Jim Brady Profile: The Billy Pulpit

Jim Brady is launching a mobile-focused local news site. Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

Jim Brady is launching a mobile-focused local news site. Photograph by Jauhien Sasnou

There exists an unwritten rule in many of America’s newsrooms. It stipulates that when a journalist of sufficient stature departs his job, he is sent off, in a display of real or feigned goodwill, with a parody publication — a magazine cover, say — poking fun at his personal characteristics. It is this practice that Jim Brady would like to discuss for a moment.

“Every farewell home page I’ve ever gotten in my life, leaving any site, has had the same three things,” he says. Brady, 46, is sitting at the Marathon at 16th and Sansom, about to commence a lunch of grilled chicken and corn fricassee, along with a lump of vegetables he won’t touch. Brady names the three things: “Diet Pepsi consumption, the Jets, and my wearing jeans.” This information is relevant partly because he happens to be drinking Diet Pepsi, wearing jeans, and talking about the New York Jets. (Not a fan of this year’s first-round pick.) More to the point, Jim Brady’s last two journalism ventures didn’t quite work out. Which, alas, has given him a good deal of experience in the parody send-off department.

Brady began his career as a sports reporter in Washington, D.C., before turning the Washington Post’s website into an industry standard-bearer, before eventually embarking on a monomaniacal quest to create a model for online news that doesn’t completely suck and actually makes money. Despite his recent failures — or perhaps because of them, in an only the good die young kind of way — his journalistic stature seems only to have increased.

His latest baby — and the reason he’s been traveling to Philadelphia from his home in the D.C. suburbs — is a website called Billy Penn, which soft-launched in mid-September. (You may also know it by its previous name, Brother.ly, which was scuttled after a small band of critics deemed it too sexist and/or lame.) Brady aims to turn Billy Penn into a media nerve center for the city, by breaking news and “curating” content from legacy publications and local blogs. Brady, who appears to be in healthy financial shape despite those earlier failures, says he’s sinking more than $500,000 of his own cash into the site — enough to staff it with eight employees for 18 months. His hope is that Billy Penn will start making some money, or at least attract additional investors, before that cash runs out.

Already, Billy Penn has garnered a good deal of national attention (sample headlines: “Jim Brady’s Philly Gamble”; “Brady Takes Another Shot at Local Journalism”). That’s because Brady is a high-profile missionary for a specific type of new-media evangelism that, to its boosters, promises to create a model for sustainable online journalism, and to its detractors is a bunch of techno-utopian nonsense. If the site succeeds, there will be up-voting and liking and retweeting. If it fails, there will be schadenfreude.

In Philly, the stakes are higher, less abstract. Brady is only the latest in a long line of philanthropists, hedge funders and would-be visionaries who have vowed to revive the city’s beleaguered news media. “We know you’ve heard this all before,” Brady noted a few weeks before our lunch to a roomful of journalists at the Pen & Pencil Club, as if addressing some sort of support group. Billy Penn arrives at a critical moment. The city’s dailies and alt-weeklies seem unwilling or unable to craft a coherent Web strategy, while their print products continue to atrophy. (Not helping: Over the summer, the Inquirer’s brand-new owner died in a freak plane accident, while the free tabloid Metro bought the City Paper and laid off a number of its staffers.) None of the city’s digital media start-ups, meanwhile, has come close to filling the gap the thinning legacy publications have left behind, and several have collapsed in the past few years. (Full, probably self-evident disclosure: Philadelphia magazine also has an active online presence.)

The consequences of Philadelphia’s shriveled media environment are almost too obvious to state: Less journalism equals less information equals less accountability equals more bad stuff happens. This is to say nothing of the more ephemeral but no less important civic fabric that starts to fray when no one reads the local stuff — either because it isn’t there or it isn’t worth reading — and everybody just huddles under the covers with an iPad and binges on Mad Men recaps.

Over lunch, I tell Brady I can’t name a single outlet like Billy Penn — local, online, for-profit — that has created solid, meaty journalism on a sustainable basis. “It’s a pretty short list,” he concurs, and proceeds to name zero websites that fit the description. In attempting to fill Philadelphia’s journalism gap, Brady is testing a much larger theory about how to save local news. “I refuse to believe, after 200-some-odd years,” Brady says, “that there’s no longer a model for local journalism.”

JIM BRADY’S BRAND of media disruption made its Philadelphia debut on a Wednesday night in July at the Pen & Pencil Club, the dimly lit journo-haunt situated a few blocks south of City Hall. “The policy at the Pen & Pencil is off-the-record, but we can change that if we want, we were told,” Brady said, wearing a button-down shirt rolled up to his elbows and a requisite pair of dad jeans. He had been invited there to introduce Billy Penn to the city’s journalistic class. Sitting on a stool to his right was the site’s editor, Chris Krewson, a former Inquirer Web guru who most recently ran the website of the Hollywood Reporter. “Everything’s on the record. We’re not trying to hide anything.”

The pitch went like this: Billy Penn is an attempt to “stitch together all the people and the entities in the city that are producing good journalism and providing good information.” What that means: “Reporter/curators” will direct Philadelphians to the stories they most want to read, whether written in-house or by other news outlets or bloggers.

The website, Brady told the crowd at the P&P, will be geared toward the city’s growing millennial population. Its underlying mission will be civic improvement, and it will be calibrated for your iPhone. During a big story — like the 2013 building collapse — it will morph into a throbbing, constantly updated local news hub stuffed with both aggregated and original content. On a slower day, Krewson added, Billy Penn might be “reporting out a great hashtag” or treating you to the “five best Vines” related to Philadelphia.

After about an hour of occasionally pointed but mostly harmless Q&A — Will you cover underserved neighborhoods? Android or iOS? — pizza was delivered, and a roomful of reporters briefly forgot about the many existential threats to their careers. But despite the good turnout and generally good cheer, Billy Penn’s editor wasn’t satisfied with the reception. “Do you know that, like, nobody tweeted out of that thing?” Krewson told me a few days after the event, outside a coffee shop on Sydenham Street, wearing a checked shirt with an iPhone stuffed in the breast pocket. “Why wasn’t there a hashtag? Like, nobody created a hashtag!”

