An Oral History of The Pitch: Through highs, lows, and different kinds of highs, here’s 40 years in our own words
In the beginning there was a record store. A dubious publisher. An editor named Warren Stylus, who existed only on the masthead. Some eager, talented writers. A lot of coffee and booze. What began in 1980 as the Penny Pitch, a monthly newsletter to promote Penny Lane Records and its inventory and artists, survives after 40 rollicking, tumultuous years as The Pitch.
Here is its story, in the words of some of the people who lived it.
Don Mayberger, founding editor: I was working in the record cave doing returns. We had a new release sheet that was pretty overwhelming. [Penny Lane owner] Hal Brody was worried that nobody was reading it, so I said, “Why don’t we just start a fake newspaper?” And that was basically it. I’ve never given Hal his due for giving me the freedom to do stupid things.
Chuck Haddix, original co-editor: Don studied journalism at KU, and he put the newsletter together, and everybody in the store contributed to it. We sold ads to the record labels. We were all record collectors, and it was all about the music. We cut our teeth on National Lampoon, underground newspapers and that irreverent kind of press. I was surprised at how successful it was.
Hal Brody, founding Penny Pitch publisher: People were telling me what an opportunity it was because, you know, alternative newspapers around the country were starting to do welI. I used to say that I didn’t know much about publishing, other than that you could lose a lot of money off of it. But in the beginning, I didn’t lose money. It paid for itself.
Chuck Haddix: A lot of our writers had pseudonyms, for some reason. Warren Stylus was an inside joke, something that Don came up with. What you don’t want is a worn stylus on a turntable. Don put all these little jokes in there. It became a more serious publication when I did the interview with [legendary jazz nightclub owner] Milton Morris. We put him on the cover, and that became one of the first serious pieces of journalism that was published in the Pitch.
People are tired of noise. That’s what I call rock music. They’re tired of disco, music is in limbo right now. But jazz is like a woman’s hairdo. If she wears it long enough she’ll be the first one to have it when it comes back [into style]. (Morris, as quoted in “A Talk With Milton Morris”)
Don Mayberger: I did it for about a year. I lived in Lawrence and I couldn’t afford to drive back and forth, so I handed it over to Dwight Frizzell. I knew it would be in weird hands, but he embraced it.
Dwight Frizzell, who succeeded Mayberger as editor under the pseudonym Charles Chance Jr.: If I wasn’t writing for the Pitch, I was on the record floor. I did a lot of sales. I loved that. Hal called me into his office. He said, “Dwight, I want you to be the next editor of the Pitch.” I said, “OK, but I need a good editor. And I need a typist. And an electric typewriter. And I need a raise.” I was making five bucks an hour, and now I was getting 10 bucks an hour.
Jay Mandeville, co-editor with Frizzell: We kind of expanded the paper. It was no longer about Penny Lane. It was about local art and music events and personalities. We did articles about Afrobeat and reggae, other musical genres that were coming into the foreground around that time. It was a lot of fun, and I sure miss it.
Dwight Frizzell: January 1982 is a significant issue. That’s the one that I went to Hal to change the name from the Penny Pitch, which I was never too much about. But The Pitch, I thought that had everything—a note of music, the opportunity to try to make something happen, a baseball thrown. You don’t need anything else. So we changed it to The Pitch, just like that.
Donna Trussell, film critic and Pitch editor after Frizzell: At one point, Hal Brody, he was tired of the costs, and he was ready to kill it. I talked him into keeping it alive and said I would put out the entire issue for $200 a month. He said, “OK, but I want every other word to be Penny Lane Records.” It wasn’t really journalism; it was this weird hybrid. But it was what we had. I had to pay writers with gift certificates. I tried to be a little more professional. I told Dwight, “No more interviews with dinosaurs.” But that was the charm of The Pitch. It did survive, and I take some credit for that.
By the early 1990s, the startup magic had worn off. The music industry had changed. Brody sold his Penny Lane stores. The Pitch, now publishing every other week, was no longer profitable. A competing alternative newspaper in Kansas City, the New Times (no relation to the company that later purchased The Pitch), poached much of its staff in 1991.
