Saying Good Bye to Surfer Mag; Fall Swells, October Love

By JON COEN from The Sandpaper

FROM THE SOURCE: John Severson, founder of Surfer magazine, at his ‘satellite office’ on the beach in California. Surfer magazine shut down this weekend after 60 years. (Photo Surfer magazine Archives) 
Last week Liquid Lines was all about good news. This week, someone dropped a burning bag on the front porch, and we have to decide whether to step on it, knowing what kind of gross stuff might be inside, or take the chance of the porch catching on fire. The little flickers of hope (not the ones that might contain doggy doo) can be quickly extinguished in 2020, and I’m not even talking about the wild political theater of the past week.

On Friday night, Surfer magazine was shuttered, presumably forever.

This is a hard time for print media, The SandPaper notwithstanding. The truth is that our weekly beach paper here fills an important gap in community journalism that has been lost in the digital age, and our geographic location (somewhat isolated and underserved by the big regional papers to our north and south) keeps The SandPaper increasingly relevant. But you likely know the basic plot here – the internet has crushed print media. And if you don’t know the gist, count how many magazine subscriptions arrive in your mailbox each month. Probably not too many. Surfing Magazine, Transworld SURF and Eastern Surf Mag, all of which I had the privilege of contributing to, are now gone with countless others.

But Surfer likely hits the hardest, simply because it was a voice for 60 years. For a pursuit so commonly associated with youth, that might as well be 10 lifetimes.

When a person dies, part of the process of seeking closure is remembering our relationships with the deceased. And that’s exactly what surfers of all ages spent the early part of this week doing, sharing our connection with this long-running publication.

The death of a magazine speaks volumes (sorry, poor choice of words) specifically to the changes in our life brought by the world-wide web and, more recently, social media. When I say that pre-2000 a magazine was everything, I mean it was everything. Besides trips to the surf shops, Surfer was the message of surfing. It was called “the Bible of the sport,” and each issue was the word of god when it arrived in the mailbox.

Surfer was first published in 1960 by writer/surfer/filmmaker/artist John Severson, benefiting from the rapid growth of surfing for the first 10 years, documenting the radical change in the ’70s and the massive commercial boom of the ’80s. By the end of the ’90s, Surfer had four direct competitors, and all the mags chubbed up as board sports feasted on the fatty spoils of mainstream acceptance. The next decade saw massive shifts to digital and economic challenges, but Surfer survived them all, even Severson himself, who passed three years ago.

An iconic black and white photo of Severson shows him sitting at a picnic table on the beach at San Onofre, Calif., a ’60s surfboard leaning on the table; shirtless, he’s working at a typewriter with a VW van in the background.

I’ll admit this was one of the most important photos in my life, even if it was taken a decade before I was born. It told me that if you could find a way to present surfing in an interesting way to other people, to expand on the common feelings that riding waves gave us, there might be a way you could create a life around that, and still surf when the conditions line up. I have written for probably 20 surf-related magazines (don’t worry, I’ve done every other type of work on this glorified sandbar as well), but the features I did for Surfer were the most exciting to see published.

My early relationship with Surfer Mag was probably the same as for anyone of Generation X, and even boomers and some older millennials. That perfect bound publication (a little higher standard than Surfing, which was stapled together) would arrive every month, and we would gobble up every word. Like many others, I started reading it at about 12 years old. I savored every article, absorbed each photo and studied every ad. It may have been a one-sided relationship – what we used to be taught as “mass communication” as opposed to “interpersonal” before that whole paradigm blew up – but those writers, editors and photographers were speaking to me. I may have read the contest articles once, but every other story got triple read. And, of course, there was Wilbur Kookmeyer, the most classic of cartoons, which lampooned our own culture in a way we were too na├»ve to understand.

I read these mags in Forked River, 16 miles from the Causeway Bridge (24 minutes, which we would learn later we could shave down to 21, without red lights or regard for safety). But during the never-ending winter, Lacey Township Middle School might as well have been 500 miles from the beach. The places we were reading about might as well have been on a different planet. I assume it was the same for inland kids who summered on LBI. Even if you grew up east of the bridge, winter surf gear was never too accessible to 13-year-old kids.

It’s where we learned about the culture of surfing – the history, geography, customs, style, environmental responsibility, heroes, music and ways of the world; the scriptures of Steve Pezman, Sam George, Drew Kampion, Matt Warshaw and Steve Hawk. We learned the norms and the taboos, an education sorely missed in the water today. It also lit that fire in our imaginations. Along with a couple surf videos that would play at the local fire hall or, later, dubbed VHS copies, it created our world view. If television was the window to the world, Surfer Magazine was a periscope directed at the life we wanted to live.

Surfer even had a brief TV show, part of ESPN’s “Hot Summer Nights” lineup in the early ’90s. It was a half-hour program paired with a pre-recorded surf contest, or perhaps a beach volleyball tournament with copious bikini clips. We couldn’t have cared less about beach volleyball, but we’d watch it on Tuesday nights just to feel like we were part of the beach lifestyle.

For many of us who bit into, chewed on and digested every word from cover to cover, Surfer set our lives on unique paths.

The internet would change a lot of that. It wasn’t all bad. The mags had an online presence and a new revenue stream. The message boards were a testament to how vociferous the subculture still was. And web-only media could deliver content without the overhead of printing an actual magazine. The internet combined with the great recession, compounded by splintering demographics and an ailing surf industry, made it all very difficult. Parent companies laid off the staffs until they were working with skeleton crews. Surfer was reduced to a quarterly.

But what really killed Surfer was likely the fact that what we saw as the collective culture of surfing, some important guy in a suit saw as simply a “title,” another commodity to be bundled up, bought and sold by people who have never ridden waves. One media corporation that formerly owned Surfer had bought Surfing. Another parent company purchased Transworld Surf just to shut it down and eliminate competition. This wasn’t their Bible; it was simply another branch of media that either made money or didn’t. And that’s fair, but it still stings.

The bottom line is that Surfer Magazine is dead. Might someone buy it and revive it? Well, maybe, but despite this long essay of what Surfer meant to me growing up, I haven’t paid for a subscription in a long time. You probably haven’t, either. The writing was on the wall – sadly, not on the page.

And rest in peace, Surfer Mag. We all owe you a set wave.

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