"Radio Sweetheart, Boy Detective, It's The Sound of Young America . Maximum Fun! Maximum Fun!" The Sound of Young America (TSOYA) was recently named "Pick of the Podcasts" by Time Magazine and Salon.com's Audiofile said, " "If you've never heard of TSOYA, then TSOYA is the greatest radio show you've never heard of." Of course, I've heard of it; I'm a subscriber. That's why when I found out its host Jesse Thorn was coming to New York with his sketch group Prank the Dean, I knew I had to interview him. And interview him I did!
What is The New Sincerity?
It's a new cultural movement founded by yours truly with a lot of help from various folks, including Jordan Morris, my former co-host. At its core, it’s a rejection of what we called The Old Irony, which ruled the cultural roost, or at least the hipster part of the cultural roost, for the past fifteen years or so. It's not the same as the Old Sincerity in the sense that it is bigger and better. Things that wouldn't necessarily fit into the Old Sincerity, like Bootsy Collins do fit into the New Sincerity. Part of what the New Sincerity is is being larger than life and the acknowledgment that the coolest stuff comes from being completely unafraid of being seen as uncool. It encompasses everything from small things like high-fiving and flying a kite to bigger things like being Evil Knievel.
What is the Old Sincerity?
Regular, boring sincerity.
How much does the artist's intent have to do with it being New Sincerity?
That's an interesting question. It's entirely possible to intend to create something that's New Sincerity and it's possible to create something that's New Sincerity through the Old Sincerity. For example, Bootsy Collins always intended his work to be New Sincerity. I think he has a very good understanding of how ridiculous he is and he also has a very good understanding of the fact that he is also ridiculously awesome, which is part of the point. Evil Knievel, however, may have a more limited understanding of how ridiculous he is. I think he just thinks that he's amazing, but, for those of us who are on the outside, Knievel is clearly New Sincerity. I'm not that worried about intent, honestly. I encourage people to have the intent of being New Sincerity, but there's no rule for appreciating something.
If someone practices New Sincerity, they would be called a?
A New Sinceritist.
The basic principal here is to earnestly appreciate things, right?
Beside that earnestness, it's a willingness to earnestly appreciate something even if it's bigger than something someone would earnestly feel comfortable earnestly appreciating. Even if it means taking the risk of someone thinking it's ridiculous because, ultimately, it's more important to be awesome than to be cool.
TSOYA, then, is a fitting example of New Sincerity because you book only guests that you find interesting.
I figure that as long as I'm not getting paid I might as well book the people that I like. That's the principal behind the Sound of Young America's booking policy.
How did people react to this policy during TSOYA's early years?
TSOYA started out as a slightly different show from the show it is today. These days, it's mostly an interview program. Partly because the two co-hosts that originally hosted the show with me have moved on to other things. When we first started, it was chattier and had more original comedy elements. The first feedback we got was in our second show in Santa Cruz. There was no producer at our show or at our station, so if someone called in they would be on air. We went to a song break, and the phone rang. It was our second telephone call and it turned out to be this woman who had a long-standing show on KZSC, who billed herself as Folk Goddess, a very popular and successful host in Santa Cruz. She called in just to tell us that our show was, "Stupid, juvenal, and represented everything that was wrong with KZSC."
How'd you respond to that?
I said, "Okay, goodbye," because I had to go back on the air since it was the middle of the show.
How quickly did TSOYA trump all the other programming?
I don't know if even today, with it running on an NPR station in Santa Cruz, if it's trumped any of the shows on KZSC. It trumped many of the student shows in that we never had any contempt for our listeners. You run into that a lot on college radio, which is that people think that anytime anybody doesn't like anything about their show it's because they're a philistine and not because they don't want to hear your favorite Radiohead song, followed by your favorite Miles Davis song, and then your favorite Skinny Puppy song. Almost everyone in college radio thinks that the problem with public radio is that it isn't eclectic enough and that that eclecticism would be best achieved by playing all of their favorite songs. Whether they hate hip-hop or country, that doesn't effect the eclecticism. That station was an odd world because it was almost like that show was created in a vacuum. It's a big station, but, outside of those folk and reggae songs, there's not a lot of people listening. A lot of the people on the station have really specific tastes and often aren't listening to the other shows on the station. So it was an odd place to be. When we first started out, we were only getting calls from stoned people but then none stoned people started calling in, which was a good sign. We won the voting in the local alternative weekly for best radio personality. I asked the guy how many people needed to vote for us to win and he said at least thirty, which means that at least thirty people were listening when we were begging for them to vote.
