Prof Positive

"I didn't start out to do what I'm doing," says John Scherer, CEO and founder of Video Professor Inc., one of Colorado's most incongruous success stories. He insists that he wound up starring in the commercials and infomercials that have made him a familiar figure among the nation's insomniacs "because I was there, and I knew the product better than anyone. I didn't do it to be recognized."

Not that Scherer, who's in his late fifties, shuns the spotlight. Video Professor creates a wide range of mail-order and online computer tutorials and markets them via omnipresent print and TV ads (often of the wee-hours variety) that are distinguished by free trial offers and the reassuring presence of Scherer, whose tagline, "Try my product," is undeniably bland, but so effective that he trademarked it. These aggressive media buys ensure that strangers from every walk of life come up to him whenever he's out in public -- even the famous kind. Scherer attended this year's Sundance Film Festival, and he says that during the hours he spent at a Video Professor display, he was thrilled by how many attendees treated him like the celebrity. Actor Joe Pantoliano, who's perhaps best known for having been beheaded in a memorable episode of The Sopranos, "was the most vocal about us," Scherer reports. "He came up and said, 'That's the guy I've been seeing on TV for years!' We sent him a whole library. And there was also Chazz Palminteri, Marlee Matlin and the guy who played Elvis in Walk the Line [Tyler Hilton]." They got their pick of Video Professor booty as well.

At the same time, Scherer makes it plain that he doesn't discriminate against the little-known and the obscure. On one occasion, he was dining at a New York City restaurant with Brian Olson, Video Professor's director of marketing communications, when their waiter and the maître d' recognized his bald dome and brush mustache -- so he had Olson take down their contact information and ship them whatever programs they wanted. "I wouldn't like all the attention if I wasn't hearing the good stuff," Scherer admits. "But I always hear the good stuff."

That's a bit of an exaggeration. Folks who've learned to navigate the Internet with or without his help don't have to look too hard to discover consumer sites filled with objections to Video Professor's sales techniques, which utilize the telephone tactic known as "upselling" and pivot on a subscription plan that his enemies see as unacceptably sneaky. Scherer says these complaints are entirely unjustified and are sometimes trumped up by shady entrepreneurs who want to profit from his popularity. Indeed, his firm is suing two outfits that his attorneys feel belong in this last category -- yet they're powerless to squelch his most nettlesome opponent, California's Ben E. Brady, who put up a sprawling website titled "Video Professor Scam." At the mention of Brady, Scherer's telegenic smile slides from his face.

It's impossible to know for sure if cyber-negativity is having any impact on Video Professor's bottom line, since the enterprise is privately held, and Scherer declines to reveal financial particulars. But the numbers he's willing to share certainly seem healthy. In 2004, the company paid $1.875 million for a 24,000-plus-square-foot building in Lakewood that fits his old-school personality perfectly. Scherer's spacious office is just off the lobby, steps from a display case filled with vintage instructional videotapes (precursors to today's CD-ROMs) and ancient print ads, including a sketch of a guy with the word "ERROR" on his computer screen that could have been drawn by a ham-fisted middle-schooler. In addition, Video Professor is leasing two floors of an adjacent structure to house its customer-service management team and sales and marketing staff, and occupies a nearby warehouse from which it ships an estimated 250,000 orders every month. (Olson says the single-day record is around 60,000.) At this rate, it won't be long before Video Professor, which has been a going concern for eighteen years, racks up its seven-millionth customer -- and there are approximately 300 VP employees to serve them, not counting contract workers who toil at call centers in Nebraska and Pennsylvania. (Scherer refuses to outsource beyond U.S. borders.)

Another sign that business is good: Scherer is spending freely to earn even more publicity. Video Professor made news across the country after ponying up $15,000 for Tillie, a dummy used by Broomfield's Greg Pringle when he wanted to drive in high-occupancy-vehicle lanes; the money was donated to Alive at 25, a Colorado project intended to teach safe-driving skills to motorists between 15 and 24. And Video Professor recently became a sponsor of Danica Patrick, the 24-year-old who's become the hottest attraction in the Indy Racing League despite not having taken a checkered flag to date. The investment, which Scherer made after consulting with Patrick's husband, Paul Hospenthal, who just happens to be his personal trainer, paid dividends during the broadcast of April 2's Honda Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Florida. Because Patrick did so well in the race, finishing a career-best sixth, an in-the-cockpit camera that was focused on the Video Professor logo affixed to her helmet held the screen for more than four minutes.

