Jonas Brothers Give AOL Crew a Lift

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Jonas Brothers are not just three Grammy-nominated, doe-eyed heartthrobs with a Disney television show and a lock on many young girls' hearts. They're also the stars of tweendom's most closely watched softball team, the Road Dogs, and yesterday, to the squealing delight of their fans, they took to a makeshift field during a company picnic at AOL's Dulles campus.

The Jonases were in town for an evening performance at the Verizon Center. The game was a promotional appearance for a private jet company and one in a series of fundraisers for the Change for the Children Foundation, a charity the brothers started a year ago to support diabetes research, Special Olympics and other causes.

But the event doubled as a morale booster for a company that has struggled to define itself in a changing market. Once famous for its dial-up Internet connection service, AOL is now largely dependent on advertising revenue, which has tanked during the recession. A 2000 merger with Time Warner that was supposed to create a communications behemoth has been so spectacularly disappointing that Time Warner recently announced plans to spin off AOL later this year.

The arrival in March of new chief executive and chairman Tim Armstrong, a former Google executive, has reinvigorated the company, several employees said yesterday. "He's asking people to be enthusiastic," said Jason Brewer, a network engineer, "and he's exhibiting that himself."

The day's events, including face painting, free food and drink and a few hours away from work, were reminiscent of the old days, when AOL was a cutting-edge Internet service provider and could afford to rent Six Flags for the day, or hold Christmas parties at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Hundreds of children watched the game, snapping photographs of their idols' at-bats and post-home run chest bumps.

Willowy 11-year-old Stevey Gerling gripped a chain-link fence near home plate and wore a T-shirt she'd decorated herself: the boys' names printed in puffy paint under a multicolored "I {heart} you guys."

She'd made the T-shirt in preparation for the concert, she said, and had no idea until early yesterday that she'd get to see the Jonas Brothers up close.

How'd she react when her mother, an AOL executive assistant, broke the news? "I started crying," said Stevey, whose bedroom wall is plastered with a life-size poster of the trio.

But no matter how thrilling the presence of the nation's hottest boy band, no one could ignore the specter of downsizing, said accounting manager Randy Fisher. "There's gonna be layoffs," he said. "People are speculating by the end of this month."

The company's revenue fell 20 percent, to $4.2 billion, last year. It laid off 20 percent of its worldwide workforce in 2007, and in another series of layoffs ending in March, let go another 10 percent of its personnel.

Armstrong is wrapping up a 100-day review of AOL, during which he visited 16 cities and introduced himself to more than 6,000 employees. He will reveal his strategy for the future at a meeting July 24, according to company spokeswoman Tricia Primrose.

The new chief executive played catcher yesterday for the AOL All Stars. But the Road Dogs won, 15 to 13. After the game, Armstrong presented the Jonas Brothers with a $2,900 check from AOL for their charity.

"I guess time will tell," said Fisher, the accounting manager, "whether things will turn around."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company