Michael Caruso. (Ricky Carioti/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Michael Caruso announced his arrival at Smithsonian Magazine with a cover image of a 50-foot snake poised to bite off the heads of unsuspecting readers.

Subtlety is not Caruso’s strong suit, nor his ambition.

In many ways, the 42-year-old magazine and its new editor are opposites. The publication has been sedate, erudite and decidedly unflashy. Caruso is a brash adventure-seeker with a relentless need to be relevant.

This will not be your elderly dentist’s Smithsonian.

“It just hadn’t been urgent,” Caruso says. “Nobody was running up to me saying, ‘Hey, did you see this article in Smithsonian Magazine?’ And I’d like to make that happen more often.”

After longtime editor Carey Winfrey announced his decision to step down in April 2011, an executive search firm was enlisted to find his replacement. Smithsonian executives settled on Caruso, the son of a renowned industrial designer, who has had a frenetic career in publishing.

The Columbia University graduate started out as a messenger at the New Yorker, where he delivered stories back and forth between editors, watching each piece evolve. He became the sports editor at the Village Voice and broadened the definition of “sports” to include big-wave surfing and camel racing. At 29 he became the Voice’s executive editor, then left to join Vanity Fair under the legendary Tina Brown.

He has since done stints at Los Angeles magazine, Details magazine, Men’s Journal, Portfolio magazine, a short-lived golf magazine he created and a video Web site he founded. He had been the deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal Magazine for just a few months when he got the call gauging his interest in the top spot at Smithsonian Magazine.

“The first question I had was: ‘Why are they calling me? I’m in New York,’ ” he recalls. “And to be honest with you, I wasn’t super-familiar with it. I think like a lot of people, I’d seen it in the past and had a generally good impression of it, but it just wasn’t front and center of my radar.”

But, as the 50-year-old Caruso puts it, “the New Yorker wasn’t calling me to be the editor there,” so he was willing to consider it. He quickly learned that Smithsonian Magazine has a circulation of 2.1 million, making it one of the biggest consumer magazines in the nation and one of the very few to have grown in readership over the past decade. It has the bandwidth to cover the arts, science, culture, history and pretty much anything else its editors find fascinating. And it has the resources of the world’s largest museum system behind it.

Caruso was sold. “We were looking for somebody who was articulate and thoughtful and really cared about that kind of subject matter,” says Tom Ott, who until recently was the president of Smithsonian Enterprises, the money-making arm of the museum. “We wanted someone who had really interesting and creative approaches to what they thought they could do with the magazine brand. And my impression [of Caruso] was that he’s a guy who has unbundled energy. Life excites him, and it’s very obvious in the way he talks and works.”

Screaming for readers’ attention

When Caruso arrived at the magazine’s L’Enfant Plaza headquarters in November, one of his first orders of business was to sit down with the art director and figure out how to grab more attention with the cover.

“You have to engage people,” he says, sitting in a white office that he hasn’t gotten around to decorating. “People have TV, they’re busy, they have kids. They have all sorts of other things screaming for their attention, and you’ve got to be in that mix — you’ve got to scream for their attention, too.”

A ferocious, open-mouthed snake, for example, might get a second glance.

And while the previous editor’s philosophy was that Smithsonian Magazine should offer an intellectual respite from the 24-hour news cycle, Caruso wants the magazine to be part of that cycle.

He intends to have stories that spin off current events — and occasionally create news. The May issue, for instance, featured an interview with “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening. For years, Groening had punted on the question of which state’s Springfield inspired Bart and Homer’s city on the show. In the interview, he revealed that it was Springfield, Ore., near his home town, Portland. In the two days after the interview was published, the magazine’s Web site had 500,000 visitors. It averages 1 million visitors a month.

Caruso created a regular poetry feature and immediately began organizing issues around themes — travel in May, food in June — to showcase the magazine’s breadth of coverage. And just as he did as sports editor at the Village Voice, he has encouraged his 28-person editorial staff to think as broadly as possible about what constitutes a Smithsonian Magazine article. A story about the Mexican village where Mitt Romney’s father was born? Yep. A feature on a Tasmanian art museum that encourages visitors to strip and follow a naked docent? Absolutely.

Over his three decades in publishing, Caruso has amassed a powerhouse Rolodex of writers. Since his arrival, he has commissioned pieces by Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton, David Maraniss, Natalie Angier and Sloane Crosley.

But he has also made internal changes. In January, he laid off six associate editors in charge of fact-checking and outsourced that function, though he says every fact in the magazine is still checked. And the remaining staff members are still adjusting to his quick-talking style and demand for a faster metabolism.

‘He comes out of left field’

“He’s a great rainmaker, Michael,” says Tina Brown, his former boss. “He’s full of ideas and energy, and he’s a terrific editor of copy. He can take a big pile of very unpromising material and vacuum it up in some wonderful way that produces an excellent piece at the end.”

But, she added, “not everybody is crazy about Michael. I happen to be one of his fans. He’s a maverick. He comes out of left field, and he’s very persistent. And he sometimes treads on toes of other colleagues in the office who are not as persistent or reaching for the bar as he is.”

Though the magazine is undoubtedly more lively and tantalizing under Caruso’s leadership, the changes haven’t been universally well received. In the comments section of a media blog, one reader wrote, “After 35 years of subscribing, I’m finding less and less to like with each issue.” But Caruso says most of the feedback has been “thrillingly positive.”

Ott, who helped hire Caruso, is delighted with the product he is putting out. “To me he’s already lived up to the promise and vision that he had outlined for us,” Ott said. “He didn’t waste a lot of time. It’s a magazine now that’s written for the future.”

Only three editors preceded Caruso over the magazine’s four decades. It’s a gig in which people stay for a long while — which has not been Caruso’s pattern. And it will not be easy with a wife and four young children still living in New York. Caruso’s wife, Andrea Sheehan, was vice president of digital publishing at Random House until recently, when she left to launch a digital education company. Caruso takes the train home each weekend and returns to D.C. early Monday morning.

But he says this is a position he’s excited to stick with. He’s already met with the directors of each Smithsonian department and spends his rare free hour wandering through the museums.

“The more I looked at [the job], the better it got, and at some point I said: ‘Oh, I cannot turn this down. This is great,’ ” he says. “I think that part of my job now is to make [the magazine] an open secret. To have everybody realize what a great thing it is.”