Robert E. Petersen built a name for himself in the publishing world over the last 50 years putting out niche magazines, and with the exception of Teen, they all reflected his personal interests.
But four years ago, he sold his 32-title Petersen Publishing Inc. (with such titles as Hot Rod, Skin Diving and Guns and Ammo) for $500 million and said goodbye to the publishing business. But ink gets in the blood, and Petersen is back.
The man whom Forbes magazine called one of the nation's richest media moguls (with an estimated worth of $725 million) rejoined the publishing world this January with his purchase of the flailing Sports Afield magazine. He's since moved the 113-year-old publication from New York to North Hollywood and has shifted its focus back to hunting and fishing.
Much has changed in publishing since Petersen started Hot Rod to write about his hobby in 1948. He's put Sports Afield online and is talking about partnerships with Internet startups and even publishing books online in conjunction with the magazine.
He started Petersen Aviation with one plane because of his interest in aviation. The charter service now has four Gulf Streams and three Hawkers to shuttle celebrities and others back and forth.
Question: Why did you decide to buy Sports Afield and come back to the publishing business?
Answer: It was just something that happened. It came up that the magazine was for sale and everyone was speculating about who would buy it. And so we got to talking and said, "Maybe it'd be a good idea if we bought it and brought it back to its former great self." So that's what we did. We made a bid. I didn't really expect to win. I felt that there were so many people buying stuff out there now. But they said they were very happy that we bid (because) they wanted someone to give it a good home.
Q: What changes do you plan for the magazine's content?
A: We want to have a true hunting and fishing magazine. We think that market is up; there is a lot of activity there. A lot of the magazines out there are owned by people who don't have any interest in that area. Most of the majors are owned by big conglomerates. So we feel that with some good guys at the magazine, we can grow it bigger and have it do a good job.
Q: How will you restructure it?
A: We've redone the whole editorial team. We've brought in a top editorial staff. We're bringing in all sorts of top people now. The good thing about the magazine is to have the top writers and have people who really know what they're talking about. We're bringing back a lot of people who used to write for Sports Afield.
Q: Sports Afield has been losing readers and advertising has been dropping over the past few years. Why do you think it can be brought back?
A: I think it still has a name, still has a following. They lost people but they'll come back. We just want a great magazine and I'm sure we'll make a profit.
Q: How is running a magazine today different than when you launched Hot Rod?
A: I think today magazines can't just be magazines. They have to be magazines and they have to be on the Web they have to be in all sorts of other areas because advertisers want coverage clear across the media.
Originally, we just published a magazine. But then you published a magazine and if you were lucky you had a TV connection. And now you have to be on the Web. The Web is part of it and advertisers are used to the Web, they know what to do.
Q: What did you do before you got into publishing?
A: I worked at MGM. I started as a telegraph messenger and then I worked various jobs photographer, assistant and then they fired me and I started Hot Rod.
Q: How did that come about?
A: I met Mad Man Muntz, a big car salesman. I was his P.R. person. We did the first Hot Rod show in 1948, and Hot Rod (magazine) came out of the P.R. The guy I started with at the time, his father had a magazine called Tailwaggers for dogs, so we went over and stole all our ideas from what they were doing. Which there weren't many. It was a magazine (about dogs) that went to the movie stars.
Q: What did people think of you and Hot Rod magazine in 1948?
A: They thought it was crazy. They thought the title was kind of racy. At that time we were having problems with the police. They were going to shut down hot rods. I used to go before big groups and try to sell hot rod stories and said, "If we could get all hot rodders off the streets and into drag strips, that would be wonderful." So we did that.
Q: Did you think you'd get back into publishing after selling off Petersen Publishing?
Q: Do you have any plans to buy more magazines?
A: Everybody asks me that. Right now I'm happy working this magazine out. I think we're going to have a lot of fun getting back in the business. You have to form a whole new thing now. When we were in the business before, we had all the operations. We just said, "Start a new magazine." Now we have to pick out circulation people, financial people. It's a whole new business, so I'm not really looking forward to starting another one right now.
Q: How many cars do you own, and which is your favorite?
A: Oh, (takes a minute to count in his head) between 35 and 40. They're all my favorite. I'm driving the Ferrari 456 today.
Q: Collecting seems to have changed over the last 50 years, since you started Hot Rod. Do you think you'd collect the same thing today if you had to start over?
A: Collecting anything now is a big deal. It's a big job to be a car collector because you have to spend a lot of time keeping them up. I think with computers, collecting is going to go crazy. I think that a lot of things were in people's garages, and now they see the Internet thing and think, "I can sell this."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.