On the magazine’s fifth anniversary, the couple behind the magazine recounts H&B’s amazing journey. How Hook and Barrel got started. John and Natalie Radzwilla got their start on creating a new type of magazine. A GQ magazine for rednecks.
It started out as a business plan, not some lifelong dream to publish a magazine. It seemed like it would be a fun adventure, and extremely challenging. Upon reflection, those are two major understatements. On the occasion of our magazine’s fifth anniversary, the founders of Hook & Barrel recount how it all started and what it’s come to be. They overcame some tough obstacles and have enjoyed countless epic adventures as a result. But there is no slowing down now for them or our team—we are just beginning to run.
With their many years in sales and marketing, John and Natalie Radzwilla knew the importance of a catchy brand name and a powerful logo. They had talked about starting an outdoors magazine, but they had lots of details to work out. One big question was what to call it. Inspiration struck one afternoon when John was enjoying some down time at a local bar. He asked a waitress for a piece of paper so he could sketch it out.
He liked “hook” because it implied fishing, and then he landed on “barrel.” That sounded nice because it was softer than his first thought, “bullet,” and also conjured up the beer, whiskey, or wine that often accompany hunting, fishing, and other outdoor pursuits. Sketching on a sheet of paper from a notepad, he drew the outline of an ampersand. He added a couple of creative flourishes—the barb of a fish hook and the trigger of a gun—and the Hook & Barrel magazine logo was born. “It says exactly who we are and what we’re about,” says his wife, Natalie. “A combination of hunting, fishing, shooting, and lifestyle.”
Starting in July 2018, a stenciled version of that quick drawing has graced the top left corner of the cover of 25 issues of Hook & Barrel. This multitasking symbol for “and” represents a publication with a fresh approach to reaching outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen. It also signifies the vision, ambition, and hard work that have gone into producing a traditional but modern publication from scratch in the age of streaming, podcasts, and virtual reality. The adventurous couple at the helm of our magazine has learned valuable life lessons along the way to success. As they watch sales and subscriptions climb, they’re opening new doors in the business world and fielding invitations from the famous and connected to join them for social outings and thrilling excursions. It’s an exciting time, but these growing numbers are rewarding in a more grounded way—they suggest that more people from different walks of life are embracing the outdoors.
As Editor-in-Chief, John oversees the editorial content and direction of our magazine (the articles and photographs) while Natalie runs the business. Her official title is Chief Operating Officer, but that tells only part of the story. One of her many duties includes selling enough ads to keep this magazine in your hands. It’s not exactly a mom-and-pop operation (though they are the proud parents of Jack, almost three), but it’s an efficient, streamlined enterprise with just a handful of full-time employees. As owners, the couple knows no job is too little. John still occasionally stocks stores and cleans the racks and Natalie still packages up single issue orders and merchandise for shipment.
“We’re not a corporate magazine, and that seems to be a big misconception, probably because of the look and feel of it,” says John. “We’re not owned and operated by a big publishing company, and we don’t have some huge trust fund. I mean, we almost lost our house starting this thing. This has been a crazy journey for us, starting a print magazine in the digital era.”
They weren’t always that outdoorsy, either, though he loved mountain biking, and she was an avid tennis player from an early age. Both are originally from Pennsylvania (different parts), but they actually met in Dallas. They’ve since made a home in the northern reaches of the bustling DFW Metroplex, in a place that’s just rural enough that there are deer and coyotes nearby. Four hours up the highway, their true getaway is an off-the-grid cabin on gorgeously rugged property in southeastern Oklahoma.
THE POP CULTURE FACTOR
With Hook & Barrel, we want to reach people like ourselves. We don’t ever want to talk down to novices or sink beneath the level of more seasoned experts. If there’s a mission, it’s simply to encourage more people to fully enjoy the outdoors and to pass that passion on to the next generation.
Famous faces help to reel in readers, so along with recipes for dockside dinners and campfire cocktails, you can also find out what your favorite stars love to do in their spare time. Our celebrity profile subjects include giants in the fields of sports, cooking, comedy, television, and music. To name a few: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Willie Robertson, Emeril Lagasse, Guy Fieri, Jeff Foxworthy, Mike Wolfe, Luke Bryan, and Kid Rock. Generally speaking, these are people who love spending time in the outdoors as a diversion from their regular jobs. Does that sound familiar?
