Jordan Morris and Jesse Thorn present the successful podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! which is free to download. Eleanor Turney caught up with them in Edinburgh to talk new financial models, finding your voice and working with your mates…

logoJordan, Jesse, Go! is a freeform comedy podcast, which mostly consists of Jordan Morris and Jesse Thorn, who have been friends since college, chatting to each other and a guest. The podcast is part of the Maximum Fun network, which makes all of its content freely available but asks listeners to donate if they like what they hear. It’s a smart model, and one that has the potential to become as trendy as crowdfunding: “We’ve been doing this since before crowd-funding was a word,” begins Thorn, before being interrupted by Morris: “We call our financial model ‘give me money, yum yum yum’.”

Thorn takes over again: “This started because I knew I wanted to do this as a job and I followed the public radio model – in the US, unlike in most other countries, public radio is supported by listener donations. It doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea…” Could it work over here, though? Thorn thinks so. “People give money when they are moved by something. That could mean being moved by a TV commercial about a child in Africa who needs a meal, but it could also mean being moved by a show as silly as ours. We get emails from people saying, ‘this show got me through a really difficult time in my life and it means a lot to me’, and that means a lot to us. Those are the folks who are likely to decide it’s worth $5 a month…”

Morris continues: “A lot of entertainment is going that way [using crowd-funding], and at a time when you can just basically steal anything you want to from the internet at any time, you kind of have to trust that people are going to try something for free first and then if they like it they might pay for it… unfortunately, I think that kind of things leads to less people making a bazillion dollars but it means more people can be comfortable, can make a living. We hope that if people try it and like it then they’ll understand that the donations are how we keep going.” Thorn agrees: “It’s a different sort of making. Crowd-funding is very product-oriented. Media, especially broadcasting, was designed to discourage people from changing the channel. It’s designed to be good enough for people to not dislike it – you just want something that doesn’t alienate people and then if it’s good that’s just a bonus. There are good shows made like that, but also lousy shows made like that. I think that because we’re making something that’s supported by listeners, it’s our goal to make something that people will really care about – and that’s a different goal.”

Listeners clearly do care about JJGO, and I think a large part of that is do with the warmth that comes across, the friendship between Thorn and Morris. How did that start, I wonder? “I was Jordan’s resident advisor in college,” says Thorn, “And I remember being a little annoyed that he was funnier than I was.” Morris interjects: “…and I remember being annoyed that no-one was as funny as me!” Seriously, though, how did they get started? “Well, Jesse did a show on the student radio station, and we started out doing goofy bits on the radio station,” explains Morris. Thorn tells me that for the first episode, “I produced a whole This American Life style segment, and it was so much work. As time went on, I found more and more ways to reduce the amount of work that it took to produce an hour’s radio. We would write bits and stuff, but one week we booked a guest to interview on the show, and we realised that if we booked a guest then we only needed half an hour of material.” Morris agrees: “We also realised that just chatting with people can be a lot of fun and very funny, and it’s not a whole lot of work. This whole thing was born from a love of performing but a hatred of sitting down and doing work.”

Maximum Fun is now Thorn’s day-to-day job – he runs the network as well as producing JJGO and appearing on other podcasts. “It’s really strange,” he says. “I probably spend half my time doing businessman stuff and half making stuff. I generally don’t like the businessman stuff, but it’s what I’ve got to do to make the other stuff.” Anyone who’s trying to make work or art alongside another job will recognise this difficulty. “No-one’s lining up to make me a rich man. I’m really happy to have a thing that I know isn’t going to go away, and I know what I put into it and what I get out of it. I’m also happy that this business helps people whose work I really like to get paid. Most people who work for Maximum Fun, it’s not their main job, but it’s a significant source of income for them. People get paid for their time in a reasonable way, and it’s a very gratifying thing that I can help with that.” Morris agrees, although his perspective is slightly different because he does other work, too: “I get some money from JJGO and I also do other comedian stuff – there are fewer deals out there that will put you on TV or put you on the staff of a big show… a modern comedian can be very successful but still do lots of things. I think that’s good advice for comedians starting out: think about a lot of different ways to get your voice out there. There’s isn’t one big thing. There’s a lot of ways.”

What advice would they give to people wanted to set up their own podcast, then? Morris is clear that commitment is key: “I think a lot of people start a project like this, and when there’s not an audience immediately they get frustrated and they quit. I have a lot of comedian friends who want to start podcasts, and I tell them you have to make it for a long time. When people are trying something, they like to be able to see that it’s been going for a long time. Maybe only 50 people download your first episode, but down the road the fact that you’ve been going for a while will be good. A lot of podcasts stop inexplicably, and that’s frustrating for the listeners. Establishing consistency is so important – if we miss a week or do a shorter episode than usual, we hear about it on Twitter. So, if you really want to do it, you have to be cool with doing it for a small audience for a while in the hope of finding a bigger audience later.”

Thorn adds: “One of the big pieces of advice that I usually give people is to format their show so that in the time that they have to dedicate to it they can do a great job. I mean, my friend does a podcast that’s 15 minutes long – and it’s a fully recorded radio piece that takes him and a staff member a week to produce. Our colleague does a show that’s often five minutes long, but it takes him a huge amount of time to make those five minutes. I think it’s hugely important to figure out what you can reasonably do, and to do that on a consistent basis and do it well. The truth is, there’s not a lot of room in the marketplace for B-quality things, unless you happen to already be famous. So you can do something really small and do it exceptionally well and use that to break into the market place, but if you do something big and do it OK, you’re not going to be noticed.”

Maximum Fun podcasts, including Jordan, Jesse, Go! can be streamed from maximumfun.org or downloaded from iTunes.