Splitsider

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Talking to Jesse Thorn about NPR, Podcasting Empires, and Not Going Viral

It's fair to say that the comedy podcast boom would not exist without Jesse Thorn. Thorn, who began doing his public radio show, The Sound of Young America, as a college student in 2000, began podcasting the often comedy-centric show in 2004. (He also taught Marc Maron how to podcast.) In 2011, The Sound of Young America became Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, and starting this April, the show will be heard on NPR stations around the country.

Thorn's podcasting network, Maximum Fun, which hosts Bullseye along with Jordan, Jesse GO!, Judge John Hodgman, and a half dozen others, continues to grow, recently adding Dave Hill's Podcasting Incident to the mix. I recently caught up with Thorn at his office/podcasting studio in LA to discuss the move to NPR, production values in podcasting, and mixing high-mindedness with a good laugh.

Can you tell me a little about what the NPR deal will mean for the show?

Well, hopefully it means good things. Basically, the way public radio works is there are a few different organizations [like NPR] that distribute shows to stations. So NPR will essentially be in charge of bringing my show to public radio stations. There are three, four hundred NPR member stations around the country, who pay a certain amount of money to them to be able to carry their programming. So all those stations that you hear All Things Considered on or Morning Edition on are all NPR member stations, but they're not run by NPR. In fact it's sort of the other way around.

Recently, public radio weekends have changed a lot. In part because the Car Talk guys have retired. The last big weekend show is Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, which started 10 or 15 years ago now. So this is a moment where of stations are trying to put together national programming for weekends, and so it's a really important time. And we partnered with NPR because NPR is NPR. That’s the thing that NPR has that none of the other choices have.

I heard you say on Jordan, Jesse GO! last week that you have an journalistic clause in your NPR contract. Is that a serious thing that’ll affect your shows?

No, I think it'll be fine. All on-air people at NPR are expected to adhere to NPR's ethics code [which] is essentially a journalistic ethics code. While I was doing my show at PRI, their position was generally, “Oh you're an entertainer, so you can say whatever you want.” NPR's a little more careful about that, for obvious reasons. They're a target of a lot more concerns, and they're much more a news organization than any of the others. So I will sort of have to be a reporter in terms of my public persona. There's not even really rules. It's more like guidelines, and in fact the guidelines are public at ethics.npr.org. But basically what it means is that in terms of electoral politics, I will generally keep my mouth shut. I won't make any political contributions and that kind of thing. I don't think it will ultimately affect the content of what we do. I think I will just have to remember to think twice about a joke that I make about John Kerry or whatever. And when I say think twice about it, it doesn't even necessarily mean that I will then not make it. Like, if you listen [Peter] Sagal on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, he makes jokes about everyone. I just have to make sure that I'm not endorsing candidates and that kind of thing, so that it doesn't reflect negatively on NPR's fair and balanced approach.

The show, The Sound of Young America, now Bullseye, has evolved a lot over the years. Do you see it changing more now that you’re expanding? 

Yeah, I think we'll see how it plays out. One of the reasons that I chose NPR is that NPR has a really good reputation in terms of program building, particularly in the area of audience research. If you listen to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me from the year that it launched, it is a sort of clunky mess, and I think Sagal or anyone at Wait, Wait would tell you the same thing. And it's been refined over the years into a show that is a huge national phenomenon. I mean, millions of people listening every week, because they have worked hard on making it better, and they know how to do that.

I am already grateful to be working with people at NPR that really know how to make radio shows. In part, because I have never made a radio show besides my radio show. I've basically never even worked on a radio show besides my radio show. Among other things, NPR has a standing panel of public radio listeners that they will go to to run things by and gather information about what people actually think about stuff. We did one of these before I even signed the deal, essentially because NPR was wondering—they knew that they liked the show, but they wanted to make sure that they could build a case that this would connect with public radio audiences so they could get stations to carry it. Which is particularly important, because the stuff that our show covers isn't necessarily in the wheelhouse of the people who make programming decisions, so it helps to have a little bit of data to hand them. And I found it very useful and insightful.

