First off, thanks for even having this forum to discuss the changes, and thanks too for asking for input and responding. It isn't easy balancing all the things you have to do with this site!
Here is some additional feedback on the interface (I used to do human interface design professionally, so its an obsession.
The upper drop down menus will be dropped and the left hand menus will be open 24/7.
Great! Try and get it so you can jump just about anywere from the first page. It is challenging, especially so you don't overwhelm the user with too many choices (you're probably familiar with the 7 +/-2 rule--people can only keep 5-7 things in short term memory, so choices have to be limited to 5-7, but you can get around it by "chunking" items like sub menus, etc.).
Perhaps when I get some more time I'll even give the user an option as to which they'd prefer.
You could, I guess, but I think if you get a design that works, you won't need to have that option--save your work for other stuff!
I would now like to state something about the dual menu system (drop down and side menu). They exist and mimic each other for ease of use.
I can understand that. However, human interface studies (video taping people using dual menu systems) show that that type of redundant navigation usually confuses people and ends up slowing them down since cognitive loads (7 +/- 2, for example) go way up. In other words, it is actually NOT easier to use. People THINK it is, but they aren't timing themselves (it pretty amazing to see this in action!). I'd bet you could drop the dual menus with enough work on navigation.
View the site in a browser such as IE 6.0 (blah blah MS blah blah) and it looks and works wonderfully.
And finally, for all the users on any platform who have the ability to update their browsers, IE to 6.0 and NS to 7.0, PLEASE DO SO. The browser will enhance your experience on this site and many more.
Java, cascading style sheets, etc., are nice an all, but a website like this should work on ANY browser. How about lynx?
It is a really challenge (I feel your pain!) to do it, but try stripping the site down to the bare essentials--links and straight up html code. It will make your job easier, and allow more people (like AOL users) to enjoy the site. I've found in some of my design jobs I can elimitate a lot of "extra" stuff with enough work--and have the advantage of cleaner code and a more inclusive site. You could always go to a fully dynamic site that detects the user's browser and platform and then serves them a page designed for that browser. When that works, it is fantastic--but is a LOT of work.
Keep up the good work! Great job so far.