Issue 78: ProFile: Daniel Prentice (pt 2)

Where have we been, and what’s on the horizon?

In our last issue (#77), we started a two part interview with one of the most influential kite personalities over the past 30 years and we had the opportunity to ask him a little about where he came from, what inspired him to become a part of the kiting community and industry… In this second and final half, we wanted to get a taste (or more than a taste) of the experiences he had through kiting’s rise and eventual decline in North America, both in relation to his own involvement and overall.

Between 1988 and 1999, Daniel Prentice published what many kiters consider to be the “best” kite magazine in the USA, and along with two other magazines, those magazines fueled the interest in the American kiting community and generally kept our sport alive. During that period, Val Govig was running Kite Lines, which was almost (but not quite) an “international” kiting magazine, and Chris Batdorff published Stunt Kite Quarterly, specifically discussing the amazing proliferation of Sport Kites that was occurring and the competitive events where they were flown.

We hope you enjoy this interview as much as we (the staff at Kitelife) have… If you remember the “good old days”, if you’ve only heard about them, or if you’re fresh on the scene, this has turned out to be one of the most stimulating interviews we’ve had the pleasure of publishing and it brings up some very provocative lines of thought on the history and progression of organized kiting.

Daniel, what prompted you to begin publication of American Kite Magazine? Yes, we know that the interest among kiters was certainly there, but what other factors and needs did you recognize that prompted the start-up of AKM?

I agree with you…all three magazines were contributing different things and each had a unique value to the greater community. For about ten years Kite Lines was the only game in town and Valerie Govig did a great job with it. Kite Lines was the voice of kiting and as you say it was very international in its editorial focus, except for one glaring omission: Valerie didn’t cover the American kite scene.

This was crazy to me because America was leading the renaissance in kiting. We were leading the world in materials such as ripstop, carbon, Kevlar, Spectra as well as design of dual line and quadline kites. We were creating the sport, team flying, competitions and darn-near everything else and the one kite magazine in the world – Kite Lines – wasn’t covering it. It was frustrating, to say the least. I tried to talk Valerie into changing her editorial slant, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

I was president of the KTA (Kite Trade Association) in ’86 and ’87 and I saw that if we were going to grow as an industry and as a sport, we needed a magazine about the American kite world, so I just decided to do it myself.

Can you tell us how AKM all came together? After all, your American Kite Magazine had an 11 year run before you called it quits. That undertaking must have taken some time, a lot of effort, a whole team of people, and more than a little out-of-pocket expense!

Can you tell us a little bit about the overall “mission” and the “vision” behind it that went into creating the American Kite Magazine. And where in the world did you find the staff necessary to produce such a fine publication? Putting that team together, managing it day-to-day, and then producing the caliber of articles that went into AKM must have been a huge – and ongoing – effort. Comments, please…

Well, there was one main problem to me starting a kite magazine…I didn’t know anything about publishing. The answer to that problem was simple but expensive. I hired the best talent I could find. My first editor was John Burks, a journalism professor, who was the managing editor at Rolling Stone in the late sixties. Then I hired a professional art director, designers, copy-editors and whoever was needed. They were all pros and they taught me the business.

The mission was simple: to promote the American kite world. The vision was to do this through telling the stories of the people in kiting. We didn’t care so much about being the technical journal of kiting, we wanted to celebrate the joy of kiting.

And, in the very first issue of AKM you proposed what became the “American Kite Circuit” of Sport Kite events, and then followed those discussions up with further debate and the eventual creation of an actual “circuit” that offered “professional” fliers (Yes – there actually WERE some “kite-professionals” back then) a chance at some “National” recognition and some very good prizes too.

As we remember, the “American Kite Circuit” existed for some time, and is still fondly remembered by many of those who flew in AKC events back then. (Kitelife’s Editor/Publisher, John Barresi, still treasures his “Rising Star” and “Outstanding Flyer” awards from the AKC as much as any kiting trophy he has ever received!) Again, your views…

Other people were way ahead of me on this one. I think the first person I heard talking about a national circuit was Corey Jensen and my first reaction was that it was a crazy idea. But I began to understand what was possible. When I became president of the KTA, I tried to find a way to grow the industry and also help the AKA. For two years I pushed the idea of a KTA Pro-Am Kite Circuit. My idea was that the KTA would fund the circuit and the AKA would oversee the flyers and protect their interests. But the KTA Board of Directors wouldn’t go for it and the AKA was also against it.
So once again, I just decided to do it myself. People are always telling you that you can’t do things, but if you believe in something, you just have to make it happen. The circuit and the magazine went hand-in-hand, each needing the other. The American kite movement needed it. There were all these events going on all over the country and each event had its own rules book and each event organizer was trying to run things so it benefitted their organization. But there was something much bigger going on in the country as a whole, and that’s what I was focused on. A lot of people were doing a lot of work on creating this new sport and many of them resented me using American Kite to organize it. I understood that, and I still do. But we needed a national voice to make it happen and the KTA and AKA weren’t going to do it…hence we needed a national magazine.

