Interview: Jesse Thorn

Jesse Thorn launched The Sound of Young America with his friends Jordan Morris and Gene O’Neill during college, and a little over a decade later, his career is still grounded in the same DIY ethos in which it began. He is a man with a career and family who doesn’t always play the part of grown-up. Ahead of his time, Thorn transitioned into podcasting when most people thought of it as just a hobby, if they were aware of it at all. Trying out a new career was never an obstacle for Thorn, as he was drawn to varied creative pursuits. By following that impulse, Thorn found syndication with The Sound of Young America, now Bullseye, on public radio as an outlet for his kaleidoscopic passions. His network, Maximum Fun, hosts a group of incredibly successful podcasts—Throwing Shade, RISK!, Judge John Hodgman, etc—including some of his own creations, such as Jordan, Jesse, GO!, where he plays the delightful role of America’s Radio Sweetheart. Part hilarious provocateur, part earnest student of culture, Thorn is inquisitive and generous of spirit. The Timbre’s Eric McQuade talked to Thorn about his podcasts, his network, and the logic behind dialing Marc Maron while making radio in your underpants.

 

THE TIMBRE

When I read about you in Fast Company, Nathan Rabin used the word polymath to describe you, which I figured out does not mean that you’re good at math. I wonder, with all these wide-ranging interests you have, is there something you’re itching to do that you haven’t gotten to do in your career?

JESSE THORN

You know, there have been things that have come along that I haven’t been able to do, simply because I have a lot of work to do. I’ve had publishers and agents asking if I’d be interested in writing a book, and I think I probably would be interested in writing a book; I just can’t really afford to, because I don’t have the time.

Sometimes I fantasize about like, “Oh, what would I do if I had a year’s sabbatical?” Maybe me and Jordan [Morris] will do a TV thing, or me and [John] Hodgman, or I might host a TV show in the future. I really enjoyed doing that. But, it’s not like I’m auditioning. <laughs>

THE TIMBRE

It’s interesting that you bring up TV and John Hodgman. He’s on the last episode of The Daily Show, and he’s on Jordan, Jesse, GO! Is the ability to support a career from podcasting a world that you ever envisioned?

JESSE THORN

I never thought of my career as being specific to audio. I think that I was much more focused on themes and subject matters and styles than I was on medium. The main reason I got into audio was because the production is so much more manageable than video and was especially so 15 years ago. We just put together a video series that probably cost us $40,000 or $50,000, and it’s the simplest, smallest-scale video series you could possibly create.

My commitment is to the ideas and the tone, more than it is to the medium. I started 15 years ago at a time when you went to film school, and there was no digital equipment—at least not in a public school—and so you didn’t get to shoot. That’s why I went into audio.

THE TIMBRE

So, go back 15 years when you switched over to audio. What did you see yourself doing?

JESSE THORN

I was doing comedy at the time. But I thought I could maybe get into public radio. I always liked public radio. There are things about it I like less than other parts, but in the world of media, it was, and remains, a real shining star. In terms of mass media—broadcasting especially—it’s still tough to beat public radio. So I thought, Oh, I’ll be a public radio host. But I was not a journalist really and not a reporter, certainly. And still, I’m not. And that is pretty much the only entry-level job in public radio. <laughs>

THE TIMBRE

You couldn’t get on public radio?

JESSE THORN

I didn’t have any qualifications for it. I ended up doing my show in the hopes that it would turn into something. And lucky for me, it did.

THE TIMBRE

You said you were interested in comedy at that point. What were you doing?

JESSE THORN

In college, Jordan and I were on an improv team, which we’re both embarrassed of. Jordan, especially so. Jordan once told me that he would put anything that he did more than six months ago into an incinerator and destroy it forever if he had the choice.

THE TIMBRE

So, you were doing comedy, and you had your radio show. This was The Sound of Young America, your first radio show?

JESSE THORN

Yeah, that’s right. So I started The Sound of Young America with Jordan and our friend Gene O’Neill. I think it was the first quarter of my sophomore year of college. And we did it through college.

