would say, uncorrupted—by ads.
"I don't think it's just magazines," he says. "I think it's media in general. Everyone is getting sick and tired of getting hammered with ads."