Tillie, who's been hanging out in an unoccupied office at Video Professor's headquarters since her purchase, will soon get to spend some personal time with Patrick. Scherer has just created a nonprofit around Tillie, with 100 percent of the funds earmarked for safe-driving organizations, and as part of the PR blitz hyping it, the dummy will join Patrick at a future race. If the Indy 500 puts in an HOV lane, that first victory is practically guaranteed.

Still, Video Professor's most valuable sales device remains Scherer's mug, and he knows it. "People over the years have learned to believe what I say," he asserts. "And I'm glad they do." But just because he looks like a kindly academic doesn't mean that he's personally capable of installing a zip drive or ridding the virtual universe of spam. In truth, he's not really a computer expert at all. He just plays one on TV.

Scherer grew up in Naperville, in the Chicagoland area, and keeps a close association with the community. In 2002 he donated $500,000 to establish scholarships at Naperville Central High School in the names of his parents, who were students there. (His father, Billy, passed away, but his mother, Jane, is alive and vital at 87. She lives in Colorado -- and no, Scherer concedes, she doesn't know how to run a computer.) He went on to attend the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where his major had nothing to do with technology. "My degree was in management," says Scherer, who also funds a scholarship for that school. "I wanted to be an office manager. I never wanted to be in sales."

His job record, much of it dating from his post-collegiate move to Colorado, tells another story. With the exception of a short-lived gig as an interviewer at an employment agency, he mainly worked in sales -- peddling water conditioner door-to-door, building and marketing log homes, and so on. Then, in the mid-'80s, he began selling IBM clones under the auspices of his own Data Link Research Services. "We were marketing our hardware by wholesaling it to small Ma-and-Pa operations," notes Bettye Harrison, who's gone from acting as Data Link's regional sales manager to Video Professor's president and chief operating officer.

Seemed like a good idea, but the market rapidly became glutted with competitors -- and to make matters worse, the public's confusion about computing led to high returns and excessive customer-service demands. "This was in the very beginning of personal computers," Harrison explains, "and consumers would go, 'This looks kind of interesting. Maybe I'd like to try this.' So they'd purchase a computer, take it home, unbox it and then realize they didn't know what all the components were, or even how to hook it up -- and when they did, they were faced with that blinking cursor. So they'd call the dealer saying, 'What do I do?' and the dealer would have to spend a lot of time on the phone to keep the sale."

A potential solution, Scherer thought, would be instructional VHS tapes packaged with computers, so that perplexed buyers could do their own troubleshooting. When he discovered that no one was manufacturing videos that filled the bill, he committed to making his own, using the most rudimentary production procedures imaginable. "For the first one, we set up a tripod and had the camera pointing down, right on the hands on the keyboard," he says. "There wasn't a talking head at all. And then we used a girl, a student, and showed her learning DOS and WordPerfect."

The videos turned out to be more of a hit than the clones, and by 1988, Scherer decided to get out of the hardware biz entirely and focus on tutorials -- a move formalized when the Data Link handle was swapped for Video Professor, the moniker Scherer had slapped on the tapes. But even as sales started to ratchet skyward, he resisted the urge to, well, try his product. "I was more concerned with not going bankrupt and figuring out, 'How do I make this thing fly?' than I was with learning how to operate a computer," he allows. "It wouldn't have helped make more money if I did."

The initial generation of Video Professor tapes, which were sold mainly in retail outlets, accomplished their goals despite a rather elevated cheese factor. For instance, Rick "Coach" Marshall (sacked earlier this month as morning host for oldies radio station KOOL 105) provided the voice of the Video Professor, which was originally envisioned as a wacky character, not a pseudonym for Scherer. "Rick does all these different voices," Bettye Harrison says, "and he was using this sort of old-German-professor voice. He did that for several years, until someone asked, 'Why do you do that?' And we went, 'Why do we do that?' That's when we asked, 'Coach, can you just narrate in your regular voice?'"