And then I just sort of kept doing it after that, and it eventually got distribution from Public Radio International, maybe three or four years ago. I changed the name from The Sound of Young America to Bullseye and not that long after that, switched from Public Radio International to NPR.

THE TIMBRE

About the syndication, did you get a phone call or was there a dialogue building up to that?

JESSE THORN

<laughs> Huh. I got an email. PRI’s contact guy emailed me and said, “Hey, I saw your show on iTunes, and I listened to it, and I thought it was really good. If we were interested in picking up the show, would you be interested in doing that?”

And I was like, “Yes, of course.” And then I didn’t hear from him for six or nine months, and I thought, Well, I guess that’s not gonna happen. But then it turned out that’s just how things work in public radio. Then he signed me up. It was a crazy biz deal. Although, in some ways, it was also not a crazy biz deal, because I realized that the amount of money that was going to come out of it was close to zero.

THE TIMBRE

Money was never discussed when they asked for your show?

JESSE THORN

Well, no. Basically, how it works is the distributor gets the show to stations, and pitches it to stations, and charges stations to carry it; and then the producer, which is me, gets to keep a portion of that income—a rate. We had discussed the rate, but then they sent me the projections, and I was like, “At the end of five years, I’m at $28,000 a year to me. <laughs> How am I supposed to make an entire show once a week? It will take me five years to get to the point where I’m making as much money as I’m making right now as a part-time secretary?”

Yeah, it turns out that’s just how public radio works. <laughs> Unless you’re on five or seven hundred stations. I had to adjust my reality to the facts on the ground.

THE TIMBRE

So you’re still on an island unto your own. You’re just doing your work, and you send it off, and it appears on radio stations? No one’s calling you up, saying, “Hey, Jesse, you know, it was a little racy last night—tone it down.” Is it just you doing your thing?

JESSE THORN

So an example is, I wrote an outshot—which is my sort of closing essay on Bullseye—about Andy Daly’s Review, and there was this thing on Review last year where Andy Daly’s character ate so many pancakes that he vomited. And there was some question as to whether we could play the sound of that clip. You’re not supposed to have sexual or excretory function on the radio, per FCC guidelines. But I was like, “Does vomiting count as excretory?” <laughs> We consulted with a super-nice NPR standards and practices lawyer about barf sounds. <laughs> But in terms of the editorial stuff on the show, that is all driven by me and the people who work for me.

THE TIMBRE

I’ve read that you say that you consider Bullseye a cultural show, which I think is totally on the nose. Was it the same way at first, or were you trying to find your footing when it was The Sound of Young America?

JESSE THORN

When Jordan and Gene were still around, we did all kinds of stuff on the show. It was essentially a comedy talk show with interviews. But we wrote sketches; we wrote whole radio plays. <laughs> We would stay up the whole night before writing weird stuff.

I remember once we had Mike Nelson on who was, of course, the long-time host of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and still does RiffTraxx, and is a super-nice, funny guy to this day. And we made Mike talk to this record that I bought at a used bookstore downtown that was an act-along-with record. It was half of a dialogue. And we had faxed him the script—this is how long ago it was—we faxed him the script that came with the record. But he didn’t get the fax, so he just made it up as he went along. And he did a great job.

THE TIMBRE

So he got half a script? And he had to reply to the dialogue on the spot?

JESSE THORN

Yeah, he also doesn’t know how long the space is going to be. <both laugh> But, you know, we did all kinds of stuff. We did call-in stuff, and interviews were always a central part of the show—or at least, were a central part of the show by six weeks in, not least of all because we realized how much time they would fill. And so then Jordan and Gene left, and it became just me. Actually, I did one summer where I had co-hosts, so a lot of folks that I knew from the Bay Area came down and would co-host a show with me. Al Madrigal did that. My friend, Nick Adams—who’s been a long-time regular on Jordan, Jesse, Go!–did that.

Then after that, I was like, I’m not just going to do comedy by myself into a microphone. That is terrifying, because, like I said, the scariest thing is having no idea whether what you’re doing is funny, and just writing comedy by yourself is pretty scary on its lonesome. So I went to all interviews then. That would have been 2004 or 2005.

