It’s odd, Jesse Thorn knows, for small children to adore public radio. “But it’s what my parents always had on in the car,” Thorn says. “I’ve been hearing Terry Gross my whole life.” All that listening time has given Thorn an uncanny ability to parse, in detail, the style and quirks of every interviewer to have appeared on NPR, nationally and locally, over, say, the past two decades. So it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that at 27, Thorn has already spent eight years with his own show, called the Sound of Young America, which he describes on his Web site — maximumfun.org — as something like Conan O’Brien on public radio, or Fresh Air, but more fun.” Twice a week, this program of unusual quality is produced by Thorn in his extra bedroom in Koreatown. In 2006, Salon referred to TSOYA, as it’s affectionately acronymized, as “the greatest radio show you’ve never heard.” Except that, by now many more people have heard of TSOYA, which has built a loyal following, via podcast and old-fashioned signal transmission, as a well-chosen, almost curated series of conversations with your favorite writers, artists, musicians and comedians.
The animating principle of Thorn’s approach, besides preparation and thoughtfulness, is enthusiasm. “Traditionally, public radio asserts a constant, cool detachment,” he explains. “But there’s nothing wrong with being excited about the topic and guests.”
Take Terry Gross, for example. “Don’t get me wrong,” Thorn says, “I love and admire her. But my favorite moments on Fresh Air are when she’s very passionate about something, like spending a whole hour on ‘The Great American Songwriters.’ Now, I don’t care about great American songwriters, but Terry Gross does, and so she’s engaged and excited, and that pulls you in.”
This is what Thorn himself tries to do with every interview, which explains why the TSOYA’s most generalized self-description is that it’s “a show about things that are awesome.”
What’s awesome, by Thorn’s reckoning? A representative sample ranges from sleight-of-hand prestidigitator Rickey Jay and hip-hop impresario Prince Paul to puppet-based television innovator Marty Krofft and nonfiction superstar Steven Johnson. In between you might find Miranda July, Paul Feig, Patton Oswalt, Art Spiegelman, Tim and Eric, and Martin Starr (whom you may know as the lovable Bill Haverchuck from Freaks and Geeks, whose adult acting chops are on display in the recent cinematic masterpiece Adventureland). On a recent weekend, comedian Rob Corddry was at Thorn’s; he’d been on TSOYA recently and was appearing on the host’s other popular show, a podcast called Jordan Jesse Go!, which he hosts with his longtime friend and original collaborator, Jordan Morris.
But the glamour of professional broadcasting has not always entailed being silly in his bedroom in Koreatown. “That used to happen in my bedroom in San Francisco,” Thorn says. And before that, in the offices of KZSC, the public radio station based at U.C. Santa Cruz, where Thorn went to college. Back then, Thorn was Morris’ RA in the dorms. With another friend, Thorn and Morris decided that the 7:30 a.m. slot at the college station needed some brightening — in the form of some comedy and interviews. Thorn was a sophomore. “This was before the [university’s] shuttle [bus] ran,” he says, “so we had to walk there. It was quite a commitment.” When everyone graduated, Thorn decided to continue the show, partly at the behest of his girlfriend (now wife), Theresa. “Even though it was mildly embarrassing to drive an hour and a half back and forth to do your college radio show after you’ve graduated and moved back in with your parents, as Theresa put it, ‘Well, you’re not doing anything else.’”
In media-market terms, community radio in Santa Cruz was the “stix.” The only other talk programming at KZSC was The Politics of Social Reality, which was hosted by an angry senior citizen who lived under a tarp in the woods. “And he was more popular,” Thorn notes.
The show got a kick-start in 2004, when podcasting came along. In its early days, podcasting was the misty province of the digital era’s equivalent of ham-radio enthusiasts: technical aficionados, trolling for strange broadcasts from out in the ether. Quickly, they found Thorn. A few months later, iTunes enabled podcasting, and helped to promote the show. Through the magic of technology, TSOYA developed a growing national fervent fanbase. (Later, Thorn and Morris joined with another podcast, You Look Nice Today, to create an occasional live tour: The Monsters of Podcasting.) Eventually, Public Radio International, which also distributes This American Life, expressed interest in the show. And on the recommendation of frequent guest John Hodgman, TSOYA got a foray into the big leagues — a tryout on WNYC during Radiolab’s spot — which was a success. “At which time,” Thorn recalls, “I freaked the fuck out.”
By then, TSOYA had moved to Los Angeles. “I came here from San Francisco in late 2006 because Theresa was going to law school.”
Soon, TSOYA had a permanent slot on WNYC, and was being carried on more than 20 other public radio stations via PRI. Between the vast block of traditional NPR programming and the sound-rich storytelling shows following on the heels of This American Life, TSOYA filled a niche for earnest but eager looks at, well, things that are awesome. Thorn’s reputation as the professional interlocutor of the moment was sealed in 2007, when he was asked by Apple to interview Stephen Colbert for the company’s Meet the Author series. “I think a lot of the stations that carry me hope younger listeners come in and then stick with public radio,” Thorn says. “And that would be good.”
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After all, that’s how Thorn got started.