Between his nationally-syndicated NPR show Bullseye, his popular podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! and his job as acting bailiff on Judge John Hodgman (not to mention his role as the Maximum Fun podcast network’s paterfamilias), Jesse Thorn is one of the most recognizable radio voices of his generation. Now he’s tapping his peers and contemporaries to launch a new podcast about the art of the interview.
This new project, The Turnaround, is being launched in conjunction with the Columbia Journalism Review and will be releasing two episodes a week throughout the summer. Thorn has managed to talk to true masters of the art of the interview, including Katie Couric, Larry King, Marc Maron, and even Dick Cavett. Through the podcast, these titans will share their expertise and knowledge, and shed some light on why and how they excel at the thing they love.
I got to sit down with Thorn at the Maximum Fun HQ in Los Angeles, and got to observe some of his fastidious tracking of intros and interstitials for The Turnaround, which was mere days away from launching.
So, I’m supposed to interview a professional interviewer about his podcast about interviewing, why it’s a lost art, and no one knows how to do interviews anymore. So there’s no pressure on me, for sure. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the podcast coming out. Is it a limited run?
We’re basically doing two episodes a week for July and August, and that’s going to be it. I don’t have plans to make any money from the show, and I don’t have plans to make more of them. Although I guess if Nardwuar emailed and said he was down [to be on an episode] — he previously declined politely — I guess I would get back in the studio. It’s a total of 15 or 16 episodes, each one a conversation with one person who I admire as an interviewer.
Have you been working on this for a while now?
I kind of had the idea as a sort of ersatz journalism school for myself. And I thought it would make a great project for our production fellows here at the office. And so, I don’t know … months and months and months ago, maybe even a year ago almost, I talked to Kara, our production fellow, and said, “Does this sound like a cool project to you? Would be into producing this?” And she said yes.
The first person I talked to, I think, was Anna Sale from Death, Sex and Money, WNYC’s great show. And we were sort of picking them off here and there over months, and then about a month ago we just did a whole bunch of them. So it was sort of like having two jobs at once. Now the [episodes are] basically all done. Other than Dick Cavett, who’s at his summer home at the moment and had some laryngitis the day we were going to record, so we’ve got to find a new time to talk Dick Cavett. Besides that, everything’s in the can. So it’s all over but the sharing, I guess.
And how did the Columbia Journalism Review get involved?
I thought it would be nice… When I thought about who would enjoy this podcast, I think there was a part of me that is always kind of translating things for a general audience. I mean, that’s like part of what I do on both sides: interview people that have these particular passionate fan bases, and try and do an interview that will be enjoyable to them and also enjoyable to people who have never heard of this person before. When you do an arts and culture show in 2017, the reality is that the artists and culture makers who are most important to us are also people that our sister or cousin might never had heard of in their entire life.
And so I sort of took that approach to this show, and thought I would like this to be a show that is valuable to people who are in the position that I was in 15 years ago when I started doing my show. At the same time that it’s fun and interesting to listen to it, it’s just a peek behind the curtain for people who are interested in these guests.
And so I wanted to have a partner in presenting the show who had the journalism credibility that I lack, because I really wanted to bring it to professional journalists. I wanted to say, “What can we learn from these masters of this thing that we do?” And I knew that unless those professional journalists happened to be listening to my work as the fake bailiff on the Judge John Hodgman podcast, maybe I should bring in a ringer.
But you’ve been a professional radio host for so many years now. You still feel that you don’t have journalistic credibility?
Yeah, totally I don’t have journalistic credibility. I am like… For one thing, I’ve only thought of myself as a journalist the past few years. And really the only reason is when I moved from my old distributor to NPR, they told me that I had to be a journalist according to their ethics guidelines. Whereas previously, they had said, “Eh, you’re an entertainer.” And I was glad to do that, but it made me think of the work that I was doing in a different way.
I think that my show Bullseye in some ways sits on the line between journalism and entertainment. There is a certain amount of… you’re getting a certain amount of fiber in every bite. It is an actual show that is intended to have genuine insight into culture and how it’s made. But at the same time, I goof around a lot more than Terry Gross does.
But I feel that she goofs around on the Terry Gross scale.
Well, yeah, no. I was just listening to a show where Terry Gross was doing a little gentle goofing. I always love it when Terry makes a little joke, or just when she’s really enjoying something, you can tell.