The final selection of extra bits from the DWM 2017 Yearbook (in shops now!). And here’s Deb Stanish, Erika Ensign and Katrina Griffiths from the Verity! podcast.
Full disclosure – I didn’t actually interview the trio together. I spoke, first, to Deb via Skype, then met up with Kat while she was visiting London, and finally Erika, again over Skype. I’m running their answers below in one narrative as each discussion covered similar topics.
My sense in listening to Verity! is the overriding mandate is it’s a podcast made by friends who like to talk about Doctor Who. But when you started it, was there an extra element where you were thinking you also somehow had to be representative of your gender?
Deb: I don’t think we deliberately said, “This is going to be the feminist Doctor Who podcast of our dreams.” But as feminists, everything you do, everything you say is filtered through that lens. You don’t have to plant a flag and wave it and say: “We are championing the cause of feminist Doctor Who fans”. It’s just there. It’s built into the DNA of it.
Erika: I would definitely say it’s a feminist Doctor Who podcast. And it has to be, because we are women. It’s not so much we’re looking at something, trying to tease out feminist issues. Sometimes we do that, but not all the time. Even when we’re not aiming for that, because we are women and we experience the world as women, everything we do is tinted by a feminist lens. There is literally no way to escape that.
Katrina: You know what? I still don’t like to say it’s a feminist Doctor Who podcast, because, I’d hope, in the grand scheme of things, that we don’t need that term. But we do talk about feminist issues and we’re all women, so naturally we’re going to talk about issues that affect us. So, if pressed, I would say it is, but I would say only in the fact it’s six educated women talking about what’s going on right now. And that’s what’s going on right now: Feminist issues, feminism and issues relating to it. But friends talking about Doctor Who is exactly what I wanted it to be. I never wanted it to be, “Oh, I should listen to this because I don’t know many women in Doctor Who, and everyone says they should listen to women too.” No, listen to us because you find us interesting, or you disagree with all of our opinions and you want to tell us why afterwards.
You have a rule that you don’t edit your discussions for content. Why is that?
Deb: We want everybody to have a thoughtful conversation, so when we sit down and talk about it, we don’t want someone to say, “Oh, I really didn’t mean to say that,” or, “Let’s take that out,” or you start goofing around and you’re wasting time. We get on there, we have a set amount of time in which we want to record. It makes you think about what you’re going to say a little bit, and it also means you’re getting an authentic reaction. You’re getting an authentic reaction to a question and it’s not carefully edited to be on point. It is what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling at the time of the conversation.
What’s the production schedule for an episode?
Deb: I think we have a slightly different challenge than most podcasts, because there are six of us and we have a rotating schedule. We try to go for four people on each episode. Sometimes we get three depending on schedules, and sometimes, if it’s something special, we might have all of us on. Like a season premiere. But those six people are in four different countries, five different time zones, and on top of that, everyone is incredibly busy. Lynne Thomas is an editor, she’s an archivist at a university in Illinois, plus she’s an editor of Uncanny magazine, so she is travelling to conventions almost all year around. Liz [Myles] travels frequently. Tansy’s [Rayner Roberts] a writer with great deadlines. Nobody is sitting around waiting to do a podcast! I have control of several people’s Google Calendars so I can see when they’re available. We have huge issues with time zones. We have Tansy in Tasmania and Liz in Scotland. There’s only a really short amount of time where I can get Erika, who’s the technical person who’s on every single episode, and myself and Tansy and Liz on. Our production schedule is very much who is available and when. We like to have it recorded two weeks out. That doesn’t always happen. There are times we’re recording on a Sunday for a Wednesday release. It’s not optimal, from a scheduling point of view – it puts a little more stress on Erika for editing, but it also makes the conversation fresher. You know your opinion’s not going to change in the two weeks between when you recorded it and when you air.
Can you talk me through a recording session?