The next marketing innovation came about following Harrison's trip to a trade show in Las Vegas, where she saw a presentation from an infomercial company that had assembled a program "about how to learn to play the piano in one hour, I think," she says. "We looked at the medium and went, 'Wow. In thirty minutes, we could tell what our product does. And even if we didn't have a lot of people calling our number, we would be branding our name, so if someone went into a store and saw the product, they'd say, 'I've seen that on television!'"

Since infomercials always seem to star thespians on the wane, Video Professor execs found one: Jeff Conaway, who portrayed Kenickie in 1978's Grease and struggling actor Bobby Wheeler on the classic sitcom Taxi. Earlier this year, Conaway was back on the tube as a regular on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club, a reality-TV series in which overweight luminaries, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, attempt to trim their flab; he stood out from cast members such as Chastity Bono and (no-longer-so) Young MC by going on a drugs-and-alcohol bender and then entering rehab. During the early '90s, though, he was in even less demand than at present, which put him in the Video Professor's price range -- barely. Although Conaway agreed to appear in the infomercial for a percentage from tapes sold rather than an up-front sum, Harrison still had to scrape up enough dough to transport him to Denver for the filming. In an attempt to save a few bucks, she booked coach-section plane tickets. Conaway was having none of that. According to Harrison, "Jeff called and said, 'Are you going to have a limo pick me up and take me to the airport?' So I had to do that. And when he got to the airport, he called again and said, 'There must be some mistake. You have me in coach.' So I had to upgrade his tickets, too."

Other examples of cost-cutting went forward unimpeded: Seen now, the infomercial looks hilariously dated, partly because of its bargain-basement production values. The whole thing was shot in a single day using a conference room as its main set, and while there was a script, sort of, Conaway, clad in a hideous pink sweater, seems to be winging most of his lines. "When the folks from Video Professor asked me to host their show on computer learning made easy, I couldn't imagine why," an ultra-peppy Conaway proclaims at the infomercial's outset. "I'm a moron when it comes to computers. And they said, 'That's exactly why we want you.' I said, 'Look, I don't know software from silverware.' They said, 'That's even better. Because if we teach you how to run a computer in less than an hour, then we can teach anybody.' And I said, 'Thanks a lot. Is that a compliment?'"

The infomercial's triumphant conclusion? A dot matrix printer spits out a letter Conaway composed to (presumably) Louie De Palma, Danny DeVito's character on Taxi: "Dear Louie, I know you can't read, but maybe you can let your mother read it for youŠif you haven't sold her eyes yet!"

Strangely enough, this twisted pitch worked -- and how. The production appeared on TV stations from coast to coast for more than five years, making it one of the longest-running infomercials in the genre's nascent period -- and it brought in plenty of coin for Conaway and Video Professor, which transitioned into what's now almost entirely a direct-to-customer business. Moreover, its cheapness actually turned out to be an attribute. Video Professor made another infomercial with Conaway that utilized a professional script and a budget nearing six figures, but customers never really warmed to it. "It was our best-looking production by far, but it bombed," Scherer reports. "I think it looked too good."

From then on, Video Professor kept its productions in-house, and its maiden forays into the land of thirty- and sixty-second commercials look it; one consists mainly of a frustrated cubicle dweller angrily pounding on his keyboard before using it as a bat to swat his monitor to the floor. Before long, however, Scherer wisely stepped into the spotlight. He'd demonstrated an easy rapport with Conaway, and on his own, he dispensed promotional blather with a beguiling earnestness that belied an almost total lack of computer knowledge. His ignorance was practically put on parade in a segment on QVC, a popular home-shopping network.

"It was '93 or '94, and they wanted the CEO on the show -- and it was all live," Scherer recounts. "And ten minutes or so before we go on, I'm talking to the host, and he says, 'There'll be a time where we'll get phone calls, and you'll need to answer questions.' And I say, 'Wait a minute. What do you mean I'll be getting phone calls about how to operate computers? I don't know how to operate computers. I don't even get e-mails.' But I had to go on anyway, and they put one guy through who wanted to talk to me about something." Fortunately, shame was largely averted: "I must have done well enough, because he didn't say anything about it."

