Jesse Thorn borrowed the name of his college radio show-turned-podcast The Sound of Young America from an early slogan of Motown Records. The name was more than a little tongue in cheek, but from the perspective of 2015, it now seems less like a facetious boast then a promise kept. Like Motown founder Berry Gordy before him, Jesse Thorn was a creative young man of boundless ambition and determination who created not just a sustainable business in a difficult, if not impossible, industry, but an empire to call his own.
The youthful sound Thorn was tuned into was not the world-conquering melody and slickness of Motown but a stranger digital frequency that spread out across a Wild West realm called podcasts, where the cost of entry was some primitive equipment and the opportunities were as endless as the initial audience was tiny.
Thorn was an early proponent of podcasting, years before Serial was even a glimmer in its creators’ eyes. He was introduced to the medium in 2004, when it was largely a barren cyber-wasteland with but a few digital tumbleweeds passing lazily, and seized upon it as a way to expand the audience and reach of his college radio program.
An inveterate student of pop culture, Thorn took the scrappy DIY aesthetic of indie rock and the thriving underground and independent hip-hop scene of his Bay Area hometown to the new digital realms of podcasting, blogs, and websites. Thorn became an important cultural figure and the head and public face of Maximum Fun, one of the most popular, influential, and beloved podcasting networks, not by altering his vision to accommodate a mass audience but by relentlessly pursuing his own obsessions with a single-minded focus.
Thorn’s passions are as varied as they are intense. He is a dedicated follower of fashion with his own fashion website (Put This On), a huge fan of hip-hop and soul, a devotee of indie rock, and a comedy maven. Thorn isn’t just more into pocket squares than any hip-hop obsessive has any right to be (with the possible exception of Kanye West)–he’s actually made his own line of pocket squares.
And he recognizes the problems a polymath can confront in the age of the personal brand.
“I try not to talk like that, but if you take it in a holistic way, the idea of a brand is pretty manageable,” Thorn reflects. “Of course, my brand is so muddled–am I the intellectual guy? The white rap guy? The comedian guy? Am I a nerd? What’s this about clothes?–that I can’t claim any special expertise. I do believe in values–and if your brand grows naturally from your values, and your values are consistent, then your brand will be consistent.”
Thorn’s podcasts reflect the different sides of his persona. Though it began in more of a freeform format, The Sound of Young America affords Thorn an opportunity to engage in substantive conversations with his creative heroes, some of whom he would go on to work with as the benevolent overlord of podcasting empire Maximum Fun.
That’s how Thorn first came into contact with John Hodgman. Hodgman appeared on The Sound of Young America early in its run. One night Thorn went to a Hodgman book reading where there were exactly two other people in attendance: Dave Eggers and Dave Eggers’s baby. Hodgman appeared on The Daily Show shortly afterward, and rocketed to a nerdy sort of fame and visibility. Hodgman continued to mentor and help Thorn, who in turn sought a project that would allow Hodgman to be not just funny and smart but also wise. Judge John Hodgman was born with the idea of Hodgman as a mock-magistrate and Thorn as his sidekick. If Bullseye is on some level about soaking in the wisdom of Thorn’s elders, then Judge John Hodgman is the purest manifestation of that impulse.
And if Bullseye is a showcase for Thorn’s gifts as an interviewer, and Judge John Hodgman
affords him a chance to work alongside one of his comedy heroes, then Jordan, Jesse, Go! allows Thorn to be a comic performer alongside longtime friend and collaborator Jordan Morris, who also writes for Chris Hardwick’s @Midnight, and considers Hardwick and Thorn “kindred spirits” whose success is attributable largely to their work ethic.
From an early age, Thorn had the ability to link seemingly disparate worlds. He was a bridge between the polished, professional world of National Public Radio, which first syndicated The Sound of Young America and then its successor Bullseye, and the scruffy, intimate, aggressively nonprofessional world of podcasting. Like National Public Radio, Maximum Fun is largely listener-supported and conducts pledge drives.
Maximum Fun offers 22 podcasts, the most popular of which are Judge John Hodgman; the meta-advice show My Brother, My Brother and Me; Bullseye; and Throwing Shade, which is described as “…a weekly look at all the issues important to ladies and gays.” The company employs seven full-time staffers on the podcasting side and a full-time writer with Put This On.
Like many podcasters, Thorn is reluctant to get specific about the exact number of downloads the podcasts on Maximum Fun receive, in part because tracking downloads remains a ferociously inexact science, but he says that downloads across the network range in the millions monthly, while Maximum Fun hits like Risk! have audiences in the six figures.
A podcasting empire that relies on the contributions of fans better have an intense connection to its fanbase, and like a lot of innately savvy businessman, Thorn understands the needs of Maximum Fun obsessives because he shares with them a sensibility. When asked to characterize the Maximum Fun aesthetic, both in terms of the shows he hosts and the shows on the network, Thorn replies that the network aspires to be “smart, funny, and welcoming. Open-hearted. Thoughtful but not lame. Irreverent but not unnecessarily snide.”
