Bullseye’s Jesse Thorn talks the changing face of public radio; show auditions today on KCUR

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece titled “Public Radio’s Existential Crisis,” journalist Ellen Gamerman discussed the aging of public radio’s listener base, as well as its most popular show hosts. Carl Kasell stopped being the announcer on Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! in 2014, Garrison Keillor recently retired as host of the long-running A Prairie Home Companion, Diane Rehm is retiring later this year, and Wisconsin Public Radio’s Whad’ya Know? just ended its 30-plus broadcast run — although, tellingly, if will be returning as a podcast this September.

All of this is to say is that public radio is looking for new shows to maintain its on-air appeal. It’s long been noted that even though Car Talk stopped recording new episodes four years ago, it’s still broadcast on many public-radio stations and brings in big money during pledge season. Given that many new shows aren’t being developed for radio, but instead exist as podcasts — This American Life and Radiolab spin-offs Serial and More Perfect are both download-only — what is public radio to do?

It seems that the idea to try and to reverse the trend. Whereas many popular public-radio programs are now available as podcasts, some podcasts are beginning to make the jump to broadcast. Here in Kansas City, KCUR 89.3 FM is using part of Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann’s maternity leave to use the show’s Monday slot to audition some new programs. One of those is the popular podcast version of the Freakonomics book series, which “explores the hidden side of everything,” and there’s also been WNYC’s quiz show Ask Me Another, along with The New Yorker Radio Hour.

Today is perhaps the best shot at a young audience public radio currently has, with NPR’s Bullseye being broadcast at 10 a.m. While only currently on 25 public radio stations (compared to The Best of Car Talk, which is 600-plus), Bullseye’s host Jesse Thorn focuses on covering culture in a way that is both culturally diverse and relevant. Thorn’s position as a hip-hop head has led to interviews with the likes of DJ Quik and Combat Jack on public radio. Given Thorn’s open discussions of the struggles he’s faced trying to get his show on more stations, we rang him up and asked him to tell us about Bullseye and public radio staying relevant.

The Pitch: What’s been the struggle in getting Bullseye on more stations?

Jesse Thorn: I’ve been doing Bullseye and its predecessor, The Sound of Young America, for 15 years – since I was in college – and we’ve been with a national distributor now for about 10 years of that time. There have been some stations that have been extraordinarily supportive of the show since the beginning. Stations like WNYC in New York, WHYY in Philadelphia, KLW in San Francisco.

But, it’s a struggle to get onto the schedule of public-radio stations with a new show. [laughs] That includes a show like mine that has been around for 10 or 15 years. Every station in the system makes its own schedule. Independent shows like mine – while my show is distributed by NPR, I own and produce it – are ultimately not sold to stations as aggressively as shows that originate from big stations or networks.

Stations have a lot of disincentive to change, just by their structure. So, it’s very difficult to get in anywhere, and at the same time, getting on radio stations is absolutely essential to the success of a radio show – at least one that’s built for national airplay.

Public almost seems like they’re having to flip the script: While they’ve made so many broadcast shows as podcasts, they’re now having to try to get podcasts on-air.

That’s true, to some extent. Most of the big public-radio shows – outside of the news shows – have been available in some form via podcast for 10 years now. Most of the little ones, too, which I think is great. I would say that the bigger factor in why stations are starting to change their lineups – and, in particular, their weekend lineups – now is that it’s kind of reached a critical mass of the most successful legacy shows either ramping down or ending.

Car Talk has been in re-runs for a few years now, A Prairie Home Companion is only going to be producing a quarter-year’s worth of shows with a new host – and, obviously, that’s a very host-driven show, so that remains to be seen how it will go. Whad’ya Know? ended production. There are these big, high-profile shows that are ending.

There are these shows that have made noise: TED Radio Hour, Radiolab, The Moth, and so on (I’m picking shows from different content distributors in the interest of being kind to everyone). There are these shows that have made noise and are kind of banging down the gates, and the last time a show really got a full opportunity on weekends and the last real weekend hit on public radio was Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and that is now a 20-year-old show.

Public radio has a bit of a stereotype of its voice being middle aged and white. It seems like Bullseye tries to get different voices on the air: LGBTQ people, people of color, women all seem to be a priority for guests on the show.

That is always a priority for what we do at my company [Maximum Fun]. It’s really essential to what we do. I think it comes out of the fact that I’m older than I’ve ever been, but I’m still only 35, which is about six in public-radio years. I’m from the city, you know? I grew up in two lower-middle-class households in the city, so my expectations around multiculturalism or diversity are pretty high.

On Bullseye, in terms of booking, we still have to deal with the fundamental structural inequities of the arts and entertainment businesses. It’s hard for us to book female directors, because 95 percent of directors are male. But, we do make extra efforts to do that. And when we make shows for maximumfun.org, like Bullseye‘s sister show – which is called Pop Rocket – the first thing we thought was, “We would like to make a show like this with no straight white dudes,” because I’m already a straight white dude. I’ve got that covered. And we did! I think it’s a really vibrant show, and so much more so, because of that.

In terms of where we sit in public radio: in terms of the news side, public radio is really diverse. It’s more ethnically diverse and dramatically more gender diverse than almost any other news media outlet in the United States. Much more so than newspapers, for example. Ultimately, our vision about what is different about our show is as much about cultural perspective as anything else.

I was reading The New Yorker the other day, and there was a very nice feature about the hip-hop producer Mike Will Made It, and there was this thing that has been bothering me in journalism for 20 years: Where they say that he makes beats, and then they explain what a beat is. Rap’s been around for 40 years now. At a certain point … it’s not like you say, “Mr. The Edge plays in a rock band: a group with two guitarists, a bass guitarist, and one drummer, who play amplified 4/4 popular music.”

My vision of what we offer in public radio is that. It’s native to us. It’s not about the other people working in public radio not having that. It’s just that we have a different perspective. There’s a lot of different ways that public radio can use the diversity, and I see us not as the answer to that, but another piece of the puzzle.

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How would you describe Bullseye to someone who’s trying to decide to whether to tune in today?

Bullseye is an arts and culture interview show. The format isn’t revolutionary. It’s like Fresh Air, you know? I sit down with somebody for a big chunk of an hour, and talk to them about how and why they create. When we pick people, we don’t pick them because they’ve got a cute biography, or because they’re controversial, or because they’ve got a big buzz around them. We pick them because we endorse their work. We see everything we do on the show as a recommendation.

So, on the one hand, you could say, “like a hipper Fresh Air,” or something like that, but we have Dolly Parton on the show, in addition to Clams Casino, the hip-hop producer, because I love both of those artists. [laughs] Ultimately, we are about founding out how and why great creators do their creating.

Bullsye gets a test run on KCUR 89.3 on Monday, July 18, at 10 a.m.

Categories: Music