How a tiny radio-program guide grew up to become a fancy glossy

WHEN THE EDITORS of Minnesota Monthly asked me to write a piece marking the publication’s 40th anniversary, I reacted with surprise. “Minnesota Monthly is 40?” I said, acutely feeling my own age. “Well, if you say so.” ¶ Achieving 40 years of anything is no small accomplishment. And an anniversary seems as good an occasion as any for a magazine to sit back, put its feet up, and stroke its institutional beard. Where have we been? Where are we going? And are these doctors truly tops? ¶ The editors said they’d pull out all the stops. They wanted me to talk with every publisher, editor, staff writer, and art director who ever worked for the magazine. They’d fly me to New York to attend a meeting of top-level publishing executives for “deep background” on the highs and lows of running a glossy, and they promised unfettered access to their secret underground “Best Pizza” testing laboratory. “Enough already,” I said. “I’m a lazy freelance writer. Can’t I just thumb through some old copies and be done with it?”

The editors reluctantly agreed (deadlines were looming), and I was given full access to the archives—or at least what passes for the publication’s archives. Minnesota Monthly started in 1967 as the program guide for Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), but the collection of past issues—stored in cheap folders for the early years, and bound in handsome red volumes later on—only goes back to 1977. Apparently it took 10 years before anyone thought this rag might actually be worth saving.

In the beginning, Minnesota Monthly is a meager black-and-white affair. A decade later, the average issue contains barely 40 pages, and most of it is dedicated to MPR’s dense, almost unreadable program guide. Garrison Keillor, as one would imagine, is frequently pictured, and he seems to be fulfilling some contractual obligation to appear in print holding an Autoharp. There are essays by Carol Bly and Paul Gruchow, and in general the writing is good. But overall, the package lacks the two things that make a magazine great: polish and advertising.

“When I’m hungry, I don’t want the Best Pizza. I want the Closest Pizza or the Soonest Pizza.”

By the early ’80s, however, the magazine literally and figuratively has found some color. Flipping through the pages, I practically cry out in joy when I come across an ad—for Gabberts. Minnesota Monthly seems to respond to the go-go ’80s by slowly, painstakingly sexing it up. The first whiff of service journalism (those magazine pieces that offer tips and hints, like “365 Ways to Beat the Winter Blahs!”) appears in 1983 with an essay on how to get organized. Later that year, there is a holiday-gift guide, complete with ads for plant hangers and Caswell-Massey soaps. By 1987, the magazine features Minnesota celebrities on the cover, an occasional fashion section, and a regular cast of characters. It’s as if, from here on out, every piece about the merits of buying fresh, local produce must quote Lucia Watson.

A letter in the October 1995 issue moans that the magazine has become little more than “restaurant reviews, art show openings, and local celebrity puff pieces.” By 1997, the year I started writing for the magazine, there is a Target ad on the back that features the rear view of a woman who is naked except for a backpack ($17.99) and a lampshade which she is wearing as a skirt ($11.99). Partial nudity, dining listings, snarky tidbits that show a knowing attitude toward popular culture—finally, this is a magazine that makes sense!

By the late ’90s, Minnesota Monthly looks like it does today, and it’s perfectly in step with our times, an age in which we go on scenic drives and revel in tasting all that life has to offer—but especially pizza. (In fact, this is my only true beef with the publication’s editors: why this pursuit of pizza transcendence? When I’m hungry and pick up the phone to dial dinner, I don’t want the Best Pizza. I want the Closest Pizza or the Soonest Pizza.) Strangely, as the magazine becomes less stereotypically Minnesotan, I feel like it speaks more truthfully about our state. Minnesota Monthly keeps updating itself, but it never strays too far from the solid Midwestern values that make this state a great place to live. The publication knows its readers, people who like a little fancy in their lives, but not too much, thank you. Today, a typical issue contains stories that touch on a dozen different subjects, and the puff is generally counterbalanced by the serious. Oh, and somewhere in there—if you really, really try—you can find out what’s playing on the radio this month.

Dennis Cass, a Minneapolis freelancer, is the author of Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain (HarperCollins), due out in March.