Listening to the radio is becoming more and more an arduous and somewhat antiquated activity in today’s go-go media world. No longer do we live in a time when it is reasonable to expect listeners to not only know the broadcast schedules of all their local stations, but also be content with the relatively shallow amount of programming offered up from their standard AM/FM tuner. Fortunately, podcasting and the use of Internet radio have helped make up ground in the war against apathy for radio-inspired programming. No longer must audiences sit back submissively as waves of mainstream radio assault their eardrums with torrents of generic, carbon-copied, content. Rather, given the relative accessibility that is afforded by the digital realm, listeners can seek out specific programs that fit their own interests no matter how unique their niche may be.
Perhaps no one is as aware of the opportunities podcasting presents more than Jesse Thorn, the host of popular radio show The Sound of Young America as well as curator and overlord of all products under the auspices of Maximumfun.org. Thorn, also known as America’s Radio Sweetheart, has crafted a small empire out of the demand for quality alternative entertainment; podcasts under his Maximum Fun banner include: Jordan, Jesse Go, The Kasper Hauser Podcast, Coyle and Sharpe, and, of course, the flagship The Sound of Young America. What makes Thorn’s offerings so unique, though, is that all of these shows manage to mix professional, radio savvy production style with an aesthetic that is also very much uniquely home-brewed. This is, in part, due to the fact that, while much of what Thorn produces still reaches the radio, it is an undertaking that depends heavily on the grassroots type of support through donation that is ostensibly only possible on the Internet.
“Certainly the better part of the income for the show comes from the online audience and that sort of grew organically,” said Thorn in a recent interview with the Manitoban. “Podcasting isn’t especially expensive, and so when someone told me about it — and this was before you could even get podcasts on iTunes — it seemed like a good way to get an extra 50 or 100 listeners. So it was an easy decision to do it and I’ve just kept my legs moving and have gotten to the point now where the business, such as it is, mostly comes from the online audience.”
Thanks in large part to the online proponent of Maximum Fun’s fan base, Thorn has also been able to reach out beyond podcasting and blogging to a more aesthetic endeavor with his new show called Put This On. A collaborative project, the web series is put together by Thorn and cinematographer/editor Adam Lisagor, with a focus on the ins and outs of men’s fashion. Expect advice on how to wear certain items of clothing, how to care for certain materials, and how to avoid particularly egregious style faux pas; all things that can be filed under the rubric: a web series about dressing like a grownup.
The series itself is fairly unique as it is being funded almost completely by donations coming from an audience already familiar with both Thorn and Lisagor’s prior work. When asked if such a production structure is indicative of the way media in general is headed, Thorn suggested that it may be the future for the independent artist either uninterested or unwilling to sacrifice time to matters of sales and advertising.
“Donations are certainly the way some media is going,” said Thorn, “The reason why donations have worked well for my podcasts or Put This On is that I have neither the time nor the inclination to sell advertising on my properties. [ . . . ] What we were able to do with Put This On was say this is what we want to do and this is how much money is the minimum amount of money we’re willing to do it for, do you want to see it enough to pay for it?”
Thorn says that the rather unorthodox strategy paid off, literally.
“People really came through, we’ve got hundreds of people donating to Put This On and I have hundreds of people giving me donations every month at The Sound of Young America and Maximum Fun.” He said, “It’s really a great system for the independent content creator who is creating enough stuff for it to be really important to people but at the same time doesn’t want to limit their exposure by making their work pay only and doesn’t want to spend their life calling media buyers, which I can assure you is no fun.”
On top of his many hosting duties online and on the radio, this month Thorn will also be a keynote speaker at the 72nd annual Canadian University Press Conference in Edmonton. The student press conference addresses the future landscape of mass communications, so it’s fitting that Thorn will be there representing an emerging medium. The California native, who admittedly has been around very little snow in his lifetime, joked about his plans for passing advice to up-and-coming students.
“If it’s warm enough for me to move my mouth, my plan right now is to talk a little bit about entrepreneurialism and making independent media. [ . . . ] It doesn’t come quickly or easily but if you make something good you can make money from it and you don’t have to give it to someone else who’s richer than you are before you can make yourself a living wage,” he said.
The Sound of Young America, Put This On, as well as several other projects from Jesse Thorn can be found for free on iTunes and on their respective websites: Maximumfun.org and Putthison.com.