Reality Bomb: “Why don’t you do a Gallery of the Overrated?”

Reality Bomb

Graeme Burk and Alex Kennard

DWM Yearbook 2016Another wodge of extra interviewing from my podcast piece in the DWM 2017 Yearbook (buy it!).

This time we meet Graeme Burk and Alex Kennard who run Reality Bomb.

Next week, I’ll publish my Verity! interviews…

What was the initial discussion that led to Reality Bomb?

Alex: It came from the pub! I used to have a podcast a long time ago with some friends for university called Telos AM. We weren’t particularly successful, but it was fun. When I moved to Ottawa, that  went by the wayside and I started spending some time with Graeme and going to the pub with Graeme and Robert Smith, his writing collaborator. After a couple of drinks I tried to convince them to start a podcast with me.  It wasn’t until I said to them, “You know what we could do, which would really make it easier on us, is make it the sort of thing where other people are doing the talking.” I think originally I had suggested we had contributors do entire segments, because I thought that would be even less work. And then Graeme got the idea of doing a whole host of panels. We kind of based it on… there’s a Canadian CBC radio show called As It Happens, which is like a magazine panel-based podcast. I started thinking about it in those terms.

Graeme: There’s quite a bit of Rashomon to this. But, yeah. For me, I remember Alex saying, “Why don’t you do a podcast?” And I said, “Well, I don’t like most Doctor Who podcasts, to be perfectly honest”. But I realised what I wanted was a show with really short segments,  interviews, a variety of things – so we move from an interview to an audio essay, to a comedy sketch, to a spoken word piece. I wanted that very tightly controlled, very tightly edited, programme. I didn’t want to do another five people around a set of microphones talking about Doctor Who, because that just bored me silly. So I think between that and the sort of dynamics Alex pointed out, that’s where Reality Bomb came together.

Alex: And then we discovered it takes an awful, awful, awful lot of time to do that kind of podcast.

Graeme: Yeah. Which is why it’s only monthly. I remember my first proposal; I think we described it as being a 30-minute weekly programme. I look at that now and I laugh my head off. 

Did you have discussions about tone of voice?

Graeme: I think for me, the tone was partially informed by current affairs radio. It was informed by As It Happens, it was informed by This American Life (which is a show on NPR), it was informed by the Today programme to a certain extent. I want a table of smart people to talk about things without rancour. But for me, it’s been the kind of watchword for my books too, which is enthusiasm. I believe conversations should be enthusiastic. That doesn’t mean uncritical. Enthusiasm never means uncritical. But enthusiasm does mean you care about the matter, and you like the matter and that’s something I often feel is missing in fan discourse. A lack of enthusiasm for it. So that was mine.

Alex: I don’t find there’s much point in listening to deeply negative podcasts. When you work for a living, there’s enough negativity in your life anyway. And I think we kind of made a conscious decision to always try to pitch positive. As Graeme said, that doesn’t mean not be critical, but not to fall into the trap of smashing everything to pieces for the sake of it. I  think Gallery of the Underrated [a segment where someone champions a maligned Doctor Who story] is a very good example of that. Our favourite ones have always been someone who obviously just loves the episode they’re reviewing, rather than somebody who’s taken on something hard and is then trying to fight to prove it’s good.

Graeme: Someone once sent to me, “Why don’t you do a Gallery of the Overrated?” and I thought, “That’s just about every other Doctor Who fan forum or podcast imaginable!”

The show is quorum of fans talking to fans. Is this your mandate? Or, if I’m being cynical, because you don’t have access to professionals?

Graeme: No, I have tons of access. As an author, I have green room access to most conventions. I could interview Doctor Who guests all the time. There are tons of podcasts that already do that. I don’t need to interview Peter Davison or Janet Fielding or somebody like that. I wanted it to be a podcast by fans, about fans, for fans. That’s the focus. The more interesting thing for me is to talk about fandom as a culture, and to treat it like current affairs radio.

Alex: I think the thing is, we decided from the beginning, Reality Bomb is not a podcast about Doctor Who, it’s a podcast about Doctor Who fandom and fans.

Does that approach help, because it gives you an editorial distance from the thing you’re orbiting?

Graeme: I’ve never thought about it before. I think to a certain extent it’s just what interested me, to be honest. I suppose, to a certain extent, it does afford us a degree of editorial distance. I kind of like that. I’ve never really thought about it much, actually. It’s funny, because I’ve occasionally been told by conventions, “Oh, you do a podcast – we can set you up with an interview.” And I’m like going, “I have no interest in doing that, thank you very much”

You’ve done one-off documentaries. What’s been the thinking?

