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April 13, 2009, 10:04 a.m.

Going solo online: The story of radio’s The Sound of Young America

One of my very favorite places on the Internet is The Sound of Young America, a one-man radio show/podcast by twentysomething Jesse Thorn. Its business-card description is “a public radio show about things that are awesome,” and it mostly meets that bill; imagine Fresh Air aimed at a younger audience and focusing almost exclusively on smart, interesting, creative people — musicians, comedians, writers, actors, and the like. Some of his recent guests include Jeffrey Tambor (most recently brilliant as George Bluth on Arrested Development), The Daily Show’s Larry Wilmore and Rob Corddry, comic-book theorist Scott McCloud, Calexico singer/songwriter Joey Burns, and book-cover designer Chip Kidd. That guest list won’t appeal to everybody, but in my case it’s a pretty good gazetteer of my brain’s pleasure centers.

While I’m a fan, I’m also interested in Jesse as a model for a new kind of media-producing lifestyle. Not so long ago, if you wanted to host an interview program on public radio and reach people beyond your local station’s 5,000-watt transmission tower, your best hope was changing your name to “Terry Gross” and hoping no one listening at home noticed. The path to an audience went through a traditional media organization. And while those organizations could provide resources and security — plus, one hopes, a degree of quality control — they also served as a chokepoint limiting talent. How many people out there could host a Fresh Air-quality show for NPR? I don’t know the answer, but I know it’s greater than one.

The Internet, of course, wrecks that old model, for good and for ill. And The Sound of Young America strikes me as one of the success stories of that transition — one that has lessons for folks interested in harder news.

The show’s broadcast on a couple dozen public radio stations, including some big ones like WNYC in New York. But those radio stations aren’t what lets the show meet its budget. It’s Jesse’s direct connection with his audience — the dedicated fanbase that listens to his show via podcast or on the web — that pays most of his bills. It’s taken a few years, but he’s established himself and his show as a brand; he’s found a way to generate revenues from his fans; and he’s looking to expand that brand into new projects.

That’s not a model that will appeal to every laid-off journalist, to be sure. But it’s evidence that there is a way to go solo online, do high quality work, and make a living.

I interviewed Jesse recently, and I’ll post excerpts from our conversation over the next three days. Part 1 focuses on the basics of his show: how he relates to his audience, his relationship with the hierarchies of public radio, how he’s thinking of expanding into new areas, and how he makes a living.

In Part 2, we talk about the future of radio (both commercial and public), how he thinks traditional media are bound by their institutional mindsets, and why public radio’s efforts to appeal to younger and minority audiences haven’t seen great success.

Then, in Part 3, I ask Jesse about MaxFunCon — a weekend-long listener convention he’s holding at UCLA in June.

But until then, go poke around the archives and listen to a show or two to get a feel for what Jesse’s doing.

Photo by Adam Lisagor used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 13, 2009, 10:04 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     The Sound of Young America
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