December 4, 2010

Enough About Elephant Let’s Talk About You: an Interview with Waylon Lewis. ~ Brian Kimmel

An Interview with Waylon Lewis, founder and Editor-in-Chief of Elephant Journal and Walk the Talk Show Host.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Waylon Lewis at Espresso Roma, a café on University Hill in Boulder, Colorado.

I am an undergraduate, Interdisciplinary Major at Naropa University. The only way he’d agree to an interview, which I requested as part of an assignment for Civic Engagement Class, is if we could publish the interview in some fashion on Elephant Journal.

Why did I want to interview an arrogant, tree-hugging prick like Waylon Lewis? I have a thing for locally grown independents who want to change the world and love the world as it is.

Brian: I’m recording now, would you like to say when there is something you don’t want me to publish…

Waylon: If I’m hiding anything I’d appreciate the opportunity to stop hiding it.

Brian: Let’s start with what you already started with: tell us about Elephant Journal and what you’d like your readers to know, what they don’t already know.

Waylon: I think I just—uh, I’d say that I was brought up in Boulder here, in the Buddhist Community. My parents were students of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Chogyam Trungpa is the founder of Naropa [a private, Buddhist-inspired University in Boulder, Colorado.] Growing up, that training in Buddhism, you know, you vow to be of benefit to all sentient beings. And that’s a lot of beings..!

There is a lot of suffering in the world. Even in a supposedly healthy, happy place like Boulder, people are frequently emotionally miserable. [And] obviously there is a lot of environmental devastation going on [everywhere]. In Buddhism it’s called the dark ages right now; there is a lot of suffering. So how to alleviate that.

Some people choose to try to deal with [suffering] through entering a religious path and practicing [meditation, prayer, yoga etc]. Some people try and alleviate suffering through forming a non-profit that feeds starving people or houses homeless people. Some people try to form for-profit businesses that has a good cause built into them.

A couple of years ago as part of our talk show, I interviewed Lester Brown, who’s one of my heroes. He’s an environmental kind of wonk in Washington, D.C. He advises countries and is a practical kind of environmentalist. He said that the world is basically fucked (pardon my French)—and he’s a positive guy—so coming from him it carried a lot of weight.

He said however that the key to saving the world would be media. Communication or education. By that time I had already been publishing Elephant [as a magazine] for five or six years so personally, that was my view. You see [the effect of education, or lack thereof] all the time.

There’s a lot of Islamaphobia in the news right now. That’s not bad people who are hating Muslims, that’s just ignorance. Most of them don’t know Muslims…it’s just ignorance, ignorance, ignorance, ignorance. So the more you can educate—hopefully in a fun and engaging way that people will actually pay attention to—the better.

So, Elephant was a magazine for six years, we went nationally after four and were sold in Whole Foods and [places] like that. But the distribution of magazines is incredibly hypocritical, it’s incredibly un-environmentally friendly. You only sell two or three copies out of 10. And that’s after they get milled and shipped. We were printing on recycled paper and all that but it was still—you know, soy ink is still pretty bad…it’s better than petroleum ink—but still, they’re shipped around the country six times, and magazines are really heavy they’re trucked then, they have to be re-recycled, and seven out of 10 don’t get sold.

I was making pretty decent money. Not great, but decent—enough to grow. And for two years I tried to figure out how to create our own independent distribution network. I basically discovered that it’s too much work. It would have taken a big investment financially to create that network. So I made a tough choice at the end of six years of publishing the magazine to go on-line, 100%.

I basically didn’t pay myself for two years, nearly lost my house, gave up my staff. I gave up my car, which I was happy to do anyway. It’s been a really long, painful, horrible two years where I’ve been really humbled and basically got my ass kicked. Even when Elephant was doing well I was too busy and too overwhelmed and stressed to be able to travel and enjoy life or take a vacation. I probably haven’t taken a weekend, really, more than one or two days for—you know—eight years or something…yeah. Which is how long Elephant‘s been around.