You know, I'm not worried at all that my vision will be comprised, because I'm not the kind of guy—I mean, I still own the show 100 percent, so what can they say—but I'm not the kind of guy to compromise by vision. [Laughs] You know, I've already put 12 years into this, so I'm not worried about me selling out. I think that actually, the insight will be useful. And the people at NPR that I'll be working with directly, Eric Noosum and Issie Smith, they're basically two of the most respected programming people in public radio. I have immense respect for their judgment about programming. And they're both really committed to the next generation of public radio and so I think I'm gonna learn a lot from them. And I think Julia and Nick, my producers, are also going to learn a lot from them. And I think that there’s stuff that we've thought about that—you know, for me or Nick or Julia, Maria Bamford is a towering cultural figure. And I think that outside input can help us communicate why she's important to random people listening to public radio, without compromising the actual content of what we're doing. And I think that's really cool.

The show’s changed a lot over the years. What would you say is the key element at the center of it that connects all the episodes over the last 12 years?

Yeah, I mean there's basically two things. It’s about creative people and why and how they create. So that's sort of the over-arching theme of the show. Our old slogan was, “a public radio show about things that are awesome”, and it was about a certain tone within creativity. Things that were fun, funny, entertaining and so forth. So, no Israeli-Palestinian conflict was our rule, generally speaking. And it was that way because that was something that I felt like was missing from the public radio landscape.

The secondary part of that is it's a recommendation show. A lot of shows, especially in public radio, are sort of surveys. "This is what's going on right now." Which I think is a sort of classic journalistic approach, a newspaper approach to the world. I'm not really interested in that. I'm not excited to find a local take on a national issue or all these things that they teach you in journalism school. What I want is to find really great special things and share them with the audience. Part of re-focusing our show was to make sure that people understood that even though this in the context of public radio, where a lot of it is either, “This is something people have been talking about,” or, 'This is something that has a crazy story behind it.” You know, that is what we generally refer to here as the African rapper/Communist-nation metal band phenomenon. Culture coverage determined by the gee-whiz factor. But on our show, everyone that we talk to is because we really believe in what they're doing, because they're work is really special. Not just because, you know, they're missing a leg or they were the first people to make a lot of money on Kickstarter or whatever the hot hook is. The work is what we care about. 

You talk to all sorts of people on Bullseye, but you focus a lot on comedy. I get the impression that it’s always been like that – what was it about comedy that appealed to you?

I have always been a really passionate comedy fan. I have been professional comedian, though I've never supported myself with comedy, I have been paid to do comedy. It's just always been central to my cultural life, and it's something that I didn't feel was well represented in the media, and especially the type of media that I cared about. You know, there weren't a lot of New Yorker articles or All Things Considered profiles on Patton Oswalt when we started. That has changed to some extent, thanks in part to outlets like Splitsider. But when we interviewed the Upright Citizens Bridgade the first year of their Comedy Central show, the idea of someone doing a 40-minute interview with somebody about their comedy work was completely foreign, unless it was Woody Allen. It's just something I really care about and that I thought was missing. And I always have thought that there was room for something that was fun and funny that was not solely an entertainment product. I always thought there was room for a David Letterman show that also had some Charlie Rose in it. And you know, I think that has borne out. I mean, I think that is at the center of the much of the comedy podcast boom, for one thing.

As someone who listens to a lot more podcasts than public radio shows, I’m struck by how much more grown-up Bullseye sounds than most podcasts. Was it a conscious choice to give it a more serious tone than most pop culture shows, which can be very loose or scattered?

