Buffalo Spree's 50th / A Salute to Larry Levite
Publisher, CEO, and Chairman of Fun
Buffalo Spree staff, 2016
Photo by kc kratt
A salute from Larry’s team
In planning the fiftieth anniversary issue, nobody on the Spree staff could have imagined that it would contain a posthumous interview with publisher/CEO Larry Levite. In early March, Spree writer Nancy J. Parisi made the initial suggestion that interviews with staff be part of the June issue’s anniversary content. All six interviews and portrait sessions—with Larry and the five Spree vice presidents—took place between March 27 and March 31. The interviews are all upbeat, with staffers happily remembering over ten years of progress, not just with this magazine but with all of the Buffalo Spree Publishing products and projects.
This sense of accomplishment now carries a bittersweet edge. Larry became ill in mid-April and passed on his birthday, April 26. In the flood of recognition and remembrance that followed his death, many in the Western New York media world commended Larry’s accomplishments in the world of local radio, particularly with his successful ownership (from 1978 to 1994) of WBEN AM/FM. Others focused on his personal attributes: his humor, his generosity, his booming voice, his love of large stuffed animals, and his unofficial title, Chairman of Fun. For the Spree staff, including all who are quoted in the following pages, Larry is, without exception, the best boss any of them has ever had. Spree’s anniversary celebrations will not be the same without him, but they will continue, just as Buffalo Spree Publishing continues, as Larry’s ultimate legacy. We are grateful for the support of the Levite family, including Larry's wife, Sharon, and his sons, Josh and Adam.
Photo by Nancy J. Parisi
How many years have you been at Spree?
Nineteen years. I purchased the magazine at the end of 1998, our first year began in December of 1998, but I say 1999. The magazine was founded in 1967.
Can you share what a publisher does, what you do at Spree?
Day-to-day, I have no responsibilities; I don’t manage the managers. They have a lot of leeway, they’re all experienced and I trust them all. They will come to me more than I go to them for advice; that’s not my way—to look over their shoulders. I try to look at the bottom line and figure out how we can make our products better without spending a ton of money. I’m lucky to have a group of eight women senior staff, and I trust them. Without my staff, as I’ve told my friends—and them—many times, there's nothing. They’re the best. I am not the smartest kid on the block, but the one true talent that I have is that I have a sixth sense for hiring people who are really good, or I can see that they will be really good. Elizabeth [page 78] didn’t know anything about being an editor in chief, but she is smart and savvy, and I knew that she could do it—and she did. I used to be a singer, I took lessons, but I’m no Pavarotti. Either you are or you aren’t. Maybe someone can be a better singer with lessons, but Pavarotti was just born that way—he was born with his talent. I recognize my limitations and what I can do on my own. As a matter of fact, I don’t make major decisions at Spree; I will consult the staff—and my friends and colleagues. It’s an interesting business, everyone knows us because of Spree, but we have other products: custom publications, a senior publication, special events, and more. It’s all exciting.
What changes have taken place at the magazine in the past nineteen years?
We are not looking for gossip, and we don’t do news; we do interviews with interesting people in the community. We do sexy, fun-to-read stories about Buffalo and Western New York. We are not a daily newspaper that has to do the good, the bad, and the ugly. We love reviewing restaurants, but we only do good—or great—reviews of restaurants. A newspaper sometimes reviews a restaurant and they give it a bad review; that’s their job. We are not critics in that sense. We write about the best of what Western New York has to offer. Most glossy, full-color city magazines like Spree do it that same way—like us, they write about the fun stuff. And it’s timeless. You could reread a story from 2013, and that person who was written about is still interesting. Computers have changed our lives, too. When we send the magazine now to the printers, we just press a button and off it goes as a PDF; we don’t have a delivery person bringing 150 pages to the printers. Our job is a little harder in Buffalo than it would be in a larger market like Chicago, for example, because of all that happens in a larger city like that. But I’m always surprised by how much really goes on here; we have an amazing number of fun places to go and interesting people in this community. We never run out of topics, even after going from four times to six times a year, then eight, then ten, and now twelve.
How will you celebrate this big anniversary?
We are having a big party at Hotel Henry; it’ll be a combination of our much-loved Best Of party and a fiftieth birthday celebration. It’ll be bigger and more fun. This is actually our special anniversary issue, but I suspect the average reader or the average Western New Yorker doesn’t care as much as we do about our anniversary. That’s the nature of anniversaries.
Associate Publisher, Editor-in-Chief
What year did you join Spree?
What changes have you made, or seen, since you joined the company?
