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April 27, 2011, noon

Jesse Thorn on making your own thing in public radio (while still being able to feed your family)

Two years ago, I did an interview with Jesse Thorn, the host of the public radio program The Sound of Young America and, to my mind, one of the most interesting entrepreneurs in public media today. The Sound of Young America is an interview show (think a younger Fresh Air) that is distributed by PRI and airs on dozens of public radio stations — but has a business model built primarily on donations from podcast listeners.

Since that interview, Jesse’s business has grown and evolved. What began years ago as a single show is now a network of a half-dozen podcasts, including one featuring “I’m a PC” Daily Show fave John Hodgman. Fans of the shows now gather yearly at a (profitable) weekend conference in the hills of southern California. Jesse now hosts a weekly show on IFC and, thanks in part to a successful Kickstarter project, runs a video podcast/successful blog on men’s fashion. But as new opportunities have arisen and the Jesse Thorn empire has sprawled into new directions, he’s managed to maintain control and a unified brand in a way I think a lot of young entrepreneurs could learn from.

So I thought it was time to have another conversation with Jesse. You can play the audio of it (it’s an hour long) in the player below, or download the MP3 here. And there’s a full, linked-up transcript of our conversation below that.

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The evolution of podcasting

Joshua Benton: I have a theory, and I want to run it past you and tell me whether or not it makes sense. To me it felt like, as an observer of podcasting, that podcasting reached a sort of a peak around 2005, 2006, something like that, when Ev Williams was thinking that Odeo was going to be his next startup. There seemed to be a lot of momentum behind it.

And then it felt like there was a bit of a lull, and I thought that podcasting might be going the way of RSS, something that was going to be of interest to a nerdy, geeky subsection of the world, but maybe not quite as mainstream.

But it feels like, in the last year or so, there has been this revival of interest. You see things like Dan Benjamin doing his 5by5 network, and the story that was in The New York Times about Marc Maron [‘marrone’], if I’m pronouncing that correctly.

Jesse Thorn: That’s Maron [‘marin’].

Benton: Marc Maron, excuse me. And the boom in comedy podcasts, and all the work that you’ve done. And basically my theory is that we’re seeing sort of a podcasting revival? Does that make sense, or was I sort of imagining the lull?

Thorn: Certainly at the very beginning, there was a lot of speculative money going — well, a modest amount of speculative money going into podcasting, based on an audience that wasn’t there yet. And I think those businesses have failed. I haven’t typed Odeo.com into my browser lately. But at some point they got sold to, like, a Taiwanese shoe manufacturer or something.

And certainly there were a number of years that were not 2005. Whether things changed dramatically this year — yes and no. I know that my numbers on all of my shows have basically had the same growth curve for the last six, seven years now. Since I started podcasting in late 2004.

And that is — they’ve all sort of increased in audience about 50 percent a year. Which is a great growth rate, although not an exponential, crazy, Internet growth rate that you might see with a popular new web thing.

And I sort of attribute that to the fact that listening to podcasts is still every bit as much of a hassle as it was six or seven years ago.

Now the one place that I have seen things change is — as you sort of alluded to, I’m kind of embedded in the comedy world here in Los Angeles, and especially the alternative comedy world. And there has been an explosion in comedy podcasting. I mean, three years ago it was pretty much — it was me, and Never Not Funny with my friend Jimmy Pardo, and The Best Show on WFMU with my friend Tom Sharpling, and a couple of other shows.

And I think that maybe the success of Adam Carolla and Kevin Smith led a lot of comedians to kind of get to the point where they thought it would be worth it to gain the technical skills to make a podcast, and a couple of entrepreneurs to decide to put together studios where comedians could come in and work for them for free.

So there has been a bit of an explosion in terms of the talent, at least on the comedy side. And I think that is something that’s changed in the past year, 18 months.

Benton: I think of comedians who maybe have a sitcom or have some other big media property that’s their main paycheck, and they occasionally would go off to do some standup to sort of test out material, try new things, get recharged a little bit. Does the podcasting in the comedy space fulfill a similar kind of role? What does a comedian get out of it? Are the numbers big enough that if Robin Williams decided to go on a comedy podcast, he’s going to be reaching a lot of people? Is it a creative space?

Thorn: You know, it’s a variety of things. I think standup comedians in particular are used to the idea of doing things that enhance their road pay. A comedian inherently understands the relationship between going on The Tonight Show and then getting paid 25 percent more for the next year’s worth of road gigs.

And I think that podcasting — that makes podcasting make sense to comedians. They see that if they can reach people, that will enhance their reputation and their drawing ability on the road, which is, for many comedians, their main way to make money.

Now, there are also comedians whose main way of making money is by making television or making films or some other form. For those comedians, I think that podcasting, at least in part, fulfills the same role as something like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater here in Los Angeles, which is a theater where nobody gets paid, but lots of famous people perform — various levels of fame. Because they need a place to work on stuff and they need a warm audience that will get what they are doing to develop what their work is.

So I think it’s a combination of those two things, and different things for different people. But generally speaking, I think the key is that comedians are an audience that inherently understands that they have to do work for free to do work that they get paid for.

Benton: Is it still — I know that there are exceptions to this rule — but it seems from my observation of that scene, it hasn’t been the name-brand, the bigger name comedians who are launching or hosting the podcasts, with the obvious exception of Adam Carolla. It seems like it’s more that the producers of the shows are sort of separate from the guest talent who’ll come by and riff for 45 minutes on a topic or two.

