On either side of the main hallway at its downtown headquarters, a short history of AY Media Group lines the walls in framed back issues. It’s a noteworthy collection of editions, culled from 35 years of narrating the life and times of The Natural State. On one end, a yellowed, fragile copy of Issue 1 No. 1 of Active Years; a little farther find a 20th anniversary edition of AY and a few frames more, there’s a copy of AY About You boasting Gov. and First Lady Mike and Ginger Beebe.

 

Vicki Vowell

 

It only takes a few minutes to take in the covers comprising this whirlwind glimpse of three and a half decades of publishing history, which is itself aptly symbolic. For Vicki Vowell, who with scant resources and abundant determination started this enterprise, the years have passed nearly as quickly as a stroll down the hall of archives.

 

“I know the first 10 years were just a blur, because you’re just working, working, working, getting it going,” Vowell said. “I think when you start hitting the 15-year milestone or the 20-year milestone, you’re like, OK, cool. This is solid. This is working.

 

“To look back now, it blows me away. I mean, it really does. From our humble beginnings to where we are now, it is night and day with all our products. I think it’s just that love of what we’re doing and the stories we are telling. That love will always continue because it needs to; we’ve got a beautiful state and we need to showcase it. We need to tell our story.”

 

As you might expect, the hallway contains only a fraction of AY About You history over the past 35 years. Anywhere you look throughout the maze of offices at AY Media Group, the heritage is on display, hanging framed on the walls, lining bookshelves, stacked wherever they fit. Each issue is an Arkansas mosaic of assembled snapshots and moments in time – a million keystrokes telling thousands of stories, captured between hundreds and hundreds of covers.

 

The voices are varied, reflecting the multitude of writing and artistic talent that have graced these pages over the years, but the themes are relatively few. There’s lifestyle, as expressed through beautiful homes, travel and taste; culture, channeled through entertainment, food and music; and activism, expressed in worthwhile causes and organizations. And there’s the people – the famous, the infamous and the in-between, whose triumphs and tragedies define the soul of the state and the state of humanity.

 

“To me, the story is everything,” Vowell said. “We’ve always focused on the state of Arkansas, which meant events, people and places or whatever subject we were tackling. But it was also sharing stories of what people have gone through, whether it was breast cancer or families affected by suicide. Those stories and events are also the fabric of our state.

 

“So, when I think about the stories we’ve done, I think about how we’ve been able to tell them in ways that have changed lives or grown some community movement, as well as just entertained people. That’s been so huge.”

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Any entrepreneurial venture is a gamble and nowhere more so than in publishing that’s as true today as it was in 1988 when the headstrong Vowell launched Active Years, just six years removed from graduating the University of Arkansas with a degree in journalism. It was an audacious idea, starting a magazine with little more than a typewriter, a computer and $10,000 in borrowed funds.

 

Working from a two-room office at the old Wrape Building at the corner of Capitol Avenue and Center Street in downtown Little Rock, Vowell set out to mine the Baby Boomer Generation as they began their march toward their golden years.

 

ay turns 35

 

As a 2009 “High Profile” piece on Vowell in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette noted, the inaugural cover story, “Discover Little Rock’s Most Unique Attractions,” encouraged readers to “Enjoy a candlelight evening during the Quapaw Quarter’s Candlelight Tour of Homes. Or spend the afternoon with the grandkids at the Little Rock Zoo. Whatever your choice, you’re bound to have fun!”

 

Active Years not only faced the usual challenges of competing for eyeballs and advertising dollars with other publications, it also took some doing to capture the niche market upon which it was founded. Boomers have been a coveted market segment for decades, but in the late 1980s few were willing to see themselves portrayed as senior citizens.

 

“We really were targeting a specialized niche market,” Vowell said. “It was a little limiting off the start, because people would say, ‘I’m not a senior citizen, I’m not going to read that.’ There was definitely agism that we had to get past. But once we did, it just grew.”

