LAist Interview: Radio Producer Jesse Thorn & 'Bullseye'

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This week Jesse Thorn and MaximumFun.org have relaunched the radio show "The Sound of Young America" as "Bullseye" and he tells us why.
Over 11 years ago Jesse Thorn helped create the radio show "The Sound of Young America" with a new weekly program issued like clockwork since hitting the airwaves at KZSC-FM, based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before moving to Los Angeles to continue producing the program. Available as a podcast since 2004, the show was picked up by Public Radio International for syndication in 2006 and is available in 12 markets nationwide. A typical episode of "The Sound of Young America" will almost always include an interview with someone who creates anything from hip hop, to fashion, from comedy to film. Sometimes the show will include performances of music or comedy, or even a panel of media enthusiasts, like experts from the AV Club and other tastemakers.

The interviews on the show are never cursory or superficial—Jesse Thorn will always get at the core of whatever creative process is involved and the story of how the subject achieved that realization of process. The point of view the interview comes from is always that of a knowledgable and supportive enthusiast, immersed in the subject but without losing objectivity.

Since the launch of "The Sound of Young America," Thorn has created MaximumFun.org to produce and host several other podcasts, including the always hilarious "Judge John Hodgman" (with the very real John Hodgman of the Apple commercials and recently "Bored To Death" on HBO), and "Jordan, Jesse, Go!," a podcast that Thorn co-hosts with longtime co-host of "The Sound of Young America," Jordan Morris. There is an annual MaxFunCon, the 2012 edition, set in Lake Arrowhead, is already sold out despite being 6 months away.

Recently Thorn announced that "The Sound of Young America" would be renamed "Bullseye" effective with the first episode of 2012 which came out on Tuesday. Also announced was that every single episode of "The Sound of Young America" would be provided (for free!) in one gigantic, 16GB torrent—that's something like 500 episodes and videos. If you look up the program on iTunes the guest list has been amazing with megastars like Judd Apatow and Dick Cavett, and cult faves such as Amy Sedaris and Werner Herzog. Jesse explained to me that the show hasn't been about talking to whomever is famous at the moment, it's about curating a venue and presenting people whose work he really believes in, a philosophy he explains in greater detail in the interview below.

It was fun to interview someone who is as great an interviewer as Jesse as well as being a wake-up call to how badly I need to improve my own interviewing skills but he was nothing but kind and patient. If you want to hear really good interviews and performances with amazing people every week, you can listen to "Bullseye" as a podcast, or on XM Public Radio XM Channel 121 or even contact the program director at your local public radio station to request that they air the show.
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Is this a more than a relaunch of "The Sound of Young America?" How did you approach this project?

Jesse Thorn: It started off as a new name for the "Sound of Young America." "The Sound of Young America" was a name we picked 11 years ago when we were 19 and 18 and the irony that was intended was a lot clearer when we were getting up a 7 am to walk across campus, because the shuttle bus wasn't running yet, and do a college radio show. We have long intended to change the name but we had never come up with anything good enough, and we never had the fortitude of going through the process of actually changing it. We just sort of decided to do it—to bite the bullet. When we did [decide to change it] I think we took it as an opportunity to take a step back and really evaluate the choices that we were making.

We were trying to decide how we could focus the show on what we loved about it. We wanted to present that clearly to an audience, especially to people who had never heard the show before. I think a lot of times we would hear from people who loved the show and they would say, "I thought when I first saw the name I thought it was a kid's show or some kind of crazy political show." I think that making clearer what we were doing was really important to us. We've been in the grind for 11 years, of doing a show every week—it really has been 11 years that I've put a radio show on the air every weekend. I think it was cool to have an excuse to have a step back and look at the forest instead of the trees.

You have the most amazing guests on your show, and you present a different side of them that you simply don't hear on other shows, public radio or otherwise.

Jesse Thorn: I agree that we get amazing people—I wouldn't choose them if I didn't think they were amazing. But I'm finding that a lot of people don't have any idea who our guests are [laughs]. Part of what I wanted to do with "Bullseye," relative to "The Sound of Young America," was to create a show that lost none of the depth that "The Sound of Young America" had, none of the thoughtfulness, none of the taste, but that was welcoming to someone who doesn't know [for example] who Ian MacKaye was, or who has never seen "Downton Abbey." I was realizing when talking to public radio program directors that as much as I think of my guests, who are in some ways a Who's Who of what you might call alternative culture, [the program directors] had never really heard of them. Part of what they like about the show is that it introduces them to things that are great! It's funny to think that you might be introducing someone to Ian MacKaye and Fugazi in 2011, decades after they revolutionized punk rock, but I think that's really cool. Part of our goal is to make sure that our door is always open to people who are wandering through rather than people who are already passionate followers.

