"For two or three years Surfer was the best mag in history," says surf historian.
Yesterday, you mighta heard, American Media, owner of The National Enquirer, bought out the company that owns that grand ol lady of the game, Surfer magazine.
And, even though American Media told Forbes that no one was going to get iced in the takeover, there was, very quickly, the scent of burning flesh. Soon, a few skeletal dogs will work the pedals and levers, hoping for a few off-cuts from the butchers.
The surf historian Matt Warshaw, whom you should reward every month with three dollars for his archival work, and for which those three shekels will entitle you to unlimited access, worked at Surfer in the eighties.
He knows its foibles, he knows its importance.
BeachGrit: A little history, just ’cause you do it so well. When did Surfer peak and when it decline?
Warshaw: Surfer went from good to great the day Drew Kampion pulled up in his VW microbus, walked through the front door and started tossing baggies of weed into every office. Late 1968, I think. Before the day was over, John Severson grew a huge Sgt. Pepper mustache, boy-toy Art Brewer took over from Ron Stoner, and for two or three years Surfer was the best mag in history—Rolling Stone meets Communication Arts meets Harvard Lampoon. That’s an exaggeration, but still. It declined, rose again, declined again, rose again, maybe three times altogether. It was very good in the 1990s, when Steve Hawk was there.
I’m gonna say, I’m surprised Surfer hung on for as long as it did. Who buys print ads anymore except French fashion houses and their vanity spends? And it was the advertiser model that Surfer was built on, yeah? Make ten mill in ads, virtually give the mag away etc?
I think so. I don’t know. I left at the end of 1990. I was a pretty shit editor in a lot of ways. I was good at working with other writers, mostly Derek Hynd and Matt George. We absolutely believed we were the Bloomsbury of surf, and at the time we were. But I paid zero attention to the business side, marketing, advertising, none of it. And I was allowed that luxury because Steve Pezman and Paul Holmes, who was editor before me, did all that necessary and important work so that I could sweat out a third draft of Derek’s latest Top 44 article. Pezman was a dream boss, the best.
Surfer, best-case scenario, is in for a very rough year or two, then American Media puts it up for sale and it gets bought as a vanity project, the way Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. Surfer will at that point be reborn in whatever form the rich benefactor dictates.
Not that she’s officially dead. But the future ain’t bright. Do you agree?
I have zero intel, and my business acumen is no better now than it was 30 years ago. But I’m guessing that Surfer, best-case scenario, is in for a very rough year or two, then American Media puts it up for sale and it gets bought as a vanity project, the way Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. Surfer will at that point be reborn in whatever form the rich benefactor dictates. Who knows. Maybe a quarterly Surfer’s Journal kind of thing. Except there’s already a Surfer’s Journal, so what’s the point.
Tell me a little about your tenure there?
I was at Surfer from ’85 to ’90. Not a good time in terms of how the magazine looked, but the writing was often very good. I set up my powder blue Selectric II on my first day, and six years walked out with a Mac Classic that I’d bought just a few months earlier. We fucking hated Surfing mag, and they hated us, which was fun. Chas would have loved it.
You gotta know the answer to this, how many significant print mags are there left? Surfing, gone, What Youth, gone, Stab, gone, Waves, gone. Tracks, SW, I guess Surfer’s still here officially. Will The Surfer’s Journal be the last man standing?
Surfer’s Journal will be the last man standing, yes. Steve and Debbee Pezman came up with that incredible revenue model: high-quality mag, minimum ads, steep per-issue cost. And they never wanted to go huge. I don’t know if the Journal is immune to what’s happening everywhere else in print. Probably not. But yes, they will outlast everybody in surf.
I cherish the days I worked at Surfer. Almost nothing of what we did actually holds up, but at the time it was progressive and fun and it meant the world to me. I feel the same way in 2019 about digital, or at least the stuff that I’m involved with. The format changes. The topics change. What’s counts is working with the right people, on something you really care about…
Do you weep at the death of print or do you feel, like me, that it’s a transition phase, a new way of digesting media that’s actually better – the news is current and the feedback from readers is immediate?
My wife and I still have hundreds of books in our house, on big shelves in living and dining rooms. Neither one of us has looked at a book in years. I read on my phone, Jodi has a Kindle. My attention span is shot. We still get the Sunday print edition of the New York Times, but I end up reading articles on my phone anyway, just out of habit. No, I don’t weep at the death of print. I was glad to toss all my LPs and CDs, and I’ll be happy when I convince Jodi to pack up all books for Goodwill. I cherish the days I worked at Surfer. Almost nothing of what we did actually holds up, but at the time it was progressive and fun and it meant the world to me. I feel the same way in 2019 about digital, or at least the stuff that I’m involved with. The format changes. The topics change. What’s counts is working with the right people, on something you really care about. Surf media is always 95% crap and 5% great. How lucky I am to have been on the right side of the equation all these years.