What hasn’t changed? The magazine was still transitioning from a literary publication to the city/regional template when I came on, and I had to make that transition happen, working with Larry and our tiny (at that time) creative team. And then, over the years, everything has changed in some way; our content has refocused in so many different ways—we keep adding departments and getting rid of other departments. And we have moved three times.
Our audience has changed. Our audit numbers show that we have a younger audience now than when I started. City/regional magazines have always been reader-service publications, but now they have to pay much more attention to digital and social media presences. I wrote a piece in 2001 about the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus; they were planning on one new building and, since that time, we have seen six or seven distinctive institutions added. Now, it is truly a campus; it was not in 2001, and Canalside didn't exist. What has remained the same is most of the staff. People stay here.
Can you share with readers what it is that you do at your Spree job?
Like everyone, I spend a lot of time answering emails. Overall, I plan a year's worth of issues and then I execute that plan, which means assigning stories to writers, copyediting that material, planning photo shoots and spreads, and working with Chastity [page 79] on the designs. I also work with marketing and sales to support their hard work and help plan and promote all our projects. And I still write a lot of the content.
How will you celebrate Spree’s fiftieth anniversary?
Anniversaries are just numbers, and, because of what Spree is, we are celebrating the fact that we’ve been able to survive and cover the changes in the community as long as we have. In fact, Spree is barely twenty-years-old as an real city/regional magazine—but any excuse to celebrate is a good one.
Are there any standout stories, issues, or happenings?
I love the music issue that we did with Ron Ehmke as guest editor. And I love the film issue that Chris Schobert guest edited. I’m really a geek—I love doing historic timelines, and many of our issues featured those, including the music issue and April’s Polish issue. I'd have to say that the main standout is that I've always loved my job. Not everyone can say that.
Associate Publisher/Senior Vice President, Advertising
How long have you worked at Spree?
Eighteen years! I started in September of 1999, in sales. Three months later, Larry and his partner made me vice president of the company, and then, many years later, associate publisher. I’m very proud of that. Eighteen years is a really long time, but when you have the opportunity to work with such an amazing boss and group of people, you build a family. Spree has always felt like a second home to me!
What does an associate publisher do?
My primary responsibility is sales, keeping the company solvent. I work with the most amazing sales team of twelve, some of whom have also been with the company for eighteen years. We have the opportunity to go into the marketplace and build long-term relationships and friendships that keep our magazine not only thriving but current and relevant. I also work on the business side of the company, working on the printing and planning, consulting with Larry when decisions need to be made. We are all so lucky to have the opportunity to be part of Larry’s little empire.
What changes have you seen at Spree since 1999?
So many changes, almost too numerous to mention, but what stands out to me the most is the content and the artwork in the magazine—they have gone from beautiful to spectacular.
People talk about the information we provide and the beautiful photography that we feature on a regular basis, and we’re so proud of that. The Spree staff has been around a long time, and that is very unusual in our business; we are a true family, from the editors to the art department to the production staff to the sales and marketing team—we make our decisions together. We have also succeeded at bringing in the younger reader, but have kept our older ones as well. It’s a unique ability to be able to keep the old, bring on the new, and provide everyone with what they are looking for.
How should this Spree milestone be celebrated?
Fifty years is a milestone in any business, especially today. We know how important it is to value the clients and the readers always, not just when a milestone comes along, but we always look for a reason for a great party. We’re going to have it in July, the celebration of celebrations, our birthday party at the Richardson Complex (Hotel Henry). It will be the biggest “Best of WNY” party ever! I hope everyone in WNY joins us for this amazing event! And of course, the best way to celebrate our anniversary is to look forward with great anticipation to the next fifty.
Senior Vice President/Creative Director
How long have you been at Spree?
Since April 1, 2000, so seventeen years. I walked in for an internship, was hired as a designer, and quickly became art director.
What is it like to create the look and feel of Spree and to see your artwork on newsstands all over WNY?
It’s exciting, and extremely gratifying, but it’s something that only I know—unless people open the magazine and ask, “Who designed this cover?” It’s fun, too, because I get to pick who will be highlighted on the cover; I can feel like nobody knows about a certain restaurant and they should, and give them exposure by featuring them on the cover. I do run covers by Elizabeth [Spree’s editor], but Larry leaves us to do what we do. I come up with the concept, and k.c. [Spree photographer k.c. kratt] makes it happen. I usually always do a sketch, how I envision it, and I bring the drawing with me to the photo shoot. A successful cover makes you stop in the magazine aisle at a store and decide you have to go for Italian tonight! When we feature people on the cover, they’re real Buffalo people, always, not models, never stock photography. For our Polish issue, I chose a restaurant from my childhood; I wanted to also feature krupnik (Polish honey liqueur) because it’s big for the Polish community. The cover included golumpki, it made the cut because it’s red, our logo color.