These days, Scherer isn't as inept at computing as he once was. He can cope with that crazy e-mail invention, at least. But he doesn't pretend to understand the ins and outs of each Video Professor product: how-tos on Outlook, Excel, Quicken, Photoshop and many more. "Everyone thinks I'm an expert," he says. "I tell them, 'I don't know all this stuff. I don't have all the answers. My people do.'"

A tour of Video Professor's HQ wouldn't be complete without a trip to the studio, a relatively narrow room where Scherer's appeals are recorded for posterity. But by far the liveliest place in the building is the giant room where the operators toil. Balloons celebrating "Learn How to Buy and Sell on eBay," a relatively new CD-ROM set, festoon row after row of cubes filled with employees jabbering into their headsets. When Scherer arrives, he immediately begins glad-handing operators between calls, and those he greets return his exuberance. Either he doesn't stop by this part of the facility very often, or the workers realize that showering the boss with enthusiasm is a wise strategy.

Dissatisfied Video Professor customers would undoubtedly react less positively to Scherer, whose sales methodology is at the heart of most grievances posted about the company on the Internet. Between insults such as "VIDEO PROFESSOR DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIE AND THEN DIE MORE!!!," InfomercialScam.com documents anti-testimonial claims that typically go something like this: A customer saw a Video Professor commercial, infomercial or the VideoProfessor.com website that promised to send starter lessons for free, aside from a $6.95 shipping charge. He ordered, and the discs arrived -- but soon thereafter, a charge in the range of $79.95 popped up on his credit-card statement. And as if that weren't enough, unrequested disc sets began arriving every month, accompanied by more fees. Getting them to stop, and obtaining a refund, was a massive pain.

The tale told by Dinuba, California-based computer programmer Ben E. Brady on his "Video Professor Scam" site (http://clariondeveloper.com/videoprofessorscam) is considerably less vivid than average. He ordered the three-disc Photoshop lesson off the Internet, and when it arrived, he discovered a notification that the full purchase price would be assessed to his credit card if he didn't call the company or return the discs within a ten-day window. He promptly phoned Video Professor to vent, and even though he initially had to pay for shipping back the discs, his expenses were refunded. In other words, Brady didn't personally lose a nickel -- but, in his mind, this outcome doesn't excuse what he sees as dubious practices. "I just don't believe they are as forthcoming as they should be or need to be," he opines.

To that, communications director Olson says, "Consider the source," and then helpfully volunteers public records showing that Brady twice declared bankruptcy, most recently in 2002. "He's stiffed a bunch of companies for thousands of dollars, and we're the bad guys?" he wonders. (Brady confirms the bankruptcies but says he has completely satisfied all creditors. In his view, "These bankruptcies have absolutely no bearing on Video Professor and how they do business.") Olson alleges that Brady has used his Video Professor gripes to attract surfers and then direct them to sites from which he stands to gain financially. Sure enough, the "Scam" page includes links to FirewallReporting.com, where folks can find products that Brady says "will help them tighten up the security on their computer," and Mangosteenforall.biz, devoted to the wonders of mangosteen juice, which Brady and his wife, Rita, distribute.

But while Video Professor was able to force the removal of screen captures that Brady took from its site and put on his, the firm can't silence him. As a result, "Scam" has become the Internet's favorite stop for Video Professor detractors, and Brady, who fancies himself a journalist (his website lists decades-old gigs at a radio station and a newspaper in New Mexico), is vigilant about keeping it updated. He says he's collected "500 or 600 separate e-mails from all kinds of people, most of them seniors or less than economically well-off people" who feel Scherer took advantage of them, and contends that "my whole goal for putting up the 'Video Professor Scam' website was just to alert customers that they don't fully disclose the terms of what they're going to do."

That's not wholly accurate -- but there are some curious aspects about how Video Professor divulges some key facts. People ordering off the Internet have to go through a two-step process to obtain discs, and the site won't complete the transaction until users click a box stating that they've read text in a pop-up entitled "How It Works." (Brady acknowledges that, "like many busy people," he checked the box without so much as scanning what he refers to as "the fine print.") These passages say that customers can keep two of the three discs sent to them, but individuals who don't want to be charged the full price must call an 800 number within ten days to notify the company that they'll return one. (This differs from the TV offer, in which customers receive one disc rather than three and can return it for a shipping refund.) Consumers who don't get in touch are automatically charged for the full set after ten days and are enrolled in a "review" program. "Every five weeks you will continue learning," the "How It Works" section states, "by automatically receiving other Video Professor subjects you have probable interest in, billed on the exact same terms as your first shipment."

