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April 16, 2009, 1:35 p.m.

Jesse Thorn on gathering your online audience in the real world

Here’s the third and final part of my interview with Jesse Thorn, host of public radio’s The Sound of Young America. (Here’s my intro post, Part 1, and Part 2.)

In this excerpt we talk about MaxFunCon, his upcoming weekend convention of fans of his radio show and a mix of former guests and other interesting folks. It sold out in a matter of days.

I think this is actually a big potential area for some media operations; while the Internet has reduced people’s willingness to pay for content, it’s terrific at forging a connection with between the producers and consumers of that content. And, in person, people are a lot more willing to pay for some iteration of that experience.

Think of the music business: Selling the actual music to listeners is much more problematic than it used to be, but many musicians are doing just fine by refocusing their energies more on touring, house parties, personalization, and other ideas that play off the audience’s connection.

Jesse also talks a bit about an interview John Hodgman gave to Wired last year (I wrote about it at the time) that played off that issue of small and passionate audiences vs. big and unengaged ones. I wish I could tattoo what Jesse says about that backwards on the foreheads of news execs, so they’d see it every morning in the mirror.

You can listen to the interview by pressing play in the audio player below, or by downloading the MP3 directly here.

[audio:http://www.niemanlab.org/audio/jessethorn3.mp3]

There’s also a full transcript below. Also, there’s a little bonus coverage at the end. Oh, and a little swearing.

Josh: You announced some months ago that you were having — I forget the exact terminology you used, but what sort of is a weekend Maximum Fun/Sound of Young America experience, Maximum Fun Con.

Jesse: I like to compare if to the Wayman Tisdale smooth-jazz cruise.

Josh: Yes, exactly! I’ve always associated you with Wayman Tisdale and I’ve never quite understood why. I thought it was your basketball career.

Jesse: You thought it was because I was so good at boxing out.

Josh: That’s right! Exactly. That’s your real strength as a host. Tell me a little bit about what that is, what the idea and the impetus was and how — it hasn’t happened yet, but how the sales and how the build-up has gone so far.

Jesse: There were sort of a couple of imputuses behind it. One was that I had a wedding and my aunt and uncle didn’t go because they had already booked a trip on the Dave Koz smooth-jazz cruise. There are multiple smooth-jazz cruises, if you’re wondering. That kind of annoyed me, but then I thought: “Man, I should have a sweet cruise.”

Then I had gone to this conference that happened to be in Seattle at the same time as or — I was at Bumbershoot in Seattle, and it was at the same time as this thing called PAX, which is the Penny Arcade Expo. It is a video game conference that is both the fan conference for video games and the industry conference for video games.

And it’s run by these guys who make a web comic about video games. It’s a very popular web comic — but they also get 50,000 people coming to this conference that they put on.

And it was originally like: “Hey, our web comic is kind of about video games, we like video games — let’s have a video game weekend.” And then when another conference went out of business, it became the video game industry conference, and I’m sure it’s how they make all their money and etc., etc.

So I thought: “Man, I wonder if I could do something like that.” Because there isn’t anything like that for the kind of stuff that I’m interested in, like comedy and certain kinds of nerd stuff that aren’t comic books or sci-fi. And so I thought: “Well, maybe I’ll have a con, like a Comic-Con.” Because I had gone to Comic-Con and frankly thought it was really smelly. So I was not into going back. I just didn’t want to wait in line for four hours to see a panel on, I don’t even know, Y: The Last Man, or something like that.

And so I thought: “Maybe I could put on a con.” So I looked into putting on cons, and it was just more complicated and annoying than I wanted to get involved with, frankly. And really expensive — I couldn’t figure out how to make it cool enough to be worth the money for people.

So then I was like: “Well, what’s another alternate thing?” I was on a website for UCLA because we were thinking about holding this conference that we were thinking about putting together at UCLA. And they have this retreat center in the mountains east of Los Angeles, and it’s only for educational events. Which — I’m a public radio show, so I get to qualify as an education event.

It’s sort of like an ecosystem. They set it up so they have staff there that handles everything. All you have to pay is a flat fee per person. I thought: “You know what? I bet I could set up like the coolest sort of theme-cruise-in-a-summer-camp context.” And I could bring together all these cool people, and I bet I could get enough people to come that it would pay for people that I like and are my friends that I know through the show or elsewhere to come and present whatever cool thing it is that they do.

And so I was like, “Do I think I could do this?” So I got in touch with a few friends, like John Hodgman, who’s a contributor on The Daily Show, and his best pal and one of my favorite dudes, Jonathan Coulton, who is a very funny singer/songwriter. And some comedians I know. And I was like: “Hey, would you guys be interested in coming to the woods for a weekend and having a thing for like a hundred people?” And they were all like, “Yeah! That sounds fun!”

And so I started making spreadsheets and stuff. And eventually what ended up happening is, I booked all these people that I thought were amazing, and then I put tickets on sale. I charged people the amount of money that it would cost to go to a cool all-inclusive resort, or something like that. So it’s sort of like a cool vacation thing. We sold all the tickets right away. Like, in two weeks — a week and a half.

