His words are slurred, his face disfigured. Jay Thunderbolt is repulsive, and for that, a Dickensian would say, we want to hear his most intimate transgressions.
Listeners meet Thunderbolt on Love and Radio, an on-again, off-again public radio series from producer Nick van der Kolk. He, along with occasional co-producers Brendan Baker and Nick Williams, was honored with a Third Coast award (essentially a Sundance award for radio) in Chicago last weekend for L+R episode “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt.” What’s perhaps more surprising than public radio giving the industry stamp of approval on a profane podcast, is how the Internet, rather than the FM airwaves, helped van der Kolk stretch his production legs, reach a new audience and gain critical acclaim.
To get an idea of why radio veterans have called the material “fresh” and “surprising,” give the show a listen. You won’t get too long before you start to hear words you won’t hear on Talk of the Nation. As the show summary puts it:
Jay Thunderbolt’s business card is a little mysterious. It reads, “Thunderbolt — Party Naked” and gives a phone number.
Call the number and Thunderbolt will invite you over to a private strip club that he runs out of his bungalow in a working-class neighborhood in east Detroit. But that’s only part of his long, tangled, and surprising story, rendered here in a hybrid of interview and song.
WARNING: As you might’ve guessed, this story is for mature audiences only.
If this doesn’t sound like something you’ve heard on your local public radio station, it’s because you most certainly haven’t. Unlike most public radio projects, Love and Radio has spent the majority of its production life online, where van der Kolk says he is free to violate FCC rules and traditional public radio listener expectations. Conceptualized a half decade ago, Love and Radio had six episodes before it was picked up by alt.NPR, a podcast distribution project meant to expand the boundaries of public radio. It lived on NPR’s alternative web space for about a year, an opportunity van der Kolk said paid him a sum that worked out to be about 50 cents an hour. But, alt.NPR helped the production reach new people.
“The one time I got negative comments was when I was featured on NPR,” said van der Kolk — but that was only for experimental editing techniques, he said, not risqué content. Van der Kolk paraphrases one of the critiques: “I really love the stories and the people that you have on the podcast, but I find your editing style, editing style, editing style really annoying. See how annoying that is?”
Eventually van der Kolk set out with Love and Radio independently once again, though Chicago Public Media has vested interest in pursuing opportunities to support Love and Radio. Recently, the show has featured a sex worker, a one-time fetish model, and other, less sexualized, people on the cultural edge.
I asked Julie Shapiro, a founding producer at Third Coast, if she thought the judges’ acclaim of van der Kolk’s piece signals a change of heart in the industry — an ever so slight unbuttoning towards explicit content. “I don’t think there is an argument yet to be made that just because of this award, more challenging stuff will get on the radio,” Shapiro said. “This just announces that there is another realm for content to exist.”
But perhaps it was already announced. Third Coast’s tag line is “celebrating the best audio stories produced worldwide for radio and the Internet.” Roman Mars, producer of Remix Radio from PRX and 99% Invisible from KALW, was one of many judges that oversaw the Third Coast awards this year and has made a career of getting radio startups up and running. He said today content online and on the air are measured by the same yardstick — whereas, in the early days of Third Coast, organizers were wondering whether or not separate awards should be given out to each realm.
Mars said he was drawn to “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt” because the subject matter is surprising. It’s not the stuff you’d normally come across on air, he said, “because first of all you can’t have bad words. It’s not just bad words: [The show] discusses dark elements of life.”
“You have to know your audience if you are going to put out something like that,” Mars said. “As a podcast it has a different life and purpose and is more free to be what it is.”
L+R may be free to be what it is, but that doesn’t mean it is without limits. In addition to curating and awarding audio documentaries and art, Third Coast produces a weekly show called Re:Sound. Typically, Third Coast award winners are given air time on the show. For “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt,” that hasn’t yet been the case. “We couldn’t put that version as is [on Re:Sound],” said Shapiro. “It’s tricky in public radio, because the listeners are particular. It’s a very sensitive listening environment.”
As much as Shapiro looks forward to showcasing innovative work, she sympathizes with program directors reluctant to push the envelope too far. To make a point, she brought up the 2000 Peabody Award-winning sound portrait “Witness to an Execution” by Stacy Abramson and David Isay, which aired on All Things Considered. The piece takes the listener inside the execution room and dives into how people spend their last moments. It was a hard for listeners to swallow. “There is a mythology of what public radio is about, and it is very particular,” said Shapiro.
But, Mars and Shapiro agreed, simply focusing on the “fresh” subject of the “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt” wouldn’t do the work justice. There’s a second, perhaps more influential element within the piece: the sound design. Mars described it as “beautifully constructed and composed in ways that are subtle and unique.”
Much of the credit for this aspect of “The Wisdom of Jay Thunderbolt” goes to Brendan Baker, a freelance sound designer and radio maker in New York. I asked Baker what he thought of the future of public radio podcasting.
“Making a podcast in and of itself opens the medium of radio to a much wider group of producers…The whole process has been democratized,” Baker said. “Just the fact that we have the technology, I think opens a wider range of potential stories that are out there.” Potential stories that will be measured on the same yardstick, whether they are from Chicago Public Media, the crooked mouth of Jay Thunderbolt, or both.