Hal Brody: I got a call around midnight on a Friday from a staffer, saying, “Hal, you’d better get down here.” People had left, and they took most of our stories with them. We had nothing. I said, “Well, we’re just gonna outrun them.” It took a few years, and we were losing money for quite awhile, but I was not going to let it go.
Bruce Rodgers, editor for most of the 1990s: I was working part-time at the other paper, and Hal just called me up one day and said he was looking for an editor. Ironically, he called me on the day my wife was moving out. We were getting a divorce. I thought it was a joke, and I hung up. He called back, and we met at the Broadway Coffee House. I gave him two pages of ideas on how to change the paper. He looked at it and said OK. And that was it.
Hal Brody: I feel incredibly blessed that even when I was in the record business, I had people that just stepped up when I needed them, and particularly Bruce. We kept that wall up between business and editorial, but he was wise enough to warn me when things were gonna get a little hot.
Bruce Rodgers: When the piercing fad came out, everybody was piercing themselves. There was a photographer out of Columbia. Her photos were pretty interesting. We had one photo with a woman topless with her nipples pierced. We had another photo of a guy with his scrotum pierced. I decided: We’re going to do a photo spread, with just a little background writing to go with it. The day it ran, I was going in the back door and somebody’s standing outside smoking a cigarette. He said, “Bruce, you don’t want to go in there.” Phones were ringing off the hook, the advertising staff was freaking out. But it turned out to be one of those stories that put us on the map.
I have a Prince Albert piercing, which is through the head of the penis. I got that after my brother died of AIDS. That is my marking not to use it in some way that is harmful. (From David A. Collins’ “Piercing Blurs the Line Between Pleasure and Pain,” August 3, 1999)
Jon Niccum, music and film editor in the ‘90s: Those were the glory years. It’s hard to explain to people how much of a cultural impact The Pitch had. It was a true alternative to the mainstream media, and it was so tied in to the film scene and the music scene.
Dan Lybarger, film critic, 1993–present: If I told you that a little alt-weekly from Kansas City featured exclusive interviews with Charlton Heston, Peter Fonda, cult filmmaker Russ Meyer, Bruce Campbell, the late, great director Lynn Shelton, Stan Lee, Monty Python alumnus John Cleese, Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris…you’d probably wonder if I’d been smoking Missouri’s favorite, newly legal herb.
Jon Niccum: In ‘97 I co-founded the Klammies, which was the Kansas City/Lawrence music awards. We did that for four years. I felt like we were leading the charge. Of all the stuff I’ve done, all the places I’ve worked, it’s still the most fun job I ever had.
Hal Brody: It was quite honestly the most fun business I ever owned. You could help people out that needed to be helped out. We had these weekly meetings and everybody got heard from and everybody had input and it was all kind of a sense that we are all in this together and we’re going to make an impact in our community.
By the late ‘90s, The Pitch had won the alt-weekly “war” in Kansas City, a result of sheer will and better financing.
C.J. Janovy, contributed to The Pitch intermittently in the ‘90s, editor-in-chief 2000-2010: It was sort of an indicator of the quality of life in a city to have a healthy alt-weekly. People read them from the back to the front because of all the personals that were in the back. You could have the greatest cover story in the world, but I would go to a restaurant on the day that the paper hit the racks, and I would watch people look at the cover, then turn the paper over and start reading from the back.
Dan Lybarger: People initially picked up the paper, especially in the 1990s, for the personal ads. Anyone who tells you differently is lying or delusional. Friends who discovered my writing always brought up the entertaining singles who were looking for love in Kansas City.
With The Pitch now a mini-powerhouse, Brody found himself courted by larger alternative media chains. He sold the paper in 1999 to New Times Inc., a national chain of alternative newspapers. That company installed C.J. Janovy as editor. A new era, likely The Pitch’s strongest (certainly its best-funded), began. HQ moved downtown, to the Crossroads. Janovy hired many of The Pitch’s most well-known voices, including Charles Ferruzza, Allie Johnson, Joe Miller, Kendrick Blackwood, and Jen Chen.