This cognitive dissonance says as much about Krewson’s own social-media awesomeness (18.3K tweets and counting!) as it does about the Philadelphia media establishment’s refusal to fully immerse itself in the digital world. In the late aughts, the Inquirer tapped Krewson and (later, briefly, as a consultant) Brady to “build a culture of thinking about the Internet,” as Brady puts it. Krewson set up the paper’s first Facebook and Twitter accounts, back in 2008. Besides that, it’s unclear either of them made a mark.

Brady and Krewson worked on a couple of mini-sites — one for the Main Line, the other on local colleges — but neither lasted very long. “I don’t know if everybody sitting around the table at the Inquirer totally bought into this idea that they ought to be focusing on the Web,” Brady says. It’s been several years since he and Krewson left, but the papers have barely evolved: The Inquirer and Daily News still upload their content for free on the ghastly Philly.com, a practice that undermines the papers’ paywalled stand-alone websites.

Philly’s online news scene isn’t much more promising. There are the small niche outlets like Plan Philly, Hidden City and the Public School Notebook, which scramble to support themselves largely through foundation grants and memberships. Then there are the dead sites, like wonky Metropolis and hyperlocal NEast Philly. The most successful of the bunch, Technical.ly, which funds itself largely through events, has been clear that it caters to a narrow audience.

The closest the city got to having a broadly useful online-only news outlet was Axis Philly. And it failed badly. Created in 2012 with a $2.4 million grant from the William Penn Foundation, Axis was led by a CEO named Neil Budde, who earned $225K a year but by all accounts accomplished very little. (Jim Brady was offered the job but passed.) “Neil had a talent for spending, he really did,” says former Inquirer columnist and Metropolis editor Tom Ferrick, who ran Axis after Budde. “He went top-flight on almost everything. I literally had my jaw drop over different people saying, ‘We owe this person this amount of money.’” When I ask Ferrick what exactly his predecessor contributed, he replies, “No one quite figured that out.” “I accept some of that as fair criticism,” Budde told me, but added that he was led to believe Axis would receive more grant money.

Budde resigned in the summer of 2013, but by then it was too late to save Axis. The site’s bread and butter — data-driven policy reporting — wasn’t budgeted, organized or promoted according to any discernible strategy. By the time its initial grant money was spent, says Ferrick, it averaged just 18,000 unique visitors a month. With limited prospects for other funding, the site went dead in June 2014.

It’s unlikely a similar nonprofit venture will get a chance to succeed where Axis failed. The William Penn Foundation, Philadelphia’s number one media sugar daddy, decided recently to invest only in local journalism that covers three specific areas of interest: education, the environment and the arts. The man who initiated the shift, former WPF president Jeremy Nowak, says he can’t comment on the decision. (He parted ways with the foundation after a year and a half.) But his explanation for Philly’s start-up failures may help clarify the frugal strategy. “Number one,” he says, “the [traffic] numbers are really low. Second, you’ve got a whole generation of people who aren’t willing to pay for things. … Third thing is, too many of the people trying to do the reinvention grew up in the old world, and they think the reinvention is about re-creating a 20th-century newsroom that just happens to be electronic. So they’re reproducing the same problems.”

The wobbly trajectory of one new-media project lends heft to Nowak’s assessment. Last fall, former Philadelphia magazine and Daily News editor Larry Platt announced his plans for a nonprofit reporting venture called the Philly Citizen. A year later, the Citizen has produced zero journalism. It has, though, hosted a series of events about civic improvement, and recently said it would ask members to “publicly swear an oath” to Philadelphia. The Citizen plans a new website by year’s end designed to “mobilize an army of citizens to take their city back.” Platt declined to speak on the record, but he provided me with a statement about the Citizen’s “dual purpose” to provide “deeply reported journalism emphasizing solutions that can move our region forward, and to actively reignite citizenship.” How the journalism fits in amongst the oaths and salons is unclear.

Ironically, this new-media graveyard, with its dried-up philanthropic funding and balky start-ups, suggests BillyPenn.com is right where it wants to be. First, it’s a for-profit venture that will rely on advertising revenue and membership fees rather than on grants. Second, Jim Brady is precisely the opposite of someone who “grew up in the old world.” “All the people around him, they talk to each other on Twitter all day,” says one Washington, D.C., journalist who’s followed Brady’s career. “In their theory of the world, the only thing holding back Web journalism is the hidebound practices of old-fashioned legacy media.” Time to test the theory.

BRADY, AS FORMER COLLEAGUES and fellow travelers will testify, is perhaps the world’s greatest guy-to-get-a-beer-with. His disarming qualities, however, belie his tendency — the use of mixed metaphors here seems appropriate — to throw bombs at sacred cows. As he told me over lunch: “I’m not particularly sympathetic to newspapers and their plight, because yes, it’s been really hard and all that, but it’s not like you couldn’t see this coming.”

Brady honed his digital-first worldview editing Washingtonpost.com’s sports section, before helming the entire newspaper’s website for a celebrated stretch in the 2000s. More recently, he ran a newspaper chain called, what else, Digital First. But it was his short-lived Washington, D.C., website, TBD.com, that turned him into something of a cult hero among new-media types. “It was the James Dean of local websites,” he joked at the P&P. “Died too young but seems to be remembered fondly.” And it’s pretty much exactly what he wants to re-create in Philly, on a smaller scale.

TBD, which was owned by Politico publisher Robert Allbritton, was launched to great fanfare in 2010 and billed as a competitor to the Washington Post’s battered metro desk. Half a dozen staffers were hired purely to engage with readers, cornering them on social media and at happy-hour meet-ups. The site was also gratuitously transparent, at one point milking an embarrassing gaffe into a sort of Web seminar on the virtues of its own corrections policy. TBD — named thusly because no one ever came up with a real name — was, in other words, putting into practice much of the Internet idealism long practiced in Silicon Valley: High-minded gatekeepers would be discarded, content would be free and collaborative, and the wisdom of crowds would dictate editorial strategy.

