Bob Garfield tells a David vs. Goliath story of dueling ferret magazines, from 2002.
BROOKE: I was thinking about how cats are natural predators. Which got me thinking about how the company that published Cat Fancy, is a predator, too. Specifically, I was thinking about a piece that you, Bob, produced for our very first show together, about a magazine that got fancied right out of existence. …
BOB: Modern Ferret!
BROOKE: Right. Play it again, Bob.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: Let's see, we have Nux and Trixie and Vasco da Gama; Balthasar; Cauliflower, Coushe and Gabrielle. They're not rodents. Their ancestors are polecats. They're in the weasel family. Basically they're the animals that have that kind of wiggly kind of look. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Mary Shefferman knows just how deeply ferret owners care. From a four-bedroom house in Lake Grove, Long Island a home office crammed with ferret cages, ferret tunnels, ferret toys, bags of Totally Ferret ferret food and 7 slender, wriggling little vermin-with-names, she and her husband Eric publish Modern Ferret magazine. Since 1995 they have combined Puckish wit and service journalism to explore everything from ferret heart disease to ferret-owning Playboy playmates to reviews of indispensable ferret products. Eric, the publisher, reads from the tag attached to one of them -- a furry mechanical -- ferret.
ERIC SHEFFERMAN: I'm a little poop pal. I'll tell you what I mean. Squeeze my little tummy; You'll get a jelly bean.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: They poop jelly beans. Some people find it--offensive-- [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Revolting?
MARY SHEFFERMAN: Yes!
BOB GARFIELD: The key is, though, that some people find anything at all to do with ferrets absolutely irresistible. Which is why for three years they could do no wrong with Modern Ferret. They had the ferret lifestyle magazine niche locked up for themselves, and in 1999, right alongside The Economist and The New Yorker, Modern Ferret was judged by the influential media magazine 'Min' to be one of the 12 best titles published in America. Credit genuine devotion, an offbeat editorial sensibility, and of course, special issues.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: On the right here we have the, the Ferret of the Century which was the Budweiser Ferret. This is a very exciting issue for us.
ERIC SHEFFERMAN: [DECLAIMING] And now Budweiser's replacement for Louie the Lizard-- [DRUM ROLL] [DOOR SWINGS OPEN]
BUDWEISER FERRET: No.
ERIC SHEFFERMAN: [STILL DECLAIMING] --the ferret!
BUDWEISER FERRET: Ehr!
BUDWEISER FERRET: That's who they picked?!
BUDWEISER FERRET: Ehr! Ehr! Ehr!
BOB GARFIELD: Real ferrets don't actually say very much, although Mary tries her hardest to loosen Cauliflower's lips.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: [TALKING TO PET FERRET] Will you come out and make a noise? Would you think about it?
BOB GARFIELD: When the ferret fails to cooperate, she of course jumps to his defense.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: They have itch breaks. They get little itches, and then they have to stop everything, and you have to just wait for them, so he's got his little - he's having a little itch break.
BOB GARFIELD: Also it's a weasel and it doesn't understand what you're saying.
MARY SHEFFERMAN:[LAUGHS] Well I'm motioning to him to come out, and they do understand that, and he does actually know his name. [SPEAKING TO PET FERRET] Right?
BOB GARFIELD: Mary and Eric -- blissfully happy, if only marginally profitable -- lived their dream. Then began the nightmare. Fancy Publications, the Time Warner of the pet magazine business, began to publish a competing title! The juggernaut behind Dog Fancy, Cat Fancy and Horse Illustrated hit the newsstands with -- Ferrets.
ERIC SHEFFERMAN: This is typical marketing stuff from them, but they describe about Ferrets: [READING] "Ferrets is a bi-monthly publication devoted to helping you care for your ferret. It is the only magazine where ferret lovers can find in-depth, accurate, current information; seek advice and interact with other ferret owners." Having launched several years after we had been out there, it's, it's a little tough for them to say that they're the "only" magazine. This is our whole life's work here, and I'd like my life's work to not be treated as if it doesn't exist.
BOB GARFIELD: There is of course a limited audience and even more limited number of advertisers in the polecat journalism category. Eric and Mary found themselves living nothing less than the bruising consequences of media concentration. Fancy Publications, according to the Sheffermans, quickly used its distribution muscle to squeeze Modern Ferret out of pet stores, costing them half of their paid circulation. And they say that Fancy's owner, Los Angeles entrepreneur Norman Ridker, has tried to intimidate them into folding.
ERIC SHEFFERMAN: Before they launched the Ferrets magazine he actually took me and Mary out to dinner, and he went through this whole explanation of how he's run everyone else out of business in all the other categories that he's done. He told us stories about how he's, you know, sat across the table and, you know, bought someone's whole life's work for pennies on the dollar and watched them cry and-- you know, he really gave us the we're-gonna-crush-you.
BOB GARFIELD: Ridker declined comment on the Sheffermans' charges, as did Ferrets magazine's editorial staff. Putting aside right and wrong, however, clearly in the long run there is no room for two sheriff's in Ferret Town. Complicating matters, Eric has a chronic digestive disorder that has sickened him for weeks at a time, and last year the Sheffermans were able to publish only two issues of Modern Ferret. Still, they pledged to press on.
MARY SHEFFERMAN: I don't think we have a choice. Eric and I are very much committed to, to continuing with Modern Ferret, even if it comes to, you know, I have to go get a job outside the house and we do this as a part-time endeavor. There's so many things about ferrets that-- If you don't care enough and it's not part of your life-- That kind of intimacy with the ferrets makes you care very much about what you're publishing.
BOB GARFIELD: Would it be overstating the case to say that ferrets have actually given you a purpose in life?
MARY SHEFFERMAN: That would not be overstating a fact at all. I know a lot of people that-- they don't need that - they don't need that kind of intense purpose. But I'm one of the people who does need that, and-- I think it's made me a better person. If I can say that. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: But that may not be enough, because self-actualization doesn't pay the printing bills. In the end it's a dog-eat-dog world out there.
[BUDWEISER COMMERCIAL PLAYS: BUD - WEIS - ER] Among other species.
BUDWEISER FERRET: Enjoy it while you can, hot shots. Your days are numbered!
BUDWEISER COHORT: Louie--
BUDWEISER FERRET: I know a lot of predators! And I know several very large ferrets!
BACK ANNOUNCE: Sadly, Modern Ferret ceased publication in 2003. As for Ferrets Magazine, it stopped publishing its print edition in 2008. But you can still find it online.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.