Tag Archives: journalism

Kevin Simonson

April 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kevin Simonson of Omaha realizes he occupies an unlikely position as a leading chronicler of that dark jester of American letters, the late Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson, a New Journalism exponent, gained a Grateful Dead-like following for his irreverent, self-referential Gonzo-style reporting on America’s underbelly. During his lifetime, he was portrayed in film by Bill Murray (Where the Buffalo Roam) and Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). A Doonesbury character was based on him.

He was already a counterculture icon when Simonson, a Wahoo native, got turned onto his work while a Doane College student. The enterprising Simonson and his brother Mark published an underground newspaper, The Great Red Shark, which evolved into The Reader. They booked Thompson to speak at the University of Nebraska, but the author reneged owing to legal troubles with a porno producer (Thompson once managed an X-rated theater). Simonson’s taped interviews with the producer became evidence in legal proceedings that saw felony weapons charges against Thompson dismissed. Leveraging Thompson’s gratitude, Simonson gained access to interview him several times over the years for such national pubs as the Village Voice, Hustler, Penthouse, and Rolling Stone.

“The hardest thing was just getting him to commit. With him, it wasn’t a sit-down interview. It was like, click-on-the-recorder and he’d go crank up some music for a half-hour, to where you couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t sit still very long. I’d get a few questions in here and there, then he’d take a phone call or go outside and shoot his guns off. It would stretch on for hours.”

Interviewing Thompson could be a real trip.

sDeciphering his low, quiet, gravelly voice—near unintelligible when stoned—required asking Thompson to recreate what he said.

Simonson entered Thompson’s trusted inner circle. Several times he visited the author at his infamous Owl Creek Farm in Aspen, Colorado, a scene of odd characters and goings-on. He ascribes losing his former fiancee to getting her a job as Thompson’s assistant. The assorted weirdness freaked her out, and she and Simonson split.

He was so deeply immersed in Thompson lore, he says, “Anything he talked about, I could talk about. I sort of knew him inside-out. The first time I walked into his house, it was like walking into a museum. I looked around and recognized things from certain books or stories.”

Simonson finally did get Thompson to speak in Lincoln (in the spring of 1990, a month after the original booking date). Typical for Thompson, he ran hours late and took the stage, presumably under the influence. People were variously delighted or outraged.

“I grew up with Spy Magazine, National Lampoon, and Saturday Night Live, and I thought his writing was the funniest stuff ever done. You could turn to any page and there was something laugh-out-loud funny about it. That’s what attracted me to it,” Simonson says.

Thompson, too, represented a refreshing, unfiltered, unapologetic voice and uninhibited, nonconformist lifestyle. “It was his bad- boy attitude and the way he would do things in public and not be even remotely self-conscious about the repercussions,” he says.

Simonson’s widely published work includes authoring and co-editing Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson  He’s helped build the cult of personality around the writer. Even in death, Thompson’s mystique grows larger with every new book and film out on him.

“It’s kind of crazy,” says Simonson, who has also managed bars and done marketing and promotions work for Boston University (during a few years on the East Coast) and KFAB and Clear Channel Radio in Omaha. He was the original managing editor of The Reader, where some of his Thompson work has appeared.

As Thompson’s health declined, he talked suicide, but Simonson and others were surprised when he fatally shot himself in 2005. Simonson was among 250 invited guests at a surreal Owl Creek memorial celebration. In the shadow of a towering Gonzo statue, Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon. Booze ran freely. A film crew captured it all.

When not chasing literary dreams, Simonson manages a golf course in Fremont, where he directs a 5K mud run. He possesses much Thompson memorabilia (taped interviews, faxes, photos, keepsakes). His “most prized possession” is a Fear and Loathing first edition inscribed with a personal note by Thompson and an original caricature by illustrator and frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman.

Simonson feels fortunate he got close to Thompson and rues his loss.