Like so many beloved Silicon Valley start-ups, however, it soon crumpled. Three months into his tenure, Brady was out, and by 2012 the site was dead. According to the TBD loyalist narrative — alums are scattered all over, from Slate to the New York Times — the plug was pulled too early by Allbritton, who, Brady says, reneged on a promise to give TBD a three-to-five-year “runway.” “You should be very clear,” says Steve Buttry, who worked as TBD’s director of community engagement, “TBD didn’t fail. If they had executed the strategy and it didn’t work, that’s failing. It wasn’t given a chance to succeed.” (A spokesperson for Politico didn’t respond to a request for comment from Allbritton.)

True or not, that explanation doesn’t address the quality of TBD’s work. “Surely,” wrote former Washington City Paper editor Michael Schaffer in a tongue-in-cheek autopsy several years ago, “this was conclusive proof that the pretensions of hyperlocal journalism were empty, that signing up unpaid neighborhood bloggers alongside professional reporters was stupid.” Schaffer was sympathetic to the TBD-got-hosed-by-Allbritton narrative, but even the most (ostensibly) innovative ideas in digital media can’t necessarily solve local journalism’s bottom-line problem. “People like Brady,” says current City Paper editor Mike Madden, “they have the sense that we’ve got to get people thinking ‘digital first.’ No one going into journalism today is thinking print first. The problem is the revenue. The advertisers are still thinking print first.”

Indeed, Brady belongs to a cohort of new-media soothsayers to whom disruption always seems to be the solution, whatever the problem may be. They include, among others, City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and NYU journalism professor Clay Shirky. What binds them is a worldview holding that unwieldy legacy newspapers helped doom themselves by refusing to adapt to the digital age, and that media institutions can best survive by making content as accessible and responsive to reader demand as possible. Brady, who invited Jarvis to Temple over the summer to take part in a Billy Penn brainstorming session, says he swears by Jarvis’s oft-quoted mantra: “Do what you do best, and link to the rest.”

One problem with this crew, as Dean Starkman, an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, has pointed out, is that they’re “journalism academics known for neither their journalism nor their scholarship.” For all their faith in the Internet, none of them have found a way to make it pay for costly, deeply reported local journalism that has long been subsidized by print advertising.

In 2000, newspapers’ ad revenue peaked at $65 billion. By 2012, that number had plummeted to $22.3 billion. Print ad revenues are in free fall, and while digital ad revenue is growing, it’s not growing fast enough to make up the difference. Going “digital first,” in other words, won’t pay off for a long time, if ever. Why don’t businesses want to pay newspapers and magazines for costly ads anymore? Largely because Craigslist, Facebook and Google, and their billions of users, make for vastly better online advertising partners. All of which makes Jarvis and Shirky’s digital fetishism seem especially glib.

To be sure, massive digital properties like BuzzFeed and Gawker Media have leveraged cheaply produced viral content into profits, and national newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have convinced loyal subscribers to pay for online content. But nobody has come close to replicating similar strategies — or success — on a local scale. Broken promises or not, TBD wouldn’t have been abandoned if it had translated its impressive website traffic into financial viability. At Digital First Media, where Brady was editor-in-chief, an analogous scenario played out: To increase revenue, DFM erected paywalls at 75 of its dailies — despite being run by a Brady ally who had long criticized paywalls. (Brady, who left DFM after the plug was pulled on one of his pet initiatives, told me he didn’t agree with the decision.)

Even if Brady is able to steer Billy Penn toward profitability, it seems unlikely he can do so while regularly serving up serious-minded public-interest reporting. (After all, BuzzFeed and Gawker, despite their occasional investigative dives, specialize in click-bait.) Of Billy Penn’s initial staff of eight, only two are reporters. And at least one of them will be busy compiling “The Five Best Vines in Philadelphia.” What’s more, social media may end up undermining Billy Penn’s concept: Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, there is decreasing interest in “home pages.”

After our lunch, I sent Brady an email asking why he didn’t make Billy Penn a nonprofit, like most successful local news start-ups. “Local journalism needs a for-profit model,” he wrote back. “People keep saying that local isn’t scalable. But neither are foundations and billionaires, despite the high number of terrific nonprofit sites out there. … So I’ve been determined to keep searching for that. Suppose it’s my white whale. :-)”

It’s a noble sentiment, emoticon and all. But if you remember your Melville, it’s not exactly the most promising one.

Originally published as “The Billy Pulpit” in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

We Want Answers: Josh Innes, WIP Sports Talk Radio

Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Photograph by Gene Smirnov

How is Philly treating you more than half a year in? Considerably better than you might believe. Obviously, there are the comments you read online from newspaper stories or on Crossing Broad … but nobody on there likes anybody.

You’ve made a name for yourself as an acerbic shock-jock alternative to some of the older crusts in Philly sports talk. I wouldn’t call it necessarily “shock jock.” I don’t really like that term. The reality is, there isn’t a ton on the show that I would consider shocking.

Recently you had a guy and his girlfriend on speaker, and you asked him how big her “cans” were. You want to consider that shocking; I just consider it lowbrow. I’m not the first guy on the radio to ever do that. If you listen to Cataldi in the morning, the biggest thing they have is Wing Bowl. They bring the girls in here. And the whole thing is, they’ve gotta have great cans to be a Wingette, or whatever.
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The Fall of the Main Line Drug Ring

Montco D.A. Risa Ferman with an AR-15 rifle and drugs seized by the police.  / Associated Press

Montco D.A. Risa Ferman with an AR-15 rifle and drugs seized by the police. / Associated Press

On the afternoon of April 21st, 18-year-old Timothy Brooks arrived at a courthouse in Ardmore, a mile east of his alma mater, the Haverford School. His appearance — khaki pants, blue blazer, square jaw — suggested good breeding. Walking alone, in handcuffs, he lifted his head and smiled at the assorted cameras before him. “Why are you smiling?” a reporter asked. Brooks said nothing and marched forward into the courthouse.

Twenty-five-year-old Neil Scott, Brooks’s alleged co-conspirator and fellow Haverford graduate, showed up looking less composed. Escorted by police, he covered his face with his blood-orange prison jumpsuit — his bail was set higher than Brooks’s, and his parents had declined to pay it — and told the assembled media to “get the fuck out of my face.” Then he popped out two middle fingers and concluded his remarks with a drawn-out “Fuuu-uck you.”

