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At 70, Alabama Living still connecting to readers

By Allison Law

Alabama Living magazine turned 70 this year, and we think it’s better than ever.

The Alabama Rural Electric Association of Cooperatives (AREA), which publishes Alabama Living, was formed in 1947, and immediately jumped into the communications realm and began publishing the Alabama Rural Electric News in 1948 as a broadsheet-sized newspaper. Leaders undoubtedly saw a need for a publication that would communicate the cooperative message to rural electric co-op members across the state.

It’s hard to imagine in our current 24/7 news cycle world, but for many readers, the Rural Electric News was likely one of the few sources of information tailored especially for them. Those editions followed the news coming out of Washington and Montgomery that would have an impact on the rural Alabama home- and landowner, including news about the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), created by the federal government to help farmers and other rural folks receive electricity.

For the first few decades, the pages of the Alabama Rural Electric News reflected the agricultural roots of the rural electrification movement. After all, rural electric cooperatives were formed to bring electricity to the farms and rural areas that investor-owned utilities didn’t find profitable to serve. The pages were filled with stories about homesteaders who used electricity to modernize their farms; as late as the 1970s, most co-op editions featured stories about satisfied members who’d built new homes that were all-electric.

As electricity became less of a novelty in the rural areas, there was less need for us to explain how essential and convenient it was. So we broadened our focus to better reflect the more modern lifestyles of our largely rural and small-town readership.

Changing, but remaining the same

The look and style of the publication has evolved over the years; in 1968, the name changed to AREA Magazine, with a more modern magazine-style format that included more feature stories. The magazine became Alabama Living in 1989, to make the magazine feel more local and personal to readers.

Some longtime readers will remember  the late Darryl Gates, who was the editor of Alabama Living for almost 30 years before he retired in May 2012 and brought the magazine into the modern era. In his final column for the magazine, he said, “Alabama Living is not only the voice of the 22 electric cooperatives in the state, but it serves as a mirror that reflects the faces of more than 1 million electric co-op members. You folks are the backbone of our great state.”

Today, the magazine continues to be the voice of our electric cooperatives, with a monthly circulation of about 420,000 copies.

For decades, the magazine has shared the news and photos following natural disasters and chronicled the co-ops’ power restoration efforts in the wake of destructive hurricanes and tornadoes. Your co-op and its sister co-ops across the state and region participate in mutual aid, and we’ll continue to share those powerful stories.

The magazine today is politically neutral, but we do encourage our readers to stay current on the issues that affect them, and to make their rural voices heard by voting and by keeping in touch with their elected representatives. We write about topics that have a political focus, such as the push by some cooperatives for government grants to help provide high-speed broadband in unserved areas.

While we’ve abandoned the “homemakers page” of decades ago that featured clothing patterns and extolled the virtues of frost-free refrigerators, we’ve kept and enhanced the reader-submitted recipes and photos, which remain our most popular feature.

And month after month, we try to include a mix of story types: personality profiles, stories that highlight Alabama-based businesses and/or industries, features on food and cooking (which often tie in to the recipes) and monthly columns on gardening and the outdoors.

We try to provide you with stories about history, travel, home and garden and features that reflect the rural and small-town life of much of our readership. We publish a monthly feature called Worth the Drive, about a restaurant and its owner(s) in geographically diverse areas of the state. We try to cultivate stories that have a connection to a community, or feature a cultural or regional tradition. We regularly feature articles about safety and energy efficiency. And we try to provide some humor as well, with a monthly column from Alabama author Hardy Jackson.

Connections and technology

From its very first issue, each edition featured news written or selected specifically for each rural electric cooperative that was a member of AREA. We continue that tradition today – each issue of your Alabama Living contains several pages of local-focused content, in addition to the stories, columns and features of a statewide interest.

“I think people enjoy reading the magazine because its feature stories on people, places and events, the photography and even the recipes remind us of why living in rural Alabama is special to so many people,” says Brian Lacy, manager of communications and external affairs at Cullman Electric Cooperative. “We try to add to that feeling in our local pages with feature stories and other lifestyle content that is unique to our communities.

“But we also use that space to share important messages about the cooperative – events, programs and services, energy saving tips and other information that can help our members control their energy usage and save money on their power bill.”

The magazine has changed and adapted to emerging technology. Pages are designed, produced and transmitted electronically to Freeport Press, our printer in Ohio (the complexity of printing 22 different editions, with backup equipment,  makes it currently beyond the capabilities of printers in Alabama); gone are the days of manual, physical paste-up of pages.

And we’ve embraced the Internet. Our website, alabamaliving.coop, has an archive of each month’s stories and videos, as well as recipe archives and a continuously updated events listing. Readers can also communicate with us through the site and submit recipes, events and participate in our monthly and annual photo contests.

Our social media channels continue to flourish. We have a robust audience on Facebook, with more than 9,000 page likes, as well as a presence on Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter.

Today, the magazine’s challenge is to continue to be the primary source of information for the consumer-members of our electric cooperatives, while making the most of the newest technologies to communicate in ways that are relevant to future generations, says Lenore Vickrey, editor of Alabama Living.

“We want the children and grandchildren of today’s co-op consumer-members to be as loyal to Alabama Living as their grandparents are and were,” Vickrey says.