Buzzsaw Oral History
A look back at how Buzzsaw started
Buzzsaw celebrated its 15th anniversary in February. Founded in the spring of 1999 by disgruntled Ithaca College students, the magazine was named Buzzsaw Haircut. Fifteen years later, in different parts of their lives, the founders looked back on their time in college and the creation of a magazine still in circulation today. The full history of Buzzsaw as told by the founding editors can be found online.
From the rain puddles of Ithaca, stained with mud and cigarette butts, Buzzsaw Haircut has risen.
–Letter from the Editors, Issue #1
Sam Costello, junior: Overall, Ithaca College can be a great place. You can get a great education there, work with excellent professors, make good friends, have access to opportunities that people around the world would kill for. Everything I’m about to say needs to be taken with the understanding that I’m fully aware of the privilege we had to attend Ithaca, and the privileges we had in our lives that allowed us to get there. At the same time, IC was a frustrating place. The student body, by and large, seemed fairly selfish, committed to self-indulgence over looking at our role in the larger world…At the time, my parents had gone through a few difficult years financially and the idea that people would skip class because they were too hungover to show up, or wouldn’t bother to try hard to learn, seemed like a terrible, repulsive waste of their parents’ money. It seemed disrespectful to our parents’ hard work and saving to get us to college. I couldn’t imagine doing that.
Cole Louison, junior: When I went to Ithaca, and you can ask Sam about this, we both had a lot of frustration with the school, a lot of the students. We both did not feel challenged at all. Writing three, three-page papers in four months is not very challenging if you’re a journalism major.
Sam: Buzzsaw was born out of frustration. Frustration with the on-campus media choices at that time. Frustration that there was nothing in print at Ithaca College, or really even in the city of Ithaca, that matched the sensibilities of the founders.
Abby Bertumen, sophomore: I also think the idea came from some of our disagreement with the policies that were in force at The Ithacan at the time. For example, and I am sure Sam will have mentioned this, when I was an editor at The Ithacan someone made a decision to publish an anti-abortion ad in the newspaper. It was a several page, color, pullout ad with graphic photos. No matter what your beliefs are, I am sure the people at The Ithacan who knew it was going in, knew it would be controversial. But the thing is, none of the other editors were consulted or even told beforehand, at least I wasn’t. And so that week I basically found out it was there with the rest of the campus. My name was part of the masthead so I had all of these people asking me questions about it, some very angry. I felt kind of blind-sided and when I raised it at the next editorial meeting, other staff members who knew before it was published weren’t sympathetic.
Bryan Chambala, senior: They said it was an advertisement so they couldn’t censor it.
James Sigman, post-grad: It was one of those things where a guy clearly is doing it to get on a free speech platform to see if they’ll print it. And it was like a big insert in the middle of the Ithacan, so it was a lot of money.
James: I still like the Ithacan. I have nothing really against the Ithacan. It’s fine that there is an Ithacan but there should be something else. The Ithacan shouldn’t be the one media outlet on campus, so that was sort of the idea behind why I wanted to do it, just to have another voice.
In short, we are an old woman standing in the parking lot with a tire chain wrapped around her shoulders and a fist full of razor blades, waiting for the privileged few to step into the fog and answer the hard, ugly questions. And she’s not leaving until she gets some answers.
–Letter from the Editors, Issue #1
Cole: We were talking about a name, Sam and I, and we were actually at Cornell Cinema and I think we were in line for a movie and I mentioned Buzzsaw Haircut because there was a line in a Mojo Nixon song about a little boy with a buzzsaw haircut.
Sam: Cole had all the best name candidates: Harvard, the Cinnamon Simian, and Buzzsaw Haircut. I didn’t strongly consider the first two, but when he suggested Buzzsaw Haircut, it immediately felt perfect. It summed up a lot of the vibe we were feeling: angry, fast, strange, attracted more to country music and punk than popular music or being cool.
Sam: The first three issues were entirely funded by James. He’d graduated the year before and so was making more money than probably all of us had combined at that time.
Cole: James graduated in ‘98 and was back home on Staten Island and working in the city…He was saving his money because he was living at home.
James: It seemed like a good idea to spend it on [Buzzsaw]. I had a job copyediting junk mail for the Book of the Month Club. And in a roundabout way, because Book of the Month Club is owned by Time-Life, Buzzsaw Haircut started as a Time-Life publication because the money that I made working at that Time-Life job was the money that went into Buzzsaw.
