In a battered old warehouse off North Interstate Avenue, three young men sit around a table, plotting the destruction of media as we know it.
OK, not really. The three twentysomething guys hunched over a jumble of Macintosh gear are actually working on an elaborate parody of reality TV, an ironic take on Survivor-style melodrama that will "air" on a website only a tiny fraction of Portland—let alone the world beyond—has ever heard of.
But stick with us. These guys are on to something.
Mike Merrill, Steve Schroeder and Jona Bechtolt run a website with the ungainly name UrbanHonking.com. Even in the jargon-enriched environment of the Internet, it's hard to find a single word that accurately describes Urban Honking. Call it a blog of blogs—an invitation-only family of dozens of different Web diaries, loosely united by a certain aesthetic and the fact that Merrill, Schroeder and Bechtolt, well, are fond of them.
The threesome hand-picks who gets to join Urban Honking's team of contributors, creating exclusivity that's rare as plutonium in the blogosphere free-for-all. (Last year, a writer for the San Francisco-based Alternet news service compared writing an Urban Honking blog to owning a chic Fendi handbag.) The three even run a farm system of sorts to test potential new talent, allowing wannabe writers to contribute to group-effort blogs about sports, food and video games. Scribes who prove themselves worthy get promoted and are given their own personal Urban Honking blogs.
Whether they live here or in New York, Paris or Berlin, all the bloggers fit into Urban Honking's self-defined scene. "The main aim is to put up good content," Merrill says. "But creating a community and documenting it are just as important."
It may sound like a bunch of geeky friends trading notes. But the strange thing is that Urban Honking is surprisingly popular, attracting notice from far beyond its native Portland cool-kids circle.
The Oregonian splashed Merrill, Schroeder and Bechtolt on the front of its Saturday Living section last month; Britain's BBC Radio 5 interviewed Merrill around the same time. The mainstream buzz reflects the fact that even though Urban Honking sells no advertising, makes no money and runs on a yearly budget that would barely buy a good used car, its ambitions are strictly professional.
"We think of it like we're programming a TV network," says Schroeder. "You want a lineup that appeals to just about everyone. Some of our blogs are like the Discovery Channel, and others are more like America's Top Model. We've got our MTV and our sports. And there's 'AC Dickson, eBay Power-Seller'—his blog is like our QVC."
This week, to keep Schroeder's metaphor going, Urban Honking kicked off its version of Sweeps Week or March Madness: Ultimate Blogger 2, an ultra-high-concept, reality-show-style showdown with 13 bloggers from around the world. When Ultimate Blogger debuted last year, an audience of more than 6,000 unique visitors a day tracked the action via blog posts, photos and downloadable video snippets.
This year, the Urban Honking brain trust expects Ultimate Blogger—which carries a $1,000 prize package for the winner—to attract an even bigger following. They moved the site to a bigger server last month, preparing for an onslaught of traffic.
If Ultimate Blogger is something of an underground hit, Urban Honking's quirky hive of niche blogs is the more impressive achievement. In fact, it only takes a little imagination to see Urban Honking as the next stage in the evolution of the blog genre, which has exploded in popularity (but not necessarily quality) in just a few years.
And if three scruffy Portland kids—with no business plan, no money, no discernible commercial ambitions and no training—can entertain thousands, this semi-obscure corner of cyberspace just might be the harbinger of a very different media future.
A snapshot of Urban Honking's three fresh-faced auteurs, stretching across the top of their homepage, looks like the kind of photo an aspiring rock band would pose for. They lie flopped in a pile of blankets, wearing coy grins.
Merrill, Schroeder and Bechtolt could all star in an anthropological documentary on the smart, culture-savvy, often underemployed bright young things who flock to our city. None graduated from college (Bechtolt got his GED while touring the country in a band). Bechtolt and Schroeder manage to survive off freelance design work and a tiny record label, respectively. All moved to Portland from elsewhere—Merrill founded an "Alaskan Expatriates Club" a little while back—and their original aim for Urban Honking was to carve out a creative outlet for local friends and friends-of-frien ds.
