Flagship surf magazine published monthly out of San Juan Capistrano, California, founded in 1960 by surfer-artist-filmmaker John Severson; the longest continuously published surf magazine, and sometimes referred to as the "Bible of the sport."
Severson was a high school teacher with two surf films to his credit when he began to write and design The Surfer, a 36-page, black-and-white, horizontally formatted marketing piece for Surf Fever, his third movie. He sold 5,000 copies, enough to convince him to produce The Surfer Quarterly in 1961. Often labeled as the first publication of its kind, Surfer was in fact preceded by at least two other short-lived surf magazines. Color pages were introduced in 1962, as Severson stepped up to a bimonthly publishing schedule (monthly issues were introduced in 1978), and the name was shortened to Surfer in 1964.
Surfer was firmly established as the sport's leading voice by the mid-'60s, fending off challenges from a half-dozen other California-based surfing magazines, and serving as a template for a small but growing number of surf magazines around the world. For several years, the magazine's tone and layout were fairly conservative, with a features mix consisting almost entirely of travel articles, contest reporting, surf spot profiles, big-wave pictorials, and surfer interviews. Severson was pictured in a "meet the staff" page wearing a coat and tie, and the magazine often railed against gremmies and hodads and others who didn't adhere to the surf industry's rigid "clean-up-the-sport" dictums.
Severson hired knowledgeable surf writers (including Bill Cleary, Craig Lockwood, and Fred Van Dyke), top photographers (Ron Church, Ron Stoner), and first-rate graphic designers (John Van Hamersveld, Mike Salisbury). Surfer produced the best comedy of any '60s-era surf magazine, with Rick Griffin's Murphy cartoon series, and the fictitious rants of JJ Moon, self-appointed "number-one surfer in the world." John Witzig's 1967 essay, "We're Tops Now," proclaiming Australian surfing superiority over the Americans, went on to become the sport's single best-known article.
Surfer's biggest transformation came in 1968, after Severson hired Drew Kampion to not only edit the magazine but make it relevant to the times. Kampion, an outspoken 24-year-old Buffalo-born journalist, took Surfer deep into the counterculture for three years, with anticontest articles, drug references, environmental features, oblique fiction pieces, and free-verse poetry.
Severson sold Surfer in 1972 to For Better Living Inc., and handed over publishing duties to editor-writer Steve Pezman, who remained with the magazine for two decades. (Pezman would later found the San Clemente–based Surfer's Journal.)
By the mid-'70s, Surfing magazine, published nearby, had emerged as Surfer's main rival, in both sales and content. Both magazines took a fairly middle-of-the-road editorial position as the sport's popularity grew in the late '70s, then exploded in the mid- and late '80s; Surfer aimed at readers in their late teens and early 20s, while Surfing targeted a slightly younger audience. (Surfer's cache extended outside the sport; 1981 Los Angeles article on the magazine noted that it was read by Brooke Shields, Andy Warhol, Jackie Onassis, Tom Wolfe and Price Charles. "It's a perfect magazine for the fashion crowd," Gloria Vanderbilt said, "because it's all pictures and hardly any stories. I think there's an erotic thing going, too.")
Graphic designer David Carson gave Surfer's a radical makeover in 1991 (criticized by many, including founder Severson, as dark and stifling), before going on to become one of the design world's best-known figures. Surfer had two major scoops in the early '90s, first with "Cold Sweat," the debut article on Maverick's, California's soon-to-be-famous big-wave break, followed shortly by "The Next Realm?," the first feature on tow-surfing. Derek Hynd's critical assessment of the world pro tour's ranking surfers became a popular annual feature (and later served a model for Lewis Samuels' equally-popular "Power Rankings" series for Surfline and PostSurf in the late '00s); from the mid-'90s to the early '00s, editors Steve Hawk and Sam George produced a series of lengthy and well-researched topical articles on subjects like localism, surf resorts, and drugs and surfing.
Over the years, Surfer hired many of the best surf journalists, including Phil Jarratt, Kevin Naughton, Craig Peterson, Derek Hynd, Matt George, Matt Warshaw, Ben Marcus, Steve Barilotti, and Lewis Samuels, along with celebrated surf photographers like Art Brewer, Steve Wilkings, Jeff Divine, Warren Bolster, Peter Crawford, Don King, Ted Grambeau, Jeff Hornbaker, Tom Servais, Chris Burkard, Jason Kenworthy, and Jason Childs. The soft-spoken Grant Ellis has been the photo editor at Surfer since the early 2000s.
Surfer spin-off magazines over the years include Skateboarder, Powder, Action Now, Snowboarder, the Surf Report, Beach Culture, and Surfer Girl. Special issues include Surfer Style, the Surfer Photo Annual, and the Whole Ocean Catalog.
The annual Surfer Magazine Readers Poll began in 1963, and the Surfer Magazine Video Awards were founded in 1996. Surfer Magazine Video, a half- hour cable TV show, premiered on ESPN in 1986; Surfermag.com debuted in 1995. In 2004, the magazine launched Fantasy Surfer, an online game modeled after Fantasy Baseball and other similar "leagues," where readers put together their own teams of real-life pros, and score points based on how their teams perform in actual contests. SURFER: The Bar, a nightspot, opened in the Turtle Bay Resort, near the North Shore, in 2010.
The Perfect Day: 40 Years of Surfer Magazine was published by Chronicle Books in 2001; Surfer also co-published 1989's The Book of Waves. Other Surfer titles include Photo Stoner: the Rise, Fall, and Mysterious Disappearance of Surfing's Photographer (2006), and The Best of Surfer (2007), and Surfer Magazine: 50 Years (2010).
For Better Living, longtime parent company of Surfer Publications, sold the magazine group to Petersen Publishing in 1998; Petersen in turn was bought by Emap Publishing. In 2001, Primedia, Surfing magazine's parent company, bought Emap, bringing the longtime rivals Surfer and Surfing into the same publishing house; both magazines were bought by Source Interlink in 2007, and in 2013 Source also became the parent company of TransWorld Surf, meaning the sport's three biggest magazines were all owned by the same company.
Surfer's monthly circulation in 2013 was 103,000.
The August 2007 issue of Surfer, at 374 pages, remains the largest surf magazine ever published.