So now after two years of being online we’ve won a bunch of awards. We won number one in the whole country for Twitter coverage of green or environmental content. Our Facebook page is huge. We get more traffic from Facebook than from Google. Facebook is really taking over as the best, the biggest way people get their news or their information or their entertainment online. It’s become the gateway to New York Times and all these things.

I think that’s basically it. We’re online. It’s been a long, hard process. It’s been important for me to stay independent. I had several offers to get investment and money—that would have made life easier. You know, help me save my house and things like that. But my feeling is that I’m just not that good with authority and that if someone gives you a couple million bucks they may say that they’re a silent investor, but in reality if I posted something edgy or controversial, which we do all the time, they might get uncomfortable. Which is fine, but I don’t want any backseat drivers.

I get up in the morning so inspired to work. Even though it’s really hard, I’m still—I love what I do. I’m doing exactly what I care about. And hopefully what I’m good at.

Brian: How many people are on your staff now?

Waylon: No one really. I have four part-time people. An accountant. Two web-designers—one of them is 100% volunteer. I found him through Twitter. He lives in Scotland. I have one editor, she’s the only day-to-day staff person I have and she works 10-20 hours a week. And then we always have interns from University of Colorado or wherever who are learning social media, learning WordPress, learning how to run a blog, basically. It seems like I have a big staff, I’m working with a bunch of people, but they’re all basically doing it for credit at University.

Brian: You started, is it, “Walk the Talk”?

Waylon: Walk the Talk Show, yeah. What about it?

Brian: Yeah, what about it?

Waylon: I started it about three years ago now. It was kind of an organic evolution of what I was doing anyways with the magazine. We’d interview two kind of important people every issue. So I’d be interviewing like Deepak Chopra or Dr. Andrew Weil, Micahel Pollan, whoever, Krishna Das, Sakyong Mipham, they’d be sitting in my living room on my couch and I’d be interviewing them. Or famous business people. And friends would always be like, “Hey, can I come over? I’ll sit in the corner and be quiet and just watch.”

And [I was like] of course, yeah. Deepak Chopra in your living room? Like, fuck yah, come watch it. I was just like, “Be quiet, don’t sit in my gaze so that it—don’t distract me. I need to be focused. This is for the magazine. And then I think it just sort of…one summer I had a video intern who I later hired, because it went really well. And I said, “Why don’t we just do all our interviews publicly.”

So we did it in the backyard of a cafe, Trident Café, downtown where they have a stage and lights and stuff. And we pretty much consistently had 150 people come. And we videoed it and put the videos up online. I’ve always been asked to MC and make announcements and be a public kind of guy, because I like that and I’m reasonably good at it and I’m kinda funny and um, I enjoyed it, you know. And I actually discovered: One, that I was really good at it. That I was kind of a natural at the performance aspect of it. And number two, that I sucked at it. It’s really hard. Because they are two different things going on. Once you are trying to provide entertainment, keep people engaged. And two, you’re trying to completely ignore them [the audience] and focus on whoever you are interviewing and talk about really important things.

So I think I both have potential to be good as a talk-show host and also, it’s so hard. I’ve watched a thousand talk shows trying to learn and the ones who I regard with admiration are so far beyond me. You know, Jon Stewart or [Johnny] Carson or Oprah. These people cover more content, in more depth, in eight minutes than I can in 20—it’s amazing. So that talk show, Walk The Talk, used to be called Elevision. We moved from the cafe to a theater. We sold out the theater consistently. Then, we moved to Boulder Theater.

I’m actually going the opposite direction now of making it less entertainment and trying to have just 150-200 studio audience, and have it be all about the video. All about the production. We were named top-10 in the U.S., for green talk shows or green videos. And I had a meeting with Discovery Channel about making it into a real T.V. Show. Unfortunately, in the last two years I’ve done a lot less of it because I had no money any more once I went online. But now we’re starting to do it again.

