The world of men’s fashion can often seem out of reach and somewhat pretentious, if one is to judge from the current publications available to consumers. With his brilliant and forward-thinking Men’s Style site, Put This On, public radio show mogul Jesse Thorn has managed to reconcile the sophistication of the industry with the down-to-earth characteristics of a regular guy who simply wants to dress well. The founder of The Sound of Young America got to chat with us about the evolution of his career, from gathering only a few listeners to inspiring millions of them through his interviews, and how he is now influencing the way in which men think about clothes. (Just ask some of our staff here at Daily BR!NK.)
First off, congratulations! You’re going to be a father, right?
Thank you! And yes, we got the news a few weeks ago.
You’re an amazing interviewer, and you have a great deal of experience with talking to people. How do you feel whenever someone interviews you?
I enjoy not having the responsibility of doing it. I will be incredibly judgmental toward you and will hate you personally by the end. [laughs]
Let’s hope not! The Sound of Young America is a huge hit, which really started when you were in college. Why do you think people were so responsive to your voice and the stories that you were telling?
I don’t know that anyone was responsive at first! The only feedback we ever got was in a bus, where we were joking around and this guy turned around and asked, “Are you the hosts of that radio show?” We asked if he was a fan, and he answered, “No. I’m homeless, and my radio only gets one station.” That said we hopped on the podcasting bandwagon early, when there wasn’t a lot of high quality content. PRI (Public Radio International) picked us up a year after iTunes made podcasts available.
What drew them to your program?
PRI looked at the much more broadly distributed radio shows and how well they were doing. They noticed that we were doing really well, gave it a listen, and figured that it would be a great way to broaden their audience.
And the rest is history. You became “America’s Radio Sweetheart” and the show is successful to this day. Tell me about how Put This On came about.
Four years ago, I did a live show in San Francisco for SF Sketchfest during which I met Adam [Lisagor], a long-time listener. When Twitter launched, he became a sort of celebrity – he would write brilliantly funny quips and quickly connected with two friends of mine: Scott Simpson and Merlin Mann. They started this podcast called You Look Nice Today, and that’s when I started hanging out with Adam. He was working in the film industry on commercials as an editor and effects artist. After he quit his job in 2008, he made a pledge drive video for me, which turned out to be a success. Since I wanted to do something with my interest in men’s style and didn’t think that audio was a good medium for something so visual, I asked if he wanted to work with me. He is an exceptionally gifted filmmaker in regards to the technical and aesthetic aspect, but also by being a really funny guy. Having both is rare.
There was a clear shift in terms of style when you launched Put This On, right?
Absolutely. I was lucky enough to do so at the time of a big growth in men’s style.
Why do you think that was?
Could be related to fashion, or to the fact that people who work in that industry had finally gotten computers. [laughs] Anyway, the blog turned out to be as successful as the videos.
Would you call yourself an entrepreneur?
I’m a “backwards entrepreneur.” My entrepreneurship stands from trying to find a way to eat while I do things that I like. With Put This On, what I saw was an opportunity to provide men’s style guidance that was both respectful of the subject and respectful of the viewers… but also approachable. I’m not a weird fashion guy but I do love men’s style. It has neither the kind of fashion shoot feeling – everything is a crazy dream inspired by Saint George and the Dragon – and it didn’t have the counterpart to that – which would have been: “I’m a guy’s guy and I just like beers and tits.”
Why do you think our generation (and I’m talking specifically about males) care about their physical appearance and grooming? What does this say about our society, and is this trend here to stay?
I think that American society from the 1920s throughout the 1990s was an evolution of young cultural groups trying to find new ways to reject the generation that went before them. Starting with the flappers and jazz in the twenties and thirties, going through the birth of teenagers in the fifties, hippies in the late sixties and seventies, punk rock in the late seventies and eighties, alternative rock in the nineties… Every generation was throwing off the shackles of the man that came before them. My generation is not burdened by a need to reject.
It might also stem from the fact that taking care of your appearance is not seen as an attack on one’s masculinity, right?
You’re right. I grew up in San Francisco in the eighties as gay liberation was essentially bearing fruit. I went to art school in the late nineties in a world where people were surprised that I wasn’t gay. In fact, if I had come out to my mom, she would have been unsurprised…
[laughs] Exactly! And I think that much of America, but certainly not all, from my generation does not feel the need to defend masculinity as much. The metrosexual movement was a way for men to realize that they could make peace with being masculine and being stylish. I’m a straight guy, and I think of my style as being masculine and heterosexual… but it also is a bit of a silly dandy.
You currently have four episodes up on your site, are you hoping to get funding for future videos and what do you envision for those?
We’ve got three more episodes for season one. We got the pilot funded through Kickstarter and we will be releasing the last three episodes over the next three months. We eventually want to take it further and create pieces that involve traveling: Hong Kong, London, Paris… We’re thinking of it as developing toward something that is almost like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.
How do you plan on funding these?
We’re lucky to count Instapaper as a great advertiser. We also get support from our passionate audience.
Isn’t that a bit unreliable?
It is unreliable, but advertising is as well! At this scale, with two or three sponsors, we live and die by them.
What has been your most memorable interview to this day?
I’ve had some really amazing interviews. Mavis Staple from The Staple Singers, which has to be one of my top five musical acts of all time and has enormous emotional resonance to me. I love talking to Dick Cavett, the seventies television host who was always the ideal interviewer for me. He was brilliantly funny and a great conversationalist.
How can our readers contribute to your success?
You can literally contribute to my pledge drive for the podcast. Also, if your readers see something and share it for The Sound of Young America, then they’ll have done me a great favor.
Last but not least, what is the most stylish thing that a baby could wear?
[laughs] I made a pact with my wife not to turn our baby into a dress up doll.