Yeah. I mean, I think that culture deserves serious thought. And when I say serious thought, I don't mean humorless thought, but I do mean real thought. And that that includes both high and low culture, but especially quality culture. And, when I looked at the media landscape when I was 19 or 20, public radio was one of the only places that had anything non-fiction that was of interest. You know, The New York Times does a good job, and the NewsHour's pretty good, but neither of those are super strong on culture, especially NewsHour. But mostly public radio is where real discourse about the world was happening that I thought wasn't stupid. There's good entertainment. There's always The Simpsons. But, you know, local television news is the worst, network news is pretty much the worst. There's a long list of things that are the worst. And so I wanted to make something that wasn't stupid. Like what if there was a New Yorker about the shit I cared about, you know? And so that's sort of where we came at it from.

There's a tone that podcasts have taken, which I think has some plus sides. Jordan, Jesse GO! is very much of this tone, which is to say, chatty and loosey-goosey and so forth. I think that's because that's what people can afford to do when they're not getting paid for it. But I think that production can add to things. I think that the reason that This American Life is the most popular show in the world is because they're exceptional producers. I think there's value to just chatting. Some shows that are just chatting are my favorite shows in the world. I love Never Not Funny more than anything and that's just that's just Jimmy [Pardo] doing his five jokes at someone. And I've loved that for seven years. But generally speaking, I think there's real value in putting effort into things. [Laughs] And it's funny. Like, in public radio world, our show is the loosest, chattiest, most under-produced show ever. And in the podcast world, our show is like super produced, polished to a high sheen. We're sort of somewhere in between. But as we've been able to make more money, and I've been able to spend more money on the show, I think that we've added production to the process and it has gotten better.

You’re one of the few major people in the podcasting boom who’s not primarily a comedian, who’s not doing it to further a comedy career. How do you see your role in the comedy podcast world?

Absolutely, my goal is to create great podcasts, not to get paid more to do college gigs. And I think that that's a useful and valuable contribution. What I hear from my friends who are comedians, many of whom do great podcasts, is that they appreciate that I'm a broadcaster. And I'm proud to do that. I think that there are great broadcasters, even in the world of comedy, that aren't really comics. David Letterman is a guy who, while he certainly got his start doing standup, never really felt comfortable as a standup comedian and always thought of himself as a broadcaster. Or Conan O'Brien, who was a writer before he was on television. And those are the best people doing that. If you talk to comedy people, there is near universal regard for Howard Stern. And Howard Stern has always been exclusively a broadcaster. I think that people that pay attention appreciate that I care about the product that I'm putting out, and that that is where my commitment is.

And I think there's a lot of people in the comedy world who are also really passionate about the work that they do in a non-standup context, and I really appreciate that when I see that, you know? When I see Jimmy Pardo, who I think is not just great standup comedian, which he is, but also someone who puts an incredible amount of craft into his show, even though it doesn't show on the outside. It may seem like it's just guileless chat, but it's incredibly crafted. Or when I see the process that the Sklar Brothers go to make Sklarbro Country, the amount of work that they put into formatting and segmenting and writing to make that show what it is, I really appreciate that, as a consumer of it. You know, some people can be very charming when they fuck around because they're so talented. I mean, [laughs] if you had a show where it was just Paul F. Tompkins and Andy Daly fucking around, I'm not gonna tell you I'm not gonna check that out, you know what I mean? But I really appreciate people who work hard at their craft, even when its not the number one thing that they think of themselves as doing.

I find when I talk to comedians that they’re sometimes hesitant to discuss comedy, or they say they feel dumb talking about it in a serious manner. 

I think comedians are often worried that there's some sort of magic mystery component that they're going to lose in talking about their work and their process. It’s the same sort of thing that makes comedians very uncomfortable with comedy schools. And I can understand that because comedians go through a lot of shit to get to become professionals, but it's for that same reason that I think its important to be able to talk about it, because I think its an important part of our culture that is worth time and consideration. I mean, I feel the same way about other things too. I think that way about hip-hop, and I'm obviously I'm not a rapper. But I'm much more not a rapper than I'm not a comedian. Or you know, rock music for that matter, although the rock music battle was in large already fought in the early 70s. I think that generally people who work in this field, after they get over that initial nervousness—“Am I gonna accidentally reveal my voodoo secret or remove the veil of mystery and no one will like me anymore”—they do appreciate the fact that there's a new respect in the culture for the work that they do for people other than Woody Allen. Woody Allen always had it because he made those sad movies in the early 80s.

