Monday, February 24, 2014

Interview: JT Murhpy - VGM Internet Radio Personality

On April 3rd, 2013 I tried to interview one of my favorite people in the Video Game Music (VGM) scene, the brilliant host of my formerly favorite weekly-ish show/podcast, JT Murphy. His show, the Blue Shell Manifesto show had just taken an indefinite hiatus at the time of the original interview.
Almost a full year later, I was able to catch up with JT to complete the interview.
JT has been a podcaster, a chat moderator, a radio host, and is currently a Program Director for 8bitX.

How did Blue Shell Manifesto come to life?

I first became aware of the VGM community when I arrived at MAGFest 7 in 2009, on the invitation of an old elementary school friend. The entire thing- the 24-hour game room, the bands, the dealers, everything- gave me an overwhelming urge to do something to contribute. I came up with various ideas for a video game music podcast over the next year, but it wasn't until summer 2010 when I finally had the opportunity to make it happen. 

At that time, the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (fresh off of being closed) was purchased by its original founder, and opened again announced it would be founding a student-run station on Live365, All Noise Radio. I seized the opportunity as soon as I'd heard about it, and by August of that year I had begun my first foray into content creation, regular editions of what was then "WNES Videogame Radio" (much like Kirby, the name was a placeholder that stuck).

The next few years would be tumultuous. I had some major victories (talking to Jon St. Jon and the MAGFest crew, talking to fighting game pros at the Marvel vs. Capcom 3 opening), but also numerous delays. It was always the delays that got to me. I had to take several weeks off at a time to work on career stuff, revamp some show parts, or just recover from burnout. I'll just mention here that one such delay led to the show's most dramatic revamp, shifting the focus to news and editorials, and working with a new name.

By early 2012, WNES had been picked up by 8bitX, and I was in the middle of transitioning a pre-produced show to a live weekly broadcast. While I was in the process of updating my tech and my audio to do I eventually decided to take this opportunity to re-brand as well. "WNES" was sort of a placeholder, plus there actually is a station with those call letters. It's a tiny thing out in Kentucky which just rebroadcasts ESPN Radio to the area but I've been paying attention to the radio business to know how swiftly and dramatically that sort of thing can change.

So I named my show "The Blue Shell Manifesto." It was a phrase I had come up with the previous September when talking about Fox News' predictable backlash to a game mentioning climate change, and also marked a greater emphasis on interviews and commentary on my end.

Briefly describe the amount of work that goes into producing a single show... How much planning is involved on pre-production? What sort of things are you doing as you're live on the air? Also, what sort of work goes into post production before you post each episode?

The average show, one without any new segments or major interviews, takes about ten hours from start to finish: 

  •         Five hours for topic research, show layout, and other preparations, 
  •          Half an hour to assemble the actual playlist and set up equipment, 
  •          Two hours of performance, 
  •          And another two and a half hours to annotate the songs and segments, save the podcast and post it online. 
Post-production normally consisted of just scanning the finished recording for any drops or skips in songs and eliminating any excess quiet bits. It's the note-taking that was the most time-consuming part.

If you were a listener, what do you think you would like most about your show?

It's tough for me to say. I've done this for so long that it's hard to look at it from the outside. However, people really seem to like my interviews a good deal, so I'll go with that.
I got to talk to a lot of great people through the course of working on my own program including brentalfloss, Jon St. John, Nicole Dieker of Hello, The Future, Order of Tyr, Kirby's Dream Band, the Megas, and of course, you and Juja. In fact while I enjoy pontificating sometimes, I feel as if I do my best work in the midst of a conversation. Some of the best moments on my show came from having two or more guests on and just letting them play off one another, like my E3 and MAGFest extravaganzas. This knowledge actually factored into my decision to get out of a weekly show.

What did you enjoy most about the show from a creative perspective?

The parts of my shows that I'm proudest of are actually my custom audio parts: the sweepers, the commercials, the intros, all that stuff. They're what set me apart from the rest, and help make a one-person show actually feasible. 
I love taking assorted sounds, quotes, and music cues and building them into effective imaging. Actually hunting down the pieces is a chore, but when I have them it's a joy to put them together, and it's by far my best quality as a producer.

What did you dislike most about the show, the creative process, or what you feel you could have been doing differently?

I've always had ideas beyond my abilities and on numerous occasions I've had to make do without needed updates, or really old imaging simply because I ran out of time. Worse yet, I've had to cancel whole shows due to an excess of outside responsibilities or too much burnout. Aside from the things I mentioned earlier, the weekly show was hindered and ultimately ended by the strain of doing the entire thing by myself: the show prep, the song selection, the assembly, the chat interaction, and then the editing, posting, and annotation of the show in a timely fashion. I have designs on getting back into it, but not until I've found people to help with these things, or ways to automate or cut back on some of the processes. 

Where did you learn your seamless audio-editing DJ wizardry?

Lots of practice, but there's one place that taught me better than any other. I was an assistant producer at Wired 96.5-FM in Philadelphia for a few years and one of my chief responsibilities was adding station sweepers (the bits of audio mentioning the station name, vital in the days when Arbitron relied on handwritten journals for ratings) to our weekend DJ mixes. I did that every single weekend for well over a year, and it trained my sense of rhythm and timing to what it is now. Also, while I did board-operating work for DJs doing on-location work, I got good at "hitting post": having the DJ's speech stop right at the moment a song's vocals begin.

How did you find new content every week? Also, how did you pick which content you found that you would use?