Is there a cover or an issue that stands out as a favorite?
Not really, but each one does have a story, like December 2011. The guy who wore the Sabretooth outfit acts exactly like Sabretooth does at the games. A great bonus with the covers is that I get to meet someone new each issue. I get to learn about or meet really cool people in Buffalo, find out about a restaurant dish that I have to have, or I see places that I think my husband and kids should experience. Because of my job, I believe they are exposed to really great things.
Any other, special Spree memories that you care to share?
I met my husband at a photo shoot for one of the Eligibles [Spree’s features on local singles] covers. My best friend’s husband is a mailman, and I asked her if she knew any blue collar workers, any firemen, policemen, or mailmen, to include. She said, “I have the perfect guy who’ll do it.” And he did. I convinced him to also be in the bachelor auction for charity that year, and, in between that cover shoot and the auction, we started dating. Of course, I had to buy him at the auction. I think I bid $1,000. He was worth it, and I was happy that a large part of my work family attended my wedding.
You spend more time with your work family than your actual family; we’re all very close. I’m very thankful. Larry is a one-of-a-kind boss.
Vice President, Production
What year did you join the Spree staff?
I joined the Spree staff on February 19, 2001.
What does your job entail?
When I was hired, I was the traffic coordinator. I am the conduit between the advertising and art departments.
I process all of the ads for all of BSP's publications. I log in ads, noting what needs to be worked on and which ads are repeats—they've run before. I look at the camera-ready ads that come in from advertising agencies and then assist the sales reps who come to me asking for help on their ads to make them beautiful. I might suggest adding a tagline, or using a different photo. I work on all the programs, our annual publications–like The Medical Resource Guide and Senior Directory. I also work on the custom publishing: Jewish Journal of Western New York, Forever Young, playbills for Rochester and Buffalo. And I work on the Rochester magazine, (585). We have a custom publishing division that does things for clients like the aquarium, and an example of what I might do for that is suggest designing a logo to be used on merchandise.
How do you keep all of that organized?
With the software that I use; back in the day, it was spreadsheets.
How should Spree's fiftieth anniversary be celebrated?
Spree's golden anniversary should be celebrated with style and grace—just like the magazine. Nowadays, everyone says that print is dead, so celebrating the magazine's fiftieth anniversary is a huge accomplishment.
What changes have you seen over the years at Spree?
When I started at the magazine, my son Aaron was in elementary school, and now I have my second son; I'm starting our fiftieth anniversary year with being a mom again with Noah, my baby.
Also, when we started, there was no digital edition of the magazine. Another big change over the years was we used to have multilayer forms to track ads. Now, with the software, there are no forms, or questions about advertising prices. No one has to ask—or explain—that an advertising price came off of a certain ad rate card. The other big change is that now we are actually in Buffalo, not the suburbs. There is more volume with what we do, and what I do in my job, but the software that we use has streamlined the process. We once had to print out paper proofs of the magazine, and now we go through the magazine digitally; that's how we now note and make changes to the pages, and how we deliver the issue to the printer.
Do you have any predictions for the future of Spree?
More, more, more!
Vice President, Administrative and Finance Director
When did you begin working at Spree?
February of 2005.
What do you do?
I make sure that all the bills are paid, that we are paid, and that the office runs the way it should run. Basically, I’m human resources and accounting rolled into one.
What changes have you witnessed in Spree, the magazine business, and the community?
We’ve moved offices three times since I’ve been here, from Sheridan to Maple to Elmwood. The magazine went from publishing six times a year to ten to now twelve. The content has changed; the magazine was really thin back then and was more of a fashion magazine—it wasn’t heavy on content. Elizabeth puts a lot of work into the magazine and has changed it a lot since she’s become the editor: the magazine encompasses what’s going on in the entire region. Chastity also picks really great covers, and there are many more pictures and beautiful layouts. Now, we help our readers understand our point of view, the points of view of our writers, and those of the people in the community.
Can you share any standout memories or is there anything that you’d like to share about your work at Spree?
I’d like to say that Spree is just a really great place to work. We are a very small staff; there are twenty-eight of us in-house, and three people in Rochester. We all get along. We hang outside of work together and we’ve become friends and family. Larry is wonderful, a really good boss; he’s very supportive of our ideas. And there are so many nice things that he does, like letting us go home at 3 p.m. on Fridays in the summer, or if it’s someone’s birthday, he might say ‘Let’s leave at two today.” There are nice perks to being here; most other companies don’t have that. In the past I would work somewhere for three years and move on, but I’ve been here twelve years and I’m never bored—it’s not a boring job. It’s the people at Spree—we all want to make it as successful as we can.