Waves and Means : Publisher Hopes Surfer's Journal Will Be Sport's National Geographic


Bellied up to the breakfast bar in Chuck Ehlers' mobile home, Steve Pezman thumbed through a pile of old black and white photographs showing Ehlers and his buddies riding the waves off Manhattan Beach in the '20s and '30s.

At 76, Ehlers is one of the surviving members of the pioneer surfing fraternity that rode heavy redwood boards four decades before the Beach Boys set the legendary California surfing lifestyle to music.

And Pezman, publisher of the Surfer's Journal, a new quarterly magazine that aims to be the National Geographic of the sport, had dropped by to select vintage photos and jot down caption information to run with an article Ehlers has written about the old days.

"Generally, you wouldn't find the other (surfing) magazines spending space to communicate his memories," Pezman said. "But I think as you mature as a surfer you begin to revere the roots of the sport and look at those who helped develop it back then with great interest."

Pezman said the Surfer's Journal, which makes its debut in February, "has the space to pay attention to those charming and interesting historical perspectives about our sport and at the same time provide contemporary viewpoints."

Or put another way: "I get to indulge my editorial whim to the max!"

Pezman is betting nearly $250,000 of his own money--in the middle of a recession, no less--that his editorial whims will appeal to thousands of like-minded surfers.

There's no question Pezman, who bought his first surfboard as a 17-year-old Long Beach high school student in 1957, has sharp instincts when it comes to knowing what surfers enjoy reading.

At 50, he not only can still boast that "when the surf's good, I'm on it," but for the past 21 years he has served as publisher of Surfer, the oldest existing magazine devoted to the sport. Pezman quit his post at Surfer in July, writing in his final editorial that he was leaving "to ride my own wave."

He's paddling hard to catch a big one: The Surfer's Journal aims no less than to "celebrate the soul of surfing like no regular surf mag can."

We're talking 132 pages of "pure surf stoke" published in an oversized, high-quality, square-bound, soft-cover book format. It's a handsome, visually driven magazine with minimal advertising (only six pages) and maximum editorial content.

Unlike Surfer and Surfing magazines, which cater primarily to 15- to 25-year-olds, Pezman says the Surfer's Journal is aimed at a more "mature" readership.

"It's trying to be classic and timeless, but not necessarily old," said Pezman, leafing through page proofs of the debut issue spread out on the floor of his Capistrano Beach office. "Older surfers are going to like this, but so are younger surfers who are mature or have classical values."

To get a better idea of the Surfer's Journal canon, here's a partial rundown of the contents of the first issue (with editorial comments from the publisher):

* A philosophical piece on surfing's past and its possibilities for the future by bodyboard inventor Tom Morey, "the Bucky Fuller of the surfing world."

* A retrospective of the classic Hawaiian surfer Barry Kanaiaupuni, "who was a power surfer unparalleled from the late '60s through the early '70s," written by Gerry Lopez, himself acclaimed as "the master of the Banzai Pipeline."

* A 36-page gallery-style presentation of the photography of Don King, "one of the world's most respected surf photographers."

* "Welcome to Mickey's House," a spoofy Architectural Digest-style tour of '60s surf legend Mickey Munoz' Capistrano Beach home, "an eclectic museum of the surf lifestyle," with accompanying text in which "Mickey explains the life experiences that have played a role in molding his philosophy, so that the title becomes more a metaphor for his state of mind."

There's even a reprint of Denny Aaaberg's "No Pance Mance," a "thinly veiled fictional account of a raucous Malibu surf party during the summer of '62," which inspired director John Milius' 1978 movie "Big Wednesday."

There are a dozen features in all, nearly twice as many as a typical issue of a monthly surf magazine.

"I think if you really had to pinpoint what makes the Surfer's Journal different, it's that I can run more material in an issue with greater variety, and I don't have to be as careful about pandering to a young readership to satisfy an advertising demographic," Pezman said.

Judging by the response of surfers to the Journal's pending debut, Pezman's instincts may be on the money.

As a result of only three ads run in Surfer magazine, more than 800 $35 subscription checks for the Journal have arrived in the mail. Other marketing activities also are generating between 100 and 200 subscriptions a day, Pezman said.

"Our business plan had a goal of growing to 4,000 subscriptions over a two-year period and it appears we may come close to that goal before we distribute our first issue," said Pezman, who also will distribute the magazine through surf shops here and abroad for $12.95 an issue. Pezman, who plans to keep advertising to a bare minimum, said the quarterly will be reader supported through its higher-than-normal cover price. He envisions ultimately having 10,000 subscribers and selling another 10,000 copies through surf shops.

