Stories of Laguna Beach’s ‘Radical Origins’ scoring big wins for ecotourism backers

"Reef Madness," of "From Radical Origins" tells the tale of the formation of Laguna Beach's Brooks Street Classic.
“Reef Madness,” from the docuseries “From Radical Origins” tells the tale of the formation of Laguna Beach’s Brooks Street Classic surf contest, now in its 58th year.
(Courtesy of Visit Laguna Beach)

What is it that makes Laguna Beach a place like no other?

Is it the geography, thousands of acres of hillsides and canyons reaching out to pristine beaches, tidepools and kelp forests that sustain protected marine species? Or the unparalleled opportunities for recreationalists and athletes to become one with that nature?

Or maybe it’s cultural and artistic traditions that reach back more than a century, when artists ventured out to capture breathtaking scenes en plein air and established colonies whose contributions would inspire generations of creativity and conservation.

The epic stories behind how Laguna Beach became what it is today through the activism and solidarity of its denizens and their desire to enjoy, protect and preserve its natural wonders is at the center of a docuseries and podcast — ”From Radical Origins” — created by the tourism nonprofit Visit Laguna Beach.

A still from the documentary short “Long Live The Rejects,” an episode of "From Radical Origins."
A still from the documentary short “Long Live The Rejects,” an episode of “From Radical Origins” tells the story of the founding of Laguna Beach’s Sawdust Art Festival in the 1960s.
(Courtesy of Visit Laguna Beach)

Debuted in November and released in a serial format ahead of a Feb. 1 watch party at the Rivian South Coast Theater, the seven-episode series is now garnering numerous broadcasting, online and marketing awards for its compelling storytelling and captivating scenes and recently participated in the 2024 Seattle Film Festival.

Rachel O’Neill-Cusey, president and chief executive of Visit Laguna Beach, said she and her colleagues developed the idea of capturing the stories of iconic people, places and events in a manner that would reach out to audiences with more than mere marketing content but rather an authentic message about the community’s rich history and culture.

Produced by Costa Mesa media agency Schiefer Chopshop, the short-form documentary series, accompanied by a podcast that delves further into the topics explored in each episode, are part of a broader mission to infuse local tourism efforts with a sense of environmental stewardship.

“People are experience collectors, and they want a story they can bring home with them,” O’Neill-Cusey said Thursday. “We want people, when they’re coming here, to know the legend and the lore behind everything. The more you know about something and understand the background behind it, the more you care about it and love it.”

Emma York, from left, Rachel O'Neill-Cusey and Alex Stall, of Visit Laguna Beach, creator of "From Radical Origins."
Emma York, from left, Rachel O’Neill-Cusey and Alex Stall, of Visit Laguna Beach, creator of “From Radical Origins” at a local event.
(Courtesy of Visit Laguna Beach)

Episodes aren’t chronological but instead ride a narrative wave that touches on how local counter-culture movements and activist demonstrations became woven into the social fabric of the city people know and love today.

The first installment, “Reef Madness,” explores the evolution of Laguna Beach surf culture, from daily acts of defiance to the formation of the Brooks Street Classic surfing competition, now in its 58th year.

Viewers also learn about the activist underpinnings behind the city’s trail system, its famed 20,000-acre green belt and how Laguna Beach became part of a network of California Marine Protected Areas. Behind each of these accomplishments was a vocal and vibrant community of residents, artists and ecologists, said O’Neill-Cusey, who interviewed scores of subjects over a period of several months.

"Birth of Skim" tells the story of the creation of and innovation in the sport of skimboarding in Laguna Beach.
(Courtesy of Visit Laguna Beach)

“They were all very proud and had a slice of history to share with me,” she recalled. “It was always a personal story, and it was always a little radical.”

Visit Laguna Beach Vice Chair Kurt Bjorkman said Friday that “From Radical Origins” reflects a recent change in focus away from traditional tourism, which can create unwanted impacts on a local environment, toward more conscientious forms of travel.

“Several years ago, we started having discussions at Visit Laguna Beach about recognizing the fragility of the town and the impact tourists can have on the town,” he said. “So we started shifting to talking about destination stewardship, rather than destination marketing.”

In 2021, the organization partnered with the Utah-based Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in a program designed to minimize the effects of activities that could lead to environmental degradation of Laguna’s lands, beaches and tidepools.

Visit Laguna Beach Vice Chair Kurt Bjorkman emceed a Feb. 1 watch party for "From Radical Origins."
Visit Laguna Beach Vice Chair Kurt Bjorkman emceed a Feb. 1 watch party for “From Radical Origins” at Laguna Beach’s Rivian South Coast Theater.
(Courtesy of Visit Laguna Beach)

Bjorkman will speak in October at a Leave No Trace conference, where one episode from the series “Protect and Conserve” — about a massive effort by numerous individuals and organizations to preserve local lands and waters — will be aired before a national audience.

“Some amazing people years ago made sure Laguna was going to stay the way it needed to,” he said.

“From Radical Origins” was a Webby Award honoree that received five Telly Awards, for best podcast, branded content and non-scripted documentary, among others, and garnered five American Advertising Awards during a ceremony in March.

But as nice as the accolades are, O’Neill-Cusey said the series is about so much more.

“It’s about storytelling,” she said Thursday. “These stories needed to be told and people wanted to tell them. It’s something that’s going to live forever.”