Skip to content

From my interview archive: public radio interviewer and podcast impresario Jesse Thorn

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

There are the people who’ve had an outsized influence on your life, and within that group there are the people who, when you think about it, have had an even more outsized influence on your life than you’d realized. As I write this, I see that, for me, public radio host Jesse Thorn belongs in the latter group. I’ve long described him as the man who inspired me to get into the interviewing game, or at least my proximate inspiration, but now I wonder how many elements of my current life and career on the other side of the Pacific can’t, in some way, be traced back to him.

Still, Charlie Rose must also bear some of the responsibility. I watched him interview the Brian Grazers and Bill Bufords of the world almost every night during a long, strange winter break in college when UC Santa Barbara’s between-quarter dorm closure forced me to rent a room off campus. I’d found a small, wood-paneled one in a less than perfectly maintained house, with neither cable nor internet, way out in not the outskirts of Santa Barbara, but the outskirts of the town next to Santa Barbara. Getting there required a ten-minute walk through the pitch darkness (they don’t go in for streetlights out there, or even sidewalks) after getting off at the bus stop at the very end of the line — though, as usually the only rider aboard at that point, I could often persuade the driver to drop me off a little closer.

I got back so late every night because I worked an an evening announcer at a radio station — namely “Smooth Jazz Magic 106.3, the Sound of Santa Barbara,” which I had to say, in a “sir yes sir” fashion, at both the beginning and end of my every announcement. The job came my way because of the artist overlap between its playlist and the music show I’d been doing on KCSB, the public radio station based on my college campus: I never spun any Kenny G or anything (no Kenny G without Kashif, anyway), but I was and remain an enthusiast of, say, Acoustic Alchemy, the Rippingtons, Hiroshima, Steely Dan, and so on.

But despite hardly being a stranger to radio, I couldn’t figure out how to make the move into interviewing. I passed a year or two wondering before the fateful night I arrived at the Magic 106.3 studio, started scrolling through my Livejournal friends list (this being the final days of Livejournal’s popularity, at least in my non-Cyrillic-user circles), and saw that one of those friends had made a post recommending a handful of shows from the still-new medium of podcasting. The most enthusiastic of those recommendations was for an interview program called The Sound of Young America, hosted by a fellow twentysomething by the name of Jesse Thorn who’d initially created it as a radio show on KZSC, the campus station up at UC Santa Cruz, where he’d gone to college.

The very next day I began binging on The Sound of Young America, and from then on knew what I had to do: go back to KCSB, start an interview show of my own, and podcast it right away. At first I modeled The Marketplace of Ideas pretty closely on Jesse’s example, at least formally, arranging long-form interviews but doing them with economists and Japanologists instead of comedians and cartoonists. Only when I thought the show had found something like its own sensibility did I feel ready to invite Jesse himself on for an interview, a studio-to-studio tape sync between me at KCSB and him in his then-makeshift apartment recording facilities in what I called “Los Angeles’ beautiful Koreatown.”

Jesse, no fan of Los Angeles (although his hatred cooled over time to tolerance and has now seems to have become some feeling even milder still), already had a correction for me: “Koreatown is not beautiful.” (He preferred the descriptor “soiled.”) But Koreatown was beautiful to me, or at least exciting: having just a couple years before begun my self-study of the Korean language, I made a point of going there on my every trip down to Los Angeles in order to practice sounding out its many signs advertising body shops, barbecued meats, and acupuncturists. I would later move to Koreatown myself, and even, on Jesse’s advice, to the very same couple of blocks he recommended as “the only place in Los Angeles that feels like, you know, a city.” (Indeed, I happened to move into the same set of buildings he’d lived in when he made his own first move to Los Angeles.)

Before moving, though, I brought Jesse back on to The Marketplace of Ideas for a second remote interview, that time with filmmaker Adam Lisagor (then better known, for some reason, as “Lonely Sandwich”), his collaborator in a new venture called Put This On, a blog and video series “about dressing like a grownup.” That project also aligned well with my own interests, and for a time I would later write about men’s style books on its site. By then I was also writing Podthoughts, a weekly podcast review column which ran from 2008 until I asked for money, on, the site of Jesse’s rapidly growing podcast empire.

I came to know Jesse as an interviewer and still think of him primarily as an interviewer (and he has spoken lately of starting an interview podcast about interviewing), but that label doesn’t really capture the man in full. Though officially a public radio personality, he also presides over a kind of podcast-based media empire, a highly 21st-century operation that also puts on a variety of real-life events, the flagship being the twice-yearly MaxFunCon. When he announced the very first one, warning of the tickets’ probable priciness, I got so excited that I immediately posted to the Maximum Fun forums that money would be no object to my attendance, thinking it might set me back something like $150, $200 at the outside.

Then I found out that it would cost more like $900, and so have never attended a MaxFunCon. The people I know who do go tell me it might be too late: the cliques, though each is maximally open and welcoming (a part of the Maximum Fun ethos), have long since solidified, and the gathering’s history has coalesced into myth. In any case, I live in Seoul now, and though there’s a MaxFunCon West and a MaxFunCon East, MaxFunCon Asia has yet to materialize. I found the train similarly gone from the station when I arrived in Los Angeles hoping for the chance to hang out more with Jesse himself. Though I did manage to do the occasional bit of work for him, by that time he already had a wife, a tastefully decorated house, a couple of cars, the first of his kids, insurance, and many other elements of a life I can barely imagine, let alone relate to.

Even The Sound of Young America had undergone a rebranding into Bullseye, a change that alienated a few fans (just another chapter in the sometimes-contentious relationship Jesse has with that group), but never caused me to turn my back in the way that became dead to me when it changed its name to MUBI. In the form of Bullseye, the show has risen to the status of a genuine National Public Radio program, which seemed like the goal even back when it aired as The Sound of America in only Santa Cruz and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Now that Jesse appears to have hit it big, I do take some pride in having been a listener back when he spoke openly about struggling to keep the lights on.

For my part, I, a decade after first listening to The Sound of Young America, have just launched my latest podcast after a couple of years out of the game, a Korean-language interview show called 콜린의 한국, or Colin’s Korea. It may look as if I’ve swerved wildly off my initial path, but think of it this way: without Jesse’s example, I might not be interviewing, nor might I ever have lived in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, and so might not have felt prepared to live in Korea proper. Without the connections made by my own venture into podcasting, and through the writing I did for Maximum Fun, I might never have developed the kind of career that enables me to move to another country in the first place.

On the way to a wedding just weeks before crossing the ocean, I heard Jesse’s familiar voice come on the radio, Bullseye having finally clawed its way into the strangely difficult Los Angeles public radio market. (Nothing to do, I assume, with my confrontations of various Los Angeles public radio professionals at parties with unsatisfiable demands to know why they didn’t carry it yet.) He was delivering an “outshot,” a segment at the end of the show that features a personal cultural recommendation, on the late, lamented Free & Easy, one of the Japanese men’s style magazines I now make sure to pick up on my frequent trips to that country.

Free & Easy focused on three different styles: “Rugged Style,” “Trad Style,” and “Dad’s Style,” the last of which was the object of Jesse’s tribute. “Dad’s Style means the man who has his own style, who spends his days immersed in his interests with full intellectual curiosity,” he said, quoting Free & Easy‘s editor Minoru Onozato. “He also should do his best for his professional career. This is the style we idealize.” As much sense as it makes to hear an endorsement of Dad’s Style from someone who has attained dad status himself, the point, as I took it, was that anyone could develop such a life, no mater the details of that style, those interests, and that curiosity. The most useful examples need not be the ones that most closely resemble you.