What were you studying in college?
American Studies. UC Santa Cruz's system is such that American Studies encompasses ethnic and cultural studies under one roof. My focus was called Expressive Arts in Cultures. If I had gone to a school that had ethnic studies I might have been an African American Studies major. I'm glad I was able to do African American Studies without being the weird guy with a degree in African American Studies.
When did you develop your general interest in radio?
Now that I'm this radio guy, I've been meeting a lot of radio people that are so passionate about radio, which is something I've never been able to match. One of the great things about radio, for me, is that it's totally within one's means. Me and my two friends in college were able to make a radio show easily and there's no way that we could have been able to make a television show or a movie. I've always loved listening to baseball on the radio. I was a huge fan of baseball as a kid and idolized Hank Greenwald, the San Francisco Giants' play-by-play announcer. When I was in high school, This American Life started and I've listened to almost every episode of it. I'd always been a public radio listener, but it gave me the idea that there was room for something besides Morning Edition in the world of public radio. I also listened to Car Talk my whole life.
I read that you were on student council in high school.
I was the student body president. How did you find out I was on student council?
It was in the newspaper article that you sent me.
I liked that they let you write the article about yourself.
That was a surprise to me, I'll tell ya. There were a couple months where I wasn't on the air in Santa Cruz when I was moving from KZSC and KUSP, which is my new station in Santa Cruz. I knew the editor of Metro Santa Cruz liked TSOYA and I asked him if he'd like to do a piece about the show. I e-mailed him and said, "It's getting close to the day that we were supposed to do the article. Is someone going to interview me?" He said, "Well, can you write it? I need it this Thursday," this was on a Monday. And he added, "Oh, and it has to be 3,500 words."
I had a similar thing happen to me when I was in high school. Is this Metro Times the sort of thing people read or the type that's thrown on your doorstep and you then throw out?
It's the Santa Cruz version of The Village Voice. It's the sort of thing you pick up and read on the bus.
Okay. My local paper did a piece on me and this was the sort of paper that people throw away, except now they were throwing me away too. So for two months every time I passed a gutter I'd see my own face staring back at me covered in leaves and garbage.
I know exactly what you're talking about. Santa Cruz was littered with my face. And it had a goofy picture of me on the cover.
For student council, did you go the funny speech route to win?
I wanted to be the student body president because I thought it was funny to be the president of clubs. I was the president of seven clubs. Clubs in high school don't do much, so you might as well be the president if you're going to be in them. My slogan was, "Thorn: The T is for Leadership." I got a well liked, smart, and responsible girl to run as my vice president to give me credibility. I won.
Did you ever use a slogan like, "I'll be the Thorn in the school's side?"
No, but, "Thorn in side," jokes is not something that my life has been short of.
Oh. I like the idea of people voting for you, but later thinking, "Hold on, that's not a positive thing that he says he's going to be."
What happened is that I did some informal polling and met with a political consultant and learned that the secret to being student body president is that the freshmen don't know any of the seniors and if you give the freshmen Tootsie Pops that say, "Vote for Jesse Thorn," you're going to win.
Tell me about TSOYA Live.
We're taping two shows at The PIT on November 10th, which is an all time first. The 8 PM show will have David Wain of The State and Stella will be discussing his forthcoming film The Ten, comedian Heather Lawless of http://www.varietyshac.com/ , monologist Mike Daisey , and hip-hop group Tanya Morgan will be performing a song. At the ten O'Clock show Kurt Anderson, who hosts Studio 360. He'll be talking about Spy Magazine: The Funny Years. We're going to have funny songs from Jonathan Coulton and a sketch from Elephant Larry , who just got into this Contest on Jibjab.com where they had a sketch directed by John Landis. The ten O'clock show may also have a surprise guest. I've got a couple of famous New York comedy types who are contemplating drop-ins.
Listen to TSOYA and keep up with Jesse's Blog at Maximumfun.org . Get your tickets for TSOYA live at Thepit-nyc.com/, and check out Jesse's sketch group Prank The Dean at UCB's The Best Comedy in the Universe Festival on Saturday November 11th.