Recently, I attended the 8th annual reunion of folks who worked at the Nashville (Tenn.) Banner, a storied (no pun meant) afternoon daily that folded in 1998. I left the Banner in 1987 after five years as a reporter and editorﾑI changed careers by going into public relations. As it happened, Rex Hammock hired me at that other company. Aug. 31, was the 19th anniversary of my first day working with Rex (I’m going on 13 years here, so do the math). We worked together for about four years before he started Hammock Publishing, and here are some recollections of that era:
The office was a remodeled car wash on 8th Avenue South. Itﾕs still there. When they opened it, they threw a party with invitations printed on hand-size highly compressed sponges, and everyone who came got a red plastic bucket and a towel. I still have my bucket.
Guys wore suits or coats and ties, except for the designers. Women wore dresses or suits and whatever kinds of shoes they wear with that kind of an outfit.
Our computers were the tiny Apple Classicsﾑif you visit Hammock Publishing today, you will find a couple still going, displaying the vintage black and white aquarium screensaver. In 1987, there was no email, no Internet as we know it today, and no CompuServe, Prodigy or AOL available to us. When I left that company in late 1993, two years after Hammock Publishing started, the company had a CompuServe account, and you had to get permission to use it.
I had left the Nashville Banner newspaper, where we worked on computer terminals that were tied into a mainframe. During the couple of weeks I took off before starting in PR, Rex let me have one of the Apples to play with. It came in a bag that was about the size of a cooler ﾐ you had to carry a keyboard, too, of course. That was all the training I ever had, or needed.
We did have a primitive internal network eventually that let us move files around. There was a rudimentary interoffice email or messaging system, that didnﾕt always work.
Rex, however, was already looking into the Internet. So his interest goes way back, and when he started Hammock Publishing, everyone had access and was encouraged to use it. What we take for granted today in finding images and writers and so on, was heady stuff in those days.
Cell phones were huge and hugely expensive. Our VP drove off one day with the office cell phone ﾐ yes, that is right, the office cell phone ﾐ on top of his car. It was never heard from again.
Of course, no PDAs or Treos or anything like that. Lots of Franklin Covey DayRunners. Those of you who know him, just pause for a moment and imagine, if you can, an unwired Rexﾉ
Our PR clients were mostly also clients of our advertising agency parent company. We did a lot of press release and event stuff, along with custom publishing. Eventually it was about half and half. Advertising, public relations and custom publishing do not all play by the same rules and expectations, which created some tension.
I started out as an account executive. After a while, the editorial director left, and I gratefully accepted the offer to fill that post. I still had to wear coat and tie. I still have some of the ties and two pair of Johnston-Murphy wingtips I bought around 1990 for the job.
Rex and I had met before, when he was the press guy for a former Nashville Congressman. After he started his PR career, I ran into him doing consumer intercepts on the street taste tests for New Coke. When we worked together at the PR firm, we had some unusual uh, opportunities. He and I once visited the Savannah River Nuclear Plant in S.C. (ﾒPrince of Tidesﾓ territory) for a DuPont spinoff company that made a herbicide-laced industrial fabric it claimed could keep roots from invading radioactive waste burial sites for many years. A good thing, unless you want your geraniums to be as tall and mean as Godzilla.
The same fabric was also marketed to the cemetery industry as a protective covering for burial vaults and coffins, thus earning it our internal nickname, ﾒCasket Gasket.ﾓ I sent a story about it to a cemetery mangement trade magazine, and, when I followed up a couple weeks later to see if they would use it, was told the editor had ﾒpassed.ﾓ So, too, did the idea of capturing that market.
Although we no longer do traditional public relations, a lot of what we do in publishing today goes back to that time, in terms of how we think about stories and design and reader relationships. I can’t begin to count the number of times over 19 years I’ve heard Rex quote Osmo Wiio’s commentaries on communication, on how to approach communication. Ultimately, the quality and integrity of our work has to be strong enough to stand on its own, and we have to serve the readers interests.
The Rex we know today is very much the Rex of 19 years ago, with the wisdom (and scars) of building several businesses on a foundation of creativity, inspiration, fun and treating everyone with respect and decency.
He even kept his office at 50 degrees back then.