Brian: It sounds like you have a lot of creative energy or your own personal creative interests involved in the magazine. How do you balance between a community—or do you consider it a community journal, like there’s community involvement in creating the journal…and how do you balance the two, between the personal interests and the community interests?

Waylon: That’s a great question. It’s been coming up a lot lately. I actually just wrote an article you may want to read for reference entitled, “Elephant is not me.” So Walk the Talk Show is me; it’s my talk show, it’s my dumb jokes, I’m the host of the talk show. My name is on it: Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis. Like Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

But Elephant is not me.

Elephant Journal dot com is an open forum. So if you disagree with me and you are a Republican and you view Obama as a failure you’re welcome to put that article up on Elephant. You’ll just know that our audience is probably liberal overall and will probably argue with you (and I’ll probably argue with you). But that’s the beauty of web 2.0, which is the term for that kind of media. Comments. If you read the New Yorker you might have a reaction to an article, but you can’t really connect with that author. But if you read that article on New Yorker dot com from that author you can retort, offer different facts, improve the article in a sense if they are a little off.

So [with] Elephant, I’m definitely the editor-in-chief. If [a writer] is out of line, if someone is slandering someone, if someone is saying things that are untrue, that are factually incorrect I may have to intervene. But that doesn’t really happen that much. It happens a little bit.

I’m in a lot of uncomfortable situations all the time. If you go to my Facebook, I don’t know if we’re friends, but if you go to my Facebook page, I’m always complaining about people calling for an hour or two every night, once a week and yelling at me about articles on Elephant that have made their business or their community look bad. They hold me responsible because I own it, and I’m the editor. But my attitude is always, “If you don’t like it, participate in the discussion. Offer a different point of view. Comment. [Write an article yourself]. You don’t even have to write it. Get a friend to write it, you know, it’s an open forum.”

Brian: So you think that it would make a difference if somebody didn’t agree with your view and they said something that would change maybe the feel of what you present in the journal, or…

Waylon: What do you mean?

Brian: Like you wouldn’t have a right-wing evangelical slant to the Elephant Journal.

Waylon: If a right-winger who’s evangelical wanted to write an article to the Elephant readership I would be not only okay with that, I would love it. That said, I think you are correct. Elephant Journal will never have a right-wing evangelical character to it. But we welcome…there’s not enough dialogue in this world. There’s a lot of, like, shouting at a football game, the fans on one side chanting their chants to the other side. No one actually ever talks unless you go to the ice cream stand at intermission or half-time and you wind-up talking with a cute girl who’s a fan for the opposing team, or the cute guy.

And that’s what Elephant is. It’s trying to bring together people. Because that’s ignorance again. If more of the Americans who are holding up signs that say, “Everything I needed to learn about Muslims, I learned on 9/11, if those people would actually go talk with Muslims, not only would they quickly realize that Muslims don’t look like terrorists, they don’t look like what they think they look like, they might look like their neighborhood doctor. But they learn that, oh, they’re not necessarily such bad people. They’re human beings just like any of us.

So that dialogue is really good. I don’t really care about having a liberal publication, but environmentally, I care more.

Brian: Was that on there [recorded], “You don’t really care about having a liberal publication.”

Waylon: I am a liberal personally, but half the world isn’t liberal and half the world needs to talk with the other half of the world if we want to get anything done. I think Obama’s experience has proved that. He can’t hardly make anything happen without some moderates in the middle. We use the expression, “Agree to disagree,” frequently.

Brian: We as in Elephant Journal?

Waylon: Elephant Journal, yes. In terms of determining where we are coming from. I don’t mind a comment saying, “Global warming is a hoax, it’s bullshit, it’s a conspiracy by Al Gore.” I don’t mind that—I just want that comment to be put in a respectful, fair way that hopefully involves some facts. And then I will respond and disagree with them in a respectable, fair way that hopefully involves some facts. Hopefully at some point we’ll come to some common ground. Maybe the common ground is that we agree to disagree. You think it’s a conspiracy? Nothing I can say will change your mind.

