5 Questions with Douglas McGray

CEO of Pop-Up Magazine Productions and The California Sunday Magazine

What is Pop-Up Magazine?

Pop-Up Magazine is a live show — a live magazine — that tours the country with new issues a few times a year. It features writers, radio producers, photographers and filmmakers performing new stories about war, politics, art, fashion — everything you can think of. The stories come to life through animation, original photography, and original film. It’s very multimedia, immersive, and an unusual experience. It started out as a hobby. I had this idea to start a live magazine which brings together people who tell stories in all different kinds of media and make a show out of it so I gathered some friends and we created it.

There is so much risk involved in the success of some of Pop-Up Magazine’s stories. Does any of that cross your mind as you’re creating these stories or, do you just feel like it’s something to go for and see what happens?

It’s something we think hard about. [For instance], with the karaoke story — the writer talked to karaoke DJs and asked them about songs that were especially contentious — it was a funny piece and we thought it was a great opportunity to have one to three thousand people sing together. We had a long conversation about if people would want to sing [Don’t Stop Believin’] and we felt pretty confident that they would. The first night of the tour, the crowd instantly erupted — and it was like that in every city. We had no idea just how much our audience was ready to sing karaoke at the top of their lungs.

Have you had the experience of seeing a Pop-Up Magazine show — or getting a story from a producer — that made your heart race?

So many times. There’s something powerful about sitting in a dark room full of people and hearing these stories. There was a piece that we did about a guy who starred on Broadway. He had a successful career and then fell on hard times. There was addiction [involved], and he ended up homeless for a long time. [The piece] was a story of his life told through film and music. At the end, he came out as a surprise guest and performed a song with the band as a follow-up from his Broadway days. He had this extraordinary spotlight and just owned the room. People would leap to their feet afterwards in a standing ovation. I could see that piece a hundred times without getting tired of it.

How do you and your team think about content fatigue and how do you guard against that in the content you’re creating?

We talk a lot about wanting things to feel special — we’re not producing a billion stories. We’re touring a few times a year and putting a show on stage for a hundred minutes just trying to make something that people will never forget.

When we’re producing stories for California Sunday we’re not producing dozens of stories a day. We’re making workshops and designing everything, putting fine attention into making stories, and art directing everything with a lot of original illustrations and photography. We’re trying hard to make things that are worthy of people’s time — worthy of their best time.

What would you do with an extra hour in your day?

I think the constant struggle that a lot of people feel is the battle between things you need to do right now and the things you need to plan to be really ambitious in the future. And the things you need to do, the things that are right in front of your face can sometimes demand more of your time in the moment, be hours. Today, if an hour just magically appeared I would dedicate it entirely to big ideas that we want to do months from now.

What would you do with an 15 minutes in your day?

I think I would go outside.

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