Thorn: Well, there are tons of headlining standup comics that are doing podcasts these days. There aren’t a lot of theater-headlining-level standup comics that are doing that. But, you know, there aren’t a lot of theater-level-headlining standup comics out there.

I mean, Joe Rogan has a podcast. He’s not that far from that level, having hosted Fear Factor and so forth and having been on NewsRadio and everything.

Most of the comedians who are doing podcasts are accomplished professional comedians, who can often go to — Paul F. Tompkins, for example, can go to Philadelphia and headline a big club for a long weekend. But he can’t go to Philadelphia and play where the 76ers play.

Benton: Your main radio product — I suppose if we’re going to put it that way — is The Sound of Young America. You always has Jordan, Jesse, Go! on as well. But you had an interview show as opposed to the kind of comedy space that we’ve been describing. Now obviously you interview lots of comedians, but do you think that the comedy approach, the comedy format, the comedy space works better for podcasting than interviews? Or do you feel like the interview — which is kind of a classic radio form of course — still transfers over pretty well comparatively?

Thorn: Well, there’s not a lot of interviews on the radio. Outside of public radio, the kind of interviews that I do on The Sound of Young America are relatively rarely heard. I definitely think that there was a fairly big untapped audience for comedy on the radio. Every other country in the world, there’s a lot of comedy on the radio. And here the only thing that there really is, is the kind of “morning zoo” format. And outside of a few people, that’s generally — calling it “comedy” is a very loose description. And I think that because of the way that that is produced, because it’s locally produced rather than being produced in New York and Los Angeles where all the talent is, it sort of draws from a different, generally less talented talent pool than television and film do.

And so it’s a rough scene on the radio. But people enjoy listening to things and laughing at them. If you at, on public radio for example, if you look at the success of Car Talk and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, these are shows that draw audience literally in the millions, which is more than many network sitcoms, at this point.

And I think that the podcasting is filling in that niche that radio wasn’t and isn’t providing.

Building a business model for podcasts

Benton: Right, right. Let’s talk about The Sound of Young America and how it has expanded from being the main thing you do from a public perception point of view to being one part of an entire network of things, whether that’s the other podcasts that you’ve brought in, your other work that we’ll get to a little bit later with Put This On, and television.

Do you think, from a business point of view, that there’s a lot of value to be gained from bringing in multiple podcasts into a network the way that, as I mentioned, Dan Benjamin’s doing, the way that you’re doing? What’s the benefit of doing that?

Thorn: There are a couple of benefits, I think. In my case, my model is primarily donation-based. So in order to make any money, I have to be presenting a convincing case to people that this is so good that not only should they listen to it, but they should also send in money that they don’t have to send in. I mean, I’m not even a nonprofit. People don’t even get a tax break. They’re just doing it because they want to support something that they like.

And I think when I started Jordan, Jesse, Go even, which was now four years ago or something like that, part of the idea was that it would allow for a more personal connection. And just a little bit of extra — almost fan service. Although now it’s every bit as popular as The Sound of Young America. But just something that people who really cared could really care about more easily than an interview show. And each thing that I’ve added to the network has been in that vein.

I think with somebody like Dan Benjamin, I think what he’s trying to do essentially is build enough audience so that he can sell his own advertising. Because the advertising industry is not — they’re sort of like the radio industry as far as I can tell. They’re just not very responsive to the changes in the media landscape. And unfortunately, podcast advertising doesn’t have the crazy huge advantage of web advertising, which is that you can track it click-to-sale, and you can just show someone a chart and say, “You made this much money off of this advertisement.” Which is basically the only thing that saved web advertising from being ignored by people who are used to doing traditional media advertising.

So you’ve really got to put together a pretty significant audience before you can sell to giant — you know, to Ford or whatever. If I called Ford right now, even with the network that I have, and said, “I’ve got…” — I don’t’ know exactly how many listeners I have. This is my development director’s department. But, you know, I’ve got 150,000 listeners across platforms every week. They would say, “Yeah, okay, call us back when that number is a million, because we’re used to talking to television networks.”

Benton: Right, right. Although you could argue that, from a publisher’s point of view, the inability to track that advertising outcome is sort of an advantage. Because that was the advantage that television advertising and newspaper advertising had for so long. No one knew that it wasn’t effective.

Thorn: Yeah, but there’s competition, sadly. [laughs] Nowadays, there’s competition. I think that the thing that is difficult for us is to figure out ways to quantify for advertisers the connection that people have with podcasts. Because it’s very different from the connection that people have traditional media.

I watch American Pickers for example, on the [History] Channel, and I don’t buy things because they’re advertised on American Pickers. But I can tell you that the people who listen to my shows buy things because they’re supporting my shows.

And that’s a very different relationship. There’s a big difference between getting in front of eyeballs and having a connection to something that people have a real connection to. It’s the reason why Fox is selling you the Coca-Cola American Idol show.

Few empty chairs in public radio

Benton: The last time we talked, The Sound of Young America was on a couple dozen radio stations, public radio stations, somewhere around there. And in total you got about $10,000 a year from radio stations, and that the clear majority of your income from your projects was coming from donations. Is that ratio still about the same? Has radio become more or less important to you as a distribution method?

Thorn: Well, the good news is that I think if I was getting about $10,000 a year before, I have doubled my radio revenue somehow.

