NorCal-based magazine Heckler reboots for 21st century skate and snowboarders

Just like the rockers who’ve regrouped to capture their glory days, the recent resurrection of Heckler magazine sounds something like this:

Dudes, we’re getting the mag back together!

Heckler was one of Sacramento’s magazine success stories, a homegrown publication that chronicled skateboarding, snowboarding and music for an international readership. But as it goes with good times on a board or playing with a band, they rarely do last. Heckler wound down in 2002, with its staff splintering toward new projects and careers.

More than 20 years after its earnest but scrappy debut, Heckler is reborn. Heckler now takes on a distinctly 21st century feel, continuing as an online magazine with embedded video ads, story-sharing features for social media and other digital bells and whistles.

“We’re telling the story of skateboarding, snowboarding and music as seen through the eyes of Heckler,” said JP Lagos, Heckler’s publisher. “Competing with other publications isn’t what we’re trying to do. We’re just here to show the lifestyles we lead and the people we admire.”

Lagos, 34, embodies Heckler’s traditional go-with-the-flow attitude. He oversees the multimedia magazine from his North Lake Tahoe home, where no winter day is complete without a gnarly snowboard session, and he basically runs Heckler as a labor of love. Lagos covers his bills and his lift tickets as a Web designer and software developer.

“I’m not asking for credit, I’m just stoked to be doing it,” said Lagos. “If the money comes, cool. If not, I’m doing something for the sport I love.”

Heckler showcased the rock stars of action sports during its mid- to late ’90s heyday, be it such skateboard shredders as Tony Hawk or snowboard legends Shaun Palmer and Shaun White. Even country legend Willie Nelson granted an exclusive interview to Heckler.

Lagos steers Heckler circa 2013 as a fan, not a member of its founding crew. Originally from Modesto, Lagos discovered Heckler in Sacramento-area board shops during stops on the way to Tahoe snow sessions. Lagos connected with Heckler’s raw feel, given the magazine’s carefree approach to typesetting and cut-and-paste-styled page displays. The font and style of Heckler’s logo sometimes changed from issue to issue – a big no-no for slick action sports magazines that craved brand recognition on the newsstand.

“Oh my god, I grew up worshiping that magazine,” Lagos said. “It was cutting-edge and ahead of its time. I loved Transworld and Snowboarder (magazines), but Heckler always had a place in my head.”

Heckler published its first issue in 1993, a 24-page freebie that declared on the cover, “The ’zine that kicks the scene for snow and skate in Nor Cal.” Its layout and design look primitive compared to today. Instead of Photoshop tricks or snazzy page layouts via InDesign software, you’ll find hand-drawn ads and a cover shot that might have been touched up in Paintbrush for Windows.

“Heckler” was the nickname of Matt Kennedy, the magazine’s co-founder. He was joined by John Baccigaluppi, who was better known around Sacramento for his Enharmonik recording studio, and Dave Sher, owner of the now-defunct Mountain & Surf shop on K Street. None of them really had a clue in what it took to assemble a magazine. Like forming a punk rock band, they just did it and asked questions later.

Staffers were bent on introducing up-and-coming riders, such as skateboard superstar Ryan Sheckler in his amateur days, before they became the latest poster boys for Mountain Dew or Red Bull.

“We were all about exposing the underdogs,” said Kennedy. “We wanted to say, ‘Hey, up in Nor Cal we have some of the best riders in the world.’”

But what Heckler’s staff lacked initially in know-how, they made up for in hustle. Heckler’s list of contributors by Issue Three included Bryce Kanights, one of Thrasher skateboard magazine’s signature photographers, and snowboard pro Noah Salasnek. The magazine had also enlisted photographer Chris Carnel and Sonny Mayugba, known in local music circles from the band Phallucy, for ad sales.

Heckler hit its stride, followed by an avalanche of work.

“It started as a way to get free lift tickets, but we could barely keep up,” said Baccigaluppi. “Heckler was just booming.”

The trio of Baccigaluppi, Mayugba and Carnel ended up taking Heckler to international newsstands. Circulation increased to 20,000 copies per issue and transformed from a do-it-yourself looking ’zine to a glossy magazine published monthly. Heckler was purchased by Transworld Media – home of Snowboarder and other leading action sports magazines – in 1996, but editorial control stayed with the three in Sacramento. (Disclosure: This reporter is a former music contributor to Heckler.)