 

Hindsight being what it is, Vowell’s gamble paid off but not simply on the strength of a good idea. A competing magazine also targeting the 50-plus reader had all but folded at about the time Active Years launched, so future success was hardly a given. Vowell’s nose for her audience’s taste was unquestionable, supported through relentless old-school marketing hustle through community involvement and word of mouth, helping the publication gain momentum.

 

“Vicki changed the publication landscape here in Arkansas and built a successful, profitable business,” said Mimi Van Pedro, chief strategy officer with The Venture Center of Little Rock. “I work with entrepreneurs every day here at The Venture Center and I understand firsthand their struggles. To me, Vicki Vowell epitomizes the heart and soul of what makes entrepreneurs successful.”

 

“I’ve known Vicki for 35 years, going back to when she started her first magazine,” said Sandra Byrd, a longtime friend and vice president of public affairs and member services with Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas. “As an adventurous and creative storyteller, Vicki boldly stepped out to produce a new, dynamic lifestyle magazine. Fast-forward to 2023 and Vicki’s 35-year legacy spans the gamut of showcasing thousands of creative, interesting stories about the people and places in Arkansas.”

 

Today’s technology belies how analog and manually intensive the publishing process used to be. What is now laid out digitally and transmitted via a few clicks into the cloud used to entail creating physical paste-ups called flats. Those flats then had to be transported to a production facility which converted them to oversized photographic negatives, in turn transferred to large metal sheets called plates. Plates attached to an offset press that printed and bound pages into a magazine.

 

 

Not only was the production process more laborious, it required face-to-face handoffs, no matter where your printer was located. Like all small publishing startups, that meant Vowell the owner and editor also spent time as Vowell the courier and delivery driver.

 

“Originally, we were printed over at Twin City Printing, but we outgrew their press fairly quickly,” Vowell said. “When we went to four-color, we used a printer in Mountain Home, Arkansas, which meant driving up there to take the flats in and then hitching a U-Haul and driving the product back to Little Rock.

 

“Now, Mountain Home is beautiful, but if you’ve ever driven there, it’s pretty winding and we’re talking about sometimes driving in snow, rain, ice. Crazy, right? But they were a good printer and they had one of the only presses that could print us, so it didn’t matter. When you have a dream, you just go for it, you do what it takes.”

 

Gaining traction, the milestones began to pile up. The tabloid newspaper upgraded to full color in 1992 and switched to a slick magazine format in March 2000. In January 2005, the name changed to AY with the tagline “All About You” and the editorial focus broadened to a wider demographic. Today, AY About You is one of the largest-circulated and widest-read lifestyle publications in Arkansas. Built on the art of storytelling, every month brings readers stories of culture, causes and community that are uniquely Arkansas yet universally human.

 

“I always knew people were reading us and paying attention to us because I was out in the community and people would tell me,” Vowell said. “Not only would they tell me, they’d quote the story to me. So, I knew that we were striking a nerve, if you will. I always knew that we were focusing on and showcasing great stories because of that feedback.”

 

“Vicki created a great brand in AY that was separate and apart in its purpose from other competing publications,” said Millie Ward, president of longtime Little Rock advertising firm Stone Ward. “She focused on quality editorial and was always mindful of helping nonprofits get their messages out at little to no cost. Vicki is a class act and her legacy lives on as AY grows and adapts to connect with today’s readers.”

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

As impressive as the magazine’s continued success and relevance is, it’s only half the story of AY About You. The other lies in the many charitable causes and support of nonprofits that magazine has given over the decades. Again, much of it all started with a compelling story, such as on the subject of breast cancer.

 

“We were doing interviews for the Komen Race for the Cure with women who were survivors,” Vowell said. “They were so happy to be together and share their struggles in battling the disease.

 

“I loved them being together and talking about how they just wanted to feel pretty and good again. That was the launch of Runway for a Cure.”

 

Vowell mobilized people and resources in the community to launch the fundraising event, a fashion show where the models were all cancer survivors, raising $25,000 the first year. Over a decade, the event – eventually adopted by Komen as Runway for a Cause – would raise $1 million for cancer research, bolstered in no small way by the exposure provided in the pages of AY About You magazine.

