The sun has hardly risen on Newport Beach, and a long-haired, middle-aged man stands on the shore staring out into the ocean while speaking into a voice recorder about mushy water and waves made of corduroy.
To the uninitiated, these might sound like the inane ramblings of another vagrant or burnout who decided to set up residence along the Southern California coast.
But for listeners of Alt 98.7, the rising rock station that's challenging KROQ, these are the familiar musings of Surf Junkie Jeff, the most popular surf bum in the weird world of Los Angeles morning radio. In the process of delivering his daily surf reports, Jeff has exposed millions of listeners, surfers and nonsurfers alike, to the secret language of the surf community. And that has put him in an odd position — he has to inform real-deal surfers without letting too many outsiders in.
Surf Junkie Jeff, legal name Jeff Malanca, is one of those rare individuals who's actually living his dream. “I didn't ever think I could have a job like this,” he says. “I'm blessed. It's beyond awesome.”
A former news reporter with KJAZZ 88.1 FM, Malanca got “burned out” after a decade on the job and decided to leave to pursue his passion: bringing the waves to the airwaves. He sent out audition tapes to a handful of local radio stations, and in 2004 finally found a home calling in morning surf reports on Indie 103.1 FM. He bounced between a few stations before landing in his current gig at 98.7 around three years ago.
“Here's the thing,” Malanca says. “Right now, I'm the only guy, as far as I know, that is doing this on the radio in L.A.”
For many Angelenos, Malanca has become a gateway to SoCal surfing culture. In a typical 30-second report, you'll hear Malanca describe the ocean as having “wedgie corners” and “steep shoulders.” If the surf is “all-time” (really good) he'll talk about “A-frame peaks” and “hollow barrels”; if the conditions are shit, he'll tell you that the water is “all chewed up” and “blown straight to hell.”
“I think I try to more or less break it down how I would to my buddies,” Malanca says of his style. “You're going to get a lot of people that don't surf that have no clue what I'm talking about, but people who surf know exactly what I'm saying.”
For nonsurfers, Malanca's lingo is a Rosetta Stone of sorts: Even if it doesn't immediately make sense, he leaves a bread-crumb trail that will lead some to co-opt and appropriate surfing culture, which a lot of people aren't happy about.
“Much of slang originates with and is used by a particular class or group as an obvious way to establish mutual identity,” says Dr. Richard Lederer, who earned his doctorate in linguistics and writes the weekly “Lederer on Language” column in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“Beyond that, slang works to facilitate the exclusion of other groups whom the insiders don't want to understand what they're saying,” Lederer says. “So it works both ways: It unites the group and sets up a boundary to other groups who don't understand what they're saying.”
The thing about slang, though, as Lederer notes, is that it only stays exclusionary for so long. And as anyone who has ever had to listen to an upper-middle-class white kid talk after buying his first rap CD, it's only a matter of time before that slang starts to seep into other social circles.
“Slang begins as the language of a general group,” Lederer says. “And then it inevitably gets adopted by the general public.” When it comes to the surfing community, that means one thing: the invasion of “kooks.”
In surfer parlance, a kook is best described as somebody who is completely out of place (see also: “Barney”). A kook has little surfing skill and even less surfing etiquette. Despite having minimal ability while standing up on a wave (if he gets that far), a kook will continue to disregard right-of-way in the surfing lineup, and will always find a way to drop in on the waves of other, better surfers who waited patiently for their chance to ride (read: “snaking,” “getting burned”).
Kooks also have a tendency to dress so completely over the top and talk in a way that's so unbelievably cartoonish (think Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) that it can be hard to tell whether they're staging an elaborate comedy routine.
“God, that shit freaks me out,” says Chris “Crash” Carson. “It's fucking Halloween every day for some of these kooks. Bleached hair, puka shell necklaces — that shit is weird.”
“I don't care whether the listeners are listening to me just to be entertained by the way that I talk or if they're a surfer looking to get some useful knowledge out of me. If I can make someone's day better
Carson is a 47-year-old surf coach who's been surfing up and down Southern California's coastline for close to four decades. In that time he's seen once-pristine surf breaks go from uncrowded to overpacked with clueless newbies. At the same time, he's watched more and more kooks infiltrate surf culture.
“When I moved to Venice, it was a bunch of hippie surfers, gang members and bums,” Carson says. “Now gentrification has pretty much wrecked Venice. It's filled with all these carpetbaggers and well-heeled people, and they've killed it. It's the same with the beaches in Malibu.”
In the past five years, the median home price in Venice has risen from $832,000 to $1.4 million as tech giants from Google to Snapchat set up shop in town. With the tech companies came an influx of young workers flush with cash — potential kooks-to-be.
“I like the people that come out here and appreciate the ocean and want to surf and make that part of their life. It changes their whole outlook on life,” Carson says. “But don't move here for some tech job, surf once, and start calling your kid 'grom.' You know, it pisses Hawaiians off when people say 'brah' all the time because it's part of their culture, so don't just take part of surfing and try to make it your own. You know, I feel like surfing means something, and I'd like to stay away from bringing every single kook to the beach.”
That's why Surf Junkie Jeff has to walk a tightrope between being a resource for core surfers and acting as a threshold to the surf world in a rapidly evolving and gentrifying part of America. And he must do it all without selling out.
To accomplish this balancing act, Malanca's reports always have glaring omissions: “I never mention surf spots or even specific beaches in my surf reports,” Malanca says. “I just say, 'Los Angeles' or 'south-facing breaks' or 'west-facing breaks.'” Even in casual conversations for this story, he always asks to be taken off the record when mentioning a surf break, even if only in passing.
“The reason I'm like that is because I think that's basic etiquette and respect for locals at spots,” Malanca says. “People respect me for that and don't get mad at me for going on the air and saying, 'Come surf here.' I know I wouldn't want that.”
At the same time, Malanca doesn't care whether his listeners are lifelong surfers or completely clueless. The way he sees it, if he can entertain both without damaging the surf culture, then he'll do just that.
“I don't care whether the listeners are listening to me just to be entertained by the way that I talk or if they're a surfer looking to get some useful knowledge out of me,” Malanca says. “If I can make someone's day better, I'm happy. And the fact I can still do this every day after all these years is amazing. I'm so stoked it turned out like this, and I hope to be the voice on Los Angeles radio calling in surf reports every morning until I can't do it anymore.”