THE TIMBRE

I imagine Jordan, Jesse, GO! comes out of, “I still want to work with Jordan because he’s really talented.” Was that the birthplace of Jordan, Jesse, GO!, that split when you decided to turn to more of an interview-style show?

JESSE THORN

Yeah, basically what happened is Jordan graduated from college and moved to LA and started working as a production assistant. And he was working on the weirdest stuff back then. I was in San Francisco, and I had a job, and I was trying to figure out what to do. And eventually, my wife had applied to law school, and she got into a better law school in LA than she did in San Francisco, and we thought, Well, look, if we’re going to be serious about my career, and Theresa’s law school—my wife’s law school—we should move to LA now.

And so we moved to LA, and I was like, Gosh, I’m in LA, Jordan’s in LA, and neither of us is doing anything important. We should start a new show from The Sound of Young America stuff that wasn’t the interviews.

And the ambition of Jordan, Jesse, GO! has declined from modest to nil over the last seven or eight years, or however long we’ve been doing it. <laughs> But you’re absolutely right. Jordan was and is my very good friend, and he was and is the funniest dude I’ve ever known, and I always loved working with him.

When we started Jordan, Jesse, GO! I think Matt [Belknap] and Jimmy [Pardo] had started Never Not Funny. Uhh Yeah Dude, which is a very funny show that’s still going, was operating then. There were a couple other shows. But mostly it was wide open. There wasn’t anybody doing a comedy talk podcast, you know? <laughs>

THE TIMBRE

It’s wild to think of a time like that.

JESSE THORN

We’re a generation younger than many of the leading lights of the LA comedy scene. But I think Jimmy [Pardo] really led the way, and folks like Doug Benson, and when Scott Aukerman started podcasting, and when Marc Maron started podcasting—each of those was an opening of the floodgates for people from the scene. And I think it’s great, I’m all for it.

THE TIMBRE

I’m not going to make some hyperbolic statement about your role in helping Maron, though it’s been written about. I have more of a question: How did you collide with Maron? Were you friends at the time? And was he even looking to podcast? Did you tip him off, like, “Hey, I’m in this great space that no one knows about yet, and I’m doing really well?”

JESSE THORN

Basically, Marc had been on our show when we were in college a couple of times— never in person, on the phone. And the second time he was on, it was a pledge drive show, and Jordan and I were broadcasting from the base of campus at UCC Santa Cruz, which is where you have to drive through to get into the campus or walk through. And we were broadcasting with the station’s old ’70s remote equipment in nothing but our underpants, because we were trying to raise money for the station. <laughs>

I had invited Marc on a few years after that, and he didn’t email me back. I thought it was just because I had an old email address or something, but he later told me it was because, “Wait, is this that weird underpants guy?” <laughs>

But then, not that long after that, Marc heard me on WNYC in New York, which is the NPR station in New York, and he’s like, “Wait a minute…is this that weird underpants guy?”

And so Marc started WTF with his producer Brendan [McDonald] in the studios of Air America, from which they both kept getting fired and rehired. And when Marc moved out to LA—Marc had this house in LA, and he’d just been through a divorce—when he moved from Astoria to LA, he wanted to keep doing the show, but he didn’t have access to a studio. And I think he had heard that I knew about podcasting. And he just sort of emailed me and said, “Hey, remember me? Marc Maron here. What do you know about studios?” And I just went over to his house, because I live in his neighborhood, roughly speaking, and just helped him figure out what kind of microphones to get.

So my role in the Marc Maron saga is completely minimal—like almost nothing—but also, I guess, very seminal because you can’t make a show without equipment. <laughs>

He has been giving me credit for my three hours of time, and I’m very grateful. It’s because Marc is a super-nice dude. But yeah, everything about the show comes from Marc and Brendan.

THE TIMBRE

In my mind, I envision all of you—you, and Jordan, and John Hodgman, and all these people out there—are you just calling each other every day, going, “Hey, you wanna come on my podcast?” Is that just a complete fantasy world that I’m creating?