C.J. Janovy: We had a big staff of cool, fun people. Jen Chen was the center of everything, ‘cause she was at the reception desk on the third floor in the newsroom. And you know, people were working really hard, but we were so in love with the work itself and the stories we were writing, that people just seemed really happy.
Tony Ortega, managing editor, 2003–05: My first day was September 2, 2003. The reason that day sticks out in my mind—it was my very first day as managing editor—Joe Miller came into my office and put a cat carrier down on my desk, and it had two little kittens in it that he had found in the street that were being abused by kids. He had rescued them and wanted to know if I had room for them. And I still have one of them today.
Joe Miller, staff writer, 2000–04: [When I started] we were still in that old building on Broadway, and it was literally falling apart. Pieces of plaster would fall on people’s desks. There were water stains all over. It was weird. And there was definitely tension between the new hires from New Times and people who had been part of it before. C.J. was definitely tapped into the community and what kinds of stories out there in Kansas City, but we were also sort of watched over by this corporate hierarchy of editors.
Tony Ortega: One of my favorite stories was by Kendrick Blackwood about this base jumper who actually allowed Kendrick to accompany him as he jumped off one of Kansas City’s downtown landmarks—highly illegal. I remember working with the company’s attorney to make sure we could even publish it. And Kendrick was great because he took his time and he never knew if he was going to get to publish it or not. We never knew. And then finally the base jumper gave him the thumbs up, so we said go for it. [When it was published,] some people were outraged.
Another second later, the jumper lands in the middle of an empty intersection, his heel slamming hard into the asphalt, his knees buckling, his chute floating to the street. Dressed in all black, he bundles up his parachute in his arms and limps to the curb behind a Pitch newspaper box, an orange construction sign and a streetlight pole. (From Kendrick Blackwood’s “Terminal Ferocity,” January 15, 2004)
C.J. Janovy: There were times that we were working on stuff that was really scary also. There was a period of time where people were inserting KKK flyers into our papers. And Peter [Rugg] decided to, I don’t know what there was a phone call or an address to a P.O. box or whatever, but he made contact with the person, and responded to the information on the flyer.
Peter Rugg, staff writer, 2007–11: I sent off a thing to the KKK recruitment people—I had to get a post office box under a different name—and I started getting stuff sent to me. Eventually, I got a password for their chat site, their mid-2000s 4chan bullshit where they’d hang out.
Trentadue had shaved his head since our meeting at Buffalo Wild Wings, and the tattoos on his scalp were now visible. His parents had taken the kids for the evening, and his wife was at work. He shook my hand, and I followed him inside. There were no Nazi flags on the walls. It was the underwhelming house of any parent of two on the lower end of the economic scale. Stacks of paper stood askew. “What size shirt are you?” he asked. “I’ve got a couple of spare Klan shirts, and I thought you might like them.” (From Peter Rugg’s “My Secret Life in the Klan,” September 27, 2007)
Peter Rugg: These people were being outed for being fucking Nazis back before it was cool to out Nazis. There were some threats. At one point, some dude put my parents’ address up on his website, but he fucked up the address.
Justin Kendall, staff writer, 2005–11 and managing editor, 2011–16: The company ended up getting a bodyguard. We had two panic buttons. There was a brick thrown through my window after I wrote a story. We got our fair share of hate mail and death threats back in the day.
Many staffers’ stories suggest an environment that stretched the “alt” spirit to near-parody: banging out stories on Adderall, smoking K2 in the newsroom for a feature, drunkenly carrying each other to the strip club next door. But it was also one of the paper’s most productive eras.
Peter Rugg: I think there’s a bit of self-mythologizing there. Yeah, you’re in your twenties, and you’re like, I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want and take chances and get drunk and try to do this while I can get away with it. And you would be foolish not to take that chance, right? Who gets into writing that doesn’t want to have a couple years of romanticized hanging out and talking shit and doing stories and being clever and all that cliché stuff?
Joe Miller: It was definitely like the best job I’ve ever had. It was really fun. I wish I could do it again as far as just the range of things I could write about, and how supportive the environment was that C.J. created.