People tend to focus on our creating a national point standings, from which a national champion was declared…as if that was creating the circuit. In the simplest of terms that was true but reporting scores, does not a circuit make. Back then, they were handing out small paper-weight-type trophies for winning the Grand Nationals. In 1988, we showed up in Chicago at the AKA convention and handed out silver Paul Revere bowls on hardwood bases to award the American Kite champions. I made sure people’s names were engraved on the awards. We were making a statement: You are the best in the nation! You’re a champion!

Throughout the magazine’s history we would run small articles on all the Circuit events. These articles took a lot of time and effort and were only important to a limited number of readers but their existence was important. From all that research we watched for trends, rising stars and the competitive drama of the sport. Then we ran feature stories about that drama…making the Circuit itself the story. From this we could tell the stories of the successes and failures of flyers and teams and the emergence of star flyers and their amazing art. That was what we were doing. Anybody could keep scores…that wasn’t it.

I knew that Daniel Prentice couldn’t run the circuit, it wouldn’t be right. So we appointed a circuit committee to oversee rankings, rules and such. That committee forced all the events on the circuit to use one standardized rules book from the AKA, which was a very big deal at the time. We also organized the events to drive up attendance at the annual AKA convention. You would think that was a good thing, but people in the AKA got very upset by that. Back then there was this culture clash between single-liners and dual-liners and people weren’t happy that so many dual-liners were taking over the convention flying fields.

It’s a long, long story, with different AKA presidents changing and lots of politics. I’m a lousy politician. I tend to say what’s on my mind when I should shut-up and listen. In that regard, I failed to bring the AKA in line with our efforts. I know that as late as 1993 the board of directors voted to not officially recognize the American Kite Circuit. Similarly, I don’t think Kite Lines or SKQ ever covered it editorially or with any substance. It was crazy, we were doing all this great stuff promoting kiting and yet the other American organizations and magazines were acting like it didn’t exist. Again, looking back I see that as my failure, not to get them involved.

And you also ended up creating something called the “World Cup Stunt Kite Championships!” This affair was the predecessor to today’s “World Sport Kite Championships,” currently being held every other year – usually in Berk sur Mer, France. We would certainly like you to offer a little history on those original “World Cup Championships” festivals too, sir…

The World Cup Sport Kite Championships was my baby. I look back on that with a lot of pride, forgive me. I remember waking my wife up in the middle of the night and telling her the whole idea and she just smiled, nodded her head and went back to sleep. I guess she was kind of used to me getting excited about things.

The idea was to create a huge ripple effect out of a single event. For the event we invited 12 to 15 of the world’s best kite teams, five of the world’s best judges and held the event in different venues around the world. For the judges, it was all expenses paid. For the flyers we paid half their air travel and three nights hotel expenses. Unlike other competitions, there were no registration fees, instead the event would be paid for by sponsors.

The event itself was like any well-run international festival with all the attendant benefits to flyers and spectators. For example, I think World Cup V in France had something like 60,000 spectators and was covered by three French TV networks, two national newspapers and other international media. But that wasn’t the real power of World Cup. The real power was what it spawned in all the participating countries. If a country wanted to send a team to World Cup they had to organize events, track scores, use standardized rules and judging criteria.

This one event — this one title of the world’s best kite team — spawned kiting events around the globe. Again, we couldn’t have done it without the magazine.

Eventually, of course – American Kite ceased publication. It is never easy to see “your baby” die, from whatever cause(s), but we would welcome any words you would care to share on that subject, Daniel… What took AKM off the presses?

Well the fact is, that American Kite never supported itself or its projects. It was being supported financially by Shanti or said another way, I was paying for it out of pocket. If I had told my wife what World Cup was going to cost us, I don’t think she would have gone back to sleep so easily. But I was OK with supporting American Kite because I loved doing a magazine and the kite industry was booming. I felt that part of this boom was because of some of the things we were doing through American Kite. Now there’s no way to measure this and people will disagree with me about the impact of our actions, so let me just say that this is (was) my opinion.