JESSE THORN

I mean, really, thinking of it as a podcasting scene is, I think, a little bit wrong-headed. On Jordan, Jesse, GO!, we invite people that we are friendly with. It’s not always people that we are friends with, but people that we are friendly with, because that’s the kind of show Jordan, Jesse GO! is. And it’s definitely a different kind of booking than the people that I invite on Bullseye. It sometimes extends beyond the comedy scene; some of our most beloved guests, such as Nick Adams or Mary Roach or Susan Orlean, are not from that world. But mostly it’s our pals who we know are going to be fun and funny, and those people are often comedy performers, and if we know them, it’s probably because they’re part of the same comedy circles in which we travel.

THE TIMBRE

Are there people out there that you’re going, “Oh, I would love to have them on Maximum Fun. Let me reach out and talk to them.” Is that a continued pursuit of yours?

JESSE THORN

Yeah, I think especially since we’ve gotten the business to a point where it is stable and making money, I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my time to focusing on bringing to the fore great voices that otherwise wouldn’t be heard, particularly in the area of what is traditionally called diversity.

And I think the trouble with the way diversity is used is that it leaves out white people. I think it falls into the classic trap of making white people and dudes the default, rather than one piece of a larger pie. When I started podcasting, it was almost exclusively white dudes, and as soon as I had the resources, I tried to focus on taking our platform and sharing it with people whose voices I think need to be heard, and it’s something I continue to do.

We have shows in development right now. When people send us their shows, we listen to them. I think that might be how My Brother, My Brother and Me came to us. Maybe not—maybe I found My Brother, My Brother and Me. But I listen in the traditional ways. I’m also actively seeking people who aren’t just the same old, nerdy white dude. No offense to nerdy white dudes.

THE TIMBRE

I want to ask you a little bit about the origins of Maximum Fun. Recently, Gimlet Media started a donation—a listener-funded membership. You can pay $5 a month. They’re trying to change course on how they get support. They want to get some revenue from listeners directly, rather than go all sponsorship slots.

JESSE THORN

That’s interesting. They certainly have gone all in on what kind of sponsorship spots they run.

THE TIMBRE

I know, I know. I couldn’t believe they had a Ford ad. I’d never heard a Ford ad on a podcast.

JESSE THORN

Well, I know that when we were trying to sell the kinds of spots that we do on Maximum Fun, we often get the question, “Well, Gimlet will…” And then they describe an elaborate editorial-advertiser collaboration that we’re not willing to do. We try to be very careful about how we frame, present and create spots, because for us, as a listener-supported network, the relationship with the audience always comes first. And we just have to say, “Okay, yeah.” We wish them the best of luck.

THE TIMBRE

How did you go about creating a fundraising model for Maximum Fun?

JESSE THORN

It was neither a quick decision nor a grand plan. It was a growth over time based on necessity. I think that if it were easy to get the audiences and sell the advertisements, we might have considered being advertiser-supported. That’s still not the case now and certainly wasn’t the case 10 years ago. And even more than that, I’ve always wanted to run a business that led me to be responsible to the audience and not responsible to people who wanted to sell things to the audience.

And it’s worked very well. No one is getting rich, and I work really, really, really, really, really hard. Probably harder than I should. But I’m very deeply gratified, not only that people choose to support the work that I do personally, but also that people choose to support this other work that I love, and that the people who are making that other work are getting paid to do it.

I so admire the McElroy brothers and the Stop Podcasting Yourself guys, and Bryan and Erin from Throwing Shade. I’m delighted every day that I get to work with Erin and Bryan, because I think they’re the most brilliant comic geniuses, and they care so deeply about such important things. So I’m really delighted that our model gets them paid without them having to compromise their morality. They don’t have to do a show that’s about business, or the internet, or health, which are the things that advertisers want to buy. They can do a show that’s about important social issues, and be responsible to their audience, and still get paid to do it, and that’s really cool.

THE TIMBRE

You’re friends with Roman Mars. It feels like you and Roman have a very similar ethos about running your networks.

