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Flashback: Metroland

I don’t remember when I picked up my first copy, but there wasn’t a whole lot to it. The early Metroland was a thin publication that seemed more concerned with bars and “foxes” than all the other newsworthy events swirling about in the environment. The publication evolved quickly, rapidly becoming a more robust arts-and- entertainment weekly. In the mid-1980s, during the reign of Ronald Reagan, the paper evolved further, becoming more political and developing its capacity to investigate and report on community issues and events. It had finally morphed into “The Capital Region’s Alternative Newsweekly.” What follows are a few of my Metroland flashbacks.

Back in the early 1980s, I had been working with a number of community safe-energy, disarmament and peace organizations. One of the projects I took on at that time was to bring films that addressed these issues into the area. With the first film series I ran, I quickly learned about the importance of press releases and events listings in local newspapers, which I sent for inclusion in Metroland’s calendar. Despite my efforts, attendance was slim. Showing these films on a shoestring budget, I did learn the importance of free media coverage. Getting it was the tricky part.

In 1983, I had my first real opportunity to promote a significant film event. In 1982, I had hooked up with a number of artists’ organizations through the huge disarmament march and rally held in New York City on June 6 of that year. I subsequently found out that a major documentary, In Our Hands, was being produced about the demonstration, tracked down its producers, and worked out a deal to get the film to Albany as a fundraiser for area peace groups. The film’s producers, Stan Warnow and Robert Richter, both agreed to press interviews if I could arrange them.

I quickly reserved the Capital District Psychiatric Center auditorium in Albany for the showing, and a room at the Albany Public Library for a film preview. Among the area arts press I contacted was Bruce Hallenbeck, a local horror-film producer who wrote for Metroland.

Hallenbeck was interested in the story, took me up on the offer of interviews with the producers and showed up at the film preview. Hallenbeck, the late Marty Moynihan of the Times Union and I hunched around a library conference room table as the 16mm film unwound for 90 minutes. There was a short intermission as I switched reels.

Hallenbeck’s article about In Our Hands appeared in the Dec. 8, 1983, issue of Metroland, two days before the public showing. It did a great job of covering the breadth of the film, focusing on the words of Warnow and Richter and getting the true excitement associated with this documentary across. Hundreds lined up for the film showing, raising a good chunk of change for two local disarmament groups and proving to me the value of good press outreach. What I learned about promoting media coverage for this film I would use time and again in the future for getting the word out about projects I was working on, from demonstrations to marathon poetry readings.

When Metroland moved its offices into 4 Central Ave., my relationship with the paper changed: Since I now worked nearby, I could easily drop by on my bicycle and personally bug the paper’s staff about covering events and making sure items I mailed in were getting into calendar listings. It was also around this time that I got a phone call from a new editor at Metroland named Stephen Leon.

I wrote my first letter to the editor to Metroland in August of 1985. I had worked on media coverage for a major event marking the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and no one from Metroland showed up. In a subsequent article in the paper, a writer claimed she could not find our gathering, so she went elsewhere. In my letter I let the writer know what she had missed. Leon called to verify I’d written the letter. Our conversation soon went well beyond this, as I provided an overview of local nuclear issues and groups working on them. He seemed genuinely interested and made it clear that he wanted to take the paper beyond arts and entertainment. It sounded good to me. Following that conversation, I upped my press releases and personal pitches to the paper and got to know a number of the writers on staff.

My first invitation to write for the paper came via a phone call from Leon in early 1988. He asked me to do a guest editorial on the INF Treaty being promoted by the Reagan administration to reduce the threat of nuclear war erupting in Europe. The treaty was a transparent attempt to sound like disarmament, when it was nothing of the sort. My editorial ran in the Feb. 11 issue.

In 1990, I got in a tangle with Price Chopper over their claims that their new plastic grocery bags were “engineered for our environment.” I did an opinion piece for Metroland on the topic, and Neil Golub eventually changed his bag claims and offered recycling boxes for them (more on this in my next column). I followed this with book reviews and a piece on composting for the 20th-anniversary-of-Earth-Day issue and an editorial commemorating the 45th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

In the fall of 1996 I responded to a Metroland call-for-writers ad, and pitched to Leon the idea of doing this column. After a few months of further discussions and detailing, The Simple Life premiered on May Day 1997.

Over the last 25 years I’ve watched this weekly grow into a real alternative paper for the Capital Region, and hope many more years of challenging print lie ahead. In these times of massive media consolidations, a truly free press may increasingly rely upon the tenacity and presence of such alternative papers. Go Metroland!

—Tom Nattell

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