Unique radio surf reports attract mostly non-surfers

Scott Bass surfing in Cardiff.
(Photo by Kevin Kinnear)

Scott Bass has been known to describe surf conditions as Lilliputian. It’s a reference to one of Bass’ favorite books, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. It’s a literary way of saying the surf is lousy. (Lilliput is a fictional island where the inhabitants are called Lilliputians and are only 6 inches tall.)

It’s that turn of phrase that attracts regular listeners who’ve never been on a surfboard. “You can only say the surf is 2-3 feet high so many times before even I get bored,” says Bass, who’s been reporting on San Diego surf conditions twice every weekday for more than 10 years. “I’m always looking for something that will make it more interesting.”

Scott Bass
(Photo by Kevin Kinnear)

Waves can also be “crumbly, like a day-old bran muffin” or “a fitful toddler fading into a nap.” Bass’ reports air at 7:22 a.m. and 12:22 p.m. Monday through Friday on KPBS, 89.5 FM. Bass is up before dawn gathering information. “I glom together my reports based on different sources. It’s always to back up and verify, kind of a stew of information.” He consults Surfline (a Southern California surf cams and forecasting website), Scripps Institution of Oceanography buoy cams, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoy wave-meter data. He also checks in with his own network of surfers. Bass pre-records his reports from his Encinitas home studio.

Bass is a 57-year-old Encinitas resident and life-long surfer. He’s a graduate of Cal State San Marcos and got a job at Surfer Magazine while still a student. He produced a documentary, “Between the Lines”, about surfers during the Vietnam War. He co-hosts a weekly podcast called Spit! and surfs “just about every day.”

Bass vividly describes more than just waves. The ocean may be the “color of the underside of tin foil” or a sunset may look “like an Orange Julius.” Foggy conditions may remind beachgoers of “221 B Baker Street,” a Sherlock Holmes residence in London, or “springtime in Belfast,” neither city known for an abundance of sunshine. Bass credits his wife, Katrina, with some memorable phrases, plus she lets him know if he’s getting too carried away. “It’s not something you can do every day, and I don’t want it to be a schtick.”

Scott Bass walking with his surfboard on the beach.
(Photo by Kevin Kinnear)

That’s exactly what attracted John Decker, KPBS senior director of content development, who hired Bass. The station didn’t want a surfer-dude stereotype delivering the surf reports. “His poetry and his choice of words, description of waves, kind of came slowly and unexpectedly. At first I was, whoa, well that’s interesting. I was concerned that it would erode his credibility. Now it’s like his calling card.” KPBS radio features many of Bass’ unique offerings on social media. Bass says he was aware of the more “academic tone that KPBS is known for when John brought me on. I wasn’t going to be ‘hey bro’.”

The truth is most surfers don’t get their surf information from the radio. They go online or have their own contacts. Rock station 91X FM offers popular surf reports with Bird Huffman, a San Diego surfing institution. He doesn’t consider Bass competition. “He’s like a brother to me.” The respect is mutual.

Bass understands that he’s speaking to a larger audience than just surfers. He’ll tell you if it’s a good day for a beach walk with “a voluminous swath of sandy beach.” He’ll include health advisories if there’s ocean pollution after a storm. He’s also a hit on the elementary school guest speaker circuit. “I’ve been asked to talk about surf reports and surf forecasting and some of my vivid or imaginative vocabulary. Of course, kids want to talk about sharks.”

Long-time Encinitas surfer Steve Judd walks a few blocks to the beach to check on the surf for himself, but appreciates Bass’ vivid descriptions. “He’s got a brain and the richness of his language is almost like poetry.” Rancho Santa Fe resident Sue Drean, a non-surfer, also tunes in regularly. “I look forward to his reports and he’s got a sexy voice.”

Bass admits he’s got the ideal setup. He’s able to help support his family of four through a variety of surf-related enterprises, selling vintage surfboards and producing the annual Boardroom Consumer Surfboard Show in Del Mar. Once he records his surf reports, chances are he’ll head for the beach. “It’s a pretty cool gig.”