texasmonthly.com: Where did the idea for Bum Steers come from and when did it first appear in the magazine?
PB: Bum Steers was a shameless rip-off of Esquire’s Dubious Achievements awards. At the time, Esquire ranked with The New Yorker as the best-written magazine in the country, and the Dubious Achievement awards were widely read. The original idea for a Texas version may have come from editor Bill Broyles, or with the first writer to tackle them, Richard West. The magazine’s first issue was February 1973, and so the first Bum Steers appeared in February 1974. The name caused some consternation around the office, because the first ad campaign for Texas Monthly had promised, “No bum steers or bluebonnets.” We did a really controversial cover the second year of Richard dressed in a raincoat, which he was holding open—from the back of course—with the line, if I remember correctly, “Texas Exposed.” For the first four years (1974—1977) they continued to appear in February, and in 1978 they moved to January, where they have remained ever since with the exception of 1986, when the Sesquicentennial issue appeared in January and Bum Steers was moved back a month.
texasmonthly.com: Can you explain the whole process of how Bum Steers works?
AD: We prepare for it all year long. In the editorial department we have a big cardboard box labeled “Bum Steers,” and everyone—writers, editors, art folks—throws clippings and printouts and press releases in there every month. Readers are great about sending in submissions; we get dozens from them. And we have regular Bum Steer-ophiles around the state who keep an eye out for local follies. By the end of October, when we start planning and organizing, the box is crammed full. There are several hundred items to wade through. We divide them into “Yes,” “Maybe,” and “No” piles, until we’ve winnowed the finalists down to 150 or so. Then we write up each item, and the whole batch has to be copy edited, fact-checked, and subjected to the rest of the editorial process. It’s like doing a big annoying jigsaw puzzle—it takes a lot of time, effort, and swearing.
PB: All during the year, the Bum Steers team—mainly Evan, Anne, the art department, and I—are on the lookout for our Bum Steer of the Year to put on the cover. Sometimes it is obvious who or what the Bum Steer of the Year should be, and sometimes it is less obvious. We also look for funny products and books that can go in the Gift Guide and Bookshelf sidebars. By the end of the first week, we want to have a polished version, edited and with as many headlines as possible, for all items. We also must come up with a cover idea during the first week. The second week is devoted to refining and to choosing sidebars and finalizing the cover. Hours are spent debating color, content, image, and nuance. The third week is usually a short week, because it is before Thanksgiving, and the goal, indeed, the mandate, is to have all copy ready except the introduction to be laid out on the weekend before the last week of work on the issue. Deputy editor Jane Dure is responsible for making sure that we are keeping up with the timetable.
What I have been talking about is the little picture of Bum Steers. The big picture is understanding what a Bum Steer is and how to make it work. A Bum Steer is (1) an unusual, funny incident that happens to ordinary people and sheds light on the human condition; or (2) something stupid or outrageous