The perp walk was a fittingly theatrical start to the day’s proceedings. Scott and Brooks, along with nine suspected sub-dealers, were being charged with running a drug ring that aimed to supply marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy to some of the finest high schools, colleges and weekend house parties in Greater Philadelphia. (The prosecutors’ allegations were outlined in painstaking detail in a 77-page affidavit.) Brooks called the operation the Main Line Takeover Project, and soon, so would everyone else. “Every Nug on the mainline is about to come from you and me,” he’d texted Scott last fall. “We will crush it,” Scott echoed in a separate text-message conversation. “Once you go tax free it’s hard to go back.”
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Actually, Philly Cabs Are Great

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Early one morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few months ago, I hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to Logan Airport, eight miles away. He asked me how to get there. That was the first bad sign. The second bad sign was that he abruptly changed his mind about needing my help and decided to chart the course himself. Thirty minutes later, we were still in the car, making a beeline for Rhode Island. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Not long before, another out-to-lunch driver had piloted the trip to Logan at a pace so slow, I actually had to check to see if he was awake.

The point of all this is not that Boston-area cabdrivers are horrific. It’s my anecdotal “Exhibit A” in the case of Simon van Zuylen-Wood v. All the Delusional Philadelphians Who Don’t Appreciate Their Fantastic Taxis. Bitching about cabs in Philly is roughly on par with Yay, the Shore and Boo, Phillies when it comes to broad, unspecific elevator-ride utterances nobody will ever disagree with.

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We Want Answers: Eli Kulp

You grew up in Mossyrock, Washington. Is that a town of more or less than 100 people? Ha. Last time I saw, it had 498. My mom is from Holland; my dad is from New York. And they were sort of hippies traveling in the ’70s, doing their thing. They met and found this little plot of land in the middle of nowhere and bought it, put a single-wide trailer on it, and that’s where I grew up.

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Does Philly Really Treat Its Homeless Like Garbage?

In today’s City Paper, Dan Denvir wrote two items about various Philadelphia constituencies that, in his words, are being treated like “garbage.” One: Philadelphia schoolchildren, who he argues are being held hostage by politically opportunistic Harrisburg Republicans. (Last-minute cigarette tax notwithstanding, he generally has a point.) Two: The city’s homeless population. His evidence for this is an experience he had a couple weeks ago while biking along Spruce Street in the late afternoon, after stopping to help a man who was “likely homeless, very likely drunk and possibly mentally ill.”

Here’s his account:

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Frank Rizzo Jr. Profile: Franny Takes a Lie-Detector Test

Franny at the Rizzo family home in Chestnut Hill. Photography by Adam Jones

Franny at the Rizzo family home in Chestnut Hill. Photography by Adam Jones

Across his chest and abdomen, two corrugated rubber tubes. Pneumographs — to detect breathing irregularities. Wrapped around his upper arm, a Velcro cuff. ­A sphygmomanometer — to measure blood pressure. Beneath him, a motion-sensitive seat pad; wrapped around his ring and index fingers, black adhesive electrodes. He’s in a small room on the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training, just off Rittenhouse Square, biting the nail on his left pinkie. Frank Rizzo is taking a lie-detector test.

The immediate stakes of the test are somewhat beside the point. The historical echoes, however, are not. In 1973, Frank’s father and namesake, the mayor, was accused of giving a city contract to the chairman of the Democratic City Committee in exchange for political support. To prove his innocence, he agreed to a polygraph test. He failed. The Daily News printed its immortal headline, and RIZZO LIED became the two most infamous words in Philadelphia political lore. Now the mayor’s son — Franny — says he’s running for mayor, too. And the fact that this 71-year-old snowbird retiree is hooked up to a series of wires at 11 a.m. on an April morning is an early indication that his own political identity cannot be disentangled from his father’s.

Perhaps any son of Rizzo’s would have had a difficult time emerging from the Bambino’s massive shadow. Little old ladies in black dresses used to drop to their knees and weep when the city’s first Italian-American mayor walked down South 9th Street, where his mural is now plastered. Liberals, African-Americans, good-government types — they abhorred him with similar passion. But he had a legacy.

For the first 32 years of his adult life, Frank Rizzo Jr. worked for the city’s electric utility. For a decade and a half after that, he served as an undistinguished Republican city councilman. Since being booted out of office in 2011, he’s been cloistered in the old family home with his wife, Debbie, and his mother, Carmella, living the dull, blissful life of an out-of-work politician. He flies south for the winter. He cruises around Chestnut Hill in his Corvette. He emails the CNN tip line to correct errors about their missing- Malaysian-airplane coverage.

Several months ago, he got restless and decided he wanted back in. Perhaps the surest sign of this transition came a couple weeks before the polygraph test, when he told me he’d be flying to his longtime vacation home in Aruba — not for R&R, but to put it on the market. “If everything goes well for me,” he said, “I won’t have time to use it.”

(Plus: “Things are pretty hot down there when it comes to sales. The Venezuelans are leaving Venezuela, and Aruba’s only two hours away.”)

There have been more official indicators. He switched his party registration from Republican to Democrat. He began consulting with advisers whose names he won’t reveal. He underwent an extensive physical. He ordered up red, white and blue campaign buttons that read THINK RIZZO FOR MAYOR.

Unfortunately for him, nobody else in Philadelphia politics seems to be thinking RIZZO FOR MAYOR. There are several reasons for the deep skepticism, none of them flattering. Even in his eighth decade, Franny is seen as a legacy kid without a real record to run on, while the “Rizzocrat” constituency that elected him to City Council, and his father as mayor, has long since disintegrated.

Which brings us to the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training. One morning several days earlier, I called up roving Democratic über-consultant Neil Oxman, who engineered Rizzo Sr.’s first-ever defeat, in 1983. Oxman was so incredulous at the idea that Franny could be running for legitimate reasons — like many others who roam the corridors of City Hall, he thinks Franny’s a political pawn, being used by an old adviser of his father’s — that he wanted him to reveal his true motives by taking a polygraph test, wagering $10,000 that he’d fail.

Franny, in a surprise move, accepted the challenge without hesitation. “One thing I’ll tell you, I don’t lie,” he said. “I would love to take $10,000 of Neil Oxman’s money.” With one caveat: “I don’t want it to be perceived as some kind of stunt.”