My content came from a variety of sites: Destructoid, Joystiq, the Verge (and then Polygon), and the like. I specifically chose stories based on how much insight I could put into them, any sort of perspective or new research or anything that built upon the original story. This is why my story selection was weighted towards fighting games and SNES classics, among other things. Just reading the story out loud would be a waste of both my time and the listener's.

Do you listen to radio? Podcasts? If so, what do you like and dislike about the ones you listen to?  Also, what are things that you listen for or notice (in a radio show/podcast) as a professional that you didn't before you knew more about production?

I still listen to the sports radio stations here in Philadelphia (WIP and the Fanatic), as well as rock station WMMR. Local sports radio is one of the best places you can find real listener interaction and WMMR, aside from being the only staffed rock station left in the market (Radio 104.5 is all outsourced, to the best of my knowledge), has a few people I draw inspiration from including Pierre Robert and Jacky Bam Bam, the latter being one of the few overnight DJs left in the business.

As for podcasts, I don't listen to as many as I should but that will be changing soon, as I'll be scouting for a ton of new shows to add to 8bitX over the next few months. Right now I tune in to Roundtable Wrestling Radio every Monday night, and catch the Black Tribbles wherever possible, as well as DJ Cutman's This Week In Chiptune and Cyril's Silly Show.

What changed from the original idea of Blue Shell Manifesto to its execution, to the season-based approach episodes, to it ultimately its end?

The season approach was a way for me to try and handle the weekly workload without overwhelming myself, but that didn't quite work out either. I still found myself struggling with weeks where I didn't have the time or effort to put on a program that would meet my standards. But that was only one of the reasons I ended the show and moved on from the name.

I lost a lot of interest in being known as a commentator when the obsession with social justice started. It's one thing to get behind the cause of getting more women in game development and organized competition, I'm all for that. I also don't have a problem with Anita Sarkeesian, I find her arguments to be pretty simplistic but she's not actually threatening anything or saying anything out of line. But the other extreme, the "OMG GAMERS ARE NECKBEARD SEXISTS" backlash makes any worthwhile criticism about gender roles in games extremely difficult and not falling in line with that is, at this time, a surefire way to not have a job talking about video games. The current state of gender discussion in the games media doesn't help anyone. It's just about beating other people over the head with gender politics. It's about attacking symptoms instead of looking for cures. Attempting to disagree with that on a weekly basis was just more pressure than I could handle at the time.

The other [contributing factor] was that this summer, Nintendo's baffling contempt for its fans was at an all-time high. They were already going after YouTube producers' revenue for using even brief clips of footage but then they actually tried to cancel the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament at EVO 2013, a tournament that Melee fans had raised over $200,000 in donations to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation just to make happen. I was paying attention to that drama from day one and Nintendo going to war with its own fans over it was such a pedantic abuse of power that I may never forgive them for it. So, there went the "Blue Shell" name. No sense in participating in the future of fan interaction with a reference to a company that so desperately wants to stay in the past.

Where are you currently working on and where do you see yourself going?

Right now, I'm actually on a brief hiatus as I reorganize, find a better job, and prepare myself to handle 8bitX's increasing profile and listener base. To be frank, we've outgrown ourselves and everyone's looking for ways to expand this thing to handle the impressive goodwill and notoriety we've gained from the last two MAGFests. Once I'm settled, my biggest project will be finding something to run the music stream other than a jerry-rigged Voscast AutoDJ, something that will make for easier updates and promotion. From there I want to get back to doing my own show with a greater emphasis on the things I like, instead of the things I don't. I'm not in this to make enemies or stir up controversy. There are people in the games media, your Jim Sterlings, your Yahtzees, your TotalBiscuits, who can do so elegantly in a way that tears down other peoples' bullshit with little collateral damage but I don't have that kind of cool. I get excited about things. I have all the emotional subtlety of a Meat Loaf/Kanye duet. Sure, I still want to rant about anti-games like All the Bravest, or undeniable embarrassments like Duke Nukem Forever, because comical overreaction is fun, but the internet is crammed full of anger as it is. If all I have to offer is more of that, what's the point of me?

Switching gears...
Do you see a future in CD's or are they going the way of the VHS?  What about Vinyl?

Vinyl came back because people discovered that it could double as a musical instrument and that it's more physically durable than its successors. I only ever buy CDs as a hard archive for digital music, and I don't think physical media in general is long for the marketplace.

What are some of your favorite video games?

Modern: Borderlands 2, Team Fortress 2, and The Binding Of Isaac.
Retro: Super Dodge Ball, WWF No Mercy, and Katamari Damacy (yes, I'm counting 12 years as "retro")

What's the most recent game you've played that left an impression with you?

Naturally The Stanley Parable. I don't think it's as revolutionary as others think but it's a great exploration of the trappings of games and a study in how on a game's engine (in this case, Half-Life 2's) can be modified to deliver an entirely divergent experience.

Do you have a favorite band or musician?

Not really one favorite, but a few I'd like to comment on:
brentalfloss- It's good that he's getting into original game composition, but he still hasn't reached the peak of his talent yet. He's going to be creating amazing things all his life.
The Megas- This band is the reason I got involved in this whole business. Get Equipped opened my eyes and it's only a shame that there's so much time between their releases.
Mega Ran- I couldn't think of a better ambassador for this thing we call "video game culture".
This Place Is Haunted- There's lots of VGM cover bands out there, and good ones, too, but these guys are one of the originals, and one of the best.
DJ Cutman- I love that I'm getting to watch this guy build an empire for himself from scratch.

Finally, what's the best way for people to enjoy your current projects?
Right now, there's not that much of a current project to speak of, but stay tuned to, and follow their Twitch channel at

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