Are you ever frustrated by the public radio "system?" When looking at public radio across the country, it seems that many stations seem to direct their content to the 65+ crowd whether it's the non-stop classical music or the safest of what NPR has to offer.

Jesse Thorn: I love public radio, I always have since I was a little kid listening to "Quirks & Quarks" on KALW in San Francisco. There's no other outlet like it in mass media in the United States. I think it's really special. That's why I'm in it and I sometimes have to remind myself of that and I wonder "What am I doing here?" But these are special people in a special world that I get to be a part of. For me, part of what we've been doing here is trying to make it clear that our show isn't an affirmative action show, our show isn't, and this isn't a put down because these are great shows, our show is not a "National Native News" or "Latino USA," or shows that are targeted to a specific demographic group that is underrepresented. My goal is not to make a public radio show that is for this one narrow group of people that don't have a public radio show. My goal is to make a public radio show for all public radio listeners.

I think that what we've attempted to do in reformatting the show is to make a show that is welcoming to people that are in the know, the cool kids, people who you don't have to explain who Prodigy of Mobb Deep is, but also welcoming to people who don't know these things but who are smart and are interested in being engaged—people who I think are already listeners of public radio. We want to expose them to things that will enrich their lives. With the new name "Bullseye," I think it becomes clearer that we curate our show as well as any other media enterprise in the world. If you look at the list of guests who have been on our show in the past 10 years you won't find any duds. The reason is: we don't book guests because they are famous or because they have a neat backstory, we book guests because they are doing something really cool and interesting, we book people who we really believe in. We're making that part of the explicit mission of our show.

You mentioned your Ian MacKaye interview, I'm a huge fan of Minor Threat and Fugazi and I loved your interview with him but I contrast what you did with the interview that ran on NPR's "All Things Considered" and they are a world apart. It always seems that NPR tries to dumb down the content despite having such an intelligent audience.

Jesse Thorn: I think that the NPR news magazines are absolutely as good as it gets but that kind of newsiness is about breadth. Even "Fresh Air," which I couldn't love more, is defined by its breadth—it's a show that covers everything. Breadth is a great thing that works for news and for shows like "Fresh Air" but there are more things coming along. I'm am very encouraged by shows like the success of "This American Life" and shows that have followed in its path, like "The Moth," "Radiolab," both of those have amazing people behind them. Another show that has been very inspiring to me is "On The Media." What I love about it is that they've taken the NPR news form and the show's editor Brooke Gladstone and co-host Bob Garfield have found a different tone which is probing and personal and human but is still very very newsy—it's really exciting to hear! They're able to do this because they have this narrow beat on the media but they are successful, they have over a million listeners now. It's a wonderful example of there being more than one way to skin a cat. I think our show has a different tone than some of the other big public radio shows and that's one of it's greatest strengths. It's really fun for me when a show like "On The Media" is successful.

You've been doing this show a long time, you've had so many incredible guests, who are some people that you would like to get on "Bullseye?"

Jesse Thorn: There are a few people that I feel like I could somehow get on that I haven't yet been able to get on despite my best efforts. I'd love to have Will Ferrell on the show but I don't know how realistic that is as long as he is such an enormous movie star. Some other personal heroes that come to mind include Randy Newman, who is not only a brilliant and hilarious singer/songwriter but also a brilliant and hilarious guy. I've wanted to interview him since I interviewed Bob Edwards when I was in college and Bob Edwards bragged to me how interviewing Randy Newman was the best interview in his life—and I'm a huge Randy Newman fan and I've been insanely jealous ever since. It may yet happen, we'll see, knock on wood, cross your fingers!

Albert Brooks, who we desperately tried to get for his new novel and for [the movie] Drive—he's just a true hero of mine and of comedy, I'd love to have him on the show. Another personal hero is Norm Macdonald, my favorite stand-up comedian of all time, the comedian who was the catalyst for me wanting to go into comedy. When Norm Macdonald was on "Saturday Night Live" when I was 14, 15, 16 years old, when he was telling long, drawn-out street jokes when he would guest on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," just the most amazing thing in the world to me, and so I've always wanted to have him on. He was quiet for a long time artistically but we weren't able to get him but he's picked up his production recently but I expect that one day we'll able to get him.

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New episodes of "Bullseye" appear every week at MaximumFun.org

To keep up with "Bullseye" I suggest you check out their page on Facebook and follow @Bullseye on Twitter where you should also follow @jessethorn.