Communications trailblazer Kevin Benz celebrates everything Austin with CultureMap Austin’s one-year anniversary / By Chad Swiatecki / Photo by Rudy Arocha
When Kevin Benz starts talking about the many twists, turns and loop-de-loops of his career, the one constant that emerges is that he loves to find new ways to tell people’s stories. It’s what led him from a string of successful television producing and editing jobs in Texas and beyond, to helping develop “the CNN of Austin” (24-hour news station YNN, created more than a decade ago as News 8 Austin), to the founding last year of the online lifestyle magazine CultureMap Austin.
“I think I know this city pretty well, but what CultureMap has shown me, thanks to all the great people we have writing for us, is that there are so many great pockets and subcultures I was never a part of or aware of before,” says Benz, 50, a University of Texas graduate and longtime Austin resident.
“The food culture here has become so important and dynamic, along with the cocktail culture, music and film scenes that are well-established,” Benz says. “We’re shining a light and celebrating these things that make Austin such an incredible place.”
Launched last summer in the image of a sister site that preceded it in Houston, CultureMap Austin is a sleek, sharp and content-rich site that covers everything from entertainment to sports to fashion and the larger abstraction of culture, all from an Austin-centric point of view. It’s a site that celebrates the people and places that make Austin one of the most desirable and livable cities in the country. On a recent weekday, its top selection of stories included a piece on the James Beard Award being given to Uchiko chef Paul Qui, a profile of Shearwater drummer Thor Harris and a consumer guide on the city’s best smoothie shops.
His role as editor of the site that features dozens of freelancers and a small paid staff finds Benz guiding both its editorial direction and its community presence, which he’s sought to burnish by partnering with major Austin festivals and sponsoring at least one community event per week.
“We launched with a certain idea about what will work and what people will respond to and that was something that was nice and easy to read in a magazine style,” Benz says. “You never know until you put it out there, but we’ve been blown away with the response, which has far exceeded any expectations we had. I get two responses when I tell people what I do, and it’s either, ‘What’s CultureMap?’ since we haven’t been around very long, or it’s, ‘I love CultureMap!’ with very little in between.”
With readership growing at 200 to 300 percent each month since CultureMap’s founding, Benz has used the platform to help Austin, as well as keep readers informed and entertained. One way has been partnering with the I Live Here, I Give Here campaign to profile local nonprofits and add donation widgets to those profiles to make it easy for readers to contribute via just a few clicks. While the results weren’t earth-shattering—the Candlelight Ranch charity for special-needs children received more than $1,000 via its profile links—Benz says the response shows CultureMap is answering a need by keeping Austinites informed about the best of everything that surrounds them.
“We’re driving them to action, and that’s good,” he says. “If we help someone find out what’s going on, or appreciate or get involved with the place where they live, that’s dead on with our philosophy and why we do what we do.”