 

“I met Vicki almost 23 years ago when she called me and asked for a cake recipe for her magazine. I baked a cake and took it to her office,” said friend and mentor Shirley Davis Miller. “While there, we discussed starting a charity for breast cancer survivors. We decided to start the charity, even though neither of us knew how to begin one and that was the beginning of Runway for a Cure.

 

“During this time, we developed a close bond, and I continued to watch her grow and change her company over the years. She’s a very caring, very successful businesswoman who I continue to be privileged to know.”

 

The experience of working with the women, and the stories that flowed out of them, was heady stuff. In bringing their survival stories to light, AY About You opened eyes and hearts as easily as it opened donors’ wallets.

 

“Seeing these women, each of whom is fighting for her life, come down that runway and she looks beautiful and she’s sassy. That was just so cool,” Vowell said. “Then at the end of the runway they’re holding up signs – which I think was Penny Burkhalter’s idea – that read five years, 10 years, 25 years a cancer survivor.

 

“I’d look in the audience and there would be a young woman who had just been diagnosed and she’s like, ‘Yeah!’ I mean, just think of that, the electricity of that girl realizing, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ That moment gave people so much hope.”

 

ay turns 35

 

In addition to showcasing other nonprofits’ stories through the years, Vowell also found creative ways to connect her business interests to fundraising for worthy causes.

 

“Something else I’m proud of, we used to do Singles in the City and that was really important because it was a network of people who were single who could meet and socialize and raise money we did,” Vowell said. “We’d have a singles auction and give money to Make-a-Wish and then we partnered with Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

 

“We also did AY’s Makeovers for a period of time where we would partner with some of our great advertisers and give makeovers to women who had suffered domestic abuse. I think we made a difference then and I think we continue to make a difference today. That’s everything to me.”

 

The drive to make a difference even led to the creation of an entirely new publication, Mental Health Guide of Arkansas.

 

Mental Health Guide is a passion project,” Vowell said. “When it comes to mental health issues, it is epidemic in our communities and there’s a lot more situations now that we have to deal with, whether it was from COVID here recently or something else. In this world, there’s just a lot to struggle with. I think suicide needs to be talked about and I think we need to do more.

 

“What I know that we can do as a company is we can share stories helping people recognize the signs to watch for and share the associations and places to get help. I think that’s extremely important for any individual, let alone our kids. It’s just part of the brand of the magazine to do what needs to be done.”

 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Today, AY About You continues to be a bellwether of all that is happening in Arkansas culture, fashion, food, music, tourism and charitable causes, as well as showcasing personalities and human interest stories from one end of the state to the other. Its lifetime list of writers and designers is long, many of whom have gone on to careers at other publications or launched businesses of their own.

 

Heather Baker AY turns 35

Heather Baker

 

At the same time, the magazine has changed with the times, adding an online component and greatly expanding its multimedia footprint under the leadership of President and Publisher Heather Baker, who joined the company six years ago.

 

“One of the things AY has always been known for is how it showcases what’s great about living in Arkansas,” Baker said. “There are so many things going on in our beautiful state that are worth celebrating and AY About You does it better than anybody. And then when you add on the social consciousness and the support of local nonprofits and worthwhile causes, that shows an even deeper level of commitment to our state.

 

“It’s relatively easy to just sit back and write about what’s already working, but at AY we strive to make our state better by shining a spotlight on the organizations that are doing such incredible work to improve the health, prosperity and happiness of people in their communities and across Arkansas. When you can put all that together in the same publication, the result is something special.”

 

“Our team and our staff are so important to our success, and Heather is doing such a great job” Vowell said. “She reminds me of me years ago. That’s why I think we get along, even in the occasional times we disagree, because we are yin and yang, we complement each other.