I’m somewhat new to Bullseye and Jordan, Jesse GO!, in part because when I first remember hearing about them years ago, they had already been around for so long that I thought I’d missed the boat, and I’d never catch up. Do you worry about how to get people into something that’s so established? 

We’ve thought a lot, in reformatting Bullseye, about how the show sounds to someone who has never heard it before and who may have no context for it. One of our goals is, if someone just finds it on the radio accidentally, it would mean something to them. With Jordan, Jesse GO!, I think first times listeners are sometimes confused by the tone of the show. They don't understand how it could be simultaneously so sort of pleasant and also jokey and vulgar. They sort of see the world as a sort of binary between Jay Leno and Bill Maher, right? Those might not be perfect examples, but either there's scathing truth-to-power or there's genial grandpa humor. And so the idea that we have values but are also profane and vulgar is confusing a little bit to people, and sometimes people think it’s a trick.

What sort of trick?

Like an act. Like a hipster ironic arch camp thing. So that confuses people, because people are used to just someone having a list of 10 stupid and crazy news stories and then making fun of them. Or making fun of Jay Leno or whatever. I know I just made fun of Jay Leno, but… And so our tone, it makes a really big impact on people when they get it. There are few people whose fans are as deeply committed as ours, and that's the essential bedrock of our whole operations. I mean, maybe Joe Rogan's fans that are willing to murder on command are a little more deeply committed, but we're right up there.

It’s easy to sell a story about a thing that's new, and that's always a concern for us. And ultimately, many of the things that I do are a little bit difficult to explain, and I think that hurts us in the world where internet marketing is driven by virality. I think the things that I do are anti-viral.

By design or just coincidence?

Just by poor design. I you look at Marc [Maron]'s show, for example, which is a huge success and for meritorious reasons. One of things that's driven Marc's success is that there have been things that have happened on his show and things about his show that people want to tell somebody about. None of our shows are that good at generating that. But what I think our shows are, are good. And that's a good backup option. It helps to be like Marc, where you have stuff to talk about and you're good, but if you're just good, I think that can be enough. It's a slower curve, but it works.

You’re still adding new podcasts to Maximum Fun. Other than the name, is there a quality that all the shows have?

I think that the shows are driven by the same values that led me to start The Sound of Young America when I was in college, which is to say, they're about fun and funny combined with inquisitiveness and intelligence. We’re just about to start putting audio IDs on our shows, and the log line is, “Creator-owned comedy and culture.” I think that it’s about a celebration of the meeting of high-mindedness and… [laughs] humor that is not necessarily high-minded. High-minded values and a good laugh are sort of the things that are at the heart of what we do.

Any secrets to building a comedy podcasting empire?

Don't. Not worth it. [Laughs] I mean, the honest truth is—I do this talk called “Make Your Thing” sometimes, and onetime I did a talk at the Calgary Folk Festival. This woman raised her hand, and she's like, "Oh, that's all well and good if you've got a trust fund or whatever, but what about those of us who have to have jobs?" And I didn't say, "Bitch, please" but I could have. I was very magnanimous about it, but you know, the truth is that I did The Sound of Young America with much-to-all of my free time from when I was 19 to when I was 26, without getting paid any money at all. And I only started making a decent, support-a-family amount of money maybe two years ago. 10 years into doing this.

Independent media is not a get-rich quick scheme. It's really only worth doing if it’s something that you really believe in and that you would do for free. And then after that, I think you can and should try and figure out ways to make money. I am not against making money. But you know, I'm just not crazy about people who go into things to make money. I think that's just fucked up values. I mean, I understand why some people do it, but I would rather make something that I really believe in and work as a secretary, which is what I did for a long time, than just make videos of cats smoking cigars. Actually now that I mention it, I would like to make a video of a cat smoking a cigar, but whatever the immoral equivalent of that is.

