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Friday, October 20, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rocket's nose dive stuns music magazine's staffers

Seattle Times staff reporter

The bounced paychecks were the first clue to its staffers that The Rocket was in serious trouble. That was two weeks ago.

Then copies of the latest issue didn't show up at the office when they were supposed to. That was Wednesday.

Finally, a staff meeting that afternoon confirmed the bad news: The Rocket, Seattle's bimonthly music publication, would be grounded after 21 years.

The abrupt closure of what is widely considered an institution of the Seattle popular-music scene has shocked and saddened many - none more so than the magazine's 18-member staff. The announcement comes less than two months after the publication changed hands from its ailing former owner, San Francisco-based Bay Area Music Media. While its new owner, David Roberts, is holding out hope for a revival, others say The Rocket has run its course.

Financial woes plagued The Rocket over the past year, according to Roberts, a Chicago transplant and owner of the music magazine, The Illinois Entertainer.

"I wanted to save it," he said. "But it got overwhelming in a hurry."

Roberts said readership of The Rocket has been stronger than ever, but advertising was down in the last year or so.

"Sales had fallen off a little bit with advertisers," Roberts said. "Had management at that time brought costs down in line with those sales, we wouldn't be in this situation."

BAM Media had been trying to unload The Rocket since January, Roberts said. A deal with the Portland-based alternative weekly Willamette Week fell through this spring at the 11th hour. Roberts devised a plan over the summer to cut costs and get The Rocket back on track, but in the past two weeks some unexpected bills dealt the magazine its death blow.

"Everyone was just stunned," said staffer Dave Liljengren.

While the end came as a surprise to many, others say The Rocket had been on the decline for years.

"I kind of saw it coming," said Jason Hughes, a local disc jockey and co-owner of Sonic Boom, an independent record store in Fremont. "A few years ago it was a pretty healthy publication. Lately it's been kind of thinner and meager."

The Rocket was started in 1979 as a music supplement to the now-defunct newspaper The Seattle Sun. It was seven years ago this month that The Rocket went from a monthly to a bimonthly publication. Tim Keck, publisher of The Stranger, a competing weekly, says that was the beginning of a downward spiral.

"I don't think they really had the content to do that," Keck said.

But former publisher Charles Cross, who sold The Rocket to BAM Media about five years ago, and who remains on staff as a contributing writer, says The Rocket was as strong as ever.

He said the publication had a circulation of 55,000 in Seattle and 35,000 in Portland. It was distributed free at local businesses including record stores, coffee shops and bookstores.

"This was not about The Rocket not being read or respected or advertised in," Cross said. "It's just been poorly run the last few years and hasn't had hands-on local management."

The magazine embraced local musicians in a way other media did not, Cross said, and was crucial to the success of Seattle bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains.

"To Kurt Cobain, being on the cover of The Rocket mattered as much as anything that happened in his career," Cross said. "I can't tell you how many bands have come up to me over the years and said they first got attention from stories in The Rocket."

Joe Reineke of local rock band Alien Crime Syndicate says losing The Rocket will create a void in Seattle's music scene.

"Where are all those lame guys who want to start bands going to advertise? Where are the kids going to find out about the next big thing?"

Publisher Roberts says there's still hope for The Rocket.

"If we had the right funding, we could still save it," he said. "I could reassemble the staff in a hurry."

But staff members say they were told the magazine is dead.

And at Linda's Tavern on Capitol Hill last night, where The Rocket was a hot topic, people seemed to think it had run its course.

"People were saying, `Oh, The Rocket used to be great,' " Keck said. "That's how it feels for me."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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