Radio Free Skaro: “Who cares what some dork in his basement says?”

Radio Free Skaro

L-R, Chris Burgess, Steven Schapansky, Warren Frey

DWM Yearbook 2016The DWM 2017 Yearbook is out today. I’ve got a few bits in it, including a feature on Doctor Who podcasting, in which I spoke to the makers of Reality BombVerity! and Radio Free Skaro.

Everyone involved in these endeavours proved to be 1) Charming and 2) Generous with their time – and I took up a lot of it. But, because of my allotted word-count, I had to really compress each interview for publication. Therefore, I’m taking this opportunity to run some ‘unseen’ footage from each here.

More will (hopefully!) be along in the next few days, but we begin with Steven Schapansky, Warren Frey and Chris Burgess from Radio Free Skaro

This is surreal, hearing these voices. Do you get that a lot?

Warren: We did once in London. We were at the Stamp Centre and this guy was like, ‘It’s really weird hearing your voices in my shop!’ And I look around, I’m like, “Who? Are you talking to someone else?” Like, what’s going on here?

Is there much post-production on an episode of RFS? 

Warren: Yes and no. Most of the time, no, but every once in a while… Steven did that Big Finish documentary, or that Mark Ayres one where he mixed in a bunch of music, there’s a fair bit of editing involved there.

Steven: Yeah, the interviews I go through and I edit a bit out for the pauses and things like that. But for the three of us when we do it? No. There’s very little editing.

Warren: We’ve got the rhythm down, basically.

Steven: From the very beginning, I don’t think we knew that we could edit, so we just pretended it was live. So that’s how the style came about, When Doctor Who is on, we have to record on Sunday mornings for the most part, because otherwise we won’t be able to watch the show, and our hard release time is, like, 12 noon Mountain Time. 7pm in the UK. So once we’re done recording, that gives us about an hour, an hour and a half until it’s actually time to release the episode. It’s essentially a live episode. We allow three recording breaks, basically.

Warren: I’m always surprised when I see people from the UK going, “Where is it?! Hurry up!”

 You kind of become a hostage to fortune because of your regular schedule. But people being annoyed when it’s not there – that’s also a compliment isn’t it?

Chris: It’s something we’ve striven to maintain. One of the easiest ways to get forgotten about is to have an irregular release schedule. But it took a good few years to get settled on, midday Sunday our time. It’s now something that we’ve done for seven, eight years.

Steven: Yeah, a lot of people wait and download it on the Monday for their commute to work. And then there’s the dedicated few that listen to it live the second it comes out. It’s part of their routine. It’s kind of how we built the audience, that people knew we were always going to be there, essentially.

Warren: It’s interesting that people listen to podcasts to get precisely what they don’t get out of radio or TV, but this is the one thing that they want. It has to have a regular time.

RFS is always measured and careful when it comes to spoilers, but have you ever spilt the beans on a story? 

Steven: Actually, yeah. It was in 2010, leading up to The Eleventh Hour when we came across a BBC sales document for the upcoming series five. It had a synopsis for the season and also I think the running times for the episodes. It said episode one was going to be 60 minutes long, and we saw this. We were young, naive, and we thought, “Ooo, we’ve got to put this out!”

Chris: We put out allusions to it. We didn’t release this document.

Steven: We talked about what was on it, and news media picked up on it, and it was kind of like, “Oh yes, the rumours are true, the first episode is going to be an hour long and here’s the synopsis.” It resulted in lots of traffic for us, but afterwards I thought, “You know what, we kind of spoiled the surprise.” It was something as minor as an episode duration, but we still spoiled the BBC’s moment. So, in subsequent years when we come across info like that, we say, “You know what? Let the BBC announce this when they want to.”

Chris: There’s also a learning experience in that, the information we put out there, we knew it to be true based on what we had, but a lot of the reaction to it was negative, and disbelief. Just… that we were putting out false information for whatever reason. We have no reason to put out false information, of course. But it was a learning experience that kind of taught us, maybe, because Doctor Who fans being what they are, they can be cynical.

Warren: And vocal.

Chris: Why do we want to put ourselves out there, why do we want to put our – for lack of a better word – brand on something that’s just going to get dumped on? The year after that for example, for the first time on a regular basis we had screener access to Torchwood: Miracle Day. We all watched it in advance, and we made overt efforts to not make mention that we had seen it early. Number one, because Torchwood doesn’t have quite the reception that Doctor Who has in fandom, but number two, it is elitist, gauche nonsense to be that person who says, “I’ve seen this. Wait till you see it.”

Warren: Also, Graham – and you know this as well as I do, because we’re both working journalists – the best way to lose that access is to brag about it. If you want long term access to things, there’s a dance you do, basically. 

Do you have an idea how you want to develop RFS? For example, would you want to do more documentaries like the Big Finish one?

Steven: I’d love to.

Warren: We’d definitely like to do more, but we don’t have a grand scheme. We always want to keep improving and not fall back on the same stuff, which is kind of what’s kept us going. We try and do different things… I wouldn’t say as much as we can, but as much as possible.

Steven: Yeah. Basically the way I look at it is: What would I want to hear on my favourite Doctor Who podcast? And then we sort of do that. So if it’s, “I want to hear a big feature-length documentary on one guy who made music in the 1980s,” then that’s what we’ll do. We don’t necessarily do something: ‘Oh, the listeners will like this.’ We’ll sort of say, “What would we want to hear ourselves?” and then go from there.

Warren: Stuff we would never figure was going to be a big deal became a big deal. For instance, we interviewed Bill Stanley who was the station manager of KSPS, which is our PBS station and I’d be hard pressed to think of something people liked more than that. We could have never predicted that, we just did it on a whim.

