Attack of the Moans 

New Spectator boss has big plans, but tough times, the Net, and a rival's lawsuit threaten to sink the local highbrow sex tabloid.

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.

She'd had enough of the stage anyhow. "I wasn't really enjoying stripping anymore," says the 5-foot-2 editrix. When you strip, "you think you have power but you don't control anything." After being fined $150 for refusing to shave her pelt onstage, she quit for good. As her next move, in 1998, Dahl scored a job working on the Nerve.com site for a company called LinkTank -- where she soon became a Web-coding whiz. When she heard the Spectator was looking for Web assistance, she jumped at the opportunity.

Before long, Dahl was both Spectator Web guru and advertising sales director. "Their ad director back then wasn't cutting it," she says, "and they were having a lot of trouble with the department, so I took over because they had no one else to do it. They were $30,000 in debt, and I managed to recover $23,000 of the debt within two months." After that, Dahl could do no wrong with her bosses. Within two years after taking over as Web mistress, the one couple bought out the other. "They were getting older," Dahl says with a girlish laugh. "In your 60s, your sex drive starts to go down. It becomes a lot less interesting than golfing and gardening."

Sunlove can live with that. "I'm thrilled that Dara and Vann took over," she says. "They understand what the Spectator is all about. I just hope they can make it through the hard times, because their heart is definitely in the right place."

Now that Dahl and Hall are in charge, they have begun to give the paper a makeover, and they plan to redo its Web site to match the new print version. This month, the tabloid is rolling out several new San Francisco distribution points in addition to all its East Bay racks. The Spectator, which has annual sales "just shy of a million," according to Hall, has never fully been able to crack the SF market, due in part to high rates of newsstand vandalism. But the couple is desperate to show San Franciscans their new look, which is aimed at young urbanites.

The planned redesign, they hope, will reveal a hipper, more stylized version of the old paper -- one recent cover, for instance, featured an illustration of a busty she-devil by renowned rock-poster artist Coop, and the paper's tagline has changed from "California's Original Adult Newsmagazine" to "The Voice of Erotic San Francisco." The redesign, Hall says, will have more coverage of the local scene and sex events, with a new look for calendar and news pages, and longer and more in-depth articles. "I'm really trying to change the focus," says Dahl. "It's been very porn-centric, and I'm trying to change that."

Don't expect to see articles on the Middle East conflict; the magazine will always be about sex, Dahl says, but perhaps a bit less "in your face." Consider the March issue, in which well-known Bay Area erotica photographer David Steinberg reviews Emily White's Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the High-School Slut with heartfelt aplomb. Another recent piece by Bay Area sex writer Carol Queen lightheartedly explored how the antics of attorneys in the notorious San Francisco dog-mauling case have hurt the image of perverts everywhere. "There are so many unique sexual events in the Bay Area that influence the world that are crying out to be covered, like an all-female strip club for women," Dahl says. "That's a pretty revolutionary thing, and that's the kind of topic we like to get into at the Spectator."If the new sexual revolution involves women taking over pornography and giving it a touch of class, Dahl is somewhere at the forefront. But that position could be threatened by Yank's recent lawsuit, which names the new owners, the old ones, and quite a few other folks to boot.

The considerably larger competitor has more than a hundred newsstands around San Francisco, while most of the Spectator's racks are in the East Bay. Vandalism of these racks, which has plagued both papers, has been central to a bitter longtime feud between them, with each side blaming the other for the destruction. "Yank has been working towards this day for years, since we came to realize it was Spectator who had been destroying our news racks with unbelievable viciousness throughout the Bay Area," Moreno proudly trumpets on Yank.com. "Agents" of the Spectator, he continues, have "added Los Angeles to the areas it is determined to destroy Yank in, taking their vandalism, theft, and obsession with Yank statewide."

Dahl and Hall say they are shaken by the suit -- the cost of fighting it, they admit, could threaten their survival. Still, they are confident they'll be cleared in court. "I have signed affidavits and a video showing him destroying our racks," sighs Dahl. "We have written conciliatory letters to him to no avail, and right now we are an East Bay paper primarily because of our ongoing feud with Yank. We have a 100 percent vandalism rate of our newsstands in San Francisco.

"I just want to run my business, and nothing is going to stop me from running my business and my right to commerce," she adds defiantly. "I wish he would just be man enough to compete in a professional manner."

Bob Miller, who co-owns the Bay Area adult escort-massage listings service Lovings.com, has advertised heavily in both papers. He sees them as having unique markets within the local porn industry and was surprised to hear about the suit. "I think the audiences that they are going after are completely different," he says. "I think Yank is a bit more hard-core and targets tourists near hotels, while the Spectator is more of a politically aware paper for locals."

Dahl agrees that the papers appeal to different elements. She looks forward to putting the suit behind her and get on with gettin' it on. "San Francisco and the East Bay are more than big enough for two adult newspapers -- especially two totally divergent papers," she says. "Let the best paper win at the newsstand level."

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