'People's Pharmacy' radio personalities expand their brand

dranii@newsobserver.comOctober 19, 2013 

  • About the name

    If Joe Graedon had gotten his way, there would never have been a People’s Pharmacy brand.

    Joe wanted to call his first book “Medicine for the People” and hated it when his publisher wanted to go with “The People’s Pharmacy” instead. But his contract gave the publisher the right to name the book.

    “In retrospect, thank goodness,” he said. “Because it has been a powerful brand.”

— Joe and Terry Graedon, the longtime hosts of “The People’s Pharmacy” public radio show and authors of a nationally syndicated newspaper column with the same name, are once again expanding into new and unfamiliar business ventures.

The Graedons are about to publish their first book, written by a Wisconsin physician and researcher under their new imprint called – yep, you guessed it – The People’s Pharmacy Press.

The book, “A Cure for Asthma? What Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You – and Why,” challenges mainstream medicine by presenting the case that many asthma patients can be cured by antibiotics. The Graedons took up the book after author David L. Hahn, a former clinical professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, was unable to land an established publisher.

“We just felt it was an important message that wasn’t being heard,” Joe said.

The Graedons also are wading into video, recently creating a series of two-to-three-minute spots on making home remedies called “In the Kitchen with The People’s Pharmacy.”

Constantly reinventing themselves and devising new sources of revenue has been the key to longevity for The People’s Pharmacy brand. The brand debuted in 1976 as a best-selling book by Joe Graedon and was extended for the first time in 1978, when the newspaper column was syndicated by King Features Syndicate. The column celebrates its 35th anniversary next month.

“There is no one home run,” Joe said of their business ventures. “There is no one single thing we do that is enough to support the organization. We do a lot of little things.”

“We’re very opportunistic,” said Terry.

It’s a business strategy that also gives the Graedons freedom to experiment. For example, it’s unclear exactly how they’re going to – or if they will – make money from their videos.

“We’re still,” said Joe, “working out the details of how to … ”

“ … monetize the videos,” said Terry, who often finishes her husband’s sentences – and vice versa.

The theme that runs through practically everything they do hasn’t changed over the decades. Terry describes it as “giving people the information they need to make decisions about their health.”

Joe, 68, has a master’s degree in pharmacology, while Terry, 65, has a doctorate in medical anthropology. (They met when they were both graduate students at the University of Michigan.) Yet over the years, in addition to providing useful information on prescription and over-the-counter medicines, they’ve also embraced many home remedies.

“They tend to go and look through the (scientific) literature and suggest that a particular remedy is or is not effective,” said Jay Campbell, executive director of the N.C. Board of Pharmacy. “I felt they have been very fair about pointing out that these are very anecdotal reports, that you can’t draw scientific conclusions from them.”

Campbell, who has been a guest on the Graedons’ radio show, added: “I think they provide a very valuable voice to the health care world.”

Graedon Enterprises, the official name of the couple’s business ventures, operates out of a 1,200-square-foot, redbrick house in Durham. Joe refers to it as a “Mom and Pop” business and, in classic Mom and Pop fashion, their two adult children – David and Alena – take part in the business.

“I’ve worked for them in some capacity since I was a wee tyke, 10 or 12,” said David Graedon, 36. Today David, whose first job entailed stuffing envelopes around his grandmother’s kitchen table, wears a number of hats, including working as sound editor and handling website maintenance.

“We have a lot of balls in the air at any one time,” David said. “It’s a lot of little pie pieces that add up to the pie.”

THE RADIO SHOW The People’s Pharmacy weekly radio show, which debuted on WUNC in 1981, is carried by about 125 public radio stations.

However, in order to gain maximum exposure, the Graedons don’t charge public radio stations anything to air the show.

The public radio landscape is so competitive that, if they charged a fee, “there is a likelihood that we would lose some (stations), maybe a lot,” said Terry.

The show pretty much breaks even thanks to corporate underwriting – the public radio version of sponsorships – but the Graedons, who market the show themselves, believe it isn’t fulfilling its money-making potential.

“The problem that we have, as a model for our business, is that we’re not good marketers,” Joe said.

To be sure, the mere existence of the show can’t help but promote the People’s Pharmacy brand.

The appeal of the show is that “they present information that people cannot find anywhere else, to some degree,” said Connie Walker, president and general manager of North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. “I think they’re on the cutting edge in terms of medical trends and things to look out for.”

THE COLUMN The Graedons’ column is published by nearly 100 newspapers, according to King Features Syndicate. The News & Observer is among the papers that run the column.

Joe started writing the column by his lonesome, but Terry stepped in when he fell behind on the deadline for his second book.

They were concerned that their editor at King Features would notice the difference – and he did.

“To my mortification,” Joe recalled, “he said, ‘Joe, the columns are so much better now.’”

Similarly, Joe was originally a solo host on the radio show, but Terry joined him in the studio a few years later – and, by Joe’s account, upgraded the radio show, too.

THE BOOKS The Graedons have written 20 books. When they stopped counting – which was more than a decade ago – their books had sold well over 2 million copies.

Unfortunately for them, according to Joe, their early contracts weren’t very “author friendly” in terms of remuneration.

Still, “the books really support our radio show habit,” said Joe.

Not all the books sell well, however. The Graedons had high hopes for a best-seller when “Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them” was published two years ago, but it flopped in the market.

Joe called it “our biggest disappointment in the last 35 to 40 years.”

THE REST The People’s Pharmacy website is a vehicle for advertising as well as selling sundry other products, such as books, CDs and MP3s of the radio show, and eight-page pamphlets that the Graedons have written on a variety of medical subjects.

Last, but not least, are the People’s Pharmacy brand home-remedy products – bed soap for leg cramps, a roll-on deodorant that contains Milk of Magnesia – that they started selling about eight years ago.

The packaging for the bed soap prominently features this tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: “As a home remedy, the use of this soap has not been approved by the FDA, the EPA, the CDC, the NRA, the FBI or any government agency. There is no scientific evidence that putting soap under the bottom sheet of your bed will prevent leg cramps or restless leg syndrome (RLS).”

The Graedons turned to Chuck Friedman, a retired chemist and former scientific director at Burt’s Bees, to formulate their home-remedy products.

“I viewed (the leg soap) with caution because I’m a science guy. A science guy has gotta go with the facts,” Friedman said. However, he added, in recent years data have emerged pointing to an ingredient in soap – limonene – acting to suppress muscle spasms.

The bottom line

Add up their various ventures and Graedon Enteprises generates between $400,000 and $500,000 a year in revenue.

But after paying expenses – including the salaries of three full-time employees other than themselves, as well as a few part-time independent contractors – it turns out that the Graedons’ income is outstripped by their fame. In recent years they’ve paid themselves salaries that, combined, have ranged between a high of $90,000 to a low of $72,000 last year – an off year because they didn’t come out with a new book.

So, in strictly business terms, “we’re not an exciting success story,” said Terry.

“But we’ve been doing it since 1978,” Joe added.

And they plan to keep on doing it. Although they’re both at the age when many people think of retiring, the Graedons say that they’re having too much fun, especially with the radio show, which Joe calls “a dream job.”

Terry said of the leading experts who appear on the show: “We get to talk to all the cool kids who are doing the cool stuff.”

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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