Scott Wilson, copyeditor, 2001–08; managing editor, 2008–11; editor-in-chief, 2011–17: We were categorically uncool. The analogy I used to use was that we were not cool party people—we were like blind tree marsupials clinging to one another for warmth.
Alan Scherstuhl, theatre critic and Studies in Crap founder, 2003–11: I’ve never felt cool in my life, even when I was a 21-year-old nightclub writer. At all the alt-weeklies I’ve worked at, in four cities, the staffs have always been composed of people who are fundamentally uncool but fundamentally passionate. And they’ve all been people who did their best work at the alt. Even if you left The Village Voice for The New York Times, you did your best work at The Village Voice. Even if you left The Pitch for The Kansas City Star, you did your best work at The Pitch.
Gina Kaufmann, staff writer and calendar editor from 2001–06: My favorite thing I ever wrote at The Pitch was a very weird feature story but one I still love to this day. It’s hard to summarize, but basically, I took a bunch of artists out to the woods to shoot Tupperware with guns. I also will never forget the time Jen Chen crashed a wake.
We made our way to the bar to check out the drink selections. After making sure that we weren’t mooching on an open bar tab (hey, we’ve got some standards), we ordered Bud bottles and Miller Lite, which came in a can. Our domestic beer choices seemed appropriate for Flo’s, which had just two beer taps dispensing Bud Light and one serving Miller Lite. Thus fortified, we started mingling to find out more about Craig. (From Jen Chen’s “Wake Crashers,” January 19, 2006)
Nadia Pflaum, staff writer, 2003–11: My favorite stories were always the ones that were so unreal that they seemed like they were fiction, but they weren’t. And we had the opportunity and the time to gather all of the information and weave it all in, make it artful and suspenseful, and, you know, have it all be true at the same time.
David Martin, staff writer from 2004–11: A real strength of the paper at that time was having Charles Ferruzza and Jen Chen in most issues. I imagine a fair amount of our readers did not start or finish every feature or news story. But Charles’s café columns and the Night Ranger were must-reads.
Backfire BBQ in Wyandotte County may be the only place in town whose menu potentially could be used as a deadly weapon. The two thin, brushed-steel plates that serve as a cover for this restaurant’s listing of available dishes could, with very little effort, be transformed into guillotine blades or a samurai sword. And I think I would prefer to face the guillotine or be tossed into a fiery barbecue pit than have to eat again at Backfire BBQ. (from Charles Ferruzza’s “The high-concept Backfire BBQ sputters out of the gate,” October 21, 2010)
C.J. Janovy: I think the work of Justin Kendall was hugely influential. He wrote about the Phelps family and the Kansas State School Board debating evolution and intelligent design. He started the blog that kept track of every homicide in Kansas City [“Killa City”]. It really started a conversation in communities that we had not heard from before, and you could see it in the comments on the blog. And it was not just documenting a face of someone who got killed, but what the street looked like.
Kendrick Blackwood, staff writer, 2003–08: Thinking back, I take a lot of pride in the variety of stories I did and the fact that they came from the breadth of the Metro area—cattle rustlers in Johnson County, a transgender widow’s lawsuit, prison gangs in Leavenworth, a death row inmate in Jefferson City, along with a couple stories out of fascinating Independence. A personal favorite was about a party that turned violent and highlighted the ongoing violence in the lives of immigrants and refugees from Sudan and Somalia. The two very different communities were merged by government resettlement in a common neighborhood—the Old Northeast. It opened my eyes to what Kansas City’s connection to the world and the awesomeness that can be found in a truly diverse neighborhood.
Joe Miller: I also really saw how the whole system is geared up against African Americans and Latinos. The one that really hits me is there’s a story that I did about Wesley Fields. He was an attorney running for city council, and it was a legit story about him, but it didn’t stop. It may have gone too far. I learned that it was so much easier to dig stuff up on an African American than a white candidate.