 

“Mostly, though, we love the product, we love the business. You have to; if you don’t love publishing, don’t get in it because it’s a grueling business. I have been blessed throughout my career to have found those people. I have been successful at including successful people, if you will. That’s been a big part of it.”

 

AY About You finds itself in a unique chapter of the magazine publishing industry. Over the course of its lifespan, it’s one of a select few magazines in Arkansas, let alone in Little Rock, to have survived as long as it has. But even as other publishing ventures have come and gone in that time, others have sprung up to take their place.

 

 

Within this constantly changing environment, only a handful of publications in Central Arkansas have persevered, AY About You among them. But it hasn’t been easy, nor has it happened without new thinking and bold leadership when it comes to brand exposure and innovation in marketing. Under Baker’s leadership, the profile of the magazine has been greatly enhanced through work with nonprofits, sponsoring community events and through relentless and skillful promotion through companion media platforms.

 

“The magazine has always been known for great writing and excellent photography and layout. That’s a constant,” she said. “But in today’s media market, that’s not enough to survive in a very competitive environment. One of the things I’ve tried to accomplish here is to leverage other outlets – whether it’s a TV segment, a radio guest slot or social media – to their fullest potential. This not only builds our brand, it also serves our readers by giving them another way to access content. And, in the case of nonprofit groups, it advances great causes in the community as well, which is our legacy.”

 

Baker has also built the company’s social media presence from a relative nonfactor six years ago to an important and influential way to connect with readers and bring value to advertisers. She brought a deft touch to marketing the brand via TV and radio, partnering with various programs to promote local events and spotlighting restaurants via the magazine’s recurring Bucket List feature series. All of which has kept the AY About You’s name at the forefront of people’s minds and established it as an influential voice and trusted source of information.

 

“Like any business, we’re numbers-driven and the numbers say that we’re winning,” she said. “We continue to innovate and achieve great things as a company and as a team in partnership with our loyal advertisers. It wasn’t without its growing pains, but we stuck to a game plan and made it happen, together. I think that’s the biggest thing about this anniversary, because not a lot of magazines last this long unless they embrace change.

 

“I’ll be the first one to tell you, that’s not easy. In fact, change is often downright painful for organizations. But it’s something I try to inspire in the staff all the time, that mindset that we’re going to continue to look forward and think creatively and do what it takes to evolve and succeed.”

 

Despite additional pressure to compete for advertising revenue, not to mention paper and printing costs spiking since the pandemic, the rumors of the demise of the printed word – to borrow from Mark Twain – are greatly exaggerated. Statista reported in 2020 the number of magazines nationwide is on a two-year uptick, and that doesn’t even include the explosion of online media in all formats in recent years. All of which underscores the magazine’s 35th anniversary as a major milestone worth celebrating. But also, in Vowell’s opinion, as an opportunity to ponder the best that is yet to come.

 

“Everybody has a backstory, everything has roots,” Vowell said. “That’s one of the things that I think we do so well is we tell the roots of history in Arkansas, and the events and everything else. You just don’t get that in most magazines every month and I think that’s very powerful. That is the brand.

 

“But it’s also about things that are bigger than yourself, bigger than a magazine. I remember people who’d come up and tell me we did a piece on surviving breast cancer and because of what we wrote they got a mammogram. All of a sudden, you go wow, this is a powerful thing that I’m part of, something that has made a big difference in 35 years.”

 

At this Vowell pauses, as if summoning the words to fit the enormity of what she feels for what AY About You has come to stand for in the history of Arkansas publishing. Of remembering the palpable excitement of Day One’s potential and how a little bit of that spark has seeped into every issue since.

 

“I love the nostalgia of how hard it was but I do not want to go back to those days,” she said with a knowing laugh. “I’ve lived and breathed the company for a very long time but that was just part of my makeup and it’s part of me. To get from May 1988 and that first issue to today took a lot of tenacity and drive and know-how and, more importantly, having the right people in the right place doing the right job and having the love of it.

