Dara Lynne Dahl, editor-in-chief of the Spectator, is wearing an extremely short skirt. Actually, it's not a skirt at all, but an outrageous mini made of Saran wrap and duct tape. "This," laughs the 27-year-old brunette, leaning up against her desk in the publication's Emeryville digs, "is going to be a bitch to take off!" And you thought your office dress code was casual. Welcome to the latest era of California's oldest adult tabloid.
The new editor and her longtime boyfriend and business partner W. Vann Hall, who together purchased the local porn weekly from its founders in January, hope that era will be a long one, but the prospect seems less than promising at the moment. As it stands, the pair has bought into the publishing industry during the worst business climate in recent memory: After peaking in 2000, total sales of magazine advertising pages fell back to pre-1998 levels last year, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. And many print publications -- Talk, Mademoiselle, Brill's Content, and The Industry Standard, to name just a few -- have recently called it quits.
Within the porn sector, publications have faced tremendous competition from the Internet -- even the empire of Penthouse owner Bob Guccione Jr. has been bleeding cash. And while Dahl and her partner have big dreams for their adopted baby, they can't afford to alienate their aging subscriber base -- the new owners estimate a monthly readership of 35,000 and say that the paper's own Web site, Spectator.net, gets 12,000 unique visitors daily. Hall, a soft-spoken 42-year-old, makes light of the couple's challenges. "We took over a paper that was rapidly going out of business and turned it into a paper failing at a more leisurely pace," he says.
Unfortunately for the new owners, that pace may no longer be leisurely. Last month, longtime rival Yank, a San Mateo-based porn tabloid, sued the Spectator alleging unfair competition, interference with business advantage, slander, and conversion. Translated into English, this means Yank owner David Moreno is accusing the Spectator of methodically vandalizing his news racks, a charge reciprocated by Dahl and Hall. Whoever is in the right, the suit comes at the worst possible time for the venerable East Bay porn publication, and threatens to stymie the hopes of its new owners. "This lawsuit is exactly what we don't need at the moment," Hall laments.
If Yank's lawsuit were to sink the Spectator, it would end a colorful local legacy that has lasted nearly a quarter century. The first issue, which came out in 1978, was not a stand-alone, but a twenty-page insert in the Berkeley Barb, a local underground paper. After the Barb folded in the summer of 1980 due to lack of revenues, the Spectator went solo, managing to scrape up enough cash from its less-than-mainstream advertisers -- escorts, massage parlors, and strip clubs -- to keep the presses running.
The paper was originally run by another young couple whose names, Penny "Kat" Sunlove and Layne Winklebleck, were as memorable as the paper's racy content. The pair sought to mold the Spectator as a porn publication for literate men -- less gross than most, and more humanistic. The idea was a radical departure from many of the lowbrow raunch rags then on the market, which treated sex as mere filth. The Spectator tended to take a healthier view of the subject, with articles on transsexual, bisexual, and polyamorous lifestyles in addition to the standard smut.
The tabloid also began sponsoring monthly salons where porn stars, writers, photographers, and even professors would all get together to talk about sex. The salons, which became all the rage in some circles during the '80s, continue to this day. "When I first moved to San Francisco from LA," says Dahl, "I was so amazed by the Spectator. It was really different than most sex rags like the LA Express or Yank ... it actually had articles I wanted to read."
Indeed, the Spectator sometimes even delved into the political realm. During the 1980s, while most mainstream media outlets and then-President Reagan were ignoring the issue, the paper was a vocal advocate of AIDS education. Sunlove and Winklebleck, now married, were also vociferous defenders of free speech, and active in battling conservative forces seeking to clamp down on the porn industry. "I miss those days," sighs Sunlove, who now lives near Folsom. A fiftysomething grandmother, the ex-pornmistress is now more interested in gardening and her continuing work as a lobbyist for the nonprofit Free Speech Coalition.
Dara Dahl has an unusual résumé for an editor-in-chief, boasting such titles as erotic dancer and nude bungee jumper. In fact, it was through her career as a stripper that she first became closely acquainted with the paper. As a dancer at Déjà Vu in the mid-'90s, Dahl was already a Spectator fan. "They contacted me about being on the cover and I said, 'Hell yes!' " she recalls. Of course, going from cover model to editor is hardly a lateral move. It took four years of editorial toil for Dahl to climb to the top of the masthead.
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