Jesse Thorn may really be on the cusp of becoming America’s Radio Sweetheart. This spring Bullseye, the pop-culture radio show Thorn produces, will be distributed by NPR. For a show with a nontraditional public radio history — moving from college radio show to podcast to national distribution — it’s about as clear a sign of arrival as you can get.
Thorn isn’t new to public radio: Bullseye and its predecessor show The Sound of Young America were distributed by Public Radio International and could be found on the air at a few dozen stations around the country. But joining up with NPR, or, as Thorn writes, “the big dogs in public radio,” will put Bullseye in position to air on more stations in more cities with the backing of NPR’s programming and promotions team.
And Thorn is clear about the next objective for his show: earning a slot in NPR station’s coveted weekend schedule. With its cultural focus on music, comedy, and interviews, Bullseye would seemingly be a good companion for a Saturday running errands or cleaning the house — particularly as public radio tries to target younger listeners. (Particularly Sudoku-playing baristas, apparently.) “There’s a lot of competition now on public radio stations for weekends,” Thorn said.
It’s been called public radio’s “land rush”, accelerated by the retirement of Car Talk hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Car Talk is not going away — the show will go on in a state of Brady Bunch-esque syndication with old shows being repackaged — a fact some, like Ira Glass, are not exactly thrilled about.
“I think to a certain extent the Car Talk guys’ retirement took the fact that public radio weekends had been essentially unchanged for 10 to 15 years from abstract theory to actual thing,” Thorn said. “Stations had to look at their lineups and say, ‘Is this the lineup I want to have for the next 10 to 15 years, or is this something from 1995?’”
Whether or not Click and Clack set off a race for the future of public media, it’s clear NPR has become more aggressive in trying to figure out what the radio will sound like years from now. NPR has created a handful of new shows including Ask Me Another, Cabinet of Wonders, and the TED Radio Hour, while others like PRX are trying to get shows like The Moth Radio Hour, 99% Invisible, and Snap Judgment into new markets. Public radio has been one of the few traditional-media success stories of the past decade, with its audience growing or remaining constant for much of that time. But NPR’s two flagship shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, have both seen recent audience declines.
Bullseye’s previous distribution deal with PRI helped put the show on stations like WNYC in New York, Philadelphia’s WHYY, and KALW in San Francisco. Thematically, Bullseye has many of the traits of public radio shows you can find on the air, with a sound and format similar to Fresh Air or Studio 360. “At the heart of it, it’s a show about how art and culture is created,” he said. “Which would fit on PBS in 1972.”
That’s not accidental. Thorn has been working on the show in one form or another for more than a decade, starting The Sound of Young America as a college radio show that later became a podcast. Even after getting onto public radio, though, the show’s financial model was supported primarily by its podcast listeners. He worked with producer (and podcast host) Roman Mars to retool the show and relaunched it as Bullseye last year. The goal, Thorn told me, was to reintroduce the show to audiences, including public radio stations.
Making the leap to NPR won’t mean big changes to the format or tone of Bullseye, but instead help on the promotion side to convince member stations to add the show to their schedule. “I don’t think it ever occurred to me I would be at NPR,” he said. “Not because I don’t love NPR — I do love NPR. It just seemed like an insurmountably huge and powerful establishment.”
Arriving on NPR may seem like a kind of end goal for Thorn, but in getting Bullseye to where it is today, he’s created a small empire. The Maximum Fun network is home to a number of podcasts, including Judge John Hodgman (it is precisely what you are thinking), as well as events, and a blog and video series on men’s fashion (now including a line of handsome handmade pocket squares).
It’s an entrepreneurial hustle we’ve seen in many parts of the Internet, with a number of podcast producers in particular building a business network out of their shows and connection to their audience. Thorn says the fact that Bullseye is a fully formed product is one of the main reasons NPR was interested in the show. There are others in a similar position, which could make podcasting a kind of farm system to public radio, but Thorn said there are plenty of factors that keep the worlds of radio and podcast separate. One, he said, is that people like Marc Maron, Jimmy Pardo or countless other hosts enjoy a level of creative and financial freedom operating on their own. And when you have that kind of money-making potential, the economics of public media may not be as inviting, he said.
Still, it’s likely there will be more crossover between podcasts and radio. And Thorn hopes that translates into radio taking a few lessons from the podcast community. “One simple lesson is that audiences want comedy, that comedy works great in an audio format,” he said. “The truth is the radio industry has basically left that money on the table for the last 30 years.” But another, he said, is to expand the idea of what makes for a good show on public radio. Shows like Bullseye, Snap Judgment, or The Dinner Party have a sound that is both familiar and fresh to public radio. And, maybe more importantly, they appeal to a new audience public radio wants to reach.
“My hope is that we’ll see weekends on public radio as an opportunity for a new sound, a new voice, a next generation, and by being with NPR, we can be with the vanguard group,” he said.