“I feel really lucky. There’s definitely a void in the literary and even entertainment community with him gone. He definitely made a huge mark on the whole pop culture scene. I miss talking to him. It was always an event when he had a new release out.”

Thompson was not the only late literary giant with whom Simonson was acquainted.

The Simonson brothers, Kevin and Mark, brought literary star Kurt Vonnegut to lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1991. To their surprise, he readily agreed to an interview in a local strip club.

“Compared with Hunter, he [Vonnegut] was like hanging out with Mark Twain. He was funny and so easy to talk to,” Simonson says. His Vonnegut interview ran in the December 2016 issue of Hustler.

Visit facebook.com/conversationswithhuntersthompson to learn more about Simonson’s book. Visit 5kthehardway.com to learn about his (non-literary) work with Nebraska’s Mud Run.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Omaha Press Club

October 29, 2013 by
Illustration by Jim Horan

While other city clubs have closed in defeat, the Omaha Press Club marks its 42nd anniversary on the 22nd floor of the First National Center in Downtown Omaha.

Does the club stay open because of the spectacular view from windows stretching to the ceiling? The glowing copper fireplace? The food?

Executive Director Steve Villamonte explains the club’s durability, even through a recession: “There is something going on all the time. The club offers events from lunch-and-learn opportunities to wine dinners to holiday buffets.”

Retired WOWT newscaster Gary Kerr and his committee hold monthly educational events. Sports forums at noon feature such topics as Nebraska football and 
Creighton basketball.

Each year, journalists are inducted into the OPC Hall of Fame. Their names are engraved on a plaque in the club’s Hall of History. Among the first inducted in 2008 were Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown (read more on Brown), NBC-TV’s Floyd Kalber, and legendary radio sportscaster Lyell Bremser.

The OPC Foundation’s annual Omaha Press Club Show, which raises funds for journalism scholarships, will be held next year on April 3.

The space’s premier event is the ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ dinner. When the club’s restaurant opened in 1971, members decided to celebrate the people who give journalists something to write about. Walls are now covered with caricature drawings of 
newsmakers’ faces.

The satirical artwork by artist Jim Horan (full disclosure…yes, the author is Jim’s wife, and she also serves on the organization’s board) is presented in fun as friends roast the subject. A zinger directed to Larry the Cable Guy is a sample of the teasing that honorees endure: “I’m happy to say fame has not gone to his [Larry’s] head, only to his waistline.”

The most recent honoree was Omaha Magazine publisher Todd Lemke.

The first caricature was that of fun-loving Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy. Nebraska football coach Bob Devaney followed him in 1972. Also that year, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew dropped by the club to see his ‘Face.’

Agnew had a love-hate relationship with the press, whom he once famously described as “nattering nabobs of negativism.” So it was with tongues in cheek that Omaha Press Club officers named a private room at the club the “Spiro Agnew Room.”

Among other well-known ‘Faces’ hanging on the club’s walls are Bob Gibson, Chuck Hagel, Tom Osborne, and Johnny Carson.

Horan said that his drawing of Warren Buffett is his favorite because of the billionaire’s unruly hair: “Warren looked at his caricature the night he roasted Walter Scott at a ‘Face’ event and quipped, ‘I’ve got to rethink that 25 cent tip for my barber.’”

The disappearance of Buffett’s ‘Face on the Barroom Floor’ became national news in 2008. The New York Times and Forbes magazine were among media that published stories about the missing artwork. Omaha heaved a sigh of relief when the drawing was finally found.

On Sept. 9, the Lauritzen Room was dedicated to honor the First National Bank family that helped open the club 42 years ago.

“Without their continuing support,” Villamonte says, “it would have been difficult for us to succeed.”