Erika: First we get on Skype and jabber back and forth about random stuff for a while, just to kind of relax and warm up. Then, once we say it’s time to get down to business, I’ll run everyone through what Deb calls “the pre-flight checklist”. I just tell everybody, “If you haven’t already, launch your editing program. Double-check your microphone input. Make sure it’s in the right one.” I have everybody make sure they’ve got their headphones on and their audio is turned down as low as they can get it while still able to hear the rest of us, to avoid bleeds or problems. “And we all hit ‘record’ on one – three, two, one”. Then everyone tests their levels are bobbing the way they’re supposed to. And then, yeah, we do another three or four seconds of silence, just so I have a bit of room noise for everyone if I need it. Then I again count three, two, one and Deb starts.
You take pride in making the audio as good as you can. But the flip side is you’re not with those people at their end. Is that sometimes frustrating?
Erika: It can be. Not everybody is quite as picky as I am about their audio. Maybe sometimes they don’t have control over it, particularly if somebody’s travelling and there’s nothing they can do about the sound around them. But, yeah, if somebody’s in an echoey room it’s going to sound weird. If somebody is typing a lot or playing with toys in front of their microphone, I will hear that. And if it’s egregious, yes, I will have to spend the time going through and cutting it out.
Will you interrupt a discussion and say, “Will you fix this?”
Erika: It depends. Usually, if it’s something little like that I just let it go. If it’s something that I think is going to be detrimental to the whole call, then I will stop it. Like, if somebody’s sound is just completely breaking up and I can tell it’s a microphone problem or I can tell it’s something where their audio is going to be screwed up, even when they’re talking through the whole call, then I will break in and say, “Woah. We need to do something about this.” But if it is just somebody making a noise in the background, I’m not going to break the flow of the conversation, I will just go through and spend time afterwards and mute their track during that portion.
It must be hard having that thought-process while also contributing to a discussion.
Erika: I actually keep a notebook next to me every time we record and I jot down time codes. So if I hear Liz typing in the background, then I write down, ‘12 minutes and 32 seconds, Liz typing’. Here, I live near a very busy street and sometimes loud trucks will go by, because that’s what life is like in northern Alberta. So I’ll just go, ‘36 minutes, noisy truck’. I do keep track of when people are sneezing and coughing, and it does distract me a little from the conversation just noting that stuff down. But I think it’s important.
Am I right, Deb, that you set the pace in terms of what the content is going to be?
Deb: Absolutely. We discuss what we want the theme to be over the year, and once we have that set, I say to everybody, “Throw me some ideas – is there anything you want to talk about? Do you have something that will fit this theme?” For the most part, as I said, everyone is incredibly busy. They all like to talk about Doctor Who, and they’re happy to discuss any topic that I say. It’s something that people want to do because it’s fun and enjoyable, and they’re quite willing to let somebody else make that decision – and I’m quite happy to do that. A big thing for me is looking at who is going to be on each episode, because you want to make sure that everybody shines. You want them to be on an episode where they’re going to be able to be eloquent and able to discuss something comfortably and with some knowledge. But you also want to have a little bit of tension, not just people agreeing with each other. If I know there’s an episode where one person really, really likes something, and perhaps another person is not so fond of it, I will try to get those two on. So it’s also a lot of, “What can we talk about that works with the chemistry of who’s going to be on that episode?” I don’t want anybody to come on and feel uncomfortable, or feel like they’re being out-talked in any way.
Kat, where do you fit in to that?
Katrina: I think the great thing about having as many people as we do on the podcast is, if we need to take a hands off role and just be on the podcast once in a while, then we can. Tansy and Lynne do that often, because they’re both extremely busy with their own careers. And I do it to an extent. But if we have an idea then we’re able to go right in… in a sense we can walk right up to the editor and say, “I’ve got this idea”. And there’s no vetting process, it’s just, “Okay, that’s an idea – we’ll make it work.”
Sometimes you can be the programme-maker, and sometimes you can be a guest?
Katrina: Yeah. Everybody gets copied on every email, but there’s no expectation for every single person to reply to every single email. When we had a Tumblr special, I basically spearheaded it, because it’s a thing that’s very near and dear to my heart. So I was kind of guest editor in a way.