It's all coming together in a tiny second-floor office in a nondescript stucco building 100 yards from from the beach. The entire Surfer's Journal staff consists of only Pezman, his co-publisher wife, Debbee, an assistant and former Surfer magazine art director Jeff Girard.

Debbee Pezman, former marketing director at Surfer, is in charge of the marketing and business management while Pezman is handling the editorial and production end of the magazine--doing all the "nuts and bolts" kind of things, such as dealing with free-lancers and editing copy to writing captions and proofreading.

"It's tedious but fun," said Pezman, who compares working at the Journal versus laboring on a larger publication to hand sailing a a 20-foot sail board as opposed to sailing a 100-foot ship where everything is done by mechanics "and sometimes the forces are so great you can't feel the lines in your hand any more. It's nice to step back down into the smaller, more human-scale project."

Because the staff is small, each member contributes to the various components of the magazine.

Pezman said, for example, that "Jeff (also helps) edits copy and I contribute to the design, and Debbee will say, 'Look, don't make it codgerish.' As a result, each of us can see our influences in the product very directly."

Some things never change, however. Pezman still shows up at work in polo shirt, shorts and sneakers, and he freely peppers his conversation with surfing jargon such as "gnarly" and "stoked."

But Pezman is no longer young, and for the past decade he has dreamed of creating his own magazine that would appeal to a more mature readership.

"Here I was in my late 40s and publishing a magazine for 15- to 20-year-olds and being forced to a publish something that appealed to them and no longer appealed to me," he said. "It just seemed it was the time to take action on my dreams."

For Pezman, who remains on the Surfer masthead as "publisher emeritus," leaving Surfer nevertheless "was a very emotional move for the staff and myself. But in a funny way, now that I've made the leap across the chasm, I wish I had jumped five years earlier."

But, he said, "I still have a sense of attachment to Surfer. As I said in my swan song editorial, I'll be watching the magazine and coaching and giving advice like a nervous grandfather watching his grandchildren playing in the shore break."

At the San Juan Capistrano-based magazine, Surfer editor Steve Hawk said Pezman "is an extraordinarily likable guy, very sincere and straight forward--and everyone wished him the best." Still, Hawk said with a laugh, "there is a part of me that wished he had gone off and done something else. The Surfer's Journal might not be competition, but it's a lot more competition than if he had gone off and started selling cars."

Because of the recession and the Journal's higher-than-normal cover price, Nick Carroll, editor of San Clemente-based Surfing magazine, believes Pezman "may be choosing a difficult time to begin publication."

Whether there's room for another surfing magazine--even as one as different in editorial content as the Journal--remains to be seen, said Carroll, whose magazine, as does Surfer, boasts a circulation in excess of 100,000.

But, said Carroll, "I'd really kind of secretly think there would be room for it. I'd like to think that surfers are intelligent enough to enjoy a wide range of publications in their sport."

Like Hawk, Carroll believes that "the American surfing community would probably like to see Steve succeed. He's one of the venerable gentlemen of the sport. But from what I've also noticed, in the surf industry--like most industries--there is little in the way of sentiment. In real terms, when it comes to the bottom line, I wish him as well as I can."

Pezman, who acknowledges that starting a new publication "is very much a gamble," recently received an inspirational boost for his publishing venture while talking to quadriplegic Bill Wise.

Wise, who was paralyzed in a surfing accident in 1965, is writing an article for the Surfer's Journal about an experience he had going out on surfer Mickey Munoz' catamaran several years ago.

Munoz strapped the wheelchair-bound man onto the hull of his catamaran for a sail off San Onofre and impulsively sailed the craft into the surf line, giving Wise the sensation of riding a wave for the first time in more than 20 years.

"Bill Wise expresses the values of a surfer more eloquently than hardly any other surfer I've ever read," said Pezman, recalling that "Bill and I were talking about how you just have to take chances and when you don't, you sort of wither and the life drains out of you.

"He was telling me about this experience that led him to realize that again and I was agreeing with him: 'I'm experiencing that same thing. Publishing start-ups are so risky and our attitude right now is a mixture of fear and excitement.'

"And Bill said, 'You have just got to take a chance. After all, we're surfers, aren't we?' "

Added Pezman with a grin: "I've taken off and I'm stroking hard."

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