Feature

Emap vet goes solo to publish the old-fashioned way

David Hepworth is keeping it real with a new magazine venture, writes Alasdair Reid.

David Hepworth occupies a special place in British culture. He's the man who shrink-wrapped the 60s. Older readers will recall that it was Hepworth, along with his cheeky chappie sidekick, Mark Ellen, who stepped into the breach at 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' (BBC Two's rock music showcase in the 70s and 80s) when it was finally forced to concede that prog rock really was dead after all.

It was Hepworth who was centre stage, as the editor of Smash Hits, when pop went post-modern. And it was Hepworth who was not only behind the emerging CD generation's favourite consumer guide, Q magazine, but also its nostalgia and back catalogue spin-off, Mojo.

He's one of rock and roll's most enduring talking heads. His own journalism has always flirted with the florid and the bombastic but avoided the worst excesses of the gonzo style, traceable back to the Hunter S Thompson tendency at Rolling Stone. Hepworth has always remained true to the genre's primary function -- to make the exploits of a bunch of neurotic drunks seem legendary -- but he does it in a more sardonic style.

He embodies the English middle-class version of rock and roll letters. Cuddly. Sentimental almost. Endearing in its attempts to impress. In fact, he's a bit like Richard Branson in that respect -- a first rank exponent of Counter Culture Lite.

If this sounds past-tense or elegiac, it has no right to be. Hepworth is back, and this time he moves among us with new magazine Word. It's published by Hepworth's new publishing company, Development Hell, and edited by the aforementioned Ellen.

We're not exactly in unfamiliar territory here. Nick Cave ("darkly melodic records of rare beauty") on the cover, and a deceptively wide range of cultural references dropping in on the contents page, from Eminem to Melanie Chisholm to the evergreen John Peel. So, just what the world needs then: another savvy and sophisticated take on some of the more neglected yet darkly melodic strands of popular culture?

But first things first. Why did he leave Emap (and he slipped out quietly, almost without anyone noticing) in the first place? He was editorial director after all, and the company surely had the resources to give him any canvas he fancied.

"I've always wanted to be a multimillionaire," he jokes, before doing a "no, seriously" double-take. Nothing sinister, he insists. It's just that when his long-term publishing partner -- not Ellen this time, but Jerry Perkins, who handled the commercial and advertising sales side of Hepworth's Emap titles -- decided to take redundancy, it prompted a change in perspective.

And yes, there was a sense in which he decided it was time to do things differently. He explains: "There is a feeling that bigger publishers are doing fewer things. It's better working within a small company and being answerable to the people you work with."

As opposed, the implication is, to a Plc board. As the editorial director his job took him away from his rock and roll heartland, and there were also rumours of Hepworth not seeing eye-to-eye with senior colleagues around the time of the botched launch of Heat. You get the feeling that Heat isn't exactly a Hepworth sort of proposition.

And indeed, in recent years, he has increasingly seemed a voice in the wilderness, an advocate of a type of journalism that's been going out of style. He believes that people have been starting to forget what magazines are (or should be) for. "I like doing things for enthusiasts," he says. "Things that people feel a genuine kinship with rather than things that they will pass five minutes with."

There is something undeniably old-fashioned about Hepworth. He often slips into a rocktastic drawl located somewhere between Yorkshire and Sunset Strip, and his delivery is peppered with all sorts of "kind of like" tics.

But agencies say he still has a knack of hitting valuable audiences. Word, they reckon, will reach men aged 30 to 35 who have young families and spend a lot on CDs and DVDs. They'd rather there was more Nick Cave and less Mel C, though.

In other words, if it reaches its modest (35,000) breakeven target, it could do well. Hepworth has packed a lot into his 52 years, but this media mogul thing is new, isn't it? What's the plan now?

"We're not about to launch into the mass market women's or home interest sectors. If we do anything, it's likely to be against the grain of mainstream entertainment. The plan is to launch three titles in [the next] five years."

But does he have a clear notion of a career -- and where he wants this to take him? He laughs again. "No," he responds. "I've never had that. I've kind of taken the opportunities as they come along."

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