Stunt or not, the bet isn’t simply a no-confidence vote in Rizzo’s mayoral potential. The request for him to take the same test his father did 40 years ago — to prove he’s not a tool of his father’s former right-hand man — reflects a widespread inability to see Franny Rizzo as anything other than his father’s son. To a certain extent, Rizzo is confirming that impression simply by strapping himself to a polygraph machine, by exhuming the old ghost. But in doing so, he’s also placing a bet of his own: If he passes the test, if the headlines don’t read RIZZO LIED, maybe then, at last, he’ll have become his own man.

The exam is being administered by Nathan Gordon, a solidly built man of impassive temperament and sterling reputation. Gordon walks into the little room, sits down at a desk next to Franny’s chair, and asks him to close his eyes. Franny, sitting perfectly still, does as instructed.

“Is today Sunday?” Gordon asks. “No,” Franny says. Today is Friday.

One for one.

THERE IS SURELY SOME STATUTE in this city’s charter that requires prominent political figures to name their firstborn sons after themselves, thereby burdening them with a lifetime of anxiety over their unfulfilled potential. Meet Wilson Goode. Meet Bill Green. Meet Frank Rizzo. Meet their boys.

Early on, though, as if everybody recognized it was ludicrous for him and his mythic dad to share the same first name, Frank Jr. became Franny, and Franny he would remain, long after Rizzo Sr. died of a heart attack in 1991. Frank the cop with the skull-busting rep and the nightstick in the cummerbund was six-foot-three and wide, with a size 20 collar. Franny is slighter and about a half-foot shorter, closer in stature to his paternal grandfather Raffaele, who emigrated from Calabria to South Philadelphia in 1908.

By the time Franny was born, Frank Sr. had moved the family from South Philly to Germantown, and Franny went to a series of nearby Catholic schools. His 1961 yearbook at Bishop McDevitt High in Wyncote, just across the city line, contains only one identifiable photo of him: a melancholic senior portrait, all baby fat and high cheekbones, deep-set eyes and a tentative smile. Franny wasn’t a particularly good student, and after high school, at 18, he went to work for the Philadelphia Electric Company as a lineman, eventually wending his way up to the front office, where he worked as a spokesman until the early 1990s.

Franny says that when he graduated from high school, there was a good financial incentive not to follow his father, soon to be police commissioner, into the force: Back then, a beat cop made significantly less than a utility grunt working the poles. But according to his sister, Joanna Mastronardo, Franny yearned to join the state police and was discouraged from doing so by their dad, who worried his many foes would take out their enmity toward him on Franny. “My father would not hear tell of it,” she says.

Growing up Rizzo, according to Sal Paolantonio’s 1993 biography of the former mayor, was a gentler experience than one would expect. “He doted over his firstborn son, perhaps trying to make up for how his father treated him,” Paolantonio wrote. Once Joanna was born, though, Frank’s attention shifted away from his son. “Frank Jr. was a little jealous of all the attention Joanna got from their father. Joanna was the princess of the family, proper and proud, tutored by the Sisters of St. Joseph’s, pampered by her father, whenever he was around,” Paolantonio reported.

So Franny did what he could to get closer to his dad. In his 20s, like his father, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve. And when he was back home in Philly, he preferred riding along in his father’s cruiser to hitting the bars. On a Friday or Saturday night, when Franny might have had plans to tool around town with his buddies in his souped-up 1962 Plymouth Fury, his father would call him from the station. “He’d say, ‘Do you want to ride with me?’” his son recalls. “And I’d say, ‘Police Commissioner, are you kidding?’ I’d blow anything off to be able to be with him and just see the respect that he got from the men and women that worked with him.”

Frank Rizzo’s record in the 1960s reads like a parody blotter of a tough-on-crime cop sending coded racial messages. He raided the Black Panthers. He raided the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He reportedly ordered his men to beat the “black asses” of high-school students demonstrating for black history courses, to break up the black activists protesting segregated Girard College, and to intimidate the black looters destroying white properties along Columbia Avenue. His brutal tactics ended up defining not just his electoral strategy — “Forget about the niggers,” he reportedly instructed an adviser during his 1974 reelection campaign — but his public image. “He’s certainly a Hitler,” former Philadelphia mayor Joseph Clark told the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1975. “He’s a typical dictator demagogue. He makes George Wallace look like an amateur.”

Franny, who like his father was a Nixon supporter, took such criticism personally. The first time he met TV newsman Larry Kane, in 1967, he asked him, “What do you think of this Rizzo guy?” without revealing his identity. Kane apparently passed the test, and the two became friendly, even going on a double date together. In Franny’s romantic life, Kane says, that same hair-trigger defensiveness persisted: “He had this horrible habit of meeting a woman and then saying, ‘What do you think of Frank Rizzo?’ And if he didn’t like the answer, I think he would basically leave the room.”

Apparently he didn’t find an acceptable answer until the summer of 1991, when he met his eventual wife, Debbie Altemus, a then-40-year-old divorcée from Upper Providence Township who barely knew who Franny’s father was. Frank Sr. had died just before they met, and the timing doesn’t seem entirely coincidental. “You know he didn’t get married until he was 63,” says his sister Joanna, “and I think that the closeness to the family is one of the reasons.” Even once Franny and Debbie began dating, it took them 15 years to get married — and they waited until then to live together. Again, Rizzo family pathology helps explain the delay. Debbie had children from her previous marriage, and Carmella Rizzo, an old-school Roman Catholic, didn’t entirely approve of her.

Once they did wed, in 2006, the Rizzos moved to that breeding ground of the Philadelphia B-List, the Residences at Dockside, on the Delaware River. Two years later, they moved back home. Carmella, now 97, took a bad spill, and Franny told Debbie he needed to be there for her. “I worry about the day something happens to my mother,” Joanna says. “I think my brother’s going to take it very, very hard.” Today, Franny, Debbie and his mother all inhabit the familiar Crefeld Street abode, which Frank Sr. bought in 1971. (Joanna moved away from home long ago, marrying Joseph “Joe Vito” Mastronardo Jr., a well-known gambler. In January, Mastronardo and his son, Franny’s nephew, pleaded guilty to multiple charges related to a multimillion-dollar illegal gambling and money-laundering scheme. Joanna escaped racketeering conspiracy charges but has been charged with evading income-reporting requirements.)