The logic behind the subscription offer is a bit dubious: Why would a person who wanted to learn Microsoft PowerPoint be eager to tackle, say, Corel WordPerfect the next month? But Olson maintains that customers can halt the program at any juncture, and emphasizes that every phone call that comes into Video Professor is recorded, to be certain that operators aren't drifting off script and upselling customers -- i.e., convincing them to go beyond the minimum freebie proposition -- by using ambiguous language or other unethical procedures.

Olson grants that Video Professor had an "unsatisfactory" rating with the Better Business Bureau a few years back, but he says that was because the BBB didn't really "understand" their business. Following meetings with bureau personnel to educate them on their approach, Video Professor signed up as a member last year, and lo and behold, the rating is now "satisfactory." The number of complaints looks hefty -- 574 in the last three years, 118 in the past twelve months -- but each one has either been straightened out or, in BBB parlance, the company has made a "good faith effort" to resolve the situation. Olson puts the complaints at three-tenths of a percent of total shipments and sales.

One reason this total is so low, Scherer says, is because he instructs his employees to do whatever they can to avoid conflicts with customers. "We just keep refunding people forever. If you bought our product three years ago and weren't really happy about it but waited that long to contact us, we'll refund the money. Why fight over it?"

Of course, Video Professor execs are willing to scrap when they feel their rights have been violated. "We have brought lawsuits based on intellectual-property violations," says VP general counsel Susan Gindin. "If you don't take action, you really lose the effectiveness of your trademark."

Currently, Gindin is pursuing legal remedies against two companies. The most recent involves Albany, New York's Adirondack Manufacturing Corporation, which at one time was a Video Professor affiliate; by licensing agreement, Adirondack owner Chuck Price received a percentage of any Video Professor sale he made from his website. This relationship was severed, Gindin says, when Price purchased Google keywords in violation of the pact. Afterward, VP minions Googled the words "Video Professor" and scored a hit with ProWebPromotions.com, which Price owns. Today the site is quite benign, but Gindin says that at one time, it disparaged Video Professor with comments from "J. Steven Wilson," a so-called senior reviewer who urged customers not to be fooled by "self-proclaimed TV Guru's" [sic] and then herded visitors to a second Price site selling competing computer tutorials. She adds that Price directly copied the privacy policy and terms of use from Video Professor's website, right down to a sentence stating "that any lawsuit brought would be in Colorado." The line turned out to be prescient: Papers have been filed in Denver District Court.

Price referred questions about the case to his Denver-based attorney, Luke McFarland, who stresses that he and his client have both attempted to work out the dispute. "Chuck called and said, 'I don't want to fight about it. I'll take the site down.' They said, 'Great, but you need to pay our legal fees, which are $8,000.' And Chuck doesn't make that much money; that's more than he would probably make on sales for two years. So he had no choice but to hire local counsel." McFarland says he tried to get Video Professor to drop the matter "but they refused. So I decided Chuck should take his page down anyway, so that if they wanted to fight over essentially nothing, a page that was up for a short time, didn't mention Video Professor by name and hardly made any money, that would be their choice." Under the theory that "a good offense is a good defense," McFarland plans "to file a counterclaim and look at whether Video Professor's claims are deceptive.

"I have hundreds of e-mails," he alleges, "from people saying that they were basically tricked into these subscription programs and have been unable to cancel them -- people calling me, asking, 'Can you help me?'"

"We thought to resolve things for the cost of our attorney fees in light of the willful manner in which Mr. Price proceeded was extremely reasonable," Gindin counters. "But I guess he saw there was an opening for further disparagement and found a local attorney."