Like skating an empty swimming pool, Heckler’s ride through the publishing world was exhilarating – until it slammed and couldn’t get back up.

Transworld was sold to the Times Mirror Co. a year after purchasing Heckler, but the Sacramento staff was stranded in the deal. Heckler wasn’t folded into the new company, so Mayugba and Baccigaluppi bought back the magazine and tried to emerge from its debts. Heckler ultimately found a new owner in Sam Toll, who ran a midtown prepress company called Electric Page.

Circulation peaked at 60,000 copies monthly, and Heckler even released a book (“Declaration of Independents”) through Chronicle Books in 2001. But by 2002, Heckler had fizzled.

“A lot of the skill sets we had didn’t serve us as (Heckler) went more mainstream,” said Baccigaluppi. “At one point we had 10 or 11 employees and half of them were skateboarders or snowboarders. Any time a big storm came through everyone was suddenly ‘sick.’ It was a difficult thing to manage and in the end it just crashed.”

But every good snowboarder knows there’s some magic in the mountains.

In 2011, nearly a decade since Heckler’s last issue, Lagos had a chance meeting with Mayugba at a social conference event called Tahoe Snowcial. Following the halcyon days of Heckler, Mayugba now works as a marketing executive and is part owner of The Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar.

Lagos was stoked to meet someone behind the magazine he’d loved so much. “It was game changing,” said Lagos. “I said I think I can do it, I can bring it back.”

Lagos bought Heckler’s rights and archives from Toll for an undisclosed sum with the goal of building a new website. Reviving Heckler has been slow going at times, partly because the lack of snow the past two seasons in Northern California made it tough to document fresh material. Lagos also had mountains of material to sift through, including thousands of photo slides.

The magazine industry, meanwhile, is a much different beast compared to the 1990s. Some longstanding titles, such as Spin and Skateboarder, have either abandoned their print editions or focus primarily on their online content and supplement with an occasional hard-copy magazine.

Heckler’s taking the digital-first approach, and will publish a monthly digital magazine and yearly print magazine. This free print magazine will be available at board shops around the country in January.

“We’re going to focus on print as something that people can look forward to once a year,” said Lagos. “We’re emphasizing good content and stories, not running the rat race.”

Even with the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, magazine industry observers say younger audiences still want the tactile experience of holding a magazine.

“People still like to own something and have it in their hands, even youngsters,” said Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi, and known in the industry as “Mr. Magazine.” “Almost without exception, any magazine that killed its print edition to be digital-only has become a shadow of itself. Everyone is discovering the print is the centrifuge of everything with that brand.”

Heckler has rounded up such advertisers as Volcom, a prominent clothier for the snowboarding and skateboarding sets, to help make the publication a sustainable operation.

A few of Heckler’s original staffers are helping pass the Heckler torch, including Kennedy, who helped line up new interviews with Sacramento skateboard legends John Cardiel and Matt Rodriguez. Mayugba operates as an adviser and investor with Heckler’s latest incarnation. I.J. Valenzuela, a former senior contributing editor and photographer for Heckler, has returned as its editor-in-chief.

“I hope these kids carry on the tradition we started,” said Kennedy. “This thing’s 20 years old and I’m not going back. I’m too fat and old to be running after kids on the hill.”

Baccigaluppi has primarily watched Heckler’s rebirth from afar. He’s busy enough with running recording studios in Sacramento and Marin County – acclaimed Southern rockers My Morning Jacket were recent clients – and publishing his Tape-Op magazine for recording enthusiasts.

“To me, Heckler is almost two lives ago,” said Baccigaluppi. “But it’s a life I’m eternally grateful that I lived. I have friends from all over the world now because of Heckler.”

Lagos and company are bent on steering Heckler into the future.

“We’re celebrating the sports with video interviews ... and ‘Where are they now?’ stuff,” said Lagos. “We’re revisiting the people who made Heckler what it was and finding ways to engage people so they can jump down the rabbit hole with us.”