Benton: Congratulations!

Thorn: It think it’s maybe less than $20,000 a year. But right around there. But, yeah, I think the proportion of our income has stayed the same, or maybe even gone down. It’s a pretty modest percentage of my total income.

And public radio people are constantly, like I have these conversations with public radio people and they say, “Well, you know, Terry Gross is going to retire, and Diane Rehm is going to retire, and Garrison Keillor is going to retire, and they’re need a show with a proven track record to fill in.”

And I’m like, Terry Gross is only like 50! [60, actually.] She’s not 73. And it’s not as though she works at the sawmill where she has to retire because of her aches and pains.

Benton: No black lung risk at NPR.

Thorn: Yeah. Like Terry Gross is pretty much still at the top of her game. I don’t think there’s any imminent risk that she’s going to retire. So I don’t have any reason to feel like all of that is going to change in one, big cataclysmic event and all of the sudden my income is to switch over to being mostly from the radio.

Benton: It is strange to think — you think of radio as being a very atomized world. You’ve got a different station in every market, sometimes multiple stations in larger markets. You would think that would create a diversity of opportunities. But for the kinds of things we’re talking about, there are like six people who have those jobs, and they’re not all going to die soon. [laughs]

Thorn: Yeah. It’s true. It’s true. God bless ‘em. I mean, they’re successful and they do a great job. I have hardly a bad word to say about Terry Gross or Ira Glass or Robert Siegel. I think they’re all totally brilliant, so god bless ‘em.

Podcast advertising

Benton: You mentioned MaxFunCon and we’ll come back to that a little bit. But I know that your sponsorships of some sort, I don’t know it that’s as prominent — you were doing that two years ago, when we talked last. The Ask Metafilter, for example.

Is that sponsorship, semi-advertising model something that you’re looking towards as a bigger piece of the pie?

Thorn: Basically we do two different things. We do, on The Sound of Young America a very traditional, public radio underwriting thing. And that’s the Ask Metafilter thing. We’ve done this with other companies as well.

Which is essentially a company pays some money to support the show and we thank them on the air within some sort of specific FCC guidelines. And we follow those FCC guidelines both online and on broadcast, even though you’re only legally required to do it on the air.

For example, This American Life has been running just straight-up advertisements in their podcasts. And again, god bless ‘em, best show in the world.

Now we’ve also done some more advertising-y type stuff on our other shows, which I kind of see as having a different tone and it’s a little bit more appropriate. The main thing that we’ve done, frankly, is this thing that we sort of call the JumboTron-style sponsorship. Which is if you got to the baseball game, you can pay $200 and have your kid’s birthday broadcast on the JumboTron. So we do that on the non-Sound of Young America shows. So if a listener is there and they want to wish somebody a happy birthday or a happy anniversary or whatever, or they just want us to swear at their friend, we’ll take $100 and do that.

Just because it feels like it’s in the spirit of the community, and so and so forth. And also for a little bit of extra money, we’ll do that for a business. Somebody’s webcomic or podcast or something like that.

We’ve also to some extent pursued more traditional sponsor relationships, but it’s not our priority, I would say. [laughs] I mean, we’ve done some of it. I think frankly what a lot of companies are looking for online is they want to do branded content. They want to not disclose that they’re paying for something. All these things that we just say, we don’t need to do that. Our listeners are supporting what we’re doing.

There have been things that we’ve pursued. At one point we did pitch — at the invitation of a snack food company, we did pitch the idea of filling a swimming pool with a certain cheesy snack item and jumping into it and swimming around for a web video. [laughs] But mostly because we thought that as a great idea that we probably ought to do anyway.

Benton: Although you can argue that would actually be better as audio. I could see that just…the mental images.

Thorn: You could argue that in the sense that nobody wants to see me and Jordan in a swimsuit.

Building real-life community around Internet audiences

Benton: That’s a driveway moment. Right. The last time that we were talking, you were getting ready to host the first MaxFunCon, which — can you explain a little bit for those who aren’t familiar with it, what it is and who are the kinds of people who attend?

Thorn: Yeah. It’s a conference — I usually say “con” is short for convocation. But it’s sort of halfway in between like a creativity, writers-type conference and a theme vacation. So it’s in this mountain resort here in southern California that’s owned by UCLA, and it’s up in the mountains. It’s in this kind of former hunting lodge. So it’s real Abraham Lincoln-y. Well, it’s more Teddy Roosevelt-y.

And we have — during the day there are classes, like crafting classes, improv classes, that kind of thing. And at night there are big, blowout comedy shows. And we have kind of hand-picked national headlining comedians performing at night, and during the day people are making themselves better through inspirational talks and learning how to make god’s eyes.

Benton: So it’s really a new religion that you’ve founded.

Thorn: Yeah. And it’s only a couple hundred people. It’s a very intimate event. (It’s a very intimate event in more than one sense from what I’ve heard. I’m married.) But it’s a couple hundred people, and they all pay a pretty significant amount of money, because this thing is really expensive to put on. Especially because the ratio of people that are there to perform and present and stuff to people that pay to be there is like three to one or something like that. [laughs]

This is something that — this kind of intimate experience is not something that scales into Comic-Con easily. So, yeah, it’s kind of expensive, so this is people that are really passionate about the stuff that we do. And they come not just to hang out with John Hodgman or Jad Abumrad or whatever, but also to hang out with each other. So many of them are pals from the Internet throughout the year, and it’s kind of like the maximumfun.org family reunion.