Astoria native Bechtolt is largely responsible for the site's coolly muted color scheme and smooth, crisp, easy-to-read look. The soft-spoken 25-year-old sweats over the design of each individual Urban Honking blog.
Schroeder, a bearded 28-year-old who moved to Portland from Los Angeles to attend Lewis & Clark College (but dropped out), adds a gregarious comedic spark. He also maintains his own Urban Honking blog of homespun videos shot in local living rooms and rock clubs. He boasts the only solid traditional-media credentials of the three. "I worked for a while on my college paper," he says with a shrug.
Then there's Merrill, the bright-blue-eyed 28-year-old who is the unofficial mayor of Urban Honking's community. Merrill, whose pinstriped suit jackets and jaunty neckties makes him the best-dressed of the three, seems to carry in his head a manifesto on how he wants the site to work.
"There's a big difference between starting a blog on Urban Honking and just going to one of the free blog sites and starting one," Merrill says. "If you just set up shop on the Internet, you're going to be writing in the dark for a long time. No one is going to find you. On Urban Honking, you have an instant audience."
In raw numbers, that audience is small enough to fit in a small-college basketball arena. Six thousand unique daily visitors, Urban Honking's traffic peak so far, is less than what WW's website attracts when the new edition comes out on a Wednesday. It's more than Bojack.org, one of Portland's most prominent politically tinged blogs, gets (blogger Jack Bogdanski told a reporter last November that his site draws about 1,100 visitors a day). But it's positively dwarfish compared with powerhouse national blogs like the left-wing digest DailyKos or the gossipmongering Gawker, which get hundreds of thousands of daily readers.
All the same, Urban Honking's audience is devoted. The most routine posts on individual blogs can attract a bevy of comments from readers. And reaching the site's select fanbase sometimes pays off for writers—a weekly paper in Los Angeles recently cherry-picked "Universe," Urban Honking's relatively new science blog, to become a regular print column.
For chosen bloggers, joining Urban Honking can be like moving from North Dakota to New York City. "I had my own website before," says Fiona Garlich, a Portland med-school student. "I was glad I made the switch. I immediately got a lot more people looking at my blog and commenting on it. I felt like I was part of something."
That "something" spans a lot of cultural territory. Here's a near-random selection of Urban Honking blogs:
universe: Like a youth-culture-infused Nova, Claire Evans' recent posts grapple with string theory, the discovery of a planet beyond Pluto and black holes. From Dec. 14, 2005: "It seems that every news article I read in the Science section aims to outperform the last in terms of complete bullshit weirdness ... [A] friend of mine forwarded me an article about how Scientists had managed to get monkeys to send 'telepathic' messages...over the internet, and into robotically reconstructed fake monkey hands across the country. This kind of news represents the confidence that Scientists have in the fact that we—the laypeople—have ceased to pay attention to their work."
willow wonder's almost perfect heart: Not unlike a grown-up, Portland version of the old Claire Danes dramedy My So Called Life, "Perfect Heart" tracks the anxiety-ridden personal, professional and romantic adventures of a teacher-in-training. From Feb. 1: "I've been doing weird things to pass the time. Like, um, cleaning my room. And, uh, waxing my mustache."
adventures in medical school: The Discovery Channel meets Grey's Anatomy on med-student Fiona Garlich's blog. From Dec. 4: "I'm back in Portland now, and am deep into my second week of my plastic surgery elective. Boob jobs and eyebrow lifts and botox and tummy tucks and liposuction and scar revisions and hand contracture releases and carpal tunnel releases and laceration repairs and sex reassignment surgery. These are all things that I have witnessed and/or participated in. This has included me holding a testicle in my hand as it is removed from its transsexual owner."
ideas for dozens: A techie geekfest by former WW intern Greg Borenstein. From Jan. 24: "I honestly can't remember the last time I listened to commercial radio.... So, what's left? More and more, what's left is: mp3 blogs. Just individuals out there talking about music, bravely posting songs they like despite the potentially quite serious legal consequences of the musicians' and labels' ungratefulness."
broken language: New York-based Jon Caramanica, one of several rock critics on Urban Honking, sounds off here when not writing for Salon, New York magazine or any of several newspapers. From May 12, 2005: "Kenny Chesney is easily the shortest person I've ever interviewed, so what does that make the former Ms. White would-be [Renée Zellweger, then newly—and briefly—Chesney's bride]? Considering Chesney grapples with gay rumors...what better solution to the problem could there be than to swiftly seduce a celebrity he once wrote a song about?"
