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Meet the Dick Cavett for the iPhone set.
Jesse Thorn is struggling. It’s a balmy October evening at the Masonic Lodge inside the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, and Thorn is warming up the crowd for the live taping of his podcast turned public radio show Bullseye, an interview show that, in Thorn’s words, “aims to bring you the best in art and culture.” And it’s going, well, all right.
Thorn’s certainly comfortable onstage, and he cuts a striking figure: He’s tall, dressed tonight in a sharply tailored gray suit and polka dot necktie. But his warm-up bit—about whether mummies are scarier than burglars or airplane crashes—meanders, and it’s clear he’s no standup.
It’s when Thorn takes a seat behind the small wooden desk situated stage left that it becomes clear why he’s earned a reputation as one of the most charming, professional broadcasters in the business.
His first guest is Community creator Dan Harmon—there to promote the new documentary Harmontown—and Thorn’s not letting him off easy.
“Did you deserve the punch of getting fired from Community?”
“Do you think you got fired primarily because the show wasn’t getting watched?”
Thorn doesn’t tiptoe around Harmon’s past. He drills down almost immediately to what people really want to hear. Yet the forwardness doesn’t create an atmosphere of animosity. On the contrary, minutes later, Harmon’s waxing rhapsodic on the role sitcoms play in our lives—“The relationship you have with strangers might be closer than the one you’re supposed to have with your uncle”—and it’s likely Thorn’s frankness that inspired Harmon’s.
This isn’t to say that Thorn is combative. On Bullseye, Thorn doesn’t scan so much as a bulldog journalist determined to get the story as he does a classy golden age talk-show host, Dick Cavett for the iPhone set. What distinguishes his conversations, above all else, is thoughtfulness and research.
It’s those two qualities that have turned Bullseye from a scrappy college radio show into a show distributed by National Public Radio and carried by over 50 stations nationwide, with a stopover in the middle as a popular podcast.
“I started doing radio in college not because I had always aspired to be a radio host, but because I found out how easy it was to get a radio show.”
It’s two weeks before the show at Hollywood Forever, and we’re in the Bullseye offices near downtown LA. This afternoon, the ever-dapper Thorn has opted for a light blue chambray work shirt with a seashell pattern.
The office is clean and charming, but Spartan. It will become clear that Bullseye, despite its devoted following, doesn’t have This American Life money to throw around.
The son of a culture studies professor and an organizer in the Peace Movement, Thorn grew up listening to hip-hop in inner city San Francisco. He majored in American Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which is where Bullseye began its life as The Sound of Young America, a subtly winking title that Thorn admits was easily misinterpreted. “If I’d known that this thing that I was naming when I was 19 was gonna turn out to be my career, I would’ve given it more careful thought. [People] would think it was either a Nazi Youth-type thing, or it was about young people starting businesses.”
Thorn and his then-cohosts Gene O’Neill and Jordan Morris—Morris is still an active participant in Thorn’s podcast network Maximum Fun—envisioned the show as more of a variety hour, rather than the pop culture Fresh Air that it’s become.
“We only sort of stumbled into interviewing when we realized how much work it was to put together an hour’s worth of actual material every week when we were all full-time students and had jobs and stuff,” Thorn says with a laugh. Even in the early days, the show managed to net impressive guests: gonzo comedy duo Tim and Eric, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, Bridesmaids director Paul Feig.
Thorn continued to host the show even after he had graduated and was living in San Francisco working as a receptionist for an environmental nonprofit. He describes driving an hour and a half from San Francisco to Santa Cruz to do the show with characteristic frankness: “It’s a funny thing, college radio. It’s even funnier when you’re a grownup and you’ve graduated from college and you’re still doing it, which is the pathetic thing I did for three years.” All the while, Thorn was trying to no avail to land a radio job in San Francisco.
Nonetheless, his show continued to rise in stature, earning notices in the Wall Street Journal, Time, and Salon. “If you’ve never heard The Sound of Young America, then The Sound of Young America is the greatest radio show you’ve never heard,” Salon said tautologically in 2005.
Eventually, the rap sheet of good notices became too long to ignore. In 2006, New York’s WNYC decided to host Young America, and soon after, Public Radio International began distributing the show.