Benton: How has the experience of putting that on for now, I guess, two cycles now — how has that varied from what you were anticipating? When we spoke, you were a little hesitant. You weren’t quite sure how it was going to come off.

Thorn: It’s come off so well. So distressingly well. And I’m not bragging. I don’t think it was my doing that made it so well. I think the thing that I didn’t — that maybe I hoped for but I certainly didn’t expect that happened — I think that given the work that we do, I think given the sort of values of maximumfun.org, the people that come out to this thing are so bright and interesting and happy and ready to make friends with each other — and it was like this from the absolute first moment of the first MaxFunCon. People just were immediately ready to make new best friends. Like it was a summer camp that they were coming back to for their seventh year.

And that part was something that I don’t know that I could have anticipated. And it totally defined the nature of the event, and made me feel really proud to be a part of it, much less to have created it.

So now, I mean, this year’s MaxFunCon is coming up in June, and it sold out before New Year’s Day. And we’ve thought about — I may at some point put on a MaxFunCon East in addition to the one in Los Angeles or something like that. And you know, all the folks that I invite to come to MaxFunCon? They all say yes. So it’s just been absolutely transformative for me.

And when you run something that’s based on donations, everything that you do is about making a significant connection with people. Whatever your operation is that’s run by donations. And this connection is so profound, it’s really amazing. Last year some people planned their honeymoon around MaxFunCon. It’s really a remarkable thing. I feel like it has all of the good things about, say, Comic-Con with none of the bad things. Like none of the creepy commercial alienation. Or you know packs — one of these big cons that people go to. It’s none of the creepy commercial alienation, none of the smelliness. But all of the kind of — the sense of everyone being on the same page.

Benton: Right. It seems like the kind of connection you’ve made with the people who listen to your work and follow what you do is so strong that it obviously has benefits like what you were just describing, but it also seems like something that you might be a little bit scared of screwing up somehow?

Because it’s not a business model where you sell cable, and if people want the Internet then they’re going to have to pay you $60 a month or whatever. It is all based on the personal connection you’ve made with people. Do you worry about, one day, doing something with a snack chip concern that alienates your listeners? Does it feel in any way fragile?

Thorn: I feel like the bonds are really solid. And I think that, especially a lot of the shows that we’ve added to the family, so to speak, are shows that are more like Jordan, Jesse, Go! then The Sound of Young America.

And that may not be what it’s like forever, but Stop Podcasting Yourself and My Brother, My Brother and Me, which are the two shows that we’ve added to the network that I am not involved in the production of, are both very kind of humane, personal shows. And I think that when people see you from that perspective, they can understand why you’re doing the things that you’re doing.

It’s not like the relationship that people have with…I think maybe a good example might be Prince. Like Prince is a guy — I love Prince for one thing. I’m not putting down Prince. He’s one of my favorites of all time. But he’s a guy who people are incredibly devoted to, based on this artistic output that is about three steps separated from who he actually is. And so sometimes when he does something crazy, which he often does, it’s personally alienating to them.

And I think that, you know, Jordan, Jesse, Go, I mean, it’s me and Jordan talking mostly about the parts of our lives that are funny, so there’s stuff that’s left out. But it is us being us, and so people have a pretty good sense of what kind of people we are. And I think they understand why we make the decisions that we make.

And I think the other thing is that it’s definitely important to me that, while I’m sort of the boss of maximumfun.org, I’m not the only reason that people are into it. There’s plenty of people who are supporting our pledge drive right now, who are not listeners to The Sound of Young America or Jordan, Jesse, Go.

Maybe they’re listeners to My Brother, My Brother and Me, which just joined the network of couple of months ago, or Stop Podcasting Yourself. Or maybe they’re listeners to the Judge John Hodgman podcast, which while I am on, I am the bailiff, so I have a pretty modest role in the whole operation.

And I think it’s more about — like I mentioned with MaxFunCon, it’s more about the community, which I certainly set the tone for. But it’s more about the community then it is about a cult of personality around me. Which — I’m not that interested in doing that, and it seems like a real hassle and kind of a bummer, and not a lot of fun.

How talent enters public radio

Benton: Yeah. Now The Sound of Young America, your first show, started off as a college radio show, and has evolved in a radio direction, in a podcast direction, and all the other things we’ve discussed. It seems like the MaximumFun endeavor seems to be on pretty solid ground. This seems like something that’s going to work out, and I say that as someone who’s watching from afar.

As someone who watches the world of public radio and the kinds of people who are interested in being involved in public radio, whether that’s as hosts or as reporters or whatever. Does your experience and your observation give you the idea that there are going to be more people who might have gone a public-radio, more traditional route 15 years ago, 20 years ago, who today are instead going to start building their own separate brands, their own separate operations? And trying to build up the kind of loyalty and audience relationship that you’ve been talking about?

Thorn: You know, I was talking to Ira Glass and he was telling me about how — thud, that was the sound of that name drop. He was telling me they get like thousands of internship applications. And I think that a lot of people want to get into public radio, but their idea of the only way to do it is to just intern at This American Life. Like that’s pretty much where it begins and ends. And that’s great — This American Life is awesome.