The other tussle revolves around Buffalo, New York's Richard Rost, another past Video Professor affiliate whose site can be found at cd.com. A suit was filed against him in January 2005 because "he was disparaging Video Professor on his website, and he was cyber-squatting," Gindin says. "He'd bought three domain names with 'Video Professor' in them, which is trademark infringement, and he was using our copyrighted materials." As she tells it, Rost "sounded so contrite that he was able to convince our attorney that everything was unintentional, and we settled on April 5 for no funds whatsoever." But within weeks, Rost had set up another website that Video Professor considered damaging, and specifics of the confidential settlement agreement turned up on the web page overseen by -- surprise, surprise -- Ben E. Brady. Hence another lawsuit, which Gindin predicts will go to trial in Denver within the next couple of months.

Rost says he doesn't remember telling Brady anything about the settlement; that contradicts comments from Brady and Gindin, who thinks Brady threw Rost "in front of the bus" in a deposition last October. And although he confirms that his website sported "some vague references to 'beware of our competitors,'" he says he "certainly had no intention of saying anything negative about the Video Professor once we settled." He concludes by playing the contrition card to which Gindin alluded: "I'm still trying to settle everything amicably, and I know that as a competitor, I shouldn't have said anything negative about them in the first place. I want to get along with Video Professor, because they're a very big company and I'm a very small company. I want to kiss and make up."

Predictably, Gindin remains resolutely unpuckered. The message is clear: Don't mess with the Professor.

In the meantime, Scherer is looking to a future he considers to be practically blinding. The amount of people who are utterly clueless about computers and have no resource to get informed other than Video Professor's 800 number or website would seem to be shrinking fast, but he's confident there are plenty of tech-challenged people he hasn't reached thus far. Indeed, the latest Video Professor infomercial finds Scherer at a makeshift computer exposition set up at Park Meadows mall, and the vast majority of participants with whom he speaks seem naive enough to believe that pushing the "tab" button would order them a diet soft drink.

Nevertheless, Video Professor is constantly looking at ways to expand its market. Scherer expects to soon branch into languages other than English, which may explain why VP's attorneys put the legal kibosh on a company that did business as Spanish Video Professor. And he expects that online lesson delivery, which is a fairly small part of the picture right now, will experience a swift growth spurt. "The Internet is where we're heading," he says. "Overseas, many people may see our commercials, but they can't call our 800 number. But on the Internet, they can all get to us."

New products are also on the agenda, and Scherer came up with an idea for one of them in an especially odd way. Upon becoming a victim of identity theft committed by a former employee, he went public about his experiences even as his staff was whipping up identity-theft-prevention software and a tutorial about how to use it. His other causes include supporting troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The company sends free discs to any soldier stationed there who requests them, and it built a computer lab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where many of the most gravely wounded are treated. Scherer, who was once in the Army, preaches about the need for corporations to use their resources to help vets -- a point he's driven home during cameos on Fox News alongside personalities Tony Snow and Neil Cavuto.

Appearances such as these have the side effect of introducing Video Professor to people who are awake during the day, as do alternative marketing schemes like the Sundance Festival stopover and a previous one at the Country Music Association Awards, where VP's booth drew the notice of the Wall Street Journal. (Last December, a photo of Grammy winner Alison Krauss holding up a Video Professor box adorned the front of the Journal's business section.) But for Scherer, nothing can top being needled by Jay Leno in a monologue on the Tonight show. During one commercial, Scherer had held up handwritten letters from contented customers, and Leno wanted to know why people who'd supposedly learned how to use computers were resorting to pens.

In another kind of exposure, the Denver Post's Bill Husted supplemented an item about Video Professor's purchase of Tillie the dummy with a note that Scherer had been at an adjacent table during a Husted visit to the Diamond Cabaret steak-and-strip joint. If this revelation bothered him, he hasn't let on to Olson, who points out that Scherer is "all grown up" -- and single, too. His closest companion is his yellow lab, Payson, named for a town in Arizona; Scherer spends extended stretches in the state. "He's a great dog," he reports, "but he's allergic to everything."

For his part, Scherer is mainly sensitive to criticism. Knowing that the Ben E. Bradys of the world are out there denigrating him at this very moment visibly upsets him. "You become successful and people want to take potshots against you," he grumbles. But he brightens at the thought of his increasing notoriety, even if it cuts in on his privacy.

"I can go to the store, but if I do, everyone will say, 'You're the guy on TV,'" he says. "At the dry cleaner's the other day, they did the same thing. But that's not bad. That tells us we're there; we've penetrated the market. If we're a household name, we've done something right."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts