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Mr. Spectrum: some say when the former publisher and editor of Spectrum Weekly leaves, so does the essence of the paper.

If you telephoned Stephen Buel's house lately, you've heard the message.

"No comment," snarls his usually good-humored answering machine.

Then the tone clicks on and the caller is left wondering, "Is this a joke, or is he really not talking to anybody?"

Buel, 33, is a founding partner in the 7-year-old Spectrum Weekly. Although there had been reports of increasing tensions at the paper, his submitting a two-week notice of resignation on Aug. 5 came as a shock to most everyone -- including Buel.

"I couldn't have predicted this a week and a half ago," says Buel.

But he says that doesn't imply he was asked to resign.

"I didn't just wake up one day and decide to quit," says Buel. "Yet I didn't go to work that day intending to quit, either."

Buel has been Spectrum's only editor, and he served as publisher from 1989 until late 1991, when Dave Wannemacher assumed the position.

Wannemacher, a former Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat reporter, is married to Spectrum President Karen Hutcheson.

But it was Buel who hand-picked Wannemacher to become the paper's new publisher.

And it was Buel's differences with Wannemacher, as well as Hutcheson, on the direction of the business that caused his departure.

In a morning meeting with Wannemacher that Wednesday, Aug. 5, Buel says, "I just had a realization that we probably had irreconcilable differences."

Wannemacher says, "Obviously, he didn't like the outcome of the meeting."

Buel, who owns 14 percent of Spectrum, won't discuss the specifics of where he differed with his partners, who own the rest of the paper.

But there was at least one well-publicized dispute in the handling of 1-900 telephone sex advertisements that ran in the paper. In an effort to pressure Spectrum to remove the ads, fundamentalist groups threatened Spectrum advertisers that they would cease doing business with them if the ads continued to run in the paper.

Hutcheson characterized the eventual elimination of the 1-900 ads as a "business decision," while Buel described his views in a column entitled, "We Caved In."

He says if it had been up to him, he would have dealt more forcefully with the organizations from the beginning and then called on his readers for help.

But Buel says that with only a minority ownership in the paper, he had to concede his views on this and many other issues.

He says that's what he was doing when he left his meeting with Wannemacher and called Hutcheson, who is one of the three founding partners of Spectrum, to submit his resignation.

Cool Buel

Buel's house in the Capitol View area of Little Rock matches his personality.

For instance, instead of leaving his stuffed largemouth bass to sit properly above his fireplace mantle, Buel adds a touch of personality by balancing sunglasses on the fish's "nose."

The decor of his living room is almost collegiate in its approach, right down to the worn, mix-matched sofas.

Buel doesn't often seem his 33 years. His typical response to anything is, "Cool."

His mannerisms are often boyish as his head bobs and he grins as he jams his hands in the pockets of his khakis.

But on this day, it's a remarkably serious and calm -- almost deflated -- Buel who sits on his couch discussing his separation from what has been his life for the past seven years.

When asked if Steve Buel is the essence of Spectrum, Buel responds by saying, "Well, I certainly think that for a long time Spectrum has been the essence of Steve Buel."

He says the editorial philosophy, which has changed "next to not at all" since the paper began, is his own.

He purposefully made his alternative paper less like some of the "kneejerk, whiny, uninformed and lazy" alternatives he knows.

But he says, "I don't think my passing dooms Spectrum."

Hutcheson says it was once fair to say Buel embodied the paper, but that's not as true since the addition of Wannemacher.

Buel literally has performed every job at Spectrum, which he says has helped him in leading the paper. But that could have been his downfall.

Employees, especially those in management, left the paper because they felt their authority and their very jobs were usurped by Buel.

"Nobody embodied the paper more than Steve," says Philip Martin, the former executive editor at the paper. "In a way, that sort of hampered the paper.

"Steve, and he'll tell you this himself, is the sort of personality who wants to be in control," says Martin. "It's not his instinct to let things go."

"It's too bad he couldn't let go and let people do what they could do," says Ronnie Fehrenbach, who was Spectrum's advertising art director for five years.

Fehrenbach resigned shortly before Buel. When Buel quit, other employees asked Fehrenbach if he planned to stay.

But Fehrenbach says Buel has nothing to do with his departure and that he hates to see Spectrum lose Buel.

Unlike Buel's force-out of Spectrum's third founding partner -- Publisher Cindy Fribourgh left the paper in 1989 -- neither Hutcheson or Wannemacher requested Buel to leave.

When he resigned, they didn't ask him to stay, either.

Hutcheson says there were problems with Buel letting the role of publisher go.

"There was some overlap as far as authority went," says Hutcheson. "It's always hard when you have that many people that the staff is looking to for answers"

While Buel was a self-admitted poor manager, though, he was the drive behind the paper.

"Nobody worked harder than Steve, and nobody wanted the paper to succeed more than Steve," says Martin. "I'll be interested to see how it goes on or if it will go on.

"Karen Hutcheson is a saint, and no one can blame her if she wanted to call it quits after all this time. I hope that the paper hangs around."

Hutcheson says she intends to keep pumping money into the paper until it makes a profit or until the money runs out.

Buel is starting over in trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up, he says.

It was only weeks before college was out that Buel decided, "Oh, yeah, I'm a reporter."

Now he says, "Oh, yeah, I'm an unemployed reporter."

He's not ready to leap back into another career yet, so he'll probably freelance for the next several months.

He jokes that's the only reason he agreed to a newspaper interview -- maybe someone will see he needs some work.

Buel came to Arkansas in 1982 to work on what he calls the one-year plan at the Arkansas Democrat. He's grown to love the state, and although he's not trying to run from it, he realizes it's time to move on.

"Irreconcilable differences" led to his divorce from Spectrum, he says.

Buel has mixed feelings about his move, but he thinks his actions were appropriate.

Yet his pain is evident as his eyes widen in a puppy stare.

There's also an unmistakable tinge of bitterness when he squints his eyes and says that, yes, he feels something that is his is being taken from him.

Asked if he regrets his decision, Buel says, "Only every day."
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Title Annotation:Stephen Buel
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 17, 1992
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