A former punk rocker from Ottawa who sports a bushy beard and an undisguised Canadian accent, 35-year-old Shane Smith has become an unlikely media mogul. While far from a Murdoch-like figure — for one thing, Smith actually does some reporting himself, including trips to Chernobyl and Darfur — the one-time Reuters correspondent in Bosnia has become famous in hipper media circles for co-founding VICE Magazine and VBS.TV, its spin-off Internet site.
Originally called the Voice of Montréal when it was founded by Smith and two friends in 1994, VICE Magazine has gone from an obscure government-subsidized publication to an unlikely arbiter of global youth culture. When Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes began, they presented the publication as an outlet for black francophones in Quebec — a community of mostly Haitians, to which none of them belonged — so they could all receive government checks. It was, as Smith admits, a welfare scam to earn money while getting the magazine off the ground. When the trio bought out the publication and renamed it VICE, they successfully duped the Canadian media into believing the name change was a result of legal threats from The Village Voice. It earned them extensive coverage in their home country as underdogs fighting the American bully next door.
In 1999, stacks of the free magazine spread across U.S. cities and campuses, and VICE was widely celebrated for its blunt sense of humor and no-bullshit, anti-PC attitude on taboo topics. “Dos and Don’ts,” where random people’s fashion choices are drooled over or savagely critiqued (“When someone is this clueless it actually gets kind of scary. Like the way a lot of serial killers are autistic and they don’t look people in the eye because they don’t get what the big deal is with eyes.”) is their most recognized feature. Other articles have included “The VICE Guide to Shagging Muslims” and “Grandma Blowjob.”
But serving up funny quips about poorly dressed club kids is not their end goal. Over the last few years, VICE has become a media conglomerate. VICE now claims to distribute nearly 900,000 copies monthly in more than 13 editions around the world (new launches this year include Brazil, Mexico and Poland). That’s in addition to books, videos, music, a marketing company and the Old Blue Last, a company-owned pub in London. Most audacious and far-reaching is VBS.TV, an online broadcast network.
Between animated station breaks reminiscent of early MTV, VBS offers music videos, artist profiles and DIY journalism. While mainstream media flapped their gums about Paris Hilton and hid out behind blast walls in Baghdad’s Green Zone, VICE correspondents hung out in the practice space of an Iraqi heavy metal band, purchased guns in a Pakistan arms market, trekked across Darfur and hunted radioactive animals in Chernobyl’s contaminated zone. A recent issue of the magazine was even produced by an all-Iraqi staff.
Shane Smith has played an integral role in VBS. He’s filed reports from around the world and will soon be featured in a VBS series about North Korea. Playboy.com spoke to Smith about unbiased reporting, boomer dominance and how boozing all night in North Korea is just another part of building a new media empire.
Playboy.com: How do you answer people who question how VICE, which once made fun of trannie pictures, is now attempting legitimate journalism?
Smith: I would say read the magazine. Yeah, we made fun of trannies, but we talked about teaching women under the Taliban. We smuggled that film out and we were the only ones who got it. Newsweek ran it and had to credit VICE for running that story. We’ve had stupid things but we’ve also had amazing issues over the years. The Appalachia Issue, the Kids Issue, the Gangs Issue. We just don’t want to be heavy all the time.
Playboy.com: With all of the political coverage in VICE and on VBS, are you advancing a political angle?
Smith: I think it’s all about the absurdity of the modern condition. Look at the Bulgaria segment in the VICE Guide to Travel DVD, where I went shopping on the black market. When we can buy nukes on the black market, then it’s over. It’s only a matter of time before something incredibly bad happens. It’s absurd we’ve gotten to this point. That’s what I like about our coverage of North Korea and the arms market in Pakistan and the Baghdad heavy metal band videos. Americans like McCain are telling you things in Iraq are okay. And then we go over there in the red zone and people are dying. People who live six blocks away haven’t seen each other in a year because they can’t go outside. For us, it’s definitely more citizen journalism. When I went to Beirut, I wasn’t pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. But I know when you have kids being raised to be transportation devices for dynamite, it’s not good.
Playboy.com: Is what you’re doing with VBS and the DVD more honest than what we see on TV news?
Smith: I talked about this a lot with guys I was with during a press trip to North Korea. These were career Asian news correspondents who were asking officials about how many pounds of bauxite they were going to export this year; stuff like that. My audience is totally disenfranchised by news. We have to start from scratch. North Korea is hard to get into and some people don’t even know that.
It’s not like we’re talking down to people. I didn’t know anything about Darfur before I went there. I didn’t know anything about North Korea. I didn’t want to pretend that I did. I just knew what everybody else knows, that Kim is rattling his saber and things are weird. It’s like going to Maoist China in the 1950s or Stalinist Russia in the 1930s, but on steroids. It’s one of the last times it’s going to happen in the history of humanity. It was important to get across that the people of North Korea think that the world loves them and that America is the worst. The worst is to go there and have an agenda. All these serious journalists had an agenda before they went. I was like, I’m going to see what I can see.
Playboy.com: Why aren’t these mainstream organizations doing what you’re doing and getting footage?
Smith: It’s weird because all these news places ask to use our footage. Why can’t you get footage? If you go and are obviously non-political and are a freak, somebody these people can relate to, it works. I got drunk off my tits and sang “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols to all these North Korean generals who were also wasted off their tits, and the other journalists were sitting there horrified. But because of that, I got to cruise through the countryside with these generals. We saw the invasion tunnels and rode the subway. You kind of have to go in there and treat everyone you interview like a normal person.
Playboy.com: This old boys club of reporters isn’t willing to do that?