Nadia Pflaum: You know, people are always quick to talk shit about The Pitch. But I think if it had gone away, I think it would have been missed, and it’s not replaceable. People might not have always agreed with the way that they themselves or their favorite institutions were written about, but they read the pieces. They might disagree fervently, of course. But there are a lot of people and places, a lot of institutions, and a lot of bars and restaurants and bands that come and go. It’s the only place where there’s a record of that restaurant, or this show at the Record Bar, or this weird underground secret show somewhere in Lawrence.
C.J. Janovy: We would do a story exposing some sort of abuse of power or corruption, and nothing would change. And that can get really frustrating for journalists and it can make you feel like there’s no point. But you love those stories in addition to all the stories about what makes life fun and worth living. And over the course of 40 years, you’ve documented the life of the city.
By the mid-2000s, the industry was in trouble. A long-running financial strain resulting from the advent of the internet and revenue-draining sites like Craigslist had already put enormous pressure on newsrooms. That crisis was further fueled by the 2008 financial collapse, which ruined many publications. The Pitch was not immune from decisions made far from Kansas City.
Tony Ortega: Even then [in 2005], we were trying to do a lot with very little as far as resources. We had no idea how good we had it.
Joe Miller: New Times hooked up with a venture capitalist from, I guess, some time in the mid-2000s, to buy The Village Voice and got a huge investment in capital right when the market started crashing. So [in the midst of the crash] it suddenly became, you know, much more austere there. Money just to take people out for lunch disappeared, salaries were frozen.
David Martin: I remember there was, like, a tornado threat downtown [in 2010], and we went into the basement to wait it out. And there were all these back issues down there. I picked up an issue from 2004 or 2005, and seeing how much thicker it was than what we were putting out at that time. And I remember thinking, yikes—this is a little bit disturbing.
Jason Harper, music editor, 2005–10: We had a staff of a dozen or so full-time journalists covering things in the community that no one else was paying attention to, but that made Kansas City more vibrant and gritty and interesting a place to live. It’s difficult now because a lot of the people who do that now are people with day jobs.
Circumstances at The Pitch continued to become more difficult. In 2011, Village Voice Media sold The Pitch to Southcomm, a media conglomerate that slowly tightened the pursestrings until a scant handful of staffers remained. Over the same period, social media platforms became a major competitor for advertising dollars. Scott Wilson served as editor-in-chief during some of the paper’s most challenging years.
Alan Scherstuhl: You could kind of see where it was going. Everyone at The Pitch was asking me how to get into teaching and being an adjunct, and all of my adjunct friends were asking me how to get on at The Pitch.
Scott Wilson: My pull quote can be, “We were always willing to die.”
Justin Kendall: It was just the most gut-wrenching and frustrating period. You’re trying to keep everything afloat and running, and there’s just a lack of resources and the advertising isn’t there and you’re not able to do the same things.
Natalie Gallagher, music editor, 2013–15: Candidly, it wasn’t always easy. When I think about that job now, I think about how just burnt-out it made me. I don’t enjoy going to live concerts anymore. I definitely don’t want to date any musicians. I can barely get it up to read album reviews.
Scott Wilson: There were smart, clever, talented people who still wanted to be in the business enough to stay at a place that was increasingly obviously not geared to sustain itself and to sustain careers. But even under those conditions, we still produced David Hudnall’s payday lending series. We still managed to get Steve [Vockdrodt] to join us from the Business Journal on his way to the Star.
St. Ann is not the only Catholic church in the Kansas City area whose members are whispering about usury. Go to Sunday Mass at Visitation Parish, just south of the Plaza, and you’re likely to see a few individuals who bought their Ward Parkway mansions with money earned through charging the welfare class massive interest rates on short-term loans. (from David Hudnall’s “How KC’s Wealthiest Enclaves became a Shadowy Nexus of Predatory Lending,” December 5, 2013)
David Hudnall, freelancer turned music editor turned staff writer turned editor-in-chief, 2005–19: Part of the attraction to this story was that people were getting named and shamed, and there were a lot of people who were waiting for that to happen. There were legal threats. We were sued for one of those stories. It was tossed.
Scott Wilson: One of the offshoot stories mentioned a Florida businessman whose business intersected somehow with what David was covering, and he took the time to call me and say, “There’s one thing in that story that’s true. And that’s that I’m really fucking rich. And I will spend as much as it takes to push you out of business.” And then we never heard from him again.