It wasn’t until his father died, in the midst of his 1991 mayoral campaign, that Franny even contemplated entering politics. In his 30s and 40s, living at home, he served as a sort of all-purpose fixer for Team Rizzo. “Franny played a behind-the-scenes, critically important role of just keeping the whole Rizzo campaign together. He was the infrastructure,” says Michael Smerconish, then a close adviser and a surrogate son to Rizzo during his failed ’87 mayoral campaign.

In 1995, having left PECO for a gig in Ed Rendell’s Commerce Department, Franny finally got the itch and one night planned a visit to a Democratic City Committee meeting to seek its endorsement for an at-large Council seat. On his way there, as he tells it, he was apprehended by GOP mayoral candidate Joe Rocks, who asked him to run as a Republican instead. Apparently, that’s all it took. Rizzo ran, ousted incumbent Joan Specter, and would serve as a Republican for the next 16 years.

When I ask Franny what his father would have thought of his running for mayor, he jams up and freezes, like some ’90s-model desktop computer. “If he were alive, I don’t think I’d have a chance to run, ’cause he’d be running,” he says, finally. It was out of the question, in other words, for both of them to share the same turf. “He would not want me to be in the same arena as he was in.”

AT 3:45 P.M. ON A TUESDAY in April, I walk into the Walnut Street office of Frank Rizzo’s ophthalmologist and sit down next to some people with actual eye problems. Franny arrives five minutes after I do, hustling across the waiting room to greet me. Just back from his jaunt to Aruba, he’s wearing a Creamsicle-orange Tommy Bahama sweatshirt, with a tan to match.

The plan is for us to meet here and head back to Chestnut Hill after his 4 p.m. appointment, to catch a glimpse of his post-political life. But first, there’s this business with the ophthalmologist. “There’s someone I want you to meet,” he says when the doctor, Robert Wortman, appears. “He’s been my doc for a long time. But the interesting thing is: I didn’t know it, the Mayor didn’t know it, but he takes care of the Mayor and me.”

These days, the similarities between Rizzo and Mayor Michael Nutter pretty much end at their mutual trust of Dr. Robert Wortman. Though everything about Franny’s present lifestyle suggests retirement, in reality he’s a political exile. In 2011 he lost his Council seat in the primary, accumulating an impressively pathetic total of 5,000 votes citywide. The fall from grace can be explained simply. In 2011, Rizzo did in fact “retire,” so he could collect $194,000 in cash from the much-maligned DROP program, a.k.a. Monopoly Free Parking for Philly Pols. The problem? His plan was to then “unretire” and continue to serve on Council.

The bad publicity around DROP, along with some feudal bickering between Rizzo and the (two) other Republicans on Council, gave the city GOP a couple good excuses to wash its hands of him. So they refused to endorse his candidacy — one ward leader sued to have his name omitted from sample ballots — and his ties to the party were severed for good. “In the past, I can tell you [the party was] in such dire straits for [mayoral] candidates that he would have been welcomed,” says State Representative John Taylor, the chairman of the Republican City Committee. “Would he be an attractive [mayoral] candidate to us now? No.” (Rizzo agrees his frosty relationship with the current GOP party leaders explains his party switch.)

Another reason Rizzo was never truly welcomed into the Republican fold is that he didn’t really stand for anything they did. Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. told me a story about the time the Republicans on Council opposed a campaign finance bill Goode had sponsored and instructed Rizzo not to vote for it. “That sort of pissed him off,” Goode says. “So he came to me and told me he was going to vote for it, because he didn’t like being dictated to.” As the anecdote suggests, however, he didn’t really stand for anything on the Democratic side of the aisle, either. “It was like a game,” says a staffer who worked for him in the mid-2000s. “It wasn’t about what was right or what wasn’t right. He would treat his vote like a chip.”

Rizzo’s lack of interest in governing, however, shouldn’t be confused with a lack of interest in the job writ large. He simply viewed his position in a very specific way: as a vehicle for doing thousands of tiny favors for anyone who asked. “He had the greatest constituent service in the history of City Council,” Kane tells me with Cronkite-level gravitas. And the bills he did champion reflected his passion for the most pedestrian issues. The legislative accomplishment he cites most frequently, for instance, was the establishment of a cell-phone lot at the airport.

Again, this instinct has much to do with his father. While Frank Rizzo the mayor has by now become something of an avatar for Philadelphia’s Nixon-era racial strife, his son remembers him in a different way. “We both always wanted to help people,” Franny says, nursing a glass of white wine and a liverwurst-and-onion sandwich during an early dinner in the back booth at McNally’s, in Chestnut Hill. “My father, my God, Simon, I could tell you. One morning, he was on the way to work. This is how kind he was. There was a loose dog, got away from its owner. My father being a smart guy, he opened the [car] door.” Dog jumps in. Dog shakes all over the notoriously immaculate Rizzo. Dog saved. Moral of the story: “I mean, what mayor would think about picking up a stray dog?”

This may sound like a whitewash — boiling down his father’s controversial record to an Aw, shucks yarn about a stray dog. That said, one oft-forgotten part of Rizzo Sr.’s legacy was his messianic belief in getting favors done for proverbial little guys. Even after he had been booted from office, Rizzo would patrol the city from the passenger seat of his sedan, taking calls on the car phone and dispatching foot soldiers to take care of odd jobs around town for loyal Rizzocrat grannies.

Frank Jr. fills a similar role as a perpetually on-call Mr. Fix-It for thousands of Philadelphians suffering from annoying but non- life-threatening issues. For them, it doesn’t matter that he’s not a councilman anymore. “I have spoken to him recently,” Smerconish says when I ask about their relationship. “Frankly, it was because I needed advice on a generator. There’s nobody better for something like that.”

Indeed, when (if) Rizzo makes a campaign announcement, the word “pothole” will almost certainly be invoked. “Steering around all these craters in the road, I’m saying to myself, ‘Why are we dealing with this? We’re almost at Easter, these things should be taken care of,’” he tells me, in what amounts to an early stump speech. “Potholes are not new,” he rails. “Why can’t we fix this?”