Smith: Exactly. They’re old grizzled hacks. We’d rather break something on YouTube or MySpace than on MSNBC or CNN. Five million people saw the Heavy Metal in Baghdad videos. Fuck it; we’ll just do stuff on the Internet because network news sucks.
Playboy.com: You were in discussions to do Dos and Don’ts with VH1 or SpikeTV. What happened?
Smith: The deals they offer you are so shit. The best deal we got was to do VICE Guide to Travel on Discovery. They offered to go straight to series, but said we couldn’t do other travel stuff and can’t have Internet rights. No Internet rights is a non-starter because I work for VBS. But it was hard to say no to that kind of money.
Playboy.com: What was that kind of money?
Smith: Half a million an episode for 12 episodes — six now with another six to be decided on. NBC approached me about my own show. I was like, you understand I’m not an out-of-work actor looking for a pilot. I run a company in 22 countries. We’re very excited by the fact that we don’t have to answer to anyone. We started VBS in February 2007 and we’re already at a million unique visitors a month. We don’t need an outlet.
Playboy.com: You wrote for Reuters in Bosnia in the 1990s. Did that experience affect how you viewed the world and the way you look at VICE?
Smith: Definitely. I went down to Serbia and Croatia during the war. I covered the ethnic cleansing and did a big thing on [former Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz] Tito, and the situation when he left power is very similar to the current situation in Iraq. Tito held all these different ethnic groups together but, at the same time, told everyone to keep a machine gun in their house in case the Soviets come rolling over in their tanks. As soon as he died and the cult of personality left, everyone with a thousand-year-old grudge went hog wild and killed each other. That’s what’s happening in Iraq and what would happen in Iran. The American government should have seen that Saddam had held all of these factions under his thumb. It’s not hard to figure out.
When I was there, you’d see the Croatian stringers go out and get the story and tell the Americans what happened, and then they would stand in front of a burning car and say this is what is going on. It was total bullshit. These huge media machines are cranking out this shit. We definitely wanted to start something that wasn’t like that, something that was free, much more interactive and easy to digest. VBS is a perfect follow-up on that. The Internet is grassroots democracy; the free movement and dissemination of information.
Playboy.com: Why didn’t the media and the American people see the current mess in Iraq coming?
Smith: America is one of the most politically uneducated countries in the world and is incredibly naïve and spoon-fed by a media that’s incredibly naïve. The media failed America and America is willing to blindly follow. When you’re dealing with that kind of myopic, paradigmatic politics it’s incredibly hard to get across that the rest of the world hating America has its consequences and America deserves to be hated right now.
Playboy.com: VICE put out an infamous “We Hate Boomers” issue. How much does your stance on that generation play into your perception of and your outlook on America?
Smith: We started VICE with that as our attitude. All the news, music and TV shows we saw were aimed at Baby Boomers. Look, the hippie generation, or whatever you want to call them, they knew better. They went to university, they knew what environmentalism was about, they knew what was bad, they knew about war. They’ve become the number-one polluters and the number-one energy users. They’ve become the most devastating demographic of all time. They knew better and became the SUV generation. Now we’re the generation left to clean up the shit. Rather than be the same as my parents, it’s time to do something.
Playboy.com: How big is the VICE empire? What’s the net worth of VICE and all your spin-offs?
Smith: We have Goldman Sachs, and other venture capital firms all over us. They can’t believe we’re not interested in selling. We’re in 22 countries; our last record was in the top 10 in 12 countries; our books are all best-sellers and every issue of the magazine is making a profit. Look, BudTV had $100 million to start and VBS is five times as big. We’re worth a shitpile. I’m not going to say exact numbers. But we have 13 years of at least 25 percent growth a year and we’re 100 percent owned by ourselves.
Playboy.com: What should Americans understand about Canadians that they don’t?
Smith: Canadians have such a chip on their shoulder about America. They really have an inferiority complex that manifests itself in a superiority complex. I also think that Canadians are regarded as peace-loving and nice and all this stuff. I think Canada is a nation of hypocrites. They’re really sanctimonious and say our education is so good, our health care, our infrastructure, look at those Americans and how shitty they are. But you scratch the surface and they’re exactly the same. They drive SUVs, and their government sells nuclear reactors to India and trains their nuclear scientists. We have two-tier education systems and two-tier health systems, we just don’t want to believe it. We buy into our own hype — this liberal, holier-than-thou hype, but America buys into the policeman of the world hype.
Playboy.com: You say you’re tapping into a “universality of youth culture.” What do kids growing up in places like Rome, Berlin and New York have in common?
Smith: I think it’s a lot like Maximum Rock and Roll. We’re a digital version of that. When you were a kid, you’d get your Maximum Rock and Roll, and there would be scene reports from squats in London and punk things in Berlin and you’d think, I’m not alone. I was like one of five punks in Ottawa. I think with the Internet there are hypercool kids in London or New York, but you can be in Osaka and Kansas and Dresden and plug into these scenes that are cool musically or fashion-wise or politically. If you’re a kid in the suburbs and tune into VBS and are like, Fuck, yeah, I’m pissed off and these are the guys I like and can resonate with, that’s a big deal, because otherwise you’re sort of surrounded by football players who chant George Fucking Bush. It’s the same punk-rock spirit that fuels VICE.
Playboy.com: What are your personal Do’s and Don’t’s with women?
Smith: I like girls with character who are smart and cool. I don’t like bimbos. I don’t like fake tits. I don’t like razor burn. [Laughs] I think intelligence is a lot more important than looks, but the whole American, Laguna Beach kind of thing I don’t dig. Although I do call my girlfriend a 1970s Playboy model because of her particular body.