From Lightbulb Sales to Magazine Tales

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Todd Lemke discovered the art of the deal as an eight-year-old growing up in Papillion. One day, his father, Raymond—who believed that allowances should be earned, not given—drove the family station wagon to the old Skaggs store and loaded up on dozens of discounted lightbulbs. When he got home, he got out a map of Papillion, divided it into three sectors (one for each of his children), and told his boys to fan out and sell the lightbulbs. Young Todd dutifully knocked on doors. The exchange with the homeowner would go something like this:

“Are you with the Boy Scouts?”

“No.”

“Are you with a church group?”

“No.”

“Well, who are you with?”

“Just myself.”

(Pause)

“Okay, show me what you have.”

More times than not, he sold a lightbulb.

In many ways, the bulbs shined a light on the path Lemke would take in the future. The youngster with a natural gift for sales became an adult with a knack for creative promotion. Just two years out of college, Lemke combined his skills and launched what would become Omaha Magazine.

Now celebrating its 30th year, Omaha Magazine remains at the top of its game, boasting 36,000 subscriptions—remarkable for a city this size. It’s sold at Barnes and Noble and other bookstores. Additionally, a copy of the publication can be found in every hotel room in the metropolitan area, reaching a half-million visitors to the Midlands per month.

Like many success stories, Omaha Magazine started humbly and underwent several transformations. Lemke, the owner and publisher, guided every stage.

“If you want to know what makes Omaha tick, then you have to know its people. And we do a better job talking about people than any other medium in town. It’s people, people, people, and then food. This town loves food.” – Todd Lemke, publisher

“I graduated from UNL in 1981 with a degree in journalism. I weighed my options and decided to sell homes,” Lemke deadpans, knowing his career choice came out of left field. He explains, “My mother and father sold real estate when I was growing up, and I got my real estate license in 1977 when I was still in high school.”

Lemke may have opted for sales, but he believed in the power of promotion. He advertised the custom-built homes in a weekly alternative newspaper called City Slicker and lured first-time homebuyers to view the models using a P.T. Barnum approach. Newlyweds Greg and Terese Bruns checked out Lemke’s block party one weekend.

“We went out there, and here is Todd dressed up in a clown suit,” says Bruns. “He had bands playing. He was handing out candy and balloons and pop. It was a carnival. And the next thing you know, we’re signing papers for a new house. That’s how we met.”

One day, the owners of City Slicker offered to sell the paper to Lemke. Flush with cash from his real estate deals, Lemke took them up on their offer. It was 1983.

“The first thing I did was turn City Slicker into a glossy, four-color magazine. I did that for three years,” says Lemke. But he discovered that the ad-buying community wanted a readership that was “past the party age.” So he literally dumped City Slicker one day and started another magazine the next day called Omaha Today, distributed free around town.

Seeking to stabilize his investment, Lemke went to a competitor who owned a monthly publication, Our City. It listed all the local shopping, eating, and entertainment hot spots. Lemke thought it would be a good merger “because he had a magazine that was in all the hotels.” The marriage went through in 1987. But there was still a missing piece to the puzzle.

“The name [Our City] didn’t do much for me,” says Bruns, who by this time was working with Lemke selling ads. “I mean, I’d call a business and say, ‘Hi, this is Greg Bruns from Our City,’ and they’d go, ‘Huh? Never heard of it.’ I said to Todd, ‘Why can’t we change this?’”

In 1989, Our City and Omaha Today became Omaha Magazine.

Magazines pulled from Omaha Publications' archives.

Magazines pulled from Omaha Publications’ archives.

“The name carried so much more meaning with people,” says Bruns, who soon became the vice president and Lemke’s business partner. “People became more willing to talk with me.”

As the ads increased, so did the content of the magazine. In addition to a thorough restaurant and entertainment guide, Omaha Magazine upped its profiles of people who make this community work.

“Over the course of 30 years, we have done thousands and thousands of great, positive people stories,” Lemke points out with pride. “If you want to know what makes Omaha tick, then you have to know its people. And we do a better job talking about people than any other medium in town. It’s people, people, people, and then food. This town loves food.”