Urban Honking's miniature empire is just an infinitesimally small part of the blogosphere galaxy. Since the first "weblog" went online (a former Swarthmore College student gets credit for inventing the genre in 1994), this chatter-friendly format has unleashed what could be the biggest storm of recorded verbiage in human history. One recent estimate counts 28.5 million blogs online—but that's probably radically conservative, because you can't ever count them all.
The most-read blogs, initially seen as an antidote to mainstream media, are now commercial forces in their own right. A recent New York magazine cover story celebrated "The Blog Establishment," including a technology writer named Peter Rojas who's said to be the first millionaire blogger. (He got rich when his popular blog, Engadget, was sold off by its original investors, including him.) It's even possible to profit from relatively small audiences.
David Hauslaib, a New York writer, runs separate blogs on celebrity gossip and gay culture. He's turned a total of 50,000 readers a day into a full-time job; Queerty.com, his gay-lifestyle blog, is particularly lucrative. Though it has only about 10,000 daily readers, they just happen to belong to one of the demographics most coveted by advertisers.
"They're highly educated urban gay men with lots of disposable income," Hauslaib says. "If you get a niche like that, you can make money." (Hauslaib refuses to say just how much money he makes from Queerty and his other site, the celeb-tracker Jossip.com, but: "Let's just say the income lets me keep a flat in New York, travel extensively internationally, and pay a full-time staff of writers.")
But because it's ludicrously easy to start a blog, there is also an incredible amount of worthless garbage online. A scan of Portland blogs reveals some doozies. One called "Pan's Garden," started in 2003, seems to consist of a single sentence: "Fauns and Saytrs [sic] dance to Pan's song, will you dance too?" Another blogger, who bills her "Caffine Injection" [again sic] as "meanderings of a deranged mind," promises: "There isn't much to say. I am me. Read my journal and you will learn more."
And even many of the most popular, most substantial blogs either simply spew opinion about news the old-fashioned mainstream media churns out, or pander to obvious niches. Liberals read DailyKos; porn fans read Fleshbot. The money to be made has touched off a blog gold rush, as would-be players try to figure out new demographics to sell to advertisers. (The New York article reports a new Wall Street gossip blog, started for motives that have little to do with creative expression.)
Urban Honking, on the other hand, creates something very different: a steady stream of original content neither designed to make money nor reliant on the mainstream for inspiration. The material may stray all over the place, but there's a unifying sense of quality control. It's its own little freestanding world of entertainment.
Despite Urban Honking's growing audience, its creators say they're willing to keep funding a tiny budget—about $500 last year, with $130 in monthly office rent tacked on at the start of '06—out of their own pockets.
"I think that if we tried to monetize it, it would be a complete disaster," Merrill says. "We'd start making decisions about content based on a totally different motivation."
But if it's not a job, it's definitely not just a hobby, either. Ironically, the three Urban Honking maestros exhibit a mindset more reminiscent of hard-bitten traditional media types than freewheeling Internet kids. Merrill hands assignments to writers like a newspaper's managing editor. The three scour for fresh talent like Hollywood scouts. And they'll "cancel" an underperforming blog or reject a half-baked idea with the ruthlessness of Fox network executives.
"It feels weird to ask someone to leave," says Merrill, "but sometimes we might offer a friend of a friend a blog, but then they aren't exactly part of the same community. Especially if they are blogging about something like music or pop culture, then I feel like there is an Internet community for that already, and we also have that area covered pretty well on UrHo."
Their standards are very much their own. ("We just got this huge article on 'Digest,' our eating blog, about a grilled-cheese-eating contest," Merrill says with glee. "And I'm thinking, this is one of the most awesome things I've ever seen.") But those standards are very real—because for the Urban Honking boys, art for art's sake is the only reward.
"When we put something up that I really think is great, it gets me so excited I can hardly believe it," Schroeder says.