But I do think that this opens up the opportunity for people to get good at making content without having to be on the radio. And I think, specifically in a public radio context, as a public radio host myself, I think that one limitation of the talent development stream — well, two limitations of the talent development stream in public radio that led to problems for public radio, I think, were — number one, because nobody had any money, everybody has to get in by not just unpaid internships, but often literally years of not-full-time employment — which basically excludes everyone who isn’t central-middle-class to upper-middle-class and above. So that’s one problem and it’s a big problem, because you lose a lot of talent that way, and because you obviously lose a lot of diversity that way.

And then the secondary issue is that the only lower-level on-microphone jobs in public radio are essentially as reporters. So you lose the ability to develop talent that is outside of that talent pool.

So Peter Sagal, for example, who’s one of the biggest stars in public radio, if he hadn’t been plucked out of his career as a playwright or whatever by Torey Malatia and Doug Berman, or whoever it is that chose him to host Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me — he would never have had the opportunity to develop his talent as a host, which — he’s an exceptionally talented host.

Or Garrison Keillor, you know. There’s no way to develop another Garrison Keillor unless that next Garrison Keillor is, right now, working as a reporter, and really loves journalism in addition to spinning tall tales.

And so those are big problems for talent development for public radio. And those are, I think in part, addressed by the availability of podcasting. And also, I think that was why, for example, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded this thing called the Public Radio Talent Quest, that led to, among other things, this great show called Snap Judgment out of Oakland, that this guy Glynn Washington hosts.

And Glenn was like running a small nonprofit and had no interest in being a journalist. He was a part-time professional storyteller. And now he’s hosting a public radio show because public radio realized, “Oh my gosh —the only people that we have as talent are people who make long-form audio documentaries about the sound of leaves crunching under boot heels, or are reporters.”

And no disrespect to either of those groups, because obviously some people — you know, Jad Abumrad, who hosts Radiolab, came through that world, and he’s about as brilliant and spectacular a radio producer as could exist. But, you miss out on a lot of possible Peter Sagals, for example, by running things that way.

Benton: You mentioned the thousands of people who are still applying for This American Life. Are you seeing young people who are — are people contacting you and saying “Hi, I’m 22, I listen to lots of radio, I’m interested in this, can I get an internship with The Sound of Young America?” Or, “Can you tell me how to do this?” Do you get that kind of mail and that kind of contact?

Thorn: Yeah. Say hi, Lindsey.

Lindsey: Hi.

Thorn: That’s my intern, Lindsey.

Benton: I guess that’s an answer.

Thorn: She goes to Occidental here. But other people…in fact there’s a young woman who works at Snap Judgment, Glynn Washington’s show, and she was a listener to The Sound of Young America and Jordon, Jesse, Go, and emailed me and said, “I live in the Bay Area, so I can’t come work for you, but how can I get into public radio?”

And I told her some people who were working on shows in San Francisco and said, just get in touch with these people and tell them that you want to do something. And they did, and now it’s basically on.

As far as whether public radio has started to dip into that talent base, everything in public radio moves a really slow pace. So we’ll see how that happens, that podcasting talent base — we’ll see how that happens.

I am, with my friend Nick, actually producing a public radio version of Marc Maron’s show WTF, that is going to be on public radio stations in the, I guess you would say, late spring of this year. And that’s really exciting.

But we’ll see, in the long term, how it affects things. But I can’t imagine that it won’t. I mean, I can’t imagine that people like the guys who host the Dinner Party Download, who work for American Public Media — I mean, they’ve gone from a short segment on a local show, to a short segment on a national show, to essentially their own show, basically through the success of their podcast.

Benton: What you need to do is create a podcast-centric version of that comic book that Ira Glass and This American Life put together a few years ago, Radio. Do you remember that?

Thorn: Yeah. Not only do I remember that, I literally have a stack of copies. It’s called Radio: An Illustrated Guide. I have a stack of copies of it here in my office, that I send to people all the time. It’s how I actually got into audio production. I bought that comic book and learned how to edit audio on my — I don’t know, probably my Pentium, maybe a 486 laptop when I was in college.

Benton: PCjr.

Thorn: Yeah, it was a PC/XT, and a tape deck that I borrowed from my mom, that was one of those early tape recorder decks that was the size of the receiver in your home stereo, but had a shoulder strap like you were going to carry it around. So I did actually carry it around.

Put This On

Benton: Nice. Let me switch gears a little bit, to talk a little bit about Put This On. And we were talking about various funding models, and the beginning of Put This On was a funding model that has gained some stature in the last year or so. It was a Kickstarter project.

Can you talk a little bit about the idea behind that? What led you to want to go in that direction, as in terms of a topic and as a project? And also how did you find the Kickstarter experience?

Thorn: Kickstarter, if anybody doesn’t know, is this website where you post your creative project, and then people pledge a donation towards it, and they only have to pay if your goal is met. And if your goal is met, you’re obliged to make the thing.

So, I’ve always been really interested in men’s style. I have a shelf in my home library dedicated to books on the subject. I’m a real men’s style geek. And I always wanted to do something around that, because I figured, one of the things that makes one a success in broadcasting is, often, having an expertise. I mean, look at Dr. Phil, right?

And that was something that I actually legitimately had some expertise in. But it wasn’t really suitable to radio, because it’s so visual. And I don’t have amazing video skills. In fact I don’t even have amazing audio skills. I really have the bare-minimum competence in audio that I developed just so that I could make something.

So, I made friends with this guy, Adam Lisagor, who at the time, I knew primarily because he was good friends with my friend Scott Simpson and Merlin Mann, who do this amazing comedy podcast called You Look Nice Today.