David Hudnall: Karen Dillon’s [Department of Corrections] story was pretty earth-shattering, too. I think the laws changed after that. Karen was another person who I just admired so much.
She had endured it for two years. She had a child to support. She had no husband to help. It was an impossible job. But it was a job. She stayed. She took the abuse. Until her doctor told her, “If you stay there, they are going to kill you.” (from Karen Dillon’s “Prison Broke: the Missouri Department of Corrections can’t escape its own worst habits,” November 22, 2016)
Justin Kendall: A lot of people got put into a bunch of unenvious positions at the end. It’s like seeing all those people get peeled away, and when you’re one of the last people standing, you’re like well, shit, it’s not the same. Party’s over. You love something for so long, and then you just find that it doesn’t love you back anymore. Or maybe it’s that the people that love you aren’t there anymore.
In 2017, The Pitch went monthly. Gray newsprint was swapped for glossy magazine pages, quick-hit events previews for longer-form features. It was a seismic shift for the staffers who remained. But the changes were just beginning. Later that year, Southcomm sold the paper to Kansas City locals Stephanie and Adam Carey. The sale marked the end of Scott Wilson’s tenure and the promotion of a new editor-in-chief: David Hudnall.
David Hudnall: We weren’t able to do a lot of the aggressive reporting that I would have liked to do, because we didn’t have any money. The investigative and longform pieces are difficult and expensive even in a semi-healthy newsroom. But I tried to work on those kinds of stories in my downtime. I did get a couple off—an investigative piece on DST, a huge, once-proud KC business that was (still is) being hollowed out by capitalist vultures. And then the influencers piece, which was more of a longform look at this weird, new, emerging subculture of media.
Most of the other piggies at this trough are influencers—an easily dazzled digital subculture armed with VSCO apps and an abiding desire to grow their personal brands. Short-term goals include getting invited to events like these and posting photos of the food, the space, and themselves—often all three—to their Instagram pages. Longer-term aspirations vary: some hope to transition toward traditional media, some just want national brands to mail them free shit, others are purely in it for the serotonin blasts they get from Instagram likes. They have names I am embarrassed to say out loud. (from David Hudnall’s “Everything is literally goals for the Instagram influencers devouring Kansas City’s food scene,” September 4, 2019)
Scott Wilson: You had [in David] an editor who was still an active reporter and a skeptic, and that was enough for a year. If any publication does just enough to stay alive, to stay just viable enough financially to pay even one decent reporter, then yes, it’s still worth it. It’s not a sustainable model, but it’s one that doesn’t have to go away.
Zach Trover, art director, 2002–08: It’s so different [now] from when I was there. The things I would make—putting a bloody Bambi head on the cover would not be a thing they’d do at all. But when they first started, being made in a record store, what they made wouldn’t have worked when I was there. It really is a good sort of picture of the time. You can go through the issues and what’s going on in the covers, and it becomes a history book in a really odd way—you can see what was trending and what was important.
David Hudnall: Alt-weeklies are a place to zoom in on subcultures that would not necessarily merit the attention of the prim and proper media gatekeepers, to the extent they still exist. And—here’s another way I can take a big poke at the Star. There’s lots of good reporters, but nobody at the Star has a unique voice. If you have an interesting voice, The Pitch is still a place where it won’t get beaten out of you.
Scott Wilson: You have to have a point of view. That’s the only thing that’s available to you now that’s free. Everything else is too expensive.
It’s 2020, and The Pitch is 40 years old. In some ways, we’re back to where we started—a monthly publication held together by a bunch of scrappy weirdos and passionate stringers who love the city too much to stop complaining about it. We moved back to an office on Broadway not far from the old home of Penny Lane Records, where the paper was born. The one constant through 40 years of changes has been the paper’s focus: covering the weird parts of the city with a voice and a point of view. Stick with us, give us hell, pitch in if you can. We’ve got lawyers to hire and bar tabs to pay. We’d like to make it to 50. We have a lot of stories left to tell.