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A Magazine And a Lifestyle

Lawrence Burke talks about the founding of Outside, his adventure-sport magazine

IMAGINE this: You're young, long-haired, carefree. You trek wide deserts, dive fabled seas, and sell denims on the Russian black market.

You return home five years later, exhausted but full of stories. Freelancing isn't easy, so you start your own magazine, which continues to grow despite the odds and later a recession.

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Only a dream, right? Not for Lawrence Burke and his Chicago-based Outside magazine.

Sixteen years after this multi-sport, outdoor-lifestyle magazine began, it's still going gangbusters. Mr. Burke estimates its worth at upwards of $40 million.

In an interview during a trip to Boston, Burke talked about the years he spent traveling around the world on everything from beat-up trucks to high-tech bicycles. There's no doubt he still loves the outdoors.

In an industry dominated by Time-Warner, Hearst, and Conde Nast, Outside has managed continually to rank with the best of United States magazines.

"Larry's magazine is viewed as a prominent outsider. He has avoided becoming a part of the power structure," says Donald Nicholas, editor-in-chief of MagazineWeek, a publication that tracks the magazine industry. "Larry assembled a team of editors who believed in what they were doing, and his strength of vision has made the magazine succeed. The odds of this happening are about 1 in 500. Larry is one of those genuine examples of the American dream come true."

The seed for Burke's idea was planted when he was eight. His grandfather sent him to a Colorado Jesuit mission where an Indian called "Old Joe" gave the Chicago boy his first outdoor experiences: trekking, horseback riding, climbing, canoeing, and making clothes from hides.

Many years later, Burke and a friend vowed to sail around the world after graduating from the University of Arizona. The friend went; Burke didn't. He furthered his business studies, worked for International Business Machines, and married. But when pretty postcards started arriving in 1968, the temptation became too great. One foggy day, Burke decided to leave.

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"I thought I'd be gone three months, but it turned into about five years.

"I started to miss the US and I was turning 30," he continues, "so I had to figure out my next step." That turned out to be joining his family's retail advertising company in Chicago. The newly-divorced traveler tried writing a book, but wanted a shortcut. Freelancing was difficult, so two years later he took a different, and more difficult, route: He created his own magazine.

"If I can trek across the Sahara desert with no water, I can certainly win at this publishing game," Burke says he thought at the time.

Outdoor magazines in the 1970s were specialized, Burke explains. They addressed tennis, fishing, other sports, but rarely did they overlap. Burke had no interest in them; he wanted to read about many seasonal activities. Meanwhile, the fitness movement had started to replace the hippie scene. The time was right for a new magazine.

Burke started the publication in early 1976 with $35,000 in loans from college friends. Originally called Mariah after the boat Burke and a friend sailed home, the magazine boasted 35,000 subscribers by year's end. In August 1977, Rolling Stone's publishers initiated a similar magazine, Outside. Burke bought it, merged it into Mariah, and renamed the whole thing Outside.

The magazine grew with "the faith that people could be inspired to lead fuller, more rewarding lives. We've given great writers freedom of expression. We have sports, travel, politics, people, events. We've never targeted a demographic group, but an attitude," he says.

Burke's average readership is primarily male, age 35, college-educated, and affluent. The magazine focuses on adventure sports - rock-climbing, shark fishing, and hang gliding are just a few - and tells the stories of those who have done them. In answer to a question about whether the magazine encourages dangerous activities, Burke says: "There are rules of safety for every activity. We respect our readers' intelligence; they're educated to know about getting certified for some sports. We don't consider our role is to protect our reader."

Mr. Nicholas calls Outside's approach to high-risk sports "realistic and matter-of-fact. It doesn't glorify the danger, and it doesn't downplay it either. It doesn't promote your average weekend warrior - these are very serious hobbies."

In the 1980s, Burke tried to stretch Outside's influence beyond its colorful, glossy pages. He created a kind of empire that included the family business, a contest/promotion company, and a retail trade magazine, Outside Business. But the ventures shrunk Outside's resources, and Outside Business faced a tough competitor named Outdoor Retailer. By last year, all new ventures had shut down, with Outside Business $1 million in debt. The deficit has since been retired, offset by Outside magazine's profits.

Last summer, Outside hired Yankelovich Clancy Shulman to poll individuals on their leisure activities. The telephone survey of men and women aged 25-49 found that more people were spending time outdoors and trying to live healthier lifestyles. Biking, hiking, scuba diving, and North American and Caribbean travel have especially become popular.

"Leisure activities are a therapeutic prescription for stress. This is why Outside has grown through the recession," explains Burke, who owns 93 percent of the Mariah Publications Corporation holding company.

Outside, which has done television specials with ABC, is this year running a series of environmental articles on water, sponsoring a PBS show on oceans, and coordinating beach cleanups.

"I don't want to beat people up on the environment. I want to say clean air and healthy trees are good, to stress a balanced viewpoint," says Burke.

Next year, Outside will move to Santa Fe, N.M. Burke says his goals are for Outside's continued development. "We're in the US and Canada, but we're looking towards overseas. I don't want a lot more. Everything else keeps me from living the lifestyle!"

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