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So What Do You Do, Jamie Foster Brown, Publisher, Sister 2 Sister?

The 'Larry King of urban media' talks about her unique interview style and what it takes to launch a magazine

By Aliya S. King - May 5, 2010
"I never thought of myself as a writer," says Jamie Foster Brown. "It was something other people encouraged me to do because of my interview style and the way I described the behind-the-scenes of the music industry." That knack for getting inside the heads of celebrities has made her the Larry King of urban media. "Sister 2 Sister is not a place where we drag people's names through the mud," she says. "We just tell the truth. And encourage our subjects to do the same."

This approach has led to a magazine with a 22-year history. Sister 2 Sister now boasts 200,000 in circulation -- not People or Us Weekly numbers -- but Brown does it with a full-time staff of just five. Keeping overhead small has helped her outlive and keep pace with many of her competitors at a time when the death knell is sounding for print titles. (And she plans to keep on winning, even as mainstream publishing houses, like Harris Publications, aim for her coveted female demo.) Brown details the rise of her magazine from a newsletter to a glossy, why she's okay with being labeled "friendly press," and the one place online will never beat print.

Name: Jamie Foster Brown
Position: Publisher of Sister 2 Sister
Resume: Worked for Black Entertainment Television (BET) as an advertising secretary to the network's founder, Robert Johnson. Eventually produced the station's flagship shows: Video Soul and Video LP. In 1988, founded Sister 2 Sister, a monthly trade newsletter that has since expanded into a celebrity-based glossy. In 1998 she wrote Betty Shabazz: A Sisterfriends' Tribute in Words and Pictures, published by Simon and Schuster.
Education: B.A. University of Stockholm
Birthdate: June 25
Hometown: Chicago
Marital status: Married 41 years, two sons.
First section of the Sunday Times: "I don't really read papers."
Favorite TV show: "I watch a lot of USA. Psych. Monk."
Guilty pleasure: "I drink two or three cups of coffee a day. But they're all decaf."
Last book read: Hammer by Armand Hammer
Twitter handle: "I'm not on Twitter. The Internet world… I haven't given it a lot of thought. I'm already overwhelmed with emails, phone calls, text messages…"

Why did you start Sister 2 Sister 22 years ago?
It started out as my thoughts on the music industry. I had worked as Bob Johnson's secretary in the very early days of BET. I'd moved up to programming shows like Donnie Simpson's Video Soul. I was in close proximity to a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. And even though I didn't think of myself as a writer, I knew I had stories to tell.

Stories like what?
I was at the Soul Train Awards in 1987. Whitney Houston performed and got booed. The audience thought she was acting "too white." And I looked out in the audience and saw many people wearing blue and green contact lenses. Those kinds of stories. I wanted to write about what I saw -- things other people didn't necessarily see. In Europe, you have royalty. We have celebrities. Who decides who becomes a celebrity? They are not born. They are made. So I was always interested in what goes on behind the scenes.

How did the early days at BET prepare you for running Sister 2 Sister?
I made sure the artists were at the studio two hours before the show started. And then I would find myself babysitting the artists and the executives during that time. I would end up interviewing them just for my own knowledge. And then it turned into me feeding the host questions based on what I'd learned: 'Ask him what happened to him in third grade.'

"I care about the people I cover... Some call it 'friendly press.' And that may be. But I know when certain urban artists have something to say, they're coming to me to say it."

Eventually, you even started breaking artists. How did that happen?
We were in competition with MTV. MTV had videos. Our artists didn't always have a video. So I might take someone like Full Force, bring them into the studio, tell them to lip sync to one of their songs and boom, we've got a video to play.

Once you entered publishing, were you able to use the same techniques, in terms of fostering a close relationship with the artists you covered?
Absolutely. I interact with the majority of the people I cover outside of work. I check in on their lives. What's going on with mom's health? How are the children? I care about the people I cover. And that comes out in my writing. Some call it "friendly press." And that may be. But I know when certain urban artists have something to say, they're coming to me to say it.

Your interviews in Sister 2 Sister are notoriously lengthy. How do you get an artist to talk to you for hours?
When someone says, 'I only have 20 minutes,' I don't do the interview. And I don't ask questions like, 'Who's your major musical influence?' I have a responsibility to my readers. They let you into their homes every day. They spend hard-earned money on your music and tours. These artists have to teach. They have to give information. Some of the celebrities I cover have more influence than people who save lives every day. You owe them an in-depth interview!

You don't have a high opinion of celebrity blogging. What are your issues with it?
Most of the links sent my way, I don't like it. It feels like we're eating our young. We take these brand-new celebrities and just chew them up to pieces about what they're wearing, how they look, how big or small they are. That's a cancer. You have people judging other people just for the sport. These words are unwholesome. A little ember can cause a lot of damage. You have children who kill themselves over cyber bullying. Why bully people on a blog?

"We started all this with a Visa card. We could never get investors. I didn't even know I could write!"

How have you stayed afloat financially when so many magazines have gone under?
We're very frugal people. We have a staff of eight [to] nine people. So we don't have a huge overhead. We started all this with a Visa card. We could never get investors. I didn't even know I could write! This had to be divine intervention. And then, there's my husband, an earth angel. He'll whip up homemade sausage for breakfast with celebrities who come by my home to be interviewed. My husband's special. He quit his job 20 years ago and said, 'I'm gonna go work for my wife.' They don't make them like that anymore.

What is the future of print journalism? Are you prepared to take the magazine online to be read on something like the iPad or the Kindle?
It's online now. But the people I put in my magazine? They are not satisfied with being online. I will sometimes say, 'I'll put this online,' and the answer is always, 'No. Put it in the magazine.' For the celebrities I cover, there is nothing like seeing yourself at a newsstand and buying copies for grandma and mom. A magazine can be on the table. And besides, you don't get in-depth information online. You just get snippets.

So you're really pro-print.
Are you sitting on the toilet reading your laptop?

You get your subjects to say things they don't tell the mainstream media. Many times, you and I have interviewed the same subject and your story will contain much more than I could get. What do you attribute this to?
My celebrities know, I'm not talking to you because I want to hurt you. I want your side of the story. And I will mix it in with my opinion.

But does it bother you that people may be more open with you because the print run for Sister 2 Sister is not as large as Vibe or Ebony or Essence? Perhaps they feel like they can be more open because less people may read it?
Doesn't bother me at all. I provide a niche service for a special audience. And they are devoted, loyal fans.

I'm 36 and I find it harder and harder to keep up with who's who in entertainment. Do you have a tough time keeping up with young hip-hop acts that you cover in the magazine?
I try. But I don't stay on top of it as much as I could. It's overwhelming. That's what my staff does for me. I can't keep track of what's on BET or MTV. There's so many artists out there. You know, it's funny, my girlfriend asked me to set her up with a man, 50 years old or older. I said, how am I supposed to do that? I don't know anyone my own age! I'm surrounded by people under-30 all day. The celebrities I cover? They come to interviews with a van full of people. None of them over 30. And I hug and kiss them all.

And your husband doesn't mind?
I told you, the man's an angel!

Aliya S. King is an author of two works of nonfiction and an upcoming novel. She also blogs at and Tweets even more @aliyasking.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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