Ultimate Blogger proves just how far these guys will go to show themselves and their circle a good time.
"We went into it thinking that it was just going to be something for us and our friends," says Merrill. "And then it just kind of blew up and got out of control." Looking at the first "season" of Ultimate Blogger, still archived on the site, it's easy to see why it struck a nerve with a few thousand ironic sensibilities.
The trio stayed true to its artistic inspiration—namely, Survivor—by forcing the 12 competing bloggers from around the world to complete one blog-writing challenge after another over the game's six-week span. The aim: to create a better, wittier, more creative and more intriguing blog post about a given subject than any other contestant. (Highlights included a booze- and sex-fueled interview with a Polish jazz star and a review of a vibrating women's shaver.) After each round, a secret ballot among contestants led to an elimination—the loser was "asked to leave the Internet immediately."
Alliances were made and broken. A blogger dropped out due to personal problems. The climax even yielded a moment of duplicitous drama The Apprentice would kill for, when it was revealed that the two finalists—secretly roommates!—had colluded throughout the contest.
What elevated Ultimate Blogger from insiderish game to true hilarity, though, were the five-minute downloadable video clips filmed by Bechtolt, narrated in over-the-top style by Merrill and Schroeder. Shot with a digital camera smaller than a paperback novel, the clips mix amped-up game-show intensity with a fast-paced, cut-up editing style. Each snippet consumed about 42 man-hours.
"We got a little burned out at the end," says Bechtolt. "We would be up until 4 in the morning working on the videos."
For Season 2, James Voges, the 23-year-old Grand Rapids native who won the first Ultimate Blogger (and a $500 prize package), moved to Portland from Taiwan to help with production. The knockout tournament ends in April, when Voges will surrender his crown. Life in the Urban Honking kingdom will then return to normal.
And if you're anyone who tracks the ebb and flow of media trends, you may be wondering: What exactly is normal?
Most of us rely on what you might call the Cultural-Industrial Complex to entertain us. Freedom of the press, as they say, belongs to those who can afford to own one.
But as a little screen time with the ultra-committed community of Urban Honking shows as clearly as anything, the Cultural-Industrial Complex has a problem. It still costs unholy scads of money to publish newspapers, make Hollywood movies or produce prime-time TV shows. Now, however, cheap technology and the universal reach of the Internet make it possible to do it a new way. If you've got the time and passion, there's no reason you can't film your own reality show or start your own parallel-universe "TV network."
And if your labor pool and audience start out as just your friends, working for free and reading each other—so what? It's fun anyway. And there's always the chance it'll catch fire. If Urban Honking, with its artsy hipster readers and eccentric content, seems to live on the fringe, maybe that's not such a dumb place to be.
"This all seems so natural to me," says Merrill. "Even TV, which is traditionally a totally mass-market thing, is becoming more niche-oriented. Blockbuster and Hollywood make less money every year. You can't make a one-size-fits-all thing and expect it to work anymore."
Urban Honking - www.UrbanHonking.com
Ultimate Blogger 2 began on Feb. 27. Follow the action at www.urbanhonking.com/ultimateblogger2.
In addition to spending hours creating flat-screen culture, Urban Honking bloggers are extremely active in Portland's real-world cultural scene. Bechtolt performs solo laptop-rock as Y.A.C.H.T. and plays with bands The Blow and We Two. Schroeder runs local record label States Rights Records.
Other record labels in the UrHo orbit: Holocene Music, which was co-founded by WW contributor Matt Wright, and Audio Dregs and Frykbeat, both run by Eric Mast.
Some of the other music acts springing out of the community: White Rainbow, World, E*Rock, 1999, Inca Ore, Riddenpaa, Parenthetical Girls and At Dusk.
Urban Honking contributors working in photography, film and performance include Corey Lunn, Chas Bowie, J. John Afryl, AC Dickson and David Galli.
One of the 13 slots for this year's Ultimate Blogger "season" was auctioned off on eBay. The winning bidder, whose identity will not be disclosed until he or she either wins or is eliminated, paid $203.50.
This year's Ultimate Blogger features former 24-Hour Church of Elvis owner Stephanie Pierce.