 

“That’s what I think has truly made this venture successful; finding that group, working our tails off and producing great, not only print products, but community events and online products. It’s not a formula, it’s almost magic that happens. But you have to be out there making it happen. I’m just really proud to have been part of this for 35 years.”

ay turns 35

••••••••••••••

I have been buying ads from Vicki for pretty much all of those 35 years. Plus, I ate breakfast with her every Tuesday for decades at the LREA. I attended her open houses and watched her various ventures in publications. Thirty-five years later, they are quite successful, expanded greatly and outlasted much of her competition, something I have tried to mimic at Tipton & Hurst.

Howard Hurst

President/CEO, Tipton & Hurst

••••••••••••••

We were so young back then, but young and hungry we were!  Some of the most innovative ideas came from that hunger! AY Magazine was one of them. To me, Vicki Vowell epitomizes the heart and soul of what makes entrepreneurs successful. Her vision, drive, passion, and her ability to build and maintain relationships are why we are today, celebrating her and AY’s 35th Anniversary!

Mimi San Pedro

Chief Strategy Officer, The Venture Center

••••••••••••••

Vicki and I have known each other for many years through an organization called LREA. This is a business group that meets for breakfast every Tuesday. I have watched Vicki continue to wisely grow her company. I have always been amazed by her energy level, and her ability to guide others in responsibility.

When my wife, Shirley, and I began dating in 2009, we were delighted to find a common friend in Vicki and we continue to be close friends to this day. Vicki is truly an enormous asset for the entire state of Arkansas. Congratulations on 35 years!

Bill Miller,

Longtime Friend

••••••••••••••

What a wild ride these 30-plus years. Vicki and I started our journeys almost simultaneously and she offered me standing within the publication that gave me a “leg up” within our community. I have not forgotten these many years Vicki’s kindness, business acumen and friendship that has left an indelible imprint on our surgical practice and me as well. Thank you so much for all that you have done and who you are.

Dr. Jim English

English Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery Center

••••••••••••••

I met Vicki while volunteering to support Runway for a Cause and found her, in sum, impressive. Not only did I admire her sense of service and community and how much she cared about the mission, I just loved working with her and supporting her in any way I could. I am proud to call her a friend and colleague.

Kristi Moody

EVP, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Windstream Holdings

••••••••••••••

Vicki’s story is legendary, a role model for aspiring journalists and publishers. She started with very little and built a very successful business. I met Vicki when I interviewed her for “High Profile” and we have remained friends ever since. I will always treasure our friendship.

Rachel O’Neal,

Editor, High Profile, Arkansas Democrat Gazette

••••••••••••••

I am absolutely thrilled to recognize Vicki on her 35th year in business. She was the first person to give me a job as a graphic designer when I was fresh out of college and her willingness to give me an opportunity to grow and learn was invaluable, inspiring me to pursue a career in publishing that I truly love. Vicki’s passion, dedication and hard work have built a business that is not only successful but also deeply respected, a reflection of her incredible leadership and unwavering commitment to excellence. Congratulations.

Sarah Knight

President, Wheelhouse Publishing

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Vicki is a delight to work with, always courteous and patient and reports without an agenda.

Louis Cella

President, Oaklawn

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Vicki and AY Magazine have always been a huge promoter of Arkansas, its places, its events, its beauty, its people, its stories, everything that makes Arkansas special. In my opinion, this mentality has kept this publication relevant and successful when many others have failed.

Jim Shamburger

Owner – Best Western Winners Circle – Hot Springs

Member State Parks, Recreation, & Travel Commission

••••••••••••••

I have known Vicki since she started her business. She has always had my greatest respect.  She earned her success the old fashioned way.  She became successful as a result of her hard work and being savvy with her decision making.”

Shelby Woods

CJRW

••••••••••••••

A third of American businesses close during their first two years, and half are gone within five. The fact that AY is celebrating its 35th anniversary is not only a testament to Vicki’s creativity and tenacity, it illustrates her steadfast devotion to AY’s readers and advertisers. I’m both honored and humbled to see my occasional byline in this fine publication.

Joe David Rice

Author