20 Years of Planet Waves:
Dear Friend and Reader:
It’s snuck up on me, though later this month is the 20th anniversary of Planet Waves. On Dec. 21, 1998, we published the first version of PlanetWaves.net, with the intention of creating a reader-supported publication.
When I leaf through my old notebooks, and look at my bookshelves, I see the origins of the concept for Planet Waves: Journalism in the most intimate sense of the idea.
As a young spiritual seeker, I didn’t look for refuge in an ashram. I plunged myself into the world of news reporting, politics and business, and sought to find God and my deepest personal truth right in the midst of the chaos.
This is the situation most people find themselves in: the need to learn and grow mixed up in the complexities of life, the pain, the struggle, and the seeming lack of meaning. The spiritual path is useless if the only place it feels real is when you’re sitting on top of a mountain.
At the time, I recognized the problem of advertising, which I considered a toxin and a needless distraction. From the beginning, I designed Planet Waves as an ad-free business model, and for the first three years, I paid for the project myself, before going to a subscription-based model in the early 2000s.
This was the more challenging path, requiring us to build a direct relationship to you. To this day, you can still call me on the phone.
This business model has allowed us to be quirky and creative and to find our own way, one day at a time. We are, as a result, able to offer you something that you can’t find anywhere else: something handmade, imperfect and gritty, or said another way, sincere. Our well-earned freedom from corporate sponsors is, rather directly, the freedom to write about taboo subjects, and to ask real questions. For example, we have, since day one, hosted a sincere, sensitive discussion of sex and relationships.
The medium is the message. Our existence is an invitation to you, to be the person you really are. And then there’s something more: we are inviting you to hold up a light in the darkness, and guide the people you know to a better place. For me, one of the most gratifying things about being the founder of this organization is having built a place where anyone can get help, free of charge, 24/7/365.
As a subscriber, customer or supporter, that’s one of the things you help us sustain. Right now, many people are struggling with anxiety and many others feel totally lost. Planet Waves is intended as a beacon and a point of orientation. Show up any time, and you will find something that will help you calm down and focus your thoughts.
And then there’s what you’ve helped us create: countless thousands of articles from our unusual viewpoint and approach to astrology; a searchable horoscope database and oracle (we are the only astrology site that archives our horoscopes — click to visit); Planet Waves FM, an internet radio station that’s part of the Pacifica Network; and 20 years of annual editions. Oh, I almost forgot our Vision Quest 24-hour music channel (all original).
Hello Yahoo, This is Planet Waves
In the life of any organization, there are many firsts. For Planet Waves, there was my first horoscope column a few years earlier (published in a magazine called Free Time); there was my first website in 1995 (The Worlds of Eric Francis, named by the developer); there was my first use of “Planet Waves” as a writer for Rob Brezsny in the summer of 1998. There was the founding of the corporation in 2003 (that event had a touch of mysticism to it).
Yet it was posting the first edition of PlanetWaves.net on the winter solstice of 1998 that was the commencement, the one action that grounded my intention to create a new kind of publication. I was recently back from travels in Germany, living in the brick porch of my friend Neal McDonough’s home in Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey.
My friend Keiko Ito was in from Japan, and together, we figured out how to use Adobe PageMill and Fetch (connecting to our then-empty server via an AOL dialup connection). The computer was donated by my old friend Allan Rousselle.
Planet Waves was (and still is) an ongoing experiment, based on many previous ones. Publishing, news reporting, writing and graphic art had been my passions since high school. Suddenly there was the internet, where you could create and publish anything that could fit into code and pixels, sans printing and postage costs.
For Planet Waves, that would mean an unusual approach to astrology, one devoted to the study of the world rather than to space, symbols and predictions. The world: of human experience, relationships and of events; the world of people doing our best to find our way in the midst of increasing chaos and alienation.
Our approach to astrology is unpretentious of having any “esoteric” knowledge. Planet Waves has been equally a pioneer of the horoscope column as it has been of minor planet research — the place where astrology meets astronomy. Our approach is to put whatever we say into plain talk, so you understand what we mean.
When Planet Waves first published, the world was still in the early morning hours of the public internet. Things were spacious and there were no ads, no videos, next to no audio, and hardly any photos (many websites stuck to text, concerned about eating up too much bandwidth). Nobody was charging subscription fees; there were no paywalls. There seemed to be nothing much worth paying for.
On the day we started, I’ve read that there were 250,000 websites worldwide. Today there are more than 250,000,000,000 (an increase by a factor of one million).
There was no consumer broadband. Google had been in business for about six months, and it seemed like a joke. Terms like blog, social media and Internet 2.0 did not exist. There were still SCSI ports, main menus, virtual domains, listservs, USENET, majordomos and sysops. (Where did they all go?)
We began eight years ahead of Reddit and three years ahead of Wikipedia. To get listed in Yahoo, I called them on the phone. “Hi, I have a website, would you mind getting it into your search engine?”
A Refuge for Artists — and the News-Averse
At the time I began Planet Waves, I was wrapping up a long career as news writer and editor, with experience in municipal reporting, business reporting and investigative reporting and environmental issues. I was at the top of my field as an investigative reporter covering mass poisoning incidents, corporate crime and government cover-ups of dioxins and PCBs (archived here).
My “there must be a better way” moment involved the recognition that I was not actually reaching people telling them about how contaminated they were getting, particularly if most of them didn’t care. Astrology became the better way: a means of reaching people on the level of their values and choices; on the level of what they wanted from life, particularly those already on the quest to be themselves.
I knew there were a lot of people who wanted to follow the news but who didn’t like how it was delivered; who didn’t like how irrelevant and aggressive it felt.