But where Rizzo Sr. supplemented the customer-service shtick with an otherworldly force of personality and politically shrewd law-and-order tactics, all Franny’s got is the potholes. When I ask him which political figures he’s been impressed by lately, he takes a long pause. Perhaps forgetting that he’s running for mayor as a Democrat, he eventually tells me he was impressed by Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, before recovering somewhat and praising the deceased Arlen Specter.

Franny is sensitive to the charge that he’s a lightweight. “They’re going to beat me up and say I’m not college-educated,” he predicts. On the other hand, after a couple glasses of Clos du Bois, a little swagger breaks through. “You hafta understand. A lot of these guys are jealous of me. And I know they are, because they don’t have the ability to do what I do. They don’t understand it. Their way of resolving a problem is picking up the phone and telling a commissioner to take care of this. And hopefully it gets done, and most times it never gets done. I don’t operate that way. It ain’t a done deal till I know it’s done.”

Chip on shoulder, Franny invites me to his old stomping grounds, to pay a visit to some old friends and enemies.

ON THE FOURTH FLOOR of City Hall is a large, cavernous chamber upholstered with portraits of former Council presidents. In the middle of the room is a round table in the style of Dr. Strangeloveat which Council members sit before their Thursday-morning sessions and avail themselves to the mere mortals of Philadelphia.

Here in the Caucus Room is where Frank Rizzo and I meet on one such Thursday morning. While the reunion tour is being staged in part for my benefit — I had expressed hope that we could do something campaign-ish together — Franny is also eager to glad-hand his way back into political consciousness. Of course, it’s a little early for all this, and Franny hasn’t yet made a formal announcement. Still, he gamely marches up to everyone he sees, telling them about his mayoral plans.

Bill Greenlee, the at-large councilman, walks into the room with his head buried in a sheaf of papers. “Councilman!” Franny shouts, sticking out his hand. Greenlee looks up and smiles: “Frank, how you been?” Franny explains my presence, rubbing his hands together: “He’s hanging out with me for a couple days before I do my thing.” “Oh, okay,” Greenlee says. “What’s your thing?”

Franny seems pleased when Council president Darrell Clarke later acknowledges his presence formally. But in truth, none of these guys — or any other Philadelphia political players — are taking his mayoral ambitions seriously. When I call Sam Katz and tell him I’m writing a story about Rizzo, the first thing he says is, “Why?” When I return to City Hall a week later, one councilman goes off the record just to laugh at the prospect of Franny running for mayor.

Ex-councilman and current son-of-former-mayor Bill Green, now chairman of the School Reform Commission, is less inhibited. “I’ll laugh on the record,” he says. “If you have a name and you can get somewhere to do some good because of that, that’s fine, I can respect that. If you have a name and you spend your time in Aruba and show up on Thursdays in Council, that’s something I don’t have a lot of respect for.” There’s more: “If he has a vision, it would be a vision of him being mayor, not to accomplish any particular end.”

Considering the lack of respect Rizzo got as a councilman — and now as a mayoral candidate — he might seem a hapless, ultimately benign legislator. But there’s a less sympathetic side to him that complicates the picture. Though it’s an open secret in City Hall, the public record contains but one examination of it — a 2001 Daily News article that began with the line: “This is a tale of two Rizzos, Frank and Franny, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde.” Jekyll was Franny the constituent-service master, the guy with the Rizzo to the Rescue call-in radio show. Hyde was the petty micromanager whose staff members were so traumatized by working for him that to this day they organize happy hours to collectively lament the experience.

The central issue was that Franny would ride them all day long — often from his Shore house or from Aruba — to make sure they had completed largely meaningless tasks. “What he would do is [leave] us these messages,” says one former staffer who sounds genuinely scarred by his tenure. “It would be like, ‘Call the guy in Chestnut Hill to make sure the trash is collected on Thursday.’” Then two minutes later, he’d call back. And so on until the detail was confirmed. “He’s just such a weak, small little man who needed to [exert] power over other people. Goofy stuff. Really, really goofy stuff.”

Former Rizzo chief of staff Stewart Graham, who now works for Councilman David Oh and was widely acknowledged as the brains of the Rizzo office, suggests that much of this is rumor and sour grapes. But he does confirm the broad outlines of the control-freak impression: Rizzo, he says, once called him 137 times in a single day. (He checked.)

“He was always fine-tuning every detail, so that made him a real taskmaster,” adds Fred Hess, Rizzo’s longtime campaign manager. “As long as you stayed on track with that, you didn’t have a lot of trouble with Frank. But if you made a mistake … Frank would come down on you.”

Rizzo acknowledges that he was hard on his employees, though he rejects the word “tough.” “When people like my constituents need assistance and help, there are some times when you got to give direction or make sure that there’s follow-through,” he says.

To a certain extent, the attention to detail may have been inherited from his father, who abhorred a car or a pair of shoes or a nightstick that wasn’t properly polished. But Franny’s need to exert control over the minutiae of office life may have also been a reaction to the discrepancy in influence between him and his father. “Frank was always proud of his father, always supportive of his father,” says Hess. “But you know, when the first thing out of someone’s mouth isn’t ‘How you doing today, Frank?’ — it’s ‘I remember your father, what a great man, he’s the greatest man I ever met’ — maybe that’s why Frank tries so hard to hit every detail. And I think his father would have respected that.”

While the Greek-tragedy element surely doesn’t explain every facet of Franny Rizzo’s personality, politically speaking, at least, it’s hard to discount. When he would visit his father in City Hall in the ’70s, he says, his father insisted on kissing him goodbye in front of his staff. “If my father wants to kiss me,” he says with something bordering on defiance, “I kiss him back.” “He was my hero,” Franny adds. “I mean, at 40 years old, it was corny to love your father the way I did. But I idolized him.”

Even so, Franny isn’t blind to the uglier parts of his father’s legacy. “My whole life, people have been forming opinions of me based on my dad,” he says, and makes a concerted effort to convince me not to do the same. One of the mini-wars being fought in municipal politics right now concerns Mayor Nutter’s proposed privatization of the city’s gas utility, a move Franny says merits consideration. This is notable, since it was his father who first took the Gas Works out of private hands, turning it into a poorly run patronage den. With respect to black voters, Franny makes an even greater attempt to distance himself from Frank Sr. When we visit City Council, he repeatedly introduces me to African-American staffers, telling me later that he wanted them to tell me firsthand what a good relationship they had.