Now if my opinion was correct then it was also true that many other people were also benefiting from the magazine, the circuit, World Cup and other projects we were doing…that was fine with me. There was plenty for everyone. But like all magazines we depended on advertising revenue to cover pre-press and printing costs. When the importers began taking over the American kite industry in the mid-nineties, virtually all the small American kitemakers went under and with the collapse of the industry there was no ad revenue. You would have thought that the importers would have seen the benefit of advertising, but their business model is all about keeping costs down and profits high so that meant I had to finance everything out of Shanti. And to state the obvious, Shanti was taking a beating because I refused to take my manufacturing to China. At the same time, Shanti was not getting any direct benefit from American Kite because I had a strict editorial policy to never promote my own products in the magazine. Eventually, I couldn’t afford to print it, simple as that.

That said, when a company folds up, the owner is always the one responsible for its demise. No one else to blame but me. I made the decisions that caused it to fail. If I had wanted the magazine to be a business success, I could have changed the editorial focus to kite surfing and promoted that part of kiting. But my heart wasn’t in it. American Kite magazine was about our community: the AKA, the KTA, Ingraham, Jalbert, Govig, Ochse, Edeiken, Powell, Jensen, Wolff, Tabor, Gramkowski, Goodwinds, Sedgewick, Toy, Skinner, Tom and on and on…I could name a hundred more. People who believed in something and helped make it happen.

I wasn’t interested in publishing a magazine about surfer-dudes. That wasn’t my mission. That mission belonged to someone else.

And where do you see the sport going? What’s it’s future?

If by “sport,” you mean the pastime of kiting, then I see it continuing pretty much as it has. If by “sport” you mean competitive sport kite flying, I have to ask…what sport? When you only have a couple of teams competing in the AKA Grand Nationals, it’s hard to say we have a thriving sport. I read the other day about national championships in pizza dough throwing. You watch these guys on YouTube and they’re amazing but do you call that a sport? It’s embarrassing to me that people still view sport kite flying as a fringe sport like throwing pizza dough but the fact is we’ve lost our momentum.

In order to understand what’s possible, we need to look at the past and see what worked and what didn’t. Let’s look at what we need to popularize competitive sport kiteflying and how today compares to the mid-eighties when we started the whole thing going. Here’s what’s needed…

1) Good athletes. Got it.

2) Rules to the game. We’ve got that now, but we didn’t back then.

3) Organized events. In the 80’s and 90’s, kite retailers organized competitions to draw business to the stores. This still works but with the advent of online stores, it’s harder to drive sales back to the local event organizer. We need to pull online stores into event sponsorship.

4) Supportive manufacturing base. The quality of the equipment today is equal to what we had in the eighties but back then we had small manufacturers who sponsored teams and saw the Circuit as a way to market their products. The irony is that the importers drove the American manufacturers (who were supporting the sport) out of business with lower cost kites. Now importers are competing with other importers with the same low cost structures so they need other ways to promote their kites. Sponsoring teams makes good sense, but they’re also going to have to sponsor the Circuit because there’s nobody else left to do it. If the importers had left enough on the table for the small companies, they could have continued to reap the benefits without having to do the work. Flyers can have a big impact in this area by pressuring manufacturers and then supporting those who are involved.

5) External validation. This was missing in the mid-eighties and it’s missing now. We need an authoritative body to say that what we do is, in fact, a sport. Ideally this would be general media coverage…TV, magazines, the Olympics. Or it could be major corporate sponsorship which would spawn media coverage. These things are not going to happen without a lot of promotion by us. This is what we were able to do with American Kite. The folks that publish AKA Kiting do a great job but it’s a hobbyist newsletter, not a newsstand magazine. It’s serving its editorial purpose. American Kite had outside editorial and design staff, which made it look and feel different. Therefore, when we ran coverage about the “sport,” it didn’t seem like we were running articles about our club members. This gave credibility to flyers, manufacturers, event promoters and sponsors. The sport was happening on its own, American Kite just made it visible and valid to the general public. This needs to be done again.

6) Money. I learned a lesson about money from Eric Streed, one of the original flyers on team Top of the Line. In 1987, everyone was saying we needed bigger prize money for competitors, and Streed put up $5000 of his own money to challenge other flyers to come compete on the West Coast. It worked. That’s what I did for the American Kite Circuit and for World Cup. Now it’s time for someone else to step forward. It’s very doable. The major kite importers today, have more money than the small manufacturers did 25 years ago but they’re not supporting the sport. So let’s change the equation. There’s a new formula waiting to be implemented…someone just has to make it happen.