But none of us have a problem with recycling, or energy efficient light bulbs, or electric cars that get their energy from solar panels instead of nuclear. The reason it’s called Elephant is the whole legend of the blind men and the elephant.

Brian: Yeah, I’ve read that [it’s on Elephant Journal somewhere.]

Waylon: You’ve read that. So, the idea is that fundamentally, Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, fat, thin, black, white, the whole laundry list of human beings and the ways we identify ourselves, we all want our grandchildren or the grandchildren of others to be healthy and happy and we want green grass, we want blue sky, we want things to be healthy and happy. We just violently and vehemently disagree on how to get there.

That’s sort of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition: if we can come back to fundamental Basic Goodness, then we can learn to appreciate the diversity of human beings instead of going to war with each other over it.

Brian: That’s the idea I saw on your website about creating an enlightened society?

Waylon: You can’t create an enlightened society with just the liberals, it doesn’t work. Boulder might be a little bubble, but something like 80% of the people who work in Boulder commute from the outside. We think we’re green here, but the way we’re structured in a green way is forcing people to live outside of Boulder who work in Boulder, so we’re creating all that driving which isn’t green at all. And that’s part of the ecosystem that we have created. It’s the concept of interdependence.

Brian: I notice in myself, it’s hard not to be exclusive: wanting all the people to practice and think like I do, talk like I do so I can communicate.

Waylon: Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Like I’m about to get some roommates, and I want roommates who will live in an environmentally responsible way. There’s nothing wrong, I mean it’s natural to hangout with or socialize with people who are in your own community or wave-length, but to have an exclusionary attitude towards people who are different? That’s where the problem is, you know?

Brian: Where’s Elephant going?

Waylon: Great question. My goal as Elephant as a magazine, now as a website and to some extent as Walk the Talk Show is to be a part of the mainstream dialogue of the United States. The United States for better and for worse, both is a powerful player on the international front. It does no good to be a small publication that people like and don’t really know about for the most part.

When something happens in the news like the Islamaphobia that has been dominating the news with the so called Ground Zero Mosque (that’s neither located at Ground Zero nor really a Mosque) I would love for a voice of compassion and humor and some willingness to engage directly with the issues in a non-politically correct, safe, tiptoeing through the tulips manner. I would love for Elephant, or any other media outlet, to be able to be a voice in these kind of issues that come up.

Elephant‘s goal? Right now we’re probably as big as anyone in a couple demographics that we cover like spirituality, Buddhism, yoga. In green we’re probably top 20 or 30 nationally. My goal would be to not only be number one in a competitive point of view, but to be number one in a view of, again, we can’t just be speaking to our own choirs, we need to be speaking to people who disagree with us and having that dialogue.

My goal is for Elephant to really be a household name and to remain independent so that we don’t have to tailor—you probably don’t realize it, and I don’t mean this in a conspiracy, evil, paranoiac sort of way—but media is polite about its sponsors and advertisers. There’s a lot of pressure, even with an independent publication like Elephant to be nice and to pay more attention to people who are giving us money. With Elephant that’s a situation that we negotiate, I think, very well. We’ve made it an art form to be constructively critical about people we care about. I’ve angered all of our sponsors one time or another.

But with mainstream media it’s far worse; they often won’t even cover articles that are critical of sponsors. And I’m not talking about New York Times, which I have a lot of respect for; I’m talking about smaller publications that are still 100 times bigger than Elephant.

So, basically, [our goal is] to be a first-tier, household name that can really help influence this crazy, wonderful world that we‘re in.

Brian Kimmel is a meditation teacher, performer and massage therapist.

He traveled in 2010 to Indonesia on a teaching tour with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and is in the process of writing a book on healing from abuse. He lives part-time in Boulder as a student of interdisciplinary studies.


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