Chris: One thing that we do keep up with on a regular basis is the fan commentary, because it’s easy and it fills 12 or 13 or 14 weeks a year! The BBC has done a wonderful job in dropping the ball when it comes to commentaries on DVD releases. So for the series nine commentaries, for instance, we  made a decision to have an all female participant list, because women are still an underrepresented voice in Doctor Who fandom. And then when it came time to do Heaven Sent/Hellbent, who better than the director Rachel Talalay to make that contribution? She was so gracious with her time. In between edits, in Cardiff, coming over Skype to talk about these two masterpiece episodes and, like, this is something the BBC can’t deliver and this is something we wanted to hear. So, thank goodness it was something we were able to make happen.

She became a key contact for you. What was the genesis of that?

Warren: I emailed her! That’s basically what it was!

Steven: We found out that she lived in Vancouver, I think. This is back in the Death in Heaven/Dark Water days.

Warren: She followed me on Twitter, so I DM’d her, she was like, “Yeah, no problem”. I emailed her and we arranged something and I ended up interviewing her about that, and then it turned out we knew mutual people. ‘John Smith’, the guy who does those really amazing fan – quote unquote, I think they’re better than that – videos; he’s a friend of her daughter’s, and I know him too. So we had this weird sort of bunch of people that we knew – because she’s in Vancouver and I know some people who work in the film industry, even though I don’t work there myself. And from that we just developed a rapport, for lack of a better term.

Have you ever had a potential guest say, ‘I’m not sure I should be coming on an unauthorised Doctor Who podcast?’

Chris: Generally speaking, anybody who we get who’s involved in the production, or even peripheral stuff – Christel Dee from the Doctor Who: The Fan Show for example, we had her on for one of the commentaries for series nine – they make sure to reach out to the powers-that-be to get clearance. Sometimes that takes the form of just them saying, ‘Hey I want to do this, is it okay?’ And just getting the yes or the no. All the way up to, something was recorded, we gave them a copy to pass on to the powers-that-be to vet the content and then say yes or no.

Do you follow other Doctor Who podcasts?

Warren: In all honestly, not that many. I have a ton of podcasts I listen to, and most of it’s politics and current events and movies and stuff. I tried for a while and it was, “I’ve already talked about this!” Maybe it’s egotistical of me, but I’m like, “I’ve already heard this, why listen to it five times over?” Nothing against people saying it, it’s just I’ve already heard it. So I generally don’t.

Chris: I listen to a handful of other Doctor Who podcasts. And once upon a time Steven, who had lots of free time, listened to literally everything.

Steven: I used to listen to everything. But now there are so many. I remember looking through… I think when you asked me [before the interview], Graham, “What other Doctor Who podcasts are there in the UK?” I looked through and I sort of was looking through iTunes and I was thinking, “I’ve never heard of this one before.” They have over 200 episodes, this one podcast. I’ve never heard of them! No offence to them, I’m just saying there’s so many out there and they might not fraternise in our circles, be it at conventions or on Twitter or something. If you’re outside of that circle, you just don’t know about them.  I used to listen to a lot. I listen to a very select few now.

Warren: Reality Bomb is one I make a point of listening to because I like the way they put things together. And then Who’s Round because I like listening to interviews with old Doctor Who stars.

Chris: I don’t know, Steven, how many you’re at right now, but I’m at eight or 10 other Doctor Who podcasts. It’s great throughout the year, but when Doctor Who is airing, it can sometimes be tough, because we do our own thing for reviewing whatever episode and then everybody else – or near enough – is doing the same thing as well. So you can only hear the same thing so many times. When Doctor Who is actually on the air, I listen to far fewer podcasts, weirdly enough.

Warren: Having said all that, bring back Tachyon TV! Those guys are geniuses.

Steven: Yeah.

Warren: They’re part of there reason we do this. I listened to them before we started, or maybe during us just starting, and I was like, “Okay, this is what we need to shoot for – these guys are brilliant”.

Why isn’t there a leading British Doctor Who podcast?

Warren: My theory is – and I’ve heard it from other Brits too – they don’t want to hear other Brits talk about the thing they think they know about. They don’t want to hear Americans, that’s for sure! Canadians are this nice neutral zone, third party. It’s like, “Canadians, they’re harmless,” so we just kind of slipped under the radar. I don’t know how much veracity there is to that, but I think it kind of made sense.

Steven: We’re not giggly and squee-ish over our enthusiasm for Doctor Who. And we certainly let it have it when it messes up, we don’t hold back. But I think people sense there’s a genuine enthusiasm for the show from us. And perhaps, I’m not going to say this about all British people there, but I find that the British Doctor Who fan experience is perhaps a little less optimistic than the American fandom, which is very enthusiastic.

Warren: Overly enthusiastic some of the time.

Steven: Possibly so. I think Canadians, as Warren is alluding to, are a little more scaled back in our enthusiasm. A restrained enthusiasm for the show.

How do you deal with criticism?

Warren: The first time I got a really nasty comment, I happened to be in Egypt on vacation with my ex. We were standing in front of the Pyramids, I’m reading this email and getting madder and madder, she’s like, “Just turn to the right. Look what you’re looking at right now. Who cares what some dork in his basement says?” I’m like, “Huh, that’s a very good point.” And from then on, it’s been a lot easier to take criticism.

Do you feel any obligation to your listeners?

Warren: I’d say there’s a difference between responding to trolls and having an obligation. Yeah, we have an obligation to put something good out every week. We have an obligation to try our very best to get interesting and different stuff, and it we do have access to use it for the good. I think that kind of sums it up, really

Chris: To my mind the only obligation we have to the listeners are to the ones that Steven and I respectively married. That’s it.

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