The look of the magazine also sets it apart: thick, glossy, and beautifully photographed. An innovation that really put Omaha Magazine on the map is its annual “Best of Omaha™” edition.

“We started that in 1992,” says Bruns. “It’s absolutely huge and gets bigger every year.”

Lemke, an optimist by nature, says he wakes up every morning with ideas that he can’t wait to bounce off his editors, photographer, graphic designers, and sales staff. His business sense, however, has kept the ship afloat. He expanded his publishing business to include B2B Omaha, a business quarterly; The Encounter, a magazine focusesd on downtown; HerLiving, with articles devoted to women; Family Spectrum, featuring helpful stories on kids, education, and family; and the Old Market Directory, a guide to business and events in the historic district. Equally important, Lemke doesn’t shy away from innovation.

“Print publications have to embrace social media and the internet,” he says. “You can read all our magazines online, and we link everything.”

Lemke never forgets the lessons from long ago, when he sold lightbulbs door-to-door. He learned to look a customer in the eye. He learned to listen to what they had to say. For 30 years now, he’s been listening to what Omaha wants and needs—and chronicling it.

“I’m fortunate. I picked an occupation that I can do for a long time.”

Happy anniversary.

Brandi Petersen

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Growing up in Papillion, Brandi Petersen didn’t dream of becoming a television news anchor; she was interested in theatre and speech, and entered college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intending to study drama. But she quickly realized that a future in musical theatre was “not meant to be.” A class on the history of broadcasting inspired her passion for broadcast journalism, and after she switched majors, Petersen sought an internship at KETV in 2001 simply because her family had always watched that station’s newscasts.

“Our joke is that I kind of hung around long enough until I got a job; I just wouldn’t leave,” she says. “I had three internships and got very lucky that they took a chance on an intern…and it worked out very well for me.”

Petersen became a full-fledged reporter in 2003 and an anchor three years later. She says she has found many role models and even friends at KETV through the years, from the reporters who let her tag along on assignment during her earliest days as an intern to her current colleagues on both sides of the camera.

“People ask if we really get along that well,” Petersen says. “We’re very much like a family, and that sounds so cheesy, but all of our reporters and anchors and team members, we really bond very, very well.”

“We live here with you; we’re your neighbors. And we’re kind of the microphone for what you want to say.”

Her career highlights include interviewing President Obama (“It was really an experience having security sweep through twice and snipers on the roof of the building behind us,” she recalls) and Warren Buffett, and she was on-air during notable events such as the 2007 Westroads shooting and the 2008 tornado at Little Sioux Scout Ranch in western Iowa. Petersen says she credits not only experience, but also her high school drama training with helping her maintain composure on camera, and although she spends most of her time behind the news desk, she still enjoys reporting from the field.

“The great thing about this job is that you get to see and interview so many people,” she says. “Reporting is our first love. We’re storytellers.”

Petersen says she’s become accustomed to being recognized wherever she goes—“Are you the news girl?” is a common greeting often followed by, “You’re a lot taller than I thought you’d be!”—but she says people are nearly invariably nice to her when they meet her in public, and she strives to be polite and friendly in return.

“As an on-air journalist, you do need to remember that you’re in the public eye,” she says. “I don’t want to let people down.”

Petersen, whose son Easton was born in 2011, says the unusual work schedule associated with live evening broadcasts has meshed nicely with motherhood, especially since her husband, Brian Paul, a high school coach, works traditional hours. Easton smiles and claps when he sees her on TV, she reports, but adds with a laugh, “He does the same thing for Bill Randby and Jeremy Maskel.”

Petersen has watched broadcast journalism evolve to be more immediate and interactive with coverage available around the clock and through multiple means. But she says one thing hasn’t changed: she still loves her job.

“It’s great to work in the market where I grew up,” she says. “I think we’ve really built a reputation with our station…that we’re good, kind people. I hope that people pick up on that. We live here with you; we’re your neighbors. And we’re kind of the microphone for what you want to say.”