“I go pee over and over. When I get nervous I have to pee.” It’s hard to imagine Jesse Thorn, host of WNYC’s The Sound of Young America radio show, ever getting nervous, let alone indulging in a ritualistic urination process. Over the airwaves, Thorn sounds so smooth and confident; he has the rich tone of a Tom Hanks movie voice-over; he never says “um.” And yet, the peeing makes sense. Thorn has undertaken the immense task of formulating a show that specifically revolves around “things that are awesome.”
What originally began as a college radio show nine years ago was picked up in 2006, given a home on WNYC, and distributed by PRI (Public Radio International) to 25 public radio stations. Of his many guests, the man has interviewed the stars of books (Nick Hornby), comedy (Stephen Colbert), and rap (Chuck D). Your bladder would be shaking too.
A show about awesome things works particularly well when the host, too, is awesome. “I’m not trying to be falsely modest when I say that I don’t think interviewing people is that big of a deal,” he admits, “It’s certainly a craft and I work very hard to do a good job, but talking to someone is 12 levels below than actually doing something.” Modesty is awesome.
Thorn refers to himself as both a “culture nerd” (he reads 200-300 different blogs!) and a curator. He is particularly self-aware about the latter: “It’s like the protagonist of High Fidelity. There’s a certain guilt that comes with being a connoisseur – that you’re not creating something yourself.”
Tonight, however, Thorn will create, or rather, recreate The Sound of Young America for a live audience in the new WNYC Greene Performance Space. The show is normally done within the comfort of his own living room. Now it is being being held in a multi-platform broadcast studio and performance space, one that has been graced with the likes of Lou Reed and The Decemberists.
“It is so much work to do these live shows and I make so little money, in fact I lose some money, but the reason I do it is because it is so much more fun to do it for an audience that’s there, rather than for an audience you’re trying to imagine listening while they’re on the treadmill or stuck in traffic.” Thorn appreciates the intimacy of the traditional living room show, but admittedly, it is more fun to tell jokes without receiving the silent applause of the airwaves.
“I feel a little guilty that I don’t have an act, like some jokes at the top of the show, some juggling, human pretzel.” Still, he can take solace in the fact that he has booked amazing people (rock star Andrew WK, 30 Rock’s Nellie McKay, comedian Kumail Nanjani) and can take, albeit indirectly, credit for their greatness.
Thorn guest’s fit the criteria of The New Sincerity — people who are awesome, but not in the ironic “so bad it’s good” kind of way. In other words, Chuck Norris won’t be making an appearance on The Sound of Young America. It’s funny, then, that Thorn’s unabashed love for gangster rap has been mistaken for irony.
Careful not to “overstate [his] hoodness,” Thorn explains that he grew up in a “relatively bohemian inner-city complex,” where he knew who the gangs were and what colors you should and shouldn’t wear. “[Rap] is not completely foreign to me; it’s just a kind of music that makes more sense to me than Death Cab for Cutie,” he says. Thorn grew up listening to “Tony! Toni! Tone!” His favorite album, at 13, was Blowout Comb by Digable Planets.
Thorn had two choices during his childhood: “1) Try to pass for hood, which maybe I could have done, but it wouldn’t have been that productive and I wouldn’t have been that good at it, or 2) Be the queer guy that everybody calls fagget and doesn’t bother. Stuff happened to me as a kid, I got jumped, but not all the time. I just wasn’t worth people’s time.”
He admits that he will always be closer to Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters than Boyz ‘N the Hood, but that didn’t stop what Thorn calls “the funny leitmotif in my life – this balance between the kids on my block thinking I’m a ‘fagget’ to the kids that I went with to private middle school on scholarship thinking I’m some sort of terrifying urban youth.” Later, at UC Santa Cruz, he would carry around a big boombox and listen to his music. Thorn’s fellow students thought he was joking.
“I feel no need to present myself as anything other than what I am — a fancy pants corduroy-wearing New Yorker reader” with, as he mentions earlier, “a propensity to wear bow-ties.” “That leads people to believe that that excludes me from liking hip-hop, but they are both an important part of who I am.”
Acknowledging the new sincerity is to understand why The Sound of Young America works. Nick Hornby and Bun B (UGK ) have had star interview slots on the same show. Both are remarkable in their own fields. Both are awesome. Despite having “Young America” in the title, fans over fifty call in and praise the show. It’s not surprising to Thorn, because he believes the public radio audience is selected on the basis of intelligence, education, and curiosity. And it certainly shouldn’t be surprising that Thorn listens to the new M.O.P. album to, as he puts it, “walk his dog a little further than usual.”