Magazine eschews punk rock for `serious' teen talk

THINK of yourself as a pioneer,'' wrote editor Andrew Calkins to Gary Boone, a reader of TeenAge magazine from Temple Hills, Md. ``You're part of a great experiment -- an experiment to produce an intelligent magazine for intelligent teen-agers, a magazine that treats teen-agers like adults.'' And, he might have added, where a number of the writers are teen-agers themselves.

Visiting the editorial offices of TeenAge magazine in its rambling, ramshackle, 19th-century industrial mill building here, you do get the impression that you are in on an experiment -- something quite new, untried, and even a bit adventurous.

The entire staff, including editors, writers, and design directors, is under 30. And a significant portion are in their teens or early 20s -- high school and college interns who, during four-month stints on the magazine, bring a vital firsthand approach to the articles they research and write for a teen-age audience.

The publication, which was founded in 1982 and has a circulation of 140,000, is slim, slick, and lively in its design. It is published nine times a year and sold mostly through subscriptions ($12 a year, $1.50 per issue).

``The reasons for employing such young writers are partly altruistic and partly selfish,'' says Mr. Calkins, who is 28. ``We wanted to give talented young people a chance to have a forum that would publish their work nationally in a respectable magazine. But also, by having them here we're better able to keep in touch with what's going on in the minds of 18-year-olds.''

Response from experts in the field of juvenile literature has been enthusiastic. Dorothy Broderick, managing editor of Voice of Youth Advocates, a publication for educators and librarians who work with teen-agers, is a TeenAge subscriber. ``They're doing a very fine job,'' says Dr. Broderick. ``The entire magazine has a very good tone to it -- it's a classy production.''

The name TeenAge clearly identifies the magazine's audience -- it is aimed primarily at 14- to 20-year-old male students -- but it falls somewhat short of conveying its sophisticated, no-nonsense, provocative style.

In seeking its true identity, TeenAge has gone through periods in which it emphasized the ``heavy metal'' punk-rock scene. But this image attracted readers younger than the older teen-agers it sought, and the cover stories featuring such rock groups as M"otley Cr"ue have given way to shots of Jerry (the Beaver) Mathers and the stars of the science-fiction movie ``Dune.''

The male orientation of TeenAge is immediately apparent. There is not a single lipstick, nail polish, or shampoo ad in the book. A regular computer article is one of the most popular features. But since teen-age boys tend to read less than teen-age girls, the male/female readership ratio is still about 60/40 in favor of the girls.

According to Vidar Jorgensen, founder and publisher of TeenAge, ``Girls will read a guy's magazine, but the reverse is really not that true. My instinct is that if we get too many cosmetic ads, we'll lose that male readership, and then we'll be out of our niche.''

And the magazine is still searching for the best way to handle sensitive topics. October's issue featured a fairly explicit article entitled ``Understanding the subtleties of sex.'' In January, however, there was a rethinking of the form and tone such pieces should have, and Calkins says, ``We would probably handle it differently now.''

`We still feel a responsibility to provide information on sex,'' he says, ``but we have to draw the line when it looks like we're condoning something.'' Contrary to his letter to Gary Boone, Mr. Calkins says he does not feel that teen-agers should always be treated like adults. If the magazine seeks to be adult, he insists, it is definitely not in the sense of so-called ``adult'' or sexually explicit movies or literature.

How does TeenAge differ from such youth magazines as Seventeen, Young Miss, or Boy's Life? A glance at a few recent issues tells the story. The latter abound with such features as ``When your boyfriend gets moody,'' and ``Another McEnroe on the rise.''

Although these traditional teen magazines also handle more serious issues -- a recent piece in Seventeen was entitled, ``Are teens really turning to religion?'' and an article headlined ``Acquaintance rape'' appeared in Young Miss -- their overall tone emphasizes beauty, fashion, and romance for the girls, and adventure, mystery, and sports for boys.

The emphasis in TeenAge is different. Recent issues include articles on cults, family violence, and the offspring of interracial marriages, as well as detailed guides to colleges, practical advice on getting part-time jobs, and profiles of young entrepreneurs. And all these articles were written by student interns.

``It's extremely useful to have people around who can tell you what's happening in teen-age life right now,'' says assistant editor Nancy Rourke, who at 27 is one of the old-timers on the staff.

Has the staff been able to gauge the effect on readers of addressing serious, thought-provoking issues?

``By and large,'' says Calkins, ``it's almost always the serious feature that readers turn to first. After the one on family violence, we were getting letter after letter from kids who would say, `I had no idea that other people had this kind of problem, and it was such a comfort and a support for me to read about that. Thank you, thank you.' Those are the best moments in editing a magazine like this.''

All reactions to the magazine's treatment of such issues, however, have not been so positive. A mother in Michigan wrote an irate letter last November canceling her daughter's subscription. ``One reason for this action is the questionable subject material,'' she wrote. ``Modern teen-agers have enough turmoil and difficulty in their lives.''

Calkins sees the fact that teen-agers are now forced to confront serious issues as one of the major challenges facing youth today. But he feels it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of the ``accelerated growth'' this forced sophistication produces.

``Teen-agers these days are having to think about a range of subjects and problems that are much more complex than the kinds of topics that were on the minds of teen-agers in the '50s,'' he says.

He sees his magazine as providing a particularly supportive forum for teens that they might not find elsewhere.

``When we touch on problems that they have trouble talking about, either with peers or parents or teachers, that puts TeenAge in a place that's not occupied by anything or anybody else in their lives. That's a great feeling, and also a great responsibility for us.'' -- 30 {et

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