And Scott and Merlin live up in the Bay Area, but Adam lives down here in Los Angeles. So I was like, man, I should make friends with this guy. And we both have dogs, so we started hanging out at the dog park together. And I was like, man, this guy is really cool!

And he turned out to be kind of a video genius. He produced a pledge drive video for me that was so beautiful and amazing, it was like the difference — I think it probably increased my pledge donations 30 percent that year. And he had just sort of struck out on his own. He had been working as an editor and After Effects guy for commercials, mostly. Some films. He operated the Predator cam in Alien Vs. Predator 2.

Benton: Wow.

Thorn: But mostly editing and stuff. And he had struck out on his own, and I was like, “Hey Adam, do you want to do a video series with me?”

And he was like “Yeah, of course!” And so I said, “Well, it is about men’s style, it’s going to be blah blah blah blah blah,” and he was like, “Yep, I’m in!” And I said, “And I think we should try and make money from it.” And he said, “Yep, absolutely!” Because he didn’t have any work at the time.

So Kickstarter was the first thing that came to mind. I knew some people that worked at Kickstarter and had described it to me, and I thought, wow, that sounds really cool. Nothing in the maximumfun.org world was sufficiently, I guess you would say, project-oriented to work with Kickstarter. We weren’t putting out an album and needed money for the recording studio or something, which is the kind of project that works really well on Kickstarter. But we were like, “Well, what is the least amount of money we could get paid to make a pilot for this that would still make us feel like we were actually getting paid, and it wasn’t baloney?” We decided on $1,500: $500 for me to host it, $500 for Adam to direct it, and $500 for him to edit it.

And we raised that money really quickly. And then we made a video, and people loved it. And we were like, “Wow, we should make some more.” So we planned out a six-episode second season. It was really our first season, I should say. A six-episode first season, and set a fund raising target. And again, we raised it really quickly.

And along the way, between those two things, I had sort of started blogging around, just sort of between episodes, to keep people plugged in. And that turned out to be just extraordinarily successful, at least by my standards. I can’t speak to whether it was artistically or informationally or educationally successful, but definitely in terms of traffic. The traffic to Put This On started — basically, within three or four months, I was doing more traffic when I put this on then at maximumfun.org. And so I was like, “Wow, this is great!” And also I was having a lot of fun.

And so now, we’re essentially at this point — it is about, I don’t know 18 months since we started. We’ve got three episodes left in season one, and they are all shot. They are coming out at the beginning of — excuse me, middle of March, middle of April, and middle of May. And we’re going to decide where we go from there.

The big change is that Adam, in the meantime, America has recognized his genius. And he’s come to be very successful as a maker of web videos, working for some big technology companies and so on.

Benton: Like the Flipboard video and the Square video, and a variety of others that our listeners might recognize him from.

Thorn: Exactly. Recently, a totally amazing 3D video on YouTube for Jawbone, which people should really check out. It is so cool. Like you watch it in 3D by doing that Magic Eye thing, unless you have a 3-D monitor. If you have a 3D monitor, then you can just watch it in 3-D. I did not even know that YouTube did 3D. But the fact that it does this crazy kind of Magic Eye 3D totally blew my mind.

Anyway, he has become extraordinarily successful, so over the past few months, we’ve had to figure out how to work this around his crazy schedule, in addition to mine. But yeah, it’s become this huge thing. And I don’t know exactly where it will end up going, but it is really fun, to me. So I’m still doing it.

Benton: I’m interested in how you approach the ads or the sponsors. I’m not really sure what phrasing you use, but the commercial messages, shall we say. In the most recent one, the one that was shot in a manner that was…It reminded me a little bit of Johnny Carson on a break from The Tonight Show, pulling out a can of Budweiser and saying, “Drink a Bud!” Sort of embedding the host experience into an advertising experience.

Thorn: Yeah. I mean, I think that part of the deal — we’ve had a few advertisers on Put This On that have mostly sought us out, rather than the other way around. And part of the deal is basically, we’ll make the ad for you, because it just makes more sense for us. It works in the flow of the show better. People will want to watch it, because it’s still stuff that we made, and they like us. And all of our ads have been for people that we’ve liked.

So all of our ads are post-roll, at least to this point. We may put ads in other places, but I am very sensitive to the users’ experience, so we are trying to make it pleasant for the user. And because they are post-roll, we want something that people will actually enjoy watching and will want to watch. So if we make that, then we have control over it.

Benton: You said, “we’ll see what happens after the initial funding and the season ends.” What are some of the possibilities that you might be thinking of? Is it at a point where you think it might be self-sustaining and worth your time to do that? Is it taking it to another medium? What are the possibilities?

Thorn: Yeah, I mean, those are the possibilities. Essentially, it’s an open question right now. Often when we talk with — I have not sold a lot of advertising in my time. My experience with the little bit of fashion advertising that I’ve sold is that often people want an advertising package that we’re not comfortable putting together. And that often means some form of non-disclosed branded content. Or disclosed branded content, but that is presented as being editorial content.

Benton: And particularly for you, since so much of the blog, at least, is recommending specific brands, specific items, it would be very easy for that to be perceived as tainted if it was paid for.

Thorn: Yeah, and there are plenty of people who — there was just that big article in The New York Times Magazine about mommy bloggers doing that. It is very fraught territory for me that I feel like we need to be really, really careful about. Because,among other things, it’s just not fun to me, you know? To heck with it. I’m totally willing to make branded content for a brand I like, but I am pretty uncomfortable with making branded content and then presenting it as editorial content.