I also wanted to as you about MaxFunCon. How did that come about?

I had the idea that we should have some kind of physical real-life thing to go along with our shows. And at the level of popularity that we're at, with the infrastructure that there is, there's no real way to not lose money touring. [Laughs] But maybe, if you could get the fans to come to you…

Initially I was thinking it would be like a convention in the more traditional sense. But I couldn't figure out a way to make that not shitty. We were looking at these spaces to do it, hotels and stuff like that, and a) it was insanely expensive; b) it was ugly and lame, and I was like, what would this even be here? What is the sales floor for a comedy convention? It's just one guy with a hat on that says Comedy Central Records. So we were at UCLA, looking at their convention facilities. We had sort of come to this conclusion that it was shitty, and they said, “Well have you looked at our Lake Arrowhead facility?” It’s this mountain lodge that UCLA owns, that they were willed at some point in the 50s. They have conferences there, mostly academic conferences, and then during the summer they have the UCLA family camp. And we went up there, and I was like, Oh this is what it is. Oh great, easy, done, sold.

Basically what happens is, it’s a weekend, and at night there are big comedy shows. This year its going to be Naked Babies on Friday night, which is Rob Corddry, Seth Morris, John Ross Bowie, and Brian Huskey, and on Saturday night, a big standup show. And then during the day, there's talks and classes around the theme of creativity. So, for example, this year, Pen Ward, the creator of Adventure Time, is gonna make a film with a group of 30 or 35 attendees. It's a grand superhero battle, and they're gonna animate it. Everybody's making costumes right now. Evan Kleiman, from Good Food on KCRW here in Los Angeles, is gonna do a pie class. But also, there's writing classes and improv classes and so on and so forth. And ultimately what it is is basically an environment for people who, whether marginally or as their career, are in creative work and want to go somewhere that they will have an awesome time and get creatively charged up.

And people meet and make friends at MaxFunCon, everybody gives each other hugs. Everybody gets wasted together, except for me. I usually go to bed early. But to be fair, I'm working very hard. It's like an extravaganza, it's really great. The first time we did it, it really blew my mind. I had a certain expectation and it blew way past that because of the people that come to it. We don't do a lot of outside marketing or any publicity of note, so the people that come to it really believe in the values that we push there, and so it's sort of like summer camp, in the way that people who are deeply passionate about their summer camps as 40-year-olds. In that, its a place where everybody comes together and there are these sort of common rituals and everyone is welcome, everyone is friends, and together everyone does really awesome stuff.

A couple weeks after our meeting, Maximum Fun announced The Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival for this September. (Full disclosure, it's sponsored by Splitsider! Fuller disclosure, I didn't know about it when I interviewed Jesse!) All the details can be found at BoatParty.biz. I e-mailed Jesse for a bit more info about the cruise: 

Where did the idea for a festival cruise come from? Why do that instead of a MaxFunCon East this year?

We may very well bring back MaxFunCon East in the future, we had an amazing time, but we had this idea, and it was too good not do do. MaxFunCon is a sort of conference, and we wanted something that was really a festival. That meant we could book a lot of performers, and that we could accommodate a ton of attendees. Putting it on a boat makes it affordable, too – it's barely more expensive than MaxFunCon, and you get as many as four nights, instead of two. We basically wanted a chance to really blow it out.

What can people expect?

Every single person we have on these shows is a headliner. This is an all-star cast if ever there was one. They're also universally brilliant. This is basically like living inside an amazing night at the Pitchfork Festival or a gorgeous lineup at the UCB where all the stars aligned. I could have any one of these people do an hour and they'd destroy the whole way through, but we're just going to batter people with amazing shows. Luckily, you have a whole day on an enormous leisure machine to recover. And unlimited shrimp.

Bullseye and Jordan, Jesse GO! can be found on the Maximum Fun network. Jesse's on Twitter at @JesseThorn.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She tweets, but doesn’t podcast.

Photo credit: Noe Montes