Franny, in other words, wants to be recognized as his own man, but also doesn’t want to stray too far from the family name, knowing it’s his surest political meal ticket. “It was nice to not meet someone and they’d have to tell me 10 stories about my father,” Franny says of his early relationship with Debbie. “But listen. I never, ever cut someone short who wanted to tell me a story about my dad.”

THE PUREST MANIFESTATION of Franny’s unwillingness to carve out an entirely distinct identity for himself is, of course, the house. With its classic Chestnut Hill stone masonry and slate-tile roofing, the Crefeld Street home has remained virtually unchanged since Rizzo Sr. refurbished it (not entirely with his own money, as it turned out, in another Rizzo mini-scandal) in the early 1970s. The mantels are populated by little porcelain figurines Carmella has collected over the years. The kitchen, with its cheery yellow wallpaper, hasn’t graduated from the Technicolor era.

When Carmella’s husband was mayor, media were generally barred from coming into the house. Franny, who was nervous about letting me visit, eventually convinced his mother that I wasn’t simply a newspaper “reporter” but rather a magazine “journalist.” Though I’m not entirely clear on the significance of the distinction, even the light vetting process speaks to his self-styled role as the house’s new protector.

I walk in around 5:30 p.m., while Carmella is eating dinner with her two aides. As she finishes, Franny and Debbie take me on a tour of the house that culminates with his father’s old office. Mostly unused even when he was alive, the room now serves as a shrine to Rizzo. I see a copy of Paolantonio’s book on a shelf and ask Franny if he liked it. “I went into it saying to Sal, ‘I’ll give you all the help you need to do this, but I don’t want my mom embarrassed,’” he says, leaning in. “I said, ‘Please, if there’s anything about hookers or any women, you know, that you might stumble upon, I’d appreciate you being courteous.’” (There wasn’t.)

After we finish, Carmella is sitting in the living room in a reclining chair, her legs propped up. Franny motions for me to sit down on a couch next to her and gets her to start telling me stories. Her hearing isn’t great, but her mind is sharp. Among her reminiscences: the time her husband saw Mother Teresa’s ratty sandals and offered to buy her a new pair; the dinner party with Frank Sinatra and Henry Kissinger; those handsome embroidered white suits Elvis Presley used to wear. Franny paces around the room, sitting down and standing up, egging her on.

Eventually I ask her what she thinks of her son’s mayoral ambitions. “I think he would make a good mayor,” she says, speaking slowly. “He’s had a lot of experience. He knows his city inside out.”

Franny is standing on the other side of the room. “Thanks for the nice words. I’ll never forget them,” he says, looking at her. “I told you, I never expected you to be wanting me to do that. I thought you were going to say, ‘Don’t do it.’”

“No, if that’s what you want, that’s it,” Carmella says, as Franny walks over and gently taps the tops of her feet. “You’ll be a good mayor. Good, good mayor.”

BUT BEFORE WE FIND OUT if he’ll make a good mayor, we must find out if he can win the mayoralty. And before we find out if he can win the mayoralty, we must find out if he even wants to win the mayoralty. And to do that, he must take a polygraph test.

Back in the little room on the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training, Nate Gordon sits before a black laptop that will reveal to him any unusually seismic patterns in Rizzo’s responses. I watch the interview on a closed-circuit TV.

Oxman’s theory of mayoral subterfuge — forgive the petty tribalism of it all — goes like this: Rizzo is getting into the race only to help the candidacy of the presumptive favorite, State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, who is black, by peeling away white votes from more serious contenders. Why? Because he struck a deal with the guy backing Williams’s campaign, his father’s longtime friend and adviser Marty Weinberg.

“Has anyone encouraged you to run for mayor in order to aid the Williams campaign?” Gordon asks.

“No,” Franny says.

“Has Marty Weinberg asked you to run for mayor to aid the election of anyone besides yourself?”

“No.”

“Are you running for mayor to influence the election of anyone besides yourself?”

“No.”

Gordon repeats these same questions for the next hour, interspersing them with occasional placebos: Can you remember lying to protect someone else? No. Right now, are you in Switzerland? No. Is today Sunday? No.

When he’s done, a printer spits out a three-foot-long piece of fax paper blanketed with an incomprehensible jumble of numbers and decimal points. Gordon walks it over to Franny and shows it to him. At the top, in bold letters, are the words No Deception Indicated — Probability of Deception Is Less Than .01. “So that’s good?” Franny confirms. Gordon nods.

Rizzo passed.

Frank Rizzo walks out of the room and pumps my hand triumphantly. He says he wants Oxman’s $10,000 check made out to the Frank L. Rizzo Monument Committee. “My dad’s statue could use a little polish.”

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Neil Oxman Challenged Frank Rizzo Jr. to Take a Lie-Detector Test

Across his chest, two corrugated rubber tubes. Pneumographs — to detect breathing irregularities. Wrapped around his upper arm, a Velcro cuff. A sphygmomanometer — to measure blood pressure. Beneath him, a motion-sensitive seat pad; wrapped around his ring and index fingers, black adhesive electrodes. He’s in a small room on the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training, just off Rittenhouse Square, biting the nail on his left pinkie. Frank Rizzo is taking a lie-detector test.

Frank Rizzo Jr., that is.

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We Want Answers: David Devan, General Director of Opera Philadelphia

Photograph by Stefan Radke

Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Earlier this season, you hosted a “Tweet at the Opera” experiment and something called a “Robot Opera.” Do you worry that any of this stuff is going to look gimmicky? No, not at all. I mean, we’re not doing the “tweet seats” to be gimmicky. We are trying to do new things. We do them in a controlled way — the “tweet seats” were a section. We weren’t trying to get a headline out of it. We weren’t trying to be notorious. We wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t disrupt patrons … and we were successful in doing that.

Your predecessor, Robert Driver, was once flagellated with a newspaper by a grumpy old patron unhappy with his attempts to innovate. Are you getting whacked, proverbially or literally, by more conservative opera-goers? No, I am not getting whacked by newspapers, frying pans or any other household objects from more traditional patrons. I think the reason is that we have been very respectful in our approach to innovation. The tweet seats are a great example. If you’re a 20-year subscriber and you don’t own a smartphone, you didn’t even know they were there.

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