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We're not a robot-run world, yet memories of Omni Magazine jog the imagination

Omni "was a creation of pure joy," Bob Guccione said. (Robert Mecea - AP)
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Other magazines ate Omni's lunch: Subscribers to the newly launched Wired looked suspiciously like Omni readers who'd moved on and gotten MBAs. By 1995, Omni's thinning page count was stuffed with more marginal stories, and -- in the most gloriously desperate move I've ever seen in a collapsing magazine -- it ran ads for "a breakthrough in interactive publishing": a 900 phone line that provided "a direct link to our editorial staff."

That's right: For just 95 cents a minute, you could talk to real, live -- and horny, one assumes -- "editorial assistants" at Omni.

The print edition folded a year later, though Guccione and Keeton spun this into a startling achievement: Omni became the first major newsstand title to go online only. lacked the gloss and heft of old, but the Continuum items read much the same as before, and it continued a strong suit in interviews by expanding them into interactive forums with Omni readers.

And, of course, there were UFOs -- lots of UFOs.

Woo-woo science is always fun until someone gets hurt; and, alas, that someone may have been publisher Kathy Keeton. Omni was her baby, and even as it pumped out more Antimatter coverage, Keeton battled the earthly ailment of breast cancer with largely discredited hydrazine-sulfate therapy. Wide-eyed futurism may not have lent itself to judging cancer treatments. Within days of Keeton's death in September 1997, Omni's site fell silent, save for a link directing readers to a hydrazine sulfate advocacy site. These days the (now not-safe-for-work) redirects readers to . . . Penthouse.

And yet old copies of Omni still can stop grown nerds in their tracks: "Oh God, I remember this!" Curiously, so does the Guccione family -- son Bob Jr. occasionally speaks of reviving the magazine. If he ever does, I'll look forward to watching my sons reading it. Though some kinds of future, I fear, can be found only in the past.

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