It’s not always easy for us to get a well-known person to agree to talk openly about firearms because it may not line up smoothly with their public image. “Fishing is one thing, but to admit they love hunting or shooting is another,” says Natalie. Others, however, have jumped at the chance to finally get to talk about their other passions.
One high-profile personality that’s a regular contributor is classic rocker Ted Nugent. Our association came about after he and John appeared together on a television news segment during the early weeks of the COVID pandemic. On a split screen, they were both commenting on how hunters were more likely to be self-reliant during the food shortages that were happening at the time. Their views were similar, and they also hit it off personally. Knowing that Nugent would toughen Hook & Barrel’s image a bit, John asked him to contribute a regular advice column, which is called “Deer Uncle Ted” found on the table of contents.
The magazine isn’t overtly political because, as John likes to say, “The outdoors isn’t red or blue; it’s green.” There was a time, however, just before the last presidential election, that it made better sense to not toe the line. For the September-October 2020 issue, our cover story was on Donald Trump Jr. “I looked at our readers and didn’t see a majority of these people being Biden supporters,” says John. “I decided to put Trump Jr. on the cover because he was an outdoorsman, but I told the writer not to get into the political weeds with it.” The expected backlash turned out to be minimal. “In hindsight, it was a really good move for us,” says Natalie.
MORE KEY CONNECTIONS
After that burst of inspiration with the name and logo, there were many more decisions to make. John and Natalie each had an extensive background in sales and marketing, but running a magazine was a venture into unknown territory. They reached out to the very few people they knew in the industry for advice and to help them find professional writers, photographers, editors, and page designers. They hired an acquaintance with experience as an editor to help them get the first few issues out, but he was not the right fit. Highly recommended by a mutual colleague, Lee M. Hurley of Birmingham, Alabama, became the new Managing Editor after those first few months. Hurley helped assemble the small, creative, and well-balanced team of professionals we have today.
Another big question was how to get the magazine in front of as many people as possible. A previous marketing client knew someone with a key connection to the hunting and fishing community. It was a key top-level connection at Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s. After nearly a year of conversations and presenting our concept, they offered to carry the magazine in all of their stores in Texas. (Today, we are available in multiple states as well as by subscription coast-to-coast.) “That was huge,” says John. “That meant distribution through the world’s biggest outfitter. We went from nobody to everybody.”
It also meant more challenges, including getting magazines quickly to all those retail outlets. For advice and assistance, they turned to their immediate family, including Natalie’s father, Gary Paparella, whose background includes merchandising in the soft drink industry. “It was kind of like all hands on deck,” Natalie says. “My dad has always been the first one to say, ‘Where can I help? How can I plug in?’ He’s always been extremely supportive and helpful to us.” John says his mom, Jo-Anna Marsicano, is another positive asset who personally stocks and restocks one of the busiest stores.
A NATIONAL APPEAL
Despite our start in Texas, we never wanted to be viewed as a regional magazine. That explains our stylish appearance and our wider focus on stories and photos from across the United States and around the world. “The visual integrity we have is definitely a standard that we set for ourselves,” says Natalie, going on to compare it to “dressing for the position you want” when you have a job interview.
Another early goal was to not be satisfied doing what other magazines have already done. We are bridging the old-school magazine format with today’s culture that’s increasingly electronic. One of the latest examples is our innovative use of QR codes that come to life as behind-the-scenes videos and other special features. “We’re the first to use them in this manner that I know of,” says John. “It’s an evolving technology, and it’s going to open up all kinds of possibilities.”
During our first four years as a magazine, we’ve grown to the point that we reach over 170,000 readers per issue and have 50,000+ unique visitors to our website each month. On top of that, we have around 20,000 followers on Instagram, and we’re becoming much better known in hunting and fishing circles. “It’s kind of bold to say we’re making a difference, but I hope we are,” says John. “Oh, I definitely think that we are,” Natalie affirms. “We’re bringing people to the outdoors that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Myself included.”
Our magazine’s founders have also learned that they make a great team, personally and professionally. “We’ll have our sideways moments and debate each other on certain business decisions, but at the end of the day we each have our own strengths and very much complement each other,” says Natalie. “We’re best friends, husband and wife, business partners, and parents. We’re together 24/7, and we prefer to be together, so I think that’s the biggest factor in our success.”