I don’t know, maybe because of the relationship between fashion brands and fashion magazines, which has always been a little bit closer than between, say the advertisers of The Economist and the editorial staff of The Economist. That’s an expectation from some people.

So I don’t know, I mean, we have had some really awesome advertisers. For example, shirt.woot.com came to us, and they said, “We really like Put This On, how much would it cost to have you guys to make an ad for us?” And we said it would cost X amount of money, and also, you should know that we will probably, a little bit, make fun of the fact that we’re doing an ad for shirt.woot.com.

And they said, “Yes, we were hoping that you would make fun of the fact that you are doing an ad for shirt.woot.com!” And so when you have an advertiser like that, it is like, great. They said do whatever you want, I’m sure it will be great, and we totally did something, and it totally was great.

Or Instapaper was another when, where the guy who invented Instapaper emailed us and said, “I love Put This On, how can I support it? I think an ad for Instapaper would be perfect. Do whatever you want.” We talked with him a little bit about it, and made something that was totally awesome, and I think it brought him a lot of people, a lot of users.

So that’s great. But on the other hand, so far that has not really been so much money that it would sustain what we are doing. And also, if we had to do the sales of that, that is such a bummer. The biggest reason why I am doing Put This On is because it’s fun. And selling advertising is not fun. And I don’t really want to be an ad sales guy. So we are definitely thinking about continuing with user sponsorship for season two.

We have also, I mean, I posted something on the blog, “How do you think we should fund season two?” And I got dozens of emails from people saying, I want to send you money so you can make it. Now I don’t know if that’s how we are going to do it. We’re going to talk about it and think about it over the next couple of months to decide, and we definitely want to make more, and we will see how it goes.

We have had some interest from traditional media about doing something with Put This On. I kind-of sort-of recently got off of a job, like, as the editorial guy for the web for Esquire.

Benton: Wow.

Thorn: Which, I had to explain to them — they asked me if I had a resume, and I had to explain to them no, because I host a nationally syndicated radio show and a television program, and I haven’t applied for a job in five years. And they were like, “Oh, okay, because we were thinking of inviting you to be the blah blah blah…” And I was like yeah, I kind of have seven jobs!

Benton: You are not just some blogger in your spare time.

Thorn: Yeah, exactly. So we’ve had some television interest as well. I don’t know if we are 100 percent certain about how what we do would translate to television, because I don’t think what we are doing right now would make, for example, a makeover show, which is probably the main established format in our genre.

I mean, we could probably do a makeover show, but it would be different, pretty different from what we’re doing now. So when we’ve talked to TV people, that has been — we’ve sort of been of the position that hey, we’re going to finish season one and see where we are at, rather than starting in on a makeover show right. [laughter]

Benton: There is room for another Clinton Kelly in the universe!

Thorn: Yeah, I’m not against makeover shows. It is just not my priority at the moment. So we’re sort of evaluating what the next steps are.

And for me, this is basically the guiding principle: I need to make a certain amount of money to support myself and support my family. My wife works with me now, so we need to make a certain amount of money to support our family. And my wife’s pregnant, so there’s going to be a baby.

I sort of grew up one step above poor. I don’t think my family ever — there was no time when there was no food. But I definitely paid for doctor visits with stickers from the State of California. And I kind of don’t really feel a burning desire to be rich, or as rich as I can.

And so, my real priority is, as long as I am making enough money to support myself and my family and save for retirement — I don’t know about buy a house, I live in Los Angeles, so that may be hopeless. But those other things. Have health insurance. Then my real priority is doing the things that I think are fun and cool, so that I’m not a sad person. I think that will make my family happier and my kids happier, and so on and so forth.

When I evaluate what work I want to do and what I want to pursue, it’s not jut driven by the market, although that’s part of the equation. It is driven by what I want to do.

I mean, for example, when I bring a podcast into maximumfun.org, I certainly hope that the extra revenue that they bring in through donations is going to support the money that I am sending them. But part of why I’m doing it is because I like that if there is a podcast that I like, I can send them money, so that they are earning money to do it. I feel really proud about that. And I know that it sort of makes me a B-minus entrepreneur in a funny way, but hopefully it makes me a happier person.

IFC’s The Grid

Benton: Last thing I wanted to ask you about: You mentioned earlier the television show, The Grid on IFC, 7:45 on Thursdays.

Thorn: Yes.

Benton: I have to say, when I first saw 7:45, it made me think it was like the Texaco Theater Hour. You don’t see too many time slots 15 minutes before the hour. Talk a little bit about how that came into being, and how you ended up connecting with IFC on that. And I guess more broadly, maybe to wrap things up — as you have shifted from a guy with a college radio show into this podcasting network and now into this very successful web video project, and now television, I guess I just want you to think about what the — and this sounds horrible, but what is the Jesse Thorn brand?

Do you consciously think about how each of these pieces of the puzzle add up into something whole? Since you are really selling this personal connection. I mean, you’re not selling it, that is putting an artificial, capitalist, business-model-y kind of an approach on top of it. But that is a big part of what you are doing, I guess. How does it all fit together?

Thorn: Let me start with the first part, which is how The Grid came around. Essentially, I’ve had a very casual relationship with some folks at IFC. “A casual relationship.”

