Your free what's on guide to the top end

10 Years at the Top

10 years ago this month, a brand new little what's-on guide to the Top End was launched kicking and grinning into the world.

By Rosa Ellen.

In the tradition of street press, gig guides and Time Out magazine – finally, here was a creative, bold, bright read that told you what art, music gigs, theatre performances and cinema was happening in our home town – and it was free.

For artists, it was a much-needed outlet. An accessible way to promote and celebrate the visual arts in print; to talk up local theatre, film, dance, lectures, community events and the plethora of Top End festivals.

It can be easy to forget how much has changed in 10 years. 10 years ago, we only dimly knew what an iPhone was. Crocs (the shoes and the B-grade film) found unlikely success and social media meant reading the newspaper over someone’s shoulder – a paper filled with news of The NT Intervention, Harry Potter and Kevin 07.

Flashback to Darwin in 2007 and “there was no timely, reliable, detailed source of arts information,” recalls Off The Leash (OTL) founder Janice McEwen. 

“ABC radio was good but not comprehensive and audiences couldn’t rely on listening at the right time. The NT News was patchy, people found out things were happening the day of the event, too late to get a ticket or a babysitter.  It was all hit and miss.”

McEwen ran Top End Arts Marketing, a consortium funded by Arts NT and the Australia Council that put out a monthly what’s-on page, printed on coloured A4 photocopy paper. But McEwen felt they needed to dream big.

She had been in London working for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when Time Out was launched and saw the impact that mag had on the local community.

“They used to phone us for listings of demos and events. So I had roughly that format in mind. We did some costings and worked out what percentage of space we would need to fill with advertising, and how many pages we would need to make the mag self-financing.”

And what about the name? Off The Leash was given the thumbs up one night over drinks for creative types at Happy Yess. We may never know exactly who came up with it, but if you do, please let OTL know!

“It took a while and lots of phoning and nudging to get arts organisations involved and to recognise the benefits of having 15 or 20,000 magazines with their information circulating in the community,” says McEwen.

“Some people came on straight away, others took many months.”

Eventually they did come around, and an exciting new platform for local events took form. 

“I can remember life with Off The Leash but I can’t imagine Darwin without it!” says Darwin artist Aly de Groot, who featured on an early cover.

“There’s a respect amongst local practitioners and galleries, but there wasn’t a dedicated publication to acknowledge that,” says gallery owner Paul Johnstone. 

“OTL galvanised a whole lot of community spirit …and put it into one magazine.”

Over the years OTL covers featured the ascending or established careers of Territory artists like Leah Flanagan, Shellie Morris, Sunrize Band and de Groot. Festivals like Barunga, Mahbilil in Jabiru, Walking With Spirits, Word Storm and Fringe found a dedicated local arts mag that Top Enders and tourists alike could rely on for comprehensive information.

But as with everything in the arts, the funding axe was always hovering. With its funding gone, Top End Arts Marketing had no choice but to fold and OTL was left to go on precipitously alone. 

Luckily, canny editor Kate Roseth shook things up, bringing in local galleries and businesses to advertise to OTL’s growing readership.

“By that stage OTL had a name for itself and people saw its value. It was good timing,” Roseth says.

“It really shifted from being funded by the government to being more self-sufficient.”

Things changed again when former Centralian Advocate journalist Miriam Raphael took over as editor in 2011.

“Only in Darwin could you get a job running the city’s arts magazine!” Raphael says now.

Raphael relaunched OTL as an A4-sized mag with room for longer articles and interviews, as well as releasing an app. 

“I just wanted to grow it. I felt Darwin needed a proper what’s-on magazine and I really styled it so that it was more like a Time Out magazine, so that it had proper articles. I wanted people to be able to enjoy it over a cup of tea, or at the markets rather than it just listing events.”

As OTL continued to grow, it became a fixture at Top End cafes, restaurants, hotels, galleries, theatres and cinemas.

“The free nature of the street press means it’s accessible to all and it has been the go-to mag to find out what’s happening,” says Brown’s Mart Theatre Manager Sean Pardy.

In the fast-moving digital ocean, OTL again restyled itself (on the outside) into a tabloid-sized newsprint mag as it launched a new interactive website under editor Claire Eltringham.

Facebook, Instagram, the so-called death of print. It’s a whole different ballgame for not-for-profit publications now, but OTL remains strong, occupying a unique role in the community. 

"OTL has actually increased in print production,” says current Managing Editor Roslyn Perry.

"The mag continues to grow in leaps and bounds, with not only an increased online presence, but a demand for content and advertising space."

10 years on OTL proudly continues to promote the NT’s immense wealth of culture and celebrate our arts and diverse community – it is the little mag that could.

INFO offtheleash.net.au

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