So if we want the sport to continue in its current format, we’re way ahead of the eighties but we still need those last two elements. Now there is another option which no one talks about anymore and that is…change the game. Create a new way to compete with kites, such as Tail-Grab. Attach a 20-foot tail with Velcro and fly aerial combat trying to steal the other guy’s tail. You could handicap advanced flyers with a longer tail. You could fly teams or individual. There’s the excitement of risking mid-air crashes and on and on. But mostly this would allow us to do away with the complicated rules book and subjective judging. At big competitions you would need a referee, but mostly flyers and spectators could all judge quite easily, who won and who lost.

Team ballet is a beautiful thing but there are other ways to have fun with kites. Millions of people around the world enjoy kiting as a sport by flying fighter kites. That would be fantastic with modern sport kites but prohibitively expensive. A plastic tail made out of yellow “warning” tape is cheap. It’s hard to compete in a sport when you need five trained judges and a big sound system. Basketball, baseball and football are all popular because they can be played in the backyard or in any open field with no referees or outside structure. Sport kites could be the same. We just need a little imagination.

And.. the “Final Question” for you:

We’d like your thoughts on the “Future of Kiting.” What “truisms” do you find to be golden in Kite Flying? Will “organized” (or “disorganized”) kiting prevail, fail, or evolve into something else entirely? Where to you see kiting headed? For that matter, where do you see Shanti going? And what would YOU still like to accomplish in kiting? Tell us about “the future” of kiting as you envision it.

There’s the old story about the woman watching her son marching in the band and she says, “Look, everybody’s out of step except for my Johnny.” Keeping that in mind, I will say that there appears to be two opinions as to the growth and decline of the American kite scene. The first opinion, held by most everyone says that the kite industry followed the normal lifecycles of this type of business…it grew to a certain saturation point then declined to the plateau where it is today. In short, it was a “fad” and like the yoyo or hula hoops, interest will rise and fall and all the small designers will get absorbed by larger companies and there’ll be consolidation and blah, blah, blah…

That’s not my experience. Kites have a unique place in the imagination and experience of humans. Through the humming line we’re tied to dreams of flight, to the feel of the wind and to the smallness of our creation in the huge sky of nature. The growth of the kiteworld was not due to any one person, it was due to the excitement, the passion, the creativity of hundreds of people. It was due to synergism…the sum being greater than the parts.

I was privileged to be a part of that and to have the opportunity to offer what I could to the effort. People sometimes think I’m bitter towards the importers and blame others for what has happened in the kite industry, but this is not true. I have nothing against the people making kites in China. They are hardworking people, just like us and they deserve all the help they can get. The people importing these kites aren’t bad people, they’re simply business people, doing what business people do. The problem isn’t importing product, it’s exporting jobs…making profit at the expense of your neighbor. When we work together, there’s more than enough for everybody.

We’re all shaped by our culture. I’m an old hippie that believes in sharing with others and changing the world for peace. After the hippie generation came the “me” generation that heard things like “greed is good” and “cleverness deserves to be rewarded.” That mindset is currently leading the kiteworld as well as our country. The result is the greatest redistribution of wealth this country has ever seen. The 400 richest Americans own as much as 150 million of their fellow Americans. So you see, their experience, their reality also appears to be true. But their success will be short-lived and the pain will be felt by many. It’s already happening.

The future of kiting, as with so many other things, is in the hands of the next generation. The younger people realize there are limits on the world’s resources and that things have to change. When I was a kid, “Made in Japan” was synonymous with cheap but obviously that’s changed. Inflation will come to China and their rising standard of living will not only raise the cost of kites made in China but will also hurry the depletion of the world’s oil reserves making shipping unaffordable and eventually the “buy local” campaigns which we now see in organic foods will apply to all products. It will all come round again but I don’t know if I will be around to see it.

In the meantime, my call goes out to the people who know and love kiting. Let’s make and sell products that are based on quality and function, not price and flash. Let’s show people that well-made kites can give you a lifetime of joy. They can bring families together. They can make you laugh at their whimsy or cry at their beauty. They are poetry in the sky, worthy of our attention.

I want to thank you for this opportunity to share my story. I also want to thank all those people who have bought our products through the years…my family and I appreciate it. To all those people I’ve worked with and even fought with in the kite industry, I am grateful for the opportunity to have stretched and explored the limits of what we could do. And to those flyers that stop in the field and teach others about our craft, you’re the ones that make it happen…thank you.

Daniel, thank you SO much for everything you’ve accomplished in kiting over the years. And thank you for taking the time to field Kitelife’s questions too. We appreciate your efforts very much, Sir!