Benton: It’s Hollywood.

Thorn: Friends with benefits, let’s call it. We go to the same key parties. No, there are some folks at IFC that have been fans of The Sound of Young America for a really long time. And they listen to it on WNYC in New York and get the podcast. And they just thought it was cool.

They started doing a lot of original programming about a year ago. They have sort of broadened their brand, from just showing movies to adding a lot of comedy content. Like Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s show, Portlandia, and Onion Network News, both of which are stunningly hilarious. And basically reruns of every favorite show of mine of all time, like Mr. Show and Larry Sanders, Freaks and Geeks — basically everything that I love. Undeclared, I think, maybe not Freaks and Geeks.

So they were expanding in this direction, and they were also expanding production here in L.A. And their producer here in L.A., Michael Pressman, was putting together this show The Grid.

Which is kind of like, I think that your audience would probably understand if I described it as kind of like a more culturally oriented television version of Boing Boing. It’s sort of like a show that’s a trip around the coolest things going on in culture right now, the coolest most remarkable things, with a little bit of a geeky shade to it.

And I contributed to the pilot a piece that was Put This On-inspired about blue jeans. And it was the first time I had ever worked with a teleprompter or anything. And so I did that piece, and they brought me back six months later or whenever they picked up the show, to do another piece as Jesse Thorn, viral video expert.

And then the host of the show had some opportunities, he is this guy Alex Berg, who is in this amazing, just totally amazing improv group here in Los Angeles. And they just had some cool opportunities coming along, and he just couldn’t do the show anymore.

And they said, “Hey Jesse, do you want to host this show?” And I didn’t expect that. I don’t even have a manager or an agent. I had to call a friend and ask for a referral to his lawyer to negotiate my contract. But I did it because I liked the show, and because I really like the people who work on the show.

You’ve probably never had occasion to spend a lot of time with TV people, but they tend to be pretty unctuous. And the people that work on this show are all really, really nice, and not creepy, and bright, and funny. And so I said yeah, I’ll do that. And Jordan, my co-host on Jordan, Jesse, Go also works on the show, and it’s just a really cool, fun thing.

And it’s neat to host a television show. I mean, it wasn’t like my ambition. It was something I was always interested in doing, but it wasn’t what I was building towards. It’s just something that came along, and is great, is fun.

The Jesse Thorn brand

Now as far as what the Jesse Thorn brand is — I mean, I think maybe I got to know it a little bit when I did the first MaxFunCon. I think that the brand of, if not Jesse Thorn, at least Maximum Fun — which is the thing that I think about the most, in terms of branding — is about people that are passionate about the world around them, and passionate about, especially, fun and humor, and aren’t afraid to be smart or passionate.

And the combination of smart and passionate is often interpreted as geeky. But I frankly don’t really think of myself as a geek, which is to say nothing negative about those who do. But I just think that it’s built around that idea of being passionate about fun and thinking in culture and expressing it, and about things that are good.

The original slogan of The Sound of Young America was “a public radio show about things that are awesome.” And something that I have always tried to do on The Sound of Young America is — you know, I don’t really — I think there’s this world of “I’m a pop culture junkie” that is really into, like, Jersey Shore or whatever. And I feel strongly that just because we are going to erase the lines between high and low culture does not mean that we should erase the lines between things that are good and things that aren’t.

And so I am, I think, 30 Rock or Archer — Archer I think is the better example, because Archer is just really vulgar and silly. Archer fits in just as well as Masterpiece on PBS, if it’s a good Masterpiece. I don’t think — a lot of Masterpieces at this point are a little bit boring. But I think we can both agree that Downton Abbey was pretty awesome.

Benton: Absolutely.

Thorn: Does that make sense to you? I feel like I am rambling into nonsensicality.

Benton: Yeah. Well, I’m asking you to define your basic essence. It’s not an easy question in a lot of ways. But there is also the personal brand, and then there is the Maximum Fun brand, and to a certain degree, those are the same.

But also, as you bring in more shows and as more people come to that brand without maybe interacting with you, or maybe they interact with it primarily through John Hodgman. Or maybe they interact with you by watching you on IFC, but don’t listen to anything that you do in the audio world.

The branding issues start to get a little bit more diffuse, I would think. There are probably lots of people who know you as a guy who likes to talk about clothes and nothing else.

Thorn: Yeah, you know, I’ve gotten recognized on the street twice in the last two days — both times in thrift store — by people who recognized me from Put This On, which was totally new to me.

I guess that’s true. Ultimately, I think my saving grace is that because I have this business of maximumfun.org that is successful enough that I can support myself, and I don’t have to worry, and I don’t have to worry that somebody is going to cancel it, because it is mine — then I can mostly just do things that I am interested in, and so I don’t have to do something that is false to me, and I can let my guiding light be, “Do I like this and think it’s worth doing?”

And in that way, if somebody says, “Why are you doing an advertisement for t-shirts on ‘Put This On’? I can say, well, because they were really nice, and they said we could kind of make fun of them, and I think that t-shirts are a totally appropriate thing to wear when you’re cleaning your yard. And so I can always have my actual, honest feelings to fall back on. And so whenever I need to gut-check, I don’t need to gut-check against some mind map I’ve made about what the brand is. I can just gut-check about what I actually think.

Benton: Right, right. Well, Jesse, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Thorn: Thank you so much for having me.

POSTED     April 27, 2011, noon
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