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Lights Out

A requiem for Surfer magazine.

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Surfer was born in 1960. Founder John Severson’s initial idea was not an ongoing publication, but a single promotional vehicle for his film, Surf Fever. When the horizontally formatted, black-and-white, 36-page program—filled with frame grabs, John’s little “stoke” drawings, and even a short-fiction piece—began to gain its own momentum, he realized just what he might have on his hands. John then righted the format to that of a normal magazine and went quarterly. He distributed to surf shops and sold ads to established surfboard makers. Before long, Surfer found its way onto newsstands.

John had a knack for surf content. He could write, draw, and shoot photos, and he was acquainted with pretty much all the players in the sport. By year three, the title was solid. By year five, he was buying new office furniture. Surfer outgrew its one-man operation, and an editorial staff was hired. Eventually came young editor Drew Kampion, whose intelligence and creative hipness helped sophisticate the title’s take on the evolving nature of wave riding. 

After eight years, John gradually became open to selling, the right offer finally coming from For Better Living, a holding-company startup that was about to go public. He agreed to sell for a chunk of their stock and commenced an earn-out phase during which he remained onboard. Around that time, Drew resigned over something and John took over the editorial duties while he looked for a replacement. That’s where I came in.

After a six-month stint at Peterson’s International Surfing Magazine, it folded out from under me, and I stopped by Surfer to see if I could contribute. I ended up being hired to help John with rote edit stuff. He’d wanted to bail California after Richard Nixon moved next door to him at Cotton’s Point, but before he could leave, he needed a replacement Surfer’s new owners would accept. One day, John invited me to lunch and offered me the job. I was stunned, but of course accepted. From associate editor to publisher in six months! I discovered the staff had pitched me thinking I’d be easy to work for, and, becoming desperate, John had gone for it. He exited two months later to build a treehouse in the South Pacific, before settling on Maui.

During my time, the magazine retained some of John’s unique influences but also reflected my style of relying on a wide range of contributor participation. Supporting this period was a growth in advertising that marketed to the then-large numbers of surfers, as well inlanders following the surf trends. Thus, I was able to keep that post for 20-plus years, meeting my wife, Debbee, while she was employed at Surfer as the ad director in the early 1980s.

By 1991, Debbee and I had both left Surfer. It was time. We had ideas of our own to try, which ended up becoming The Surfer’s Journal. About then, the world was just beginning to dabble in digital media. As it grew, digital began to threaten print publishing as the dominant form of communication by giving advertisers another choice on which to spend their budget. Digital’s reach seemed unlimited compared to the economics of print orders. Advertisers began departing print, which meant that Surfer lost its traditional support base.

During the 2010s, Surfer changed owners and locations several times. Ad sales and paid readership continued to shrink.

As print revenue further eroded and free access to digital competition grew in seemingly infinite proportions, Surfer magazine’s parent company announced a ceasing of operations on Oct. 5, 2020. Even to insiders, it came as a shock, if not a surprise. The end of a 60-year existence that was seen to define the sport’s soul—nourished by its audience, but comprising a life of its own.

As a reader, ex-employee, and competitor, it was, for me, a solemn moment.

[Feature image by Jeff Divine.]