JESSE THORN

I tried to hard in the olden days, when he first started 99% Invisible, to get him to join Max. Then he went and started his own fucking podcast network. <laughs>

And it’s great, too. I think that Roman and I have very similar backgrounds. Roman’s background is in punk rock, and he was a band manager. He’s very deeply engaged in different alternative and avant-garde music. And I think that, to some extent, his art-first values and mine connect.

I was never a punk rock guy, but my father was an organizer and a fundraiser for most of his career. In the San Francisco Bay area, where I came from, independent arts business is almost expected—certainly in the hip-hop world—which was kind of my roots as a teenager, young 20-something. So it just was the thing that made sense.

Plus, I had always thought I would be a public radio host. So I just stole the public radio model. There are some things that are different about what I do, but in many ways, I’m basically running a public radio station.

THE TIMBRE

In the work you do with Jordan, Jesse, GO! and Bullseye, how much of the interviews or exchanges are a performance? To the listener, sometimes, they may be tricked into thinking there’s a deeper relationship there.

JESSE THORN

The line between performance and real life, for comedy people, is relatively narrow, you know? It’s not like Meryl Streep, right? <laughs> Like Paul F. Tompkins is less frequently funny in real life, just because sometimes he’s just at the rental car counter, but even at the rental car counter, he’s one of the funniest guys in the world, you know? <laughs>

THE TIMBRE

But also, isn’t there also a sense of mutually assured destruction to a performance?

JESSE THORN

It is a performance in the sense that we are aware that there is an audience.

Yeah, and we’ve had a few incidents over the many years we’ve been doing the show. Almost everyone’s been wonderful. We’ve had a few incidents of people who just didn’t want to play ball.

THE TIMBRE

This is on Jordan, Jesse, GO! ?

JESSE THORN

Yeah, yeah. When we’re booking Jordan, Jesse GO!, we’re looking for people who are both willing to, and capable of, doing what we do. They don’t have to be the funniest person, like the wittiest person, but they have to at least be willing to enjoy themselves and have fun. I mean, I gave the example of Mary Roach earlier. Mary is not a performer, and she’s not really a humorist, although her books are funny. But she’s a fun person who is funny and is willing to enjoy herself and goof around with us, despite the fact that she is a dignified-adult-parent-writer-of-books. <laughs>

THE TIMBRE

Right.

JESSE THORN

On Bullseye, certainly, there’s some expectation that people are not going to be jerks, because that would make them look bad. But it’s my responsibility to make the thing about them and make them look good. Or, at least, make for an interesting and compelling listening experience. Whereas, on Jordan, Jesse, GO!, we’re booking people who are on board with having fun with us, you know?

With Jordan, Jesse, GO!, Jordan and I have been working together now for 15 years, since I was 19, and he was 18. So we are very comfortable working together, and Jordan, Jesse, GO! is a fast-moving and silly show with a specific tone. And it sometimes takes people a second. There’s no real way for us to prepare them other than to say, “Just so you know, during this show it’s just us goofing around—it’s not an interview,” which we do say to people when they seem like they might not already know that.

We’ve made hundreds of episodes of Jordan, Jesse, GO! and only a few times have we had guests that didn’t get it or were uncooperative.

THE TIMBRE

One of the things that I love about Jordan, Jesse, GO! is that moment of the guest being introduced to you and Jordan, because there’s a moment, as a listener, that’s exciting and really fun, because there’s a little bit of a tension.

JESSE THORN

People are basically almost never doing something that is prepared, or that is a bit, at least not on our show. I think that one of the things that people struggle with understanding with Jordan, Jesse, GO! is, they don’t necessarily perceive that one of the reasons that Jordan, Jesse, GO! moves smoothly and feels fun all the way through is because we are professional broadcasters. <laughs>

 

~

Author Description

Eric McQuade is co-founder of The Timbre and a former-programmer-turned-writer. He has lived in D.C., Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Argentina, Cayman Islands, and the length of the Appalachian Trail. Right now he hangs his hat in Memphis, TN.

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