Alex: We like to listen to them.

Graeme: For me, I wanted to do stuff that sounded like the NPR podcasts I like. Of course, we’re doing this in our spare rooms, without any of the technology and advantages they have. But we’re scrappy and we pull it off. I think there are sometimes topics that are worthy of a long-form format. But mostly it’s about our ambition: “I want to try this just for fun”. We devoted a whole episode to one subject a couple of months ago. It was going to be a 15-minute documentary, but the more I did it, the more I thought, “We could do a whole episode with this. There’s enough material, here, there’s enough ways in.” We have a ‘Why not?’ philosophy when we do stuff.

Something that sets your podcast apart from others is the amount of post-production.

Graeme: Ha ha, yes!

Alex: Sorry, I was laughing at my lost weeks.

Was that something you anticipated at the start? Or has it taken you by surprise?

Graeme: A bit of both. I had in my mind a complete package, and Alex did too, but how that’s been taking place has been an evolving process. Every single segment in Reality Bomb goes through two edits. It goes through me editing it down and then it goes through Alex editing it down. That’s before we do any mixing or anything like else like that. Alex and I very much do this as a collaboration. I describe myself as the Leslie Knope of this thing, because I’m sort of super-enthusiastic. So I’m always peppering poor Alex’s Facebook messenger with lots of questions: “Can we do this? What about this?” Alex has so much experience as a musician and doing that kind of post-production work, that it was a great challenge for him. I say ‘challenge’ in inverted commas.

Alex: Well it keeps me… I’m not able to do all that much music at the moment, because of busy work schedules and things like that. But that kind of keeps me practised. I’m still able to keep my ear in. It’s like a sommelier, continuing to have a bottle of wine every night, even though they aren’t actually doing the job sort of thing.

Graeme, going back to what you were saying about a piece going through both your hands, is that also from an editorial point of view? Might you put something together and then it goes to Alex to do his cut of it?

Graeme: Yes, that’s precisely what will happen.  Alex and I will have conversations about what segments we’re developing for each episode. We have a sort of loose production calendar where we’ll say, each episode will have an A story, a B story, a comedy sketch, a Gallery of the Underrated, and some additional material. So we work through that in discussions too.

Alex: What we used to do when we worked in the same city was have a standing meeting at the pub at the beginning of the month. Then we would sit down, have a couple of drinks, eat some nachos and just kind of work through what we’re going to see that month in the show.

If you listen back to early episodes – what now grates with you? What have you learned from?

Graeme: For me it was pace. It was figuring out how to do the pace and the over all sound of it. Plus, we had this idea originally that we wanted to include more women’s voices than we’d been hearing on a lot of Doctor Who podcasts. So we had the modest proposal when we started of, “Okay, let’s make sure every episode we have at least one woman on.” I remember I did an interview with someone and I was asking about convention harassment policies, and I got off the phone and I realised, “You know, if we’re going to bring a woman on, it shouldn’t be just to talk about a ‘woman’s’ issue.” So we made a corrective rule that if we have a woman on to talk about a gender issue, also on the same episode we’re going to have a woman talking about Doctor Who. I now listen to the earlier episodes and I wince at how out of whack the gender balance is because now it’s practically 50 per cent women, or more, on our show, which is still highly unusual for a Doctor Who podcast. But frankly, it’s kind of just how I do it now.

What are your ambitions for the podcast over the next few years?

Graeme: My ambition is just to get through this month, really!

Alex: Generally, yeah.

Graeme: I want to expand our representation. I want more voices from a racial perspective. And I’m not that kind of Guardian-reading liberal that talks in those sorts of terms. In fact I’m quite the opposite, but I just feel like this is something we have obviously figured out how to do, so we should just do more of it and better. I’ve been exposed to more and more diversity within Doctor Who fandom and I go, “Why isn’t this diversity being heard?” Part of that’s just like any middle-age male doing a Doctor Who podcast, we go, “Eh, it’s too hard…” So I have to shove myself out of my comfort zone. So, I guess more of that. Alex?

Alex: Well, I am a Guardian-reading liberal and I heartedly endorse that message. It’s a show about Doctor Who fandom and Doctor Who fans and I think we’ve done a very good job so far – well, I hope we’ve done a very good job so far – at shining a light on what we have. But there’s always more to discover. More people to bring in. Yep, I think for me that’s very much something I’d like to see happen.

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