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Making his own waves

Readers will pay a high price for top quality without dozens of ads, Steve Pezman says of his magazine, the Surfer's Journal, which offers long stories and lavish photo spreads.

February 02, 2013|By E. Scott Reckard
  • Steve Pezman, founder of the Surfer's Journal, poses in his San Clemente office in front of covers from the last 22 years.
Steve Pezman, founder of the Surfer's Journal, poses in his San Clemente… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Steve Pezman and his wife, Debbee, quit key roles at Surfer magazine in 1992 to try to create a National Geographic for wave-riding grown-ups. As other surf pubs focus on big-bucks competitions and apparel ads, the Surfer's Journal still runs long stories and lavish photo spreads celebrating surf history, lore and lifestyle. Published six times annually, sold in surf shops for $15.95 a pop and to subscribers for $63 a year, the magazine runs just six ads in each 128-page edition. Total circulation: 30,000.

Personal: Pezman, 71, took to the waves in the 1950s when his family moved from Brentwood to Long Beach. He got his first surfboard in 1957, two years before the movie "Gidget" created a surf craze. Pezman rode big waves on Oahu's North Shore in 1962. He was a Huntington Beach board shaper in the late 1960s when he began writing magazine articles. Twin sons Shaun and Tyler, 25, are accomplished recreational surfers. Steve and Debbee are major supporters of a Costa Mesa soup kitchen that her mother opened 25 years ago; Someone Cares serves 300 meals a day to homeless and low-income people.

Giant break: "I fell into the publisher's chair at Surfer when the founder, John Severson, sold to a holding company and looked around for a replacement in 1970. It got down to me being convenient, and I made the best of it, with an already staffed 10-year-old surf magazine propping me up until I learned the ropes. The surfboard ad-based surf market had slumped during Vietnam when I stepped in. Then the lifestyle surf-clothing boom started growing right under me, so I was suddenly the golden boy to the new owners."

Inside info: Debbee, 58, Pezman's second wife, is "the systems designer, marketing, people person who really runs the business. I was and am more about the content and our unique relationship surfer-to-surfer with our readers." Their staff of 16, not all full time, includes son Shaun, who has a business degree from San Diego State and manages finances. Son Tyler "is a welder, ceramicist, painter, sculptor who currently works for a civilian defense contractor, working on hovercraft at Camp Pendleton, where he keeps an eye on the surf." Other key players include photo editor Jeff Divine, 61; editor Scott Hulet, 51; and designer Jeff Girard, 60. But a new wave of 20-somethings are "phasing in, as we older ones are phasing out."

It's a trip: At Surfer, Pezman interviewed psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, who saw humans "evolving to become purely aesthetic beings ... surfing across the universe on cosmic waves. Leary saw surfers as the throw-aheads of mankind, in that we already had figured out that the dance was the object of the game rather than gathering and guarding more acorns than we could eat."

On his 21,000 subscribers: "Our business is based on making it for $5 and selling it for $10, like the book business, but selling subscriptions instead of single copies. Magazines typically make it for $5, sell it for $3, and have ad revenue overcome the loss. Readers buy the Journal for an unusually high price in return for an unusually high level of content. The revenue we receive from our [advertising] sponsors is important but secondary, and if we had to, we could live without it. The sponsors are mostly big businesses that are run by surfers, and their support of the soul of surfing exhibits that their own soul is still alive."

On plans to eventually sell the magazine and retire: "These things are like living organisms and you keep feeding them and changing their diapers long after they've grown up. If properly parented, they can and should be able to thrive without Mommy and Daddy hovering over them."

scott.reckard@latimes.com

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