Recently I was lucky enough to meet up with America’s radio sweetheart Jesse Thorn. Jesse was in London to do his talk Make Your Thing, which is “a crash course in independent thing-making in the internet age“
Over the past ten years, Jesse Thorn has built his college radio show, The Sound of Young America, into an independent media powerhouse – and a full-time job. When the show was picked up for distribution by Public Radio International, Thorn became the youngest national public radio host ever. His other media efforts, like the hit podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! and the style blog and video series Put This On have been similarly successful. His work has been featured in Time, Salon, The New York Times and BoingBoing, among others.
I asked Jesse if he’d always seen himself on radio. “There weren’t video production tools at my high school or college, and I was just a bit too early to be able to afford them myself, so radio was the default choice. That said, I’ve always loved radio – I grew up listening to baseball on the radio, it’s the king of radio sports and listening to public radio.”
As well being a great interviewer. Jesse is a very funny chap indeed. Citing Pee-Wee Herman, Monty Python and Mel Brooks as early favourites. David Letterman was later added to this list with great admiration as Jesse tells me that Letterman “is probably the broadcaster whose work I most admire”. Whilst at College top finds Mr. Show and the Larry Sanders Show “really changed my life”.
Jesse’s radio heroes are Ira Glass and Terry Gross, “Ira’s work isn’t directly comparable to mine, but This American Life started when I was in high school, and it basically showed me that someone with a specific and distinct vision could actually become a success in the medium. I think Terry Gross, who hosts an American show called Fresh Air, is the best interviewer on the planet”.
Over the years Jesse’s guests have been a real who’s who of popular culture and I asked if he ever got nervous. “I don’t get as nervous as I used to but I still do get nervous. I was genuinely scared to interview Bill Withers, one of my musical heroes, and a man known for not being crazy about being in the public eye. When I interviewed Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, I even shook a little. I usually just channel my nerves into preparation; it makes me feel better.”
Away from Podcasting Jesse also organises MaxFunCon each year. It sounds like fun but what sort of fun? He happily explained “MaxFunCon is a sort of hybrid of a comedy festival, a creativity retreat, and a summer camp. We hold it every year in the mountains east of Los Angeles, and there are big comedy shows, lectures from amazing people, and classes in stuff like songwriting and filmmaking. There’s also a lot of drinking. Tickets to the 2012 edition are on sale now – it’s June 1st-3rd. We’re working on putting together MaxFunCons in a couple of new places in 2012, as well. I won’t say where, but I will reveal that I was talking to my friend Josie Long about who we should book for one of them”. Mmm does that mean that MaxFunCon could be UK bound, only time will tell!
I couldn’t let Jesse go without asking what his top tip for budding podcasters was. “Learn how to use a microphone, and make sure everyone has their own mic. That seems obvious, but I’m always shocked at how few people, especially starting out, do it. Really, just record yourself talking into the mic with it placed in various places, and then listen back to the tape. You’ll hear the difference immediately. A cheap mic, well-used, will probably not be noticed by your audience”. A top tip, especially in this economic climate.
You catch and follow Jesse on The Sound of Young America, Jordan and Jesse Go and lots of other fun stuff at www.maximumfun.org