And I was like, “Oh, yeah! This is f**kin’ great!” Like, all my favorite things in this place. All these people who really love them and want to meet each other and hang out. And, you know, drink — there’s this guy called Dr. Cocktail who’s going to be there. He is a cocktail historian. And he is making this punch that was originally created for the Columbian Exposition in, I guess it would be what, 1892? And so we’re going to drink huge volumes of Columbian Exposition punch, which is probably made with some like bitter green liqueur or something like that. And…

Josh: And the blood of the colonies, or something as well.

Jesse: Yeah, exactly. And have a really great time. And this feels like such a — like I was so surprised when I sold all the tickets to it. Like, I didn’t have any idea what it was going to be, you know? I had to put the conference deposits on credit cards. I only had one credit card, so I got a bunch of new credit cards with, like, one year of no interest. And I just put all the whole — I put $20,000 on credit cards. And luckily I had very good credit going in. I don’t think I do anymore.

And it really worked out. And I was like, “Oh! Really, what I’m offering people is this thing that they really care about. And only a couple hundred people have to really care about it in order to make it completely financially viable. Like, if they really actually care about it. And that’s basically the thing that I’m selling. You know, Hodgman was in — there was this article in Wired. They interviewed John Hodgman about his previous career as a literary agent. And what’s this woman — who was the woman who was the star of Grace Under Fire?

Josh: Brett Butler.

Jesse: Brett Butler.

Josh: I remember that interview, yeah.

Jesse: Yeah, so he was the literary agent and he wrote a letter to Bruce Campbell because he loved the Evil Dead so much. And said, “Hey, you should write a book. Can I be your literary agent?” And when I say that he was a literary agent, I believe he was working as a receptionist at a literary agency.

So he wrote a letter to his hero Bruce Campbell. And Bruce Campbell said yes and they went out and pitched it all around town and it was the same time as Brett Butler was pitching his — was pitching her thing. (In my mind for a second Brett Butler turned into the former San Francisco Giants center fielder Brett Butler.)

Josh: Right.

Jesse: So Brett Butler was pitching her thing. And she got like a quadrillion-dollar advance because two million people watch her on TV every week. Bruce Campbell got like a $3,000 advance because no one in publishing knew who he was. But Bruce Campbell has, you know, 30,000 people that live and die for Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead and The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.

And Brett Butler, even though millions of people watch her every week, none of them really give a s**t. You know — it’s just something that they watch. Every time something like this happens, I realize the extent to which the media economy is moving towards people who give a s**t over people who are willing to tolerate something. You know, it’s no longer something that’s just good enough so people don’t change the channel — now it’s something that people pick.

Josh: In the news business there’s been this big blow up the last month or so you may have seen the idea of micropayments, and the idea that what we need to do is to get everybody to pay a fraction of a penny to read every news article and therefore will recreate this mass audience and recreate this business model. What I always want to say is: The answer is not micropayments, it’s macropayments. It’s finding a few people who love you so much that they are willing to spend a significant amount of money. They feel that connection and they’re willing to express it in dollar terms. You create something for them to have.

Jesse: I talked to Doc Searls a little bit about sort of — he hates micropayments. He has a sort of pseudo-micropayments. The basic idea is you would basically budget a certain amount of money for supporting media that you like. Then it would sort of invisibly track what media you consume and apportion the money on that basis. And — if it happened, if somehow something happened to achieve critical mass like that — then great, that’s fine by me. But I’m not going to put any effort into it.! You know what I mean? Like I’ll take your money. But right now what I’m working on is trying to get people to like my thing enough that they’ll give me $2, $5, $10, or $20 a month.

Josh: Yeah. And how many people do that?

Jesse: Hundreds.

Josh: Hundreds?

Jesse: Hundreds. I think it’s maybe five percent of my total listenership.

Josh: That’s not bad.

Jesse: That’s not bad at all. I’m happy with it. I can always have more, and I was really surprised at how many I added with my last pledge drive last year. You realize real quick, when you’re doing something listener supported, why public radio stations have pledge drives. It’s because they really, really work. And hopefully, my next one will be as pleasantly surprising. But it’s kind of humming along.

Josh: Well, I’ve got to say, I’m a fan of the show. I think you do great work and I think you’re a really interesting model for where I think a lot of our businesses are going. So thanks for talking with me. I appreciate it.

BONUS COVERAGE:

Jesse: Do I get to join in the Harvard social clubs? I guess what I’m trying to ask is, having done this interview, does that gain me access into any wood-paneled secret rooms?

Josh: Absolutely!

Jesse: Yes!

Josh: There’s a library card that you’re issued, but it’s actually not a library card.

Jesse: Oh f**k yeah!

Josh: Yeah, so you get that, and there’s a retina scan. It’s all upgraded to the latest technology.

Jesse: Oh my God! That sounds fantastic! I can’t wait to throw away this old pipe and get a new Harvard pipe!

Josh: That’s right! We actually only sell them in pairs with cardigans now.

Jesse: I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz, so needless to say, my old pipe is made of artisanal blown glass.

Josh: Is that the banana slug campus?

Jesse: Yeah, you got it!

Josh: Yeah. So I always confuse them and the Anteaters at Irvine!

Jesse: What you’re really looking at either way is I’m just happy I got into a UC.

Josh: Didn’t get stuck with Cal State.

Jesse: Yeah, exactly.

POSTED     April 16, 2009, 1:35 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     The Sound of Young America
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