The Sound of Young America initially started as college radio show in Santa Cruz. During the early days of the podcast revolution, host Jesse Thorne, America’s favourite radio sweetheart, latched on to the new technology. Today, anyone with a broadband connection can listen to TSOYA on demand. And many people do. During the show, Jesse welcomes guests, mostly from some field of the entertainment industry, and probes them in an intelligent manner. It is a show that doesn’t make you feel dumb for liking pop-culture. We called Jesse when he was driving between Boston and San Francisco recently and asked him a few questions about the show.
At what time did you start doing the show as a podcast?
It would have been in December of 2004 I think. The Sound of Young America was the first public radio show, west of Mississippi, to podcast. There was one public radio show in Boston that started before us, but we were very much in the beginning of the podcast thing. A friend of the family is a very tech-savvy, futuristic guy who knew about podcasting right from the very beginning and said I should do it. It took me a couple of months to figure out how, because I’m not great at this kind of thing, but once I did, we started podcasting. iTunes launched their podcast service a few months later, and that was that.
Did you ever imagine this kind of reception? Like, did it ever occur to you that this would lead to an interview with a magazine in Iceland?
It is the furthest thing. I would say I had no expectations of what it was going to be. My idea was that if I could get 30 or 40 people to listen regularly to the podcast, it would be worth doing. We got that number pretty early on and then it was in the hundreds, which I thought was great. Then when iTunes launched, there were so few decent podcasts being done that our listenership went through the roof, especially after they started featuring us periodically. I never expected any of it. The amazing thing about the podcast audience is that, you know, when you are on radio, you kind of go into the ether, and you never know what the response is. You never really hear from radio listeners unless they are really, really angry with you, whereas the podcast audience, they already feel connected to you, plus they are also already sitting at a computer, so they are much more vocal.
Does the podcast format allow you to do things differently from regular radio?
Well, for one thing, I leave swearwords in on the podcast. I don’t really believe that swearwords are evil, but they are illegal on the radio in the US. I usually do one edit with swearwords and one without for the radio. The radio show also has a very specific time format; it has to be 59 minutes long, with two one-minute breaks and so on. With the podcast, I usually leave the interview pretty close to unedited. If something goes horribly wrong, like a piece of equipment breaks, I will edit that out. Plus, the podcast occasionally gives me the opportunity to do a non-audio thing. I have podcast PDF-files from time to time and I’ve done a couple of video things.
How do you go about selecting your guests? Who gets to be on your show?
Well, the guests mostly come from a few general areas: there are the people involved in the world of comedy, the people involved in the world of music, the people involved in the world of books and then the occasional television or film or some other art person. I mostly choose people based on my own personal interest. If I’m interested in someone, and I can get them on the show, then I do it, basically. There are a few general guidelines: I try to book people who are going to be sort of fun and interesting, as opposed to say, sad and interesting. I wouldn’t necessarily book an expert on Anne Frank or the Rwandan genocide; while those things are very important, they don’t fit the tone of the show. I generally avoid things that are specifically and exclusively political because, you know, that is for other people to cover. But basically, it’s just a chronicle of things that I’m interested in and I think are great. I would say that a lot of times I learn about someone from my listeners who I end up falling in love with. As a good example, I recently had Dan Deacon on the show, who is sort of half-way between an indie-rock and electronic musician. I had never heard of Dan Deacon, but a long-time listener who e-mails occasionally, she said I had to get him on the show. And she knows what the show is about, so I looked into it, and I totally agreed. I booked him, and I’m so happy to have Dan Deacon in my life now.
One thing I’ve noticed about the show is the pace. You never seem to rush it, and you leave room for intelligent discussion – well, the intelligence of the discussion could maybe be debated at times, but you give people room to express themselves.
I certainly agree with you, and I think that tone is sort of a defining characteristic of the show. When we started doing the show, our idea was basically that we could do interviews with the depth and content of public radio, but which had the spirit of fun that you would find on commercial radio, that is, if you were lucky and were listening to really good commercial radio, of which there is not so much. Basically, the idea is that I am trying to explore the passions of the person I am interviewing. I like it when it feels warm and social, and I feel that helps the audience engage, even when it’s someone they have never heard of. Just being in this place where people are having a good time is something that people want in a radio show. I have had some people that are very opposed to that style. Mostly people who come from public radio. People who do public radio in the US mostly come from a reporter background, and the things that they worked on were very, very heavily edited. It is a field where you take maybe a ninety-minute interview and edit it down to 12 or 8 minutes. That’s just not what my show is, but unfortunately some people think that it should be, some people with power in the world of public radio.
Talk about the show’s slogan: “maximum fun”. What does that stand for?
Thesoundofyoungamerica.com was taken, so we were making up all these mottos at the time, and we had made up this ethos, the new sincerity, and a part of this ethos was not being afraid of not being cool. Maximum fun is kind of a silly thing, but I think it’s actually what we are shooting for. It is ridiculous to say maximum fun, but it is still what we are striving for, both for the audience and us. Also, the domain was available, which was an important factor.
You mentioned something else that I wanted to ask you about, the new sincerity movement. Maybe you could talk about that?
Well this is a thing that Jordan and I came up with and some friends helped fill out. We came of age in a time when the cool people were the generation X types who were really deep into irony. The genesis of this movement was an opposition to that. The idea that there is nothing cool about something that is bad, and there is nothing great about being mean for the sake of meanness, or hating things for the sake of hating things, or even worse, celebrating things for being bad. At the same time we wanted to make room for things that were ridiculous or just really outlandish, that someone who was cool, in the traditional Miles Davis sense, might reject because they didn’t have that reserve, that too-coolfor- school quality. So, the way we kind of resolved those was the idea of the new sincerity, which is embracing things that are big and awesome and great. Even things that might be somewhat embarrassing or that seem childish or silly or over the top. Something like a classic new sincerity/irony dichotomy that we hit upon early was the difference between the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Both are cult movies about transvestites, but all the things that were intended as an ironic joke in the Rocky Horror Picture Show were pursued with actual passion and real emotion in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But a part of the new sincerity is that it is a little ridiculous and a big part of it is that we were just excited to make up our own movement. Because if you do, you get to make all the rules and decide what is and what isn’t in the movement and make a lot of declarations and write a manifesto that we were very excited about. These are all things that I think are very new sincerity in and of themselves.