From there, the show—renamed Bullseye in 2012—began to attract bigger and bigger guests: Mel Brooks, Melissa McCarthy, Jeff Bridges, Dolly Parton, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have all traveled to the Bullseye offices to record interviews. (A flattering 2008 write-up of Thorn’s marriage to lawyer Theresa Hossfeld in the New York Times also erroneously claimed that Thorn interviewed Jay Z. He merely interviewed someone about Jay Z.)
Thorn’s guests aren’t always high-profile—he recently had humorist David Rees on to talk about his book How to Sharpen Pencils—but Thorn brings the same level of diligence and commitment to every interview. Thorn manages to take their work seriously without coming across as an obsequious fanboy trying to artificially inflate the pedigree of his guests.
“The basis on which we book Bullseye is whose work do we think is the best. And for that reason, it’s very easy for me to be sincerely engaged in talking about their work, because the reason we book them is because we like their work.”
At the same time, Thorn’s managed to grow his podcast production company Maximum Fun into an impressive organization featuring over 20 shows covering everything from medicine to parenting to, of course, pop culture. And he’s done it not out of an opportunistic, LBJ-esque ambition, but out of pure enthusiasm: Thorn liked someone’s show, and he asked them to join his podcast network. Bullseye is supported by donations, and Thorn was determined that, if he were going to ask for peoples’ money, he wanted to offer more than just one show. (That same spirit motivated him to establish not one but two Maximum Fun conventions on both coasts, and MaxFunWeek, a weeklong event earlier this month with all the pageantry of a pledge drive and none of the begging for money.)
The recent success of both Bullseye and Maximum Fun as a whole—the network landed comedian John Hodgman as a host in 2010—has allowed Thorn to engage in what he calls “a little bit of affirmative action, so to speak.”
“I’m very proud that… we’ve grown the network with a really strong eye towards making it not just geeky white dudes,” who, he admits, tend to be the ones with the skills and proclivity to be podcast hosts. He points to the fact that while 10 percent of the top podcasts overall feature female hosts, “something like half of our shows are hosted [or cohosted] by women.”
Despite their successes, Bullseye and Maximum Fun remain very much a ragtag operation. “Our total budget is half of what a single host on another national show would get paid.” Late in our interview, Thorn admits that the show has so far failed to turn a profit. It’s actually Put This On, Thorn’s webseries about “dressing like a grownup,” that has emerged as a moneymaker.
The Bullseye offices reflect that struggle. It’s not the kind of sleek, upscale environ you might see on The Good Wife. Rather, it’s a large-ish loft space, located in Westlake, a lower-income neighborhood just west of downtown Los Angeles. Thorn may be blessed by a great view of nearby MacArthur Park, but he’s not quite a podcast mogul surveying his gleaming empire.
Still, back at the live Bullseye taping, Thorn certainly comes off like a giant. Behind the desk, he comes across like Paul McCartney does behind a piano: He’s a commanding presence; he feels like he belongs there.
It’s later in the interview, and Thorn has managed to extract some truly gleaming insights from the probably insane but probably also a genius Harmon. After the master class in the semiotics of sitcoms that began earlier in the conversation, the discussion has digressed into the intimate relationship between podcasters and their listeners.
Harmon, as the host of the popular Harmontown podcast from which the documentary takes its name, can speak with some authority on this issue. “The connection is bigger than either of us,” Harmon says. “It’s like a religion. God is here in the room with us.”
The hushed reverence of the crowd indicates he’s not exaggerating all that much. In 2014, when we’re downright bombarded with choices of what to listen to, watch, and read, the host of a struggling podcast has managed to turn out a sold-out crowd to, essentially, watch him conduct a couple of interviews onstage. Sure, Thorn, always concerned with making sure his audience is having fun, brings two great comedians—Steve Agee and Andy Kindler—to entertain the crowd, and he wraps up the evening with a magnetic performance from folk singer Sara Watkins. But the crowd would’ve turned out no matter who Thorn invited.
Because even if it hasn’t made him the modern-day David Letterman he strives to be, Jesse Thorn throws his heart and soul into Bullseye week in and week out. And we appreciate that.
After the show, I approach Thorn to say hi. “That went all right, didn’t it?” he asks somewhat sheepishly. Yeah, Jesse. We loved it.
Photo by Billy Youngblood | Illustration remix by Jason Reed