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Jesse Thorn bringing hip radio variety show 'Bullseye' to Philadelphia

Jesse Thorn is coming to Philadelphia to have old-school medical devices tested on himself. "I should have thought about this more before saying yes," he says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

Jesse Thorn, whose radio show, "Bullseye," is broadcast on WHYY (91.9-FM),  will have medical devices from the Mutter Museum tested on him during his appearance in Philadelphia.
Jesse Thorn, whose radio show, "Bullseye," is broadcast on WHYY (91.9-FM), will have medical devices from the Mutter Museum tested on him during his appearance in Philadelphia.Read moreZac Wolf Photography

Jesse Thorn is coming to Philadelphia to have old-school medical devices tested on himself.

"I should have thought about this more before saying yes," he says on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

Thorn is the host of Bullseye, a radio show - hear it Thursdays at 10 p.m. on WHYY-FM (90.9) - and popular podcast, on which he interviews far-ranging artists, from comedians to rappers to directors, from revered soul singer Bill Withers to actress and director Elizabeth Banks to author Margaret Atwood.

On Saturday, he'll host Bullseye live to a sold-out crowd at Johnny Brenda's. Comedian Hari Kondabolu and the band Spraynard will provide between-interview entertainment, and Joel Hodgson (of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame) and the Mutter Museum's Robert Hicks will get the interview treatment. Hicks will have the honor of doing the medical testing.

Radio is a medium constructed so the audience doesn't need to be in the room with the host. We don't have to watch it to enjoy it. But Thorn enjoys the thrill of performing in front of a live audience. The dynamic of the interview changes; some interviewees will tell more jokes, open up more, or put on more of a show because they know they're talking to a room full of people, not just to Thorn.

But it's an opportunity for Thorn, as well.

"Some people come to radio for the isolation, but I came from live performance," he says, referring to his sketch-comedy days. "The strange thing about making broadcast media is that it disappears into the ether [so] there is something really nice about hearing the ways the work you're doing affects listeners, whether it's a laugh or a sharp intake of breath - or, of course, boos."

Thorn started Bullseye - then called The Sound of Young America - in 2000 while a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The show can now be heard on more than 65 National Public Radio affiliates around the country. Think of what Thorn does as Fresh Air if Terry Gross had a passion for hip-hop and alternative comedy.

But like Gross, or the WTF podcast's Marc Maron (whom Thorn helped become a podcaster) or any other great interviewer, Thorn has a distinctive style. He's not one to go for the obvious line of questioning - as when he asked Oscar-nominated actor Chiwetel Ejiofor to give a brief history of Nigeria to explain his experience as the son of immigrants. Thorn has a talent for soliciting stories that reveal surprising details, such as when he talked to James Burrows about the creation of the TV show Cheers, and Burrows mentioned that Philadelphia had been a potential location for the series until it lost out to Boston.

But Thorn is also funny and quick, able to put his subjects at ease with a well-timed joke. Unlike someone such as Maron, his goal is not to get his interview subjects to weep as they discuss difficult times in their lives.

"I'm someone who is more likely to be intellectually abstract than go for the emotional core," Thorn says. "I'm not worried about talking to people, but I still have to pump myself up for something like the Bill Withers interview. He's a somewhat elderly guy who is smart as a whip, and he doesn't take any bull and he's had a lot of pain he doesn't want to relive. For me to open myself in that way is still very challenging.

"I've been doing this for 15 years, once or twice a week - the stakes always feel pretty high, and I'm always worried I'm going to embarrass myself. That's my motivator. The drive is not to allow yourself to shut it down, but open yourself up to adventure and risk-taking."

It helps that Thorn has a strict policy when it comes to his interview subjects: They have to be people he personally loves or whom he knows will make a connection with others - i.e., he doesn't own every Elvis Costello album, but that doesn't stop him from interviewing the musician.

"When I was still in college," he says, "we had Dustin Diamond, who is best known as Screech from Saved by the Bell - or, I guess, now for stabbing that guy in a bar. We had him on because he was coming up to Santa Cruz - and he turned out, based on the evidence, to be a real monster."

It was then that Thorn decided he wasn't creating a news show - he didn't have to show the full picture. His only job was to expose listeners to great art, even if they weren't expecting it, even if they came for the interview with Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk and happened to catch another segment with cartoonist Lynda Barry.

"That's one of the reasons that diversity in journalism is so important. It's not because I'm making this show that is for people just like me, but there are things I understand inherently, being a millennial who grew up in the inner city [of San Francisco], and I can share these things," Thorn says. "When I interview Prodigy from [the pioneering hip-hop group] Mobb Deep, my goal is not to create an interview that people who know Mobb Deep will only understand, but to share this artist with the world."

eichelm@phillynews.com