My approach to astrology was literate and didn’t sound like fortune telling or a personality quiz. In support of that, I brought my experience with A Course in Miracles, what I learned from my process in Holistic Therapy, and the benefits of my early tantric training.
My writing for Planet Waves became a way of synthesizing everything I had learned, from every facet of my life, and to frame a way to keep studying and learning, and developing myself as an artist and writer.
From the beginning, Planet Waves included gorgeous original artwork, with the first contributors being collage artist Via Keller and photographers Neal McDonough and Maria Henzler. Planet Waves became a refuge for artists — people who would rather stay awake and sensitive rather than numb out, shut down or become cynical. Our emphasis on beauty attracted people who appreciated the calm, warm vibe of the website.
We quickly became a refuge for news-averse people who wanted to stay in touch with world events, but preferred to have the story told in a gentle, engaging and interesting way, relevant to people. Before the days of the nonstop news feed, we served as an established source of information about developing events. When I began hearing from my readers that they would rather get the news from me than from CNN, I knew I was on the right track.
In this vein, our early coverage included discussion of the Cassini Space Probe, the Pacifica Radio/KPFA incident of 1999, the riot at the Woodstock 1999 festival, and the Burning Man festival (see coverage here).
Along the way, we’ve covered most major world events, including the dot-com crash of 2000, the Sept. 11, 2001, incident (we were early advocates for 911 Truth), the origins of the Iraq war, the Banda Aceh earthquake and tsunami of 2004, the 7/7 incident in London, the Fukushima nuclear incident, and just about all history-defining events, covered with an equal emphasis on getting the story right and understanding the astrology behind it. In many articles, I have offered a wide historical frame.
The Need for Context and Understanding
Today, two decades on, this idea seems more valuable than ever. The events of the world need context, for there to be proper witness. The events of our lives need context for us to understand them. This helps us see ourselves as part of the world, rather than as alienated from it. Astrology, used creatively, provides that context: a framework of both time and meaning, within which we’re all included.
The problem with what we call “the news” is that it lacks precisely this context. Meaning cannot exist without context; that is what we mean when we say meaning. The news typically lacks any connection to personal reality. It’s basically just narrative, data and viewpoint projected at us relentlessly.
No matter how accurate or insightful the news may be, it’s still many steps removed from you and your life, your choices, your actions and what troubles you. So for most people, it seems entirely irrelevant, which is compounded by how “important” everything is supposed to be.
Sadly, this is the thing that Rachel Maddow, The Daily Show, Fox News and Democracy Now! have in common. All evoke emotional responses, but personal reference points are nowhere to be found. Instead, writers and editors try to fluff up phony “personalization” of the news that includes things like holiday shopping advice and “human interest” stories. (I once parodied this by publishing an interview with a pencil sharpener.)
The overwhelming amount of information being shot at us or injected into is overwhelming. When you’re overwhelmed, it seems like the only option to keep your sanity is to cut off. I take a different approach: in the face of what is overwhelming, open up, pay attention, and stay in contact.
My approach with Planet Waves is to use world events as a kind of divination tool — what you might think of as newsomancy. The primary skill of astrology is pattern-recognition. What if we applied that same method to looking at a confluence of world events? It might look like this.
From the other direction, astrology and spirituality seemed to lack connection with the actual world that people are living in. Astrologers have long attempted to do the charts of world events, though these were often presented as highly technical exercises. I addressed that by developing a narrative form of writing that wove the theme of the astrology into a telling of the event.
Often, news events reflect something bubbling up from the collective mind. But what? Astrology offers an excellent way to describe that, if it can be carried off in a balanced and compelling way.
Our Advertising-Free Model
Instead of all this, usually world events are described in such a way as to facilitate packing in as many advertisements as possible. This is the easy way to go, as a publication or broadcast outlet: a lot of cash for relatively little effort. But what’s really being rented is your mind, your time, and your mental bandwidth.
It’s not our place to allow others to colonize your mind, when you’ve come here for a different purpose. The reason most news coverage has nothing to do with you is that it’s about selling advertisements, which I consider one of the most serious issues in the world.
I don’t mean to exaggerate here, at all: the world has a lot of problems. But the only way we’re going to solve them is some form of consciousness raising and being informed. That means neither numbed out nor dumbed down — the very things that advertising does, as well as drive needless consumerism.
The element that makes our 20 years of publishing the most relevant is that we’ve done this together, on our own steam, on love and on creative energy. People have helped because they’ve wanted to help. People have gifted us money and other resources because they like what we’re doing, and for no other purpose.
This model seemed like the thing to do at the time. Moreover, it seemed possible — though I had experience running many publications on a modest budget. Today, with the internet driven by a Niagara Falls of money, and with ads popping up every 10 seconds, it’s amazing that we’ve been able to do this — to maintain daily publishing, a professional staff, and professional-quality work, for more than 7,000 days running.
We have powered what we do on creativity, passion, ideas and love, which means we’ve had to put our full talent to work. We have accomplished what we have with relatively little in the way of cash resources; we are efficient; we all lean on the frugal side of the spectrum. This offers creative freedom.
We are accountable only to our own ethics, and to you. This has kept us focused on our mission. If you wonder why so many businesses do the wrong thing, and why so many publications are filled with viewpoints and postures that make no sense, remember that there are shareholders who set the agenda of profits above all else.
If you want an example of a business that’s driven by actual social conscience, and the drive to connect, to grow, to learn and to create: that would be Planet Waves.
Over the decades, hundreds of artists, photographers, writers, astrologers, astrology students, researchers, fact checkers, and — most lately — musicians, have arrived as our colleagues, students and teachers. Thank you to each and every one of you.