These 24 pages are the result of a collaboration between a tight-knit group of friends, relatives, acquaintances and soothsayers. Surrounded by drink and wearing lace undergarments, we offer you our first response to the inadequacy currently provided by Ithaca’s existing publications.
–Letter from the Editors, Issue #1
Abby: The process was pretty informal. We basically just sat around and talked about what we’d like to put in the magazine and what we’d like to work on. It’s funny but it wasn’t hard to get the first issue off the ground because I think all of us had some ideas we were working on that we were dying to see in print.
Sam: The early [editorial meetings] were in dorm rooms, usually the one I shared with Cole, but sometimes other places…We’d talk through the ideas and finalize a list of what everyone would write about for that issue.
Sam: I tended to take a lot of the business of the magazine onto myself, too. I tended to schedule the editorial meetings and come with ideas about what we’d cover. I recruited people. I did as much marketing as I could. I found the printer. I handled the layout. I spearheaded the SGA funding move. Buzzsaw was extremely important to me then, and I still feel a lot of pride and fondness for it now.
Cole: Sam is one of those people, if there’s a project he is going to work on that project and he sort of can’t not do work so he was really the one that made it happen and figured out what we need.
Bryan: We didn’t even actually know that it was going to happen, I mean right until the last minute that we actually got bundles we didn’t really know it was going to work.
These pages smell of mid-winter sickness and the dead chill of February’s bitter wind. But this is the first issue. It is a work in progress.
-Letter from the Editors, Issue #1
Bryan: Everybody threw [the first issue] away on us. We put them in The Ithacan bins and somebody went around and cleaned them out and threw them out.
Sam: We streamed out of our dorm rooms and combed the whole campus to find any place that the issues were in the trash. Any of the issues we could find, we put back on the stands.
Bryan: Then we had to do the SGA process so that we could not have our stuff thrown away and we could be recognized as a “something or other” and be allowed to circulate. We didn’t really ask anyone, we just kind of put them out.
Sam: I was certainly angry. I was more angry when we took the issue to the Student Affairs Office and they suggested that we could call the police and accuse people of doing it if we wanted. Needless to say, we weren’t going to do that.
Cole: And of course it’s an issue of free speech and it only kind of fueled our energy. Like, this was our project, we paid for it ourselves and when we asked for help we didn’t really get it so it just showed us that now we had to work harder and be more on guard.
Cole: There were professors who came out and offered to help us. Michael Serino, [the Ithacan faculty adviser], was one of the first people. He said, “Hey I really liked what you did.” Which was a surprise, we thought maybe the Ithacan and Buzzsaw would be rivals but Michael I think recognized that this was a different sort of project. It’s focusing on longer form stuff, there’s humor, there’s creative writing, and it’s not just a standard campus newspaper.
Sam: One really great moment came when we released the first or second issue. I was waiting in line at Egbert, for the dining hall to open. A new issue had just come out and all around me in line were people reading Buzzsaw. That was pretty cool.
Sam: The Student Affairs Office didn’t like us much, and the feeling was mutual. They had been unhappy when we pointed out to them that the student handbook’s prior restraint clause – that dictated that the Student Affairs Office would read and censor every on-campus publication (except The Ithacan) – was unconstitutional and that we would be ignoring it. As far as I know, Buzzsaw was the first publication on campus to break that prior restraint.
Cole: I’m so happy it’s still around. I think it serves a lot of the same purposes that we had in mind when we started it.
Abby: I really think it has changed the way people at IC view campus media. There doesn’t have to be just one newspaper or magazine.
Like a long and lonesome train barreling through the Appalachian night, we are on a track, but we have no idea exactly where that track will lead. Hopefully we will grow and the morning light will give us a sense of direction.
-Letter from the Editors, Issue #1
Bryan: I remember my parents at my graduation weekend that I attended. They said, “We saw that Buzzsaw thing. We’re not going to show your grandparents.” And I was like, “That’s probably a good idea.”
Sam: I don’t know if it’s true for the other founders, but the time we spent doing Buzzsaw offered more meaning to me than most of what I’ve done since graduating. It gave me more of a sense of belonging, of having a place, than I’ve felt much since.
Nate King and Sam Gest are senior journalism majors who wish they were around in 1999 to be founders. Email them at nking2[at]ithaca.edu and sgest1[at]itahca.edu.