What’s the post-production process?
Erika: I go through the recordings, use [software] Sound Soap to clean up tracks if necessary. I put compression on everybody’s track. I adjust the EQ… I actually have pre-saved EQ levels for each person, which gets altered if they’re in a different place and have different background sounds. I go through and mute anything that needs to be muted and I cut out any Skype problems. And then at the end we have a basic, “Thanks for listening to Verity!, you can find us online, blah, blah, blah,” which is pre-recorded. We’ve got one from each of us and I just rotate through who’s saying it, because all for one and one for all. I pop that at the end and then add music at the beginning and at the end. But also – and at this point I’m almost kicking myself for starting out this way, because you have to keep it going – I do this thing where I go through the track and I’ll find one little pull-quote from each person to run at the very beginning of each episode. Going through and finding those sentences and clipping them out actually adds a considerable amount of work.
You don’t make any money from Verity!, but does it contribute to your professional life? Is it extending skills, your network?
Deb: Yeah, absolutely, in both a professional and a personal way. I know, for example, when Erika started out with us, she’d done some video editing, but this was the first podcast she was personally involved in. She has now gone on to do great things in the podcasting community. She has won a Hugo for podcasting. She has just won a Parsec, both for Verity! and for Uncanny magazine, which she also co-edits. For me, personally, it has honed my interviewing skills. I came from a newspaper background so I had print interviewing skills, but never live interviewing skills. And that has carried over into other projects. But personally, I think it’s been more gratifying in the people I’ve met who have become important to me, and the connections I’ve made, just on a personal basis of… just amazing kind, wonderful people. If I had to trade everything away and just hold on to one thing, it would be the people I’ve met along the way.
Erika: I feel I’ve improved so much. I feel more comfortable talking in front of an audience in the real world now. I feel, more at ease. I’ve interviewed Doctor Who people on stage at conventions. I also feel like it’s really helped me improve my critical thinking and criticism. When I was in college, the classes I hated were the medium criticism ones, because I just didn’t feel like I could tease anything out of what I was watching. And now it happens, because I’ve practised so much with Verity!, and worked with these amazing women. I come on every week and hear these fantastic insights from them, and the more you interact with that and work with that, just like any other skill, it takes practise and it takes teaching and it takes learning. I feel like I’ve learned that. I am so lucky.
Katrina: I am someone who was horribly anxious and horribly shy, up until about a year ago when I started doing improv classes and really getting into podcasting. I’m still super-anxious all the time and super-shy, but podcasting has turned that on its head. Without podcasting, I wouldn’t be working the job I’m working, because it involves a lot of talking, face to face or on the phone, and making difficult decisions. The writing I do wouldn’t exist, because I had such a fear of failure. I could be a poster child for anxiety and shyness. Cured because of podcasting!
Without being trite, is part of that because you go on and talk, and people want to hear you?
Katrina: Yeah. Part of it is that, and a bigger part – and I think it’s something that isn’t talked about enough – is you don’t get feedback right away, and you just have to be content with getting what you have to say out there without ever having any response. Sometimes you’ll go 50 episodes without ever hearing anything back. You just have to be content. You have to be the kind of person who thinks, “I have these opinions that are very important, that I feel the world needs to hear – for whatever reason – and if nobody says anything back to me at all, I will be completely okay with it”. That is a very hard thing to get used to. Especially if it’s a current topic, and you think, “You’re getting it wrong – here’s why”. Then you receive absolutely nothing back, and you worry, “Okay, either people agree with me so they’re not saying anything, or no one’s listening. Or worse yet, people disagree with me and don’t think I’m worth enough to actually say something”. Getting over that initial fear was huge. I still, every time I put a podcast out, wait a few hours, and then I’ll go onto the comments and think, “Is anyone saying anything?” I’m still egotistical enough to go, control-F and search for my name: ‘Kat said a thing and I completely disagree with it…’ Excellent! Good! Somebody noticed. Somebody noticed what I said. They disagreed completely, but that’s okay because they noticed what I said.