Maximum Fun is home to podcasts by such well-respected veterans as Kevin Allison of The State, whose wild storytelling series Risk! is a hit in both live and podcast form, and The Flop House, a hilarious, obsessive, and weirdly highbrow exploration of bad movies hosted by longtime Daily Show head writer Elliott Kalan, current DS writer Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington, the “last remaining member of an ancient royal family of some bullshit fantasy world,” according to his Flop House bio.
Thorn savvily intuited that podcasting was the future of broadcasting, then played a major role in shaping the form (McCoy credits Jesse, Jordan, Go! with being the podcast that made him want to go into podcasting), although podcasting has grown in ways it’s doubtful even Thorn could have imagined. When Thorn helped an intense, neurotic Jewish comedian with a reputation as a comic’s comic and an even more intense reputation for professional self-sabotage set up a studio so he could continue recording his podcast, it’s doubtful Thorn could have envisioned that he was helping push Marc Maron down a path that would someday lead to the most powerful man in the world—President Obama–setting time aside to do an interview in Maron’s garage.
Thorn says Maron gives him more credit than he deserves for WTF‘s beginnings, but there’s no denying that Thorn combines a Zelig-like ability for being in the right place at the right time with an innate mogul’s eye for talent and making things happen. Thorn does not, however, see himself as having any special powers of prognostication or foresight, and chalks up his innate business savvy to the self-sufficiency he learned as a child. With characteristic self-deprecation, Thorn argues, “I just never had the idea that anyone would give me anything. I was mostly an only child (I have two half-brothers who are much younger than I), my parents hated each other, I lived in the city. I was self-sufficient. My default mode is to assume I’ll have to take care of business myself.”
The self-sufficiency is still in full effect. After a disappointing visit to Comic-Con, Thorn decided to create a festival for Maximum Fun fans, and MaxFunCon was born, with classes and shows and a lineup of musicians, writers, and comedians that taps into the deep stable of talent at Maximum Fun. In 2013, Thorn followed in the footsteps of geek icon Jonathan Coulton’s JoCo Cruise and took his empire to the high seas as the Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival, a floating celebration of arts and culture. He runs Maximum Fun as much as a fan as a proper businessman, and McCoy compares Maximum Fun to a well-curated store, with Thorn as the expert curator of pop culture.
The Flop House did not originate on Maximum Fun, but it perfectly embodies the podcasting network’s ethos in its casually brilliant combination of unabashed, unapologetic goofiness and genuine insight and intelligence. McCoy compares Maximum Fun to an NPR that “was run by someone who was hip and actually had a sense of humor,” which makes sense given Thorn’s deep connections to NPR (Thorn also worked on the edited versions of WTF that run on NPR).
McCoy describes Thorn as someone who gives talented people autonomy in the service of “trying to make a small profit doing this profoundly unprofitable thing.” Even at this late date, it seems difficult to monetize even popular, venerable podcasts. Maximum Fun is largely listener-supported, although, in a delightful turn of events, pizza-roll titan Totino’s recently sponsored a special bonus episode of the McElroy brothers’ Maximum Fun hit My Brother, My Brother and Me that was at once genuinely Totino’s-centric and a gleeful and irreverent parody of corporate sponsorship and native advertising.
Thorn notes that Maximum Fun generally does not go for branded content, and deliberately chooses to be selective in the advertising that runs on its podcasts. “But we thought that as long as it was a special bonus thing, in addition to the regular show, and as long as the Totino’s people had no input at all editorially, it would be fun,” he says. “I’m kind of amazed that Totino’s let us do it, but they were amazing. And I bet we sold a lot of Totino’s.”
It’s hard to imagine other powerhouse podcasting networks like Nerdist or Earwolf having a pledge drive, but Thorn is in many ways a creature of public radio, so it makes sense that he would see pledge drives as the least intrusive way to finance podcasts while maintaining the integrity of the network and the product.
And Maximum Fun recently branched out into the world of work-for-hire by producing a very popular and high-profile podcast about creativity called Magic Lessons for Eat, Pray, Love bestselling author (and Maximum Fun fan) Elizabeth Gilbert and her publisher, Riverhead Books.
For Thorn, Maximum Fun pursues two separate bottom lines. There is the financial bottom line, but there’s also the bottom line of serving the public good, and that seems more important to Thorn than getting rich, in part because getting rich off podcasting still seems like a pretty far-off possibility.
For Thorn, what makes him feel most successful doesn’t have anything to do with his career. Asked whether there was a moment in his life when he felt he truly made it, he replies, “I’m pretty sure I haven’t made it by any reasonable standard professionally. I’m still very much on the make. The closest I’ve ever felt to that professionally is probably the time Ira Glass told me he liked Jordan, Jesse,
Go!. The closest I’ve ever felt to that in my life is when I married my wife. It was just exactly the right thing, and more than I deserved.”