Image via

Image via

You currently host three podcasts and produce several others through your Maximum Fun network. It seemed as though podcasts were a big deal in 2004, then people stopped talking about them, and now they’re hot again. How would you characterize the state of podcasts as a medium?

In 2004/2005 when podcasting was new, people were hoping for a hockey stick growth curve and obviously that didn’t take place. The technology wasn’t there to support it in terms of making it very easy and superfunctional for users.

To some extent the technology has gotten easier, to some extent there was an accrual of people who are comfortable with it and to some extent, around 2010 you had more big-name stars entering the field and dragging their fans with them.

Also, a lot more devices are internet-enabled and I think that helps, too.

Do you think brands and marketers should be paying more attention to podcasts?

My experience is that brand-driven podcasts suck and if you’re going to launch a podcast that sucks, it’s not worth doing. The truth is that the skills involved in podcasting are skills that you don’t learn when you’re getting a marketing degree.

Jesse Thorn is host and creator of the NPR radio show and podcast, Bullseye.

Jesse Thorn is the host and creator of the NPR radio show and podcast Bullseye.

The opportunity that I see, frankly, is paid sponsorship of podcasts. I am shocked that I still interact with media buyers who don’t know what a podcast is. I was talking to my friend Jeff Ulrich, who runs the Earwolf network, and he said he’s given up on convincing media buyers to buy podcasts.

The truth is that podcasts, more than any other platform, are intimate and trusted, which makes them a really valuable venue for advertising. I think a lot of people are leaving fruit on the tree in terms of building partnerships with podcasts, more than just radio-style spots. It’s a great opportunity that’s being missed.

A buzzword that gets thrown around a lot these days is “brand humanization” and podcasts are one of the most human platforms out there. Maybe they’re too human for most brands?

I have heard from people who say that buyers are partly nervous – especially with comedy – that something is going to happen that is “off brand” over the course of a show.

I think that’s more a CYA situation with the fact that there’s separation between the brand and the buy. But it’s like that with social media, too.

I mean, it’s 2013. It’s not like there’s only 12 hours of television programming that you can advertise on and that’s been made for every person in America.

Can you tell us about Maximum Fun’s business model?

The whole operation is donor-supported, though we have other streams of revenue as well. There are a couple reasons that we did that.

The first is that the advertising market for podcasts still isn’t mature. The second is that I generally prefer non-commercial media to commercial media, and while I’m running a for-profit business, I want to reflect those values.

Ultimately I like having the ability to only use advertisers that I’m very comfortable with.

I like the idea of being in a business where my primary goal is to make something the audience loves rather than simply making something that gathers the most audience. I don’t want any part of making Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Maximum Fun is Jesse Thorn's podcast production organization. The podcasts produced and hosted by the organization are funded nearly exclusively by donation.

Maximum Fun is Jesse Thorn’s podcast production company. The podcasts are funded almost exclusively by listener donations.

It’s funny, people like to talk about metrics and data, but perhaps the best metric for content is whether people will voluntarily pay for it.

Exactly. My father has worked in non-profits his entire life and he’s still amazed that people will donate to a for-profit operation.

The internet has helped people realize that they can support things they like and that will allow those things to continue. Eighty or ninety percent of our audience don’t donate, but the ones that do give us a really solid revenue base. They are the ones who are most engaged in what we’re doing.

Another buzzword that gets thrown around a lot in social media circles is “community,” but public radio has been powered by communities for decades in the States. Does this make people like you particularly well equipped for the current media landscape?

I think so. I’ve always thought about what I do in terms of community and in terms of building an audience of people who actually care, and less about building the largest audience.

That’s not just public media values, it’s also non-profit values. With anything donor-supported, your goal is to engage your audience in that conversation, because otherwise they won’t give.

You’ve been a big proponent of the so-called New Sincerity movement. I’m wondering what the implications of that are from a commercial perspective, since your show relies on underwriting and sponsorships. At the risk of sounding cynical, what sort of brand is attracted to this particular tribe – and vice versa?

Tonx coffee subscription service is one of the Thorn's few brand sponsors.

Tonx coffee subscription service is one of Thorn’s few brand sponsors.

I think the brands that are most attracted to what we do are people who make something really cool. There’s this company that’s been a sponsor of ours called Tonx. And they essentially operate a coffee subscription service.

You tell them how much coffee you drink and they send you the world’s best coffee that they pick themselves. This is a four- or five-person company. They roast it themselves, they pack it up and send it out once a week, twice a month.

And for people who care about coffee it’s something that’s really amazing and life-changing because no matter where you live you can get the absolute best coffee and you get to hear the story of it and the whole nine yards.

Another sponsor of ours right now is MailChimp. And the thing about MailChimp is they looked at this world of email lists and said, “God, all of these things suck, what if we did just a really good job of this?”

They’re about making something really wonderful that will actually make people’s lives better and I think those kinds of services fit great with the spirit of what we do.

They love that we’re irreverent, that we’re having fun and all of that and they love that our audience actually cares about things.

In his own words

Jesse Thorn on Hasbro’s My Little Pony franchise and the surprisingly sincere Brony movement: