Interview: Jesse Thorn, Host of "The Sound Of Young America"

By Margaret Lyons in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 29, 2007 7:00PM

2007_10_29.tsoya1.jpgThe Sound of Young America started as a college radio show, became a tour-de-force podcast and then a nationally syndicated public radio show. Its latest incarnation? Live tapings. Wednesday night, TSOYA will be taping at Second City, where wunderkind host Jesse Thorn will interview local deity Steve Albini. The show also includes performances from the hilarious Hannibal Buress (recently crowned the funniest person in town by Time Out Chicago), sketch duo Team Submarine, Chicagoist’s pals Schadenfreude and members of Second City.

Wednesday's show is at the e.t.c. stage at Second City at 8pm and is free, free, free.

Thorn’s format is straight-up public radio—long-form interviews with in-depth questions, lots of thoughtful follow-ups, etc—but his style and guest-list are anything but. Patton Oswalt, Zach Galifianakis, Brian Posehn, Bob Odenkirk, Ted Leo, Rhymefest: TSOYA leans heavily on comedy geekery, but there’s plenty of indie rock and hip-hop fandom rounding out the series, too. We spoke with Thorn over the weekend to find out what makes the youngest syndicated public radio host ever (at least according to his press release) tick.

Chicagoist: How did the Chicago trip come about?

Jesse Thorn: The folks at Second City invited me. They listen to the show through the podcast, and they heard I’d done live shows in NY… It was a general goodwill thing. I'm lucky they thought of me. I booked the line-up—I definitely wanted [people from] the Second City in there. And we made a shortlist of Chicago celebs, and after Oprah and Mr. T, Steve Albini was our first choice.

C: You're the golden boy right now—lots of positive buzz and what not. When do we get your scandalous fall from grace?

JT: I'd hate to think I'm "the golden boy" now. I'd like to think the base salary for a golden boy is more than $25,000.

C: But you’re certainly enjoying an unusual amount of success for someone your age [26] in your arena.

JT: I don't think I’m that unusual in the comedy world, but it's odd to be in the public radio world, where everyone is 50. I mean, Ira Glass is my hero, and he's still the enfant terrible of the public radio world. Even though he’s got to be in his 40s, people think of him like he's still wearing diapers.
[Ed. Note: Glass is 48. But boyish!]

C: And there’s a certain level of critical acclaim too, right?

2007_10_29.tsoya21.jpgJT: Well, yeah. But honestly, I only stuck with The Sound Of Young America, which started as my college radio show, because I couldn't get a job. … A lot of radio hosts will give you a story about the “magic of radio,” and that’s great, but the reason I do radio is I could get a show at my college, and it was really easy relative to film or television. If you want to make anything that’s the tiniest bit watchable, you need like eight people. But to do a radio show, all you need to know is “if you slide this, it gets louder.” That’s the extent of the technical knowledge.

C: Hm...NPR, here we come.

JT:: I went to my first public radio convention a few weeks ago, and it was a trip. It was amazing.

C: I’m imagining an obscene number of tote bags.

JT: Actually, it was held in a tent made of tote bags. [laughs]…Until really recently, I didn't know anyone who had a real job in public radio. I had been unable to get a job after trying really hard for years, so I was just doing the show out of my apartment.

C: You still do the show out of your apartment, don't you?

JT: Yes. I wish [doing the show] paid better. It’s almost a job. At least, I don’t have another job anymore...most of the time. The big step for me is I recently went from no health insurance to catastrophic health insurance, so that’s pretty exciting.

C: Yay. Good luck getting hit by a bus but not getting strep throat. In other words, you do the show on a shoe-string budget.

JT: To say it's a shoestring operation is the understatement of the century. It barely has any strings at all.

C: But you get high-profile guests.

JT: Well, for a long time, I don't want to say I used deception, but…[laughs] These days, the show does run on WNYC [in New York] and WHYY [in Philadelphia], so I do have a real audience. [In terms of booking guests], I'm too lazy. I don't like bothering people, and I don't like to be pushy. And these are essential qualities for producers.

C: And…for journalists generally, right? Do you not think of yourself as a journalist?

JT: Not really. I don't break any news. I don't really do any of the idealized things I imagine journalists doing. I don't search for truth. I don't change the world. I just joke around with people I think are cool. I'm cool with being a pseudo-journalist…I never have to interview anybody I don't actually like.

C: The show has a real comedy-insider vibe, but you interview tons of musicians, too.

JT: I want the show to just be about things that are awesome. I really follow my heart on that. The one standard that's important to me is that when I do things, I want them to be relevant to the audience, even if they don't come in as a superfan or as a comedy nerd or hip-hop head. That’s the most gratifying thing.

C: How come you aren’t on in Chicago?

JT: Because they haven't taken the chance yet…. I'm really hopeful about Chicago. It's one of the places my show is the most resonant.

C: Plus WBEZ is trying to reach a younger market and everything…

JT: I'm thinking about starting a second program with atmospheric sound and Spanglish, just to get on WBEZ. [Ed note: Snap!] I need a way to communicate that I’m an inner-city youth. Just because I sound like a 40-year-old college professor on the radio—I worry I'm not getting credit for growing up on the mean streets. Maybe I should talk more about my experience with the Cholo community.

But seriously, if you have readers that like TSOYA and listen to Chicago Public Radio, a nice email really goes a long way.

If you want WBEZ to carry The Sound of Young America, e-mail VP of programming Ron Jones at rjones@chicagopublicradio.org

photo of Jesse Thorn by Noe Montes