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The Retro Hour: A New Tech Podcast

25 August 16 words: Ali Emm
I used to go to computer shows and there would be eight people in a town hall with a bored girlfriend sitting at the side. Now there are sometimes thousands of people.

How did you both get into computing and gaming?
Ravi: My dad helped run Screenplay at Broadway, and as a kid I’d run around there. It was gaming, programming and making music on the old, influential machines – Commodore Amigas mainly. The first machine that my dad got me was the one they used for the weather on Central Television, we used to do green screen stuff at home.
Dan: My dad used to build computers, and my mum programmed them. I went completely against that and got into DJing and clubs – I now work in radio, my main job is the lunchtime show on Gem 106. I always liked computers, though. At school I loved programming BBC Micros, and my mum bought me a Commodore Plus/4 – a crap version of the Commodore 64 – and instead of reading to me, she’d sit me on her knee and we’d type fruit machine simulators in and try and get them to work.

So you didn’t just have wasted youths playing Street Fighter and Paperboy, then?
Dan: I was also in a video club at school, we’d do rudimentary video editing and titling on Amiga 500s, like scrolling the credits down in real time. It wasn’t just gaming – I liked doing programming and audio and graphics.
Ravi: It was about being creative with computing. That’s what we like talking about on the podcast, not just games but the weird applications. At the moment there’s a scene of using old computer systems for music. You hear Kanye West talking about the old computers, Calvin Harris’ debut album was done on the old Commodore Amiga, Prince used Bars and Pipes...

How did The Retro Hour come into being then?
Dan: I moved to Nottingham about six years ago, and I did YouTube videos – mainly about nineties games systems and Commodore Amiga stuff. Ravi just messaged me one day…
Ravi: It was then about a year of passive aggressive messaging because we were both jealous of each other’s [YouTube] channels. Finally we said, “We should meet up and talk about this.” We just talked games and got drunk for another year.

So when did it go from passive aggression and being drinking buddy geeks to podcasting...
Ravi: The Amiga Thirty Years event in Amsterdam. It was a massive event so we decided to do some filming for our YouTube channel but we buggered up the audio and thought, “We’re done with doing big filming documentaries, we’re going to do straight audio.”
Dan: We had a good following on YouTube so there was already a community. A lot of the big American gaming channels were covering Nintendo, Atari and all that – we wanted to do more about the systems that were big over here.

What format does the podcast take?
Ravi: It’s half an hour of news and a few opinion pieces, and then half an hour of interview.
Dan: We try and get someone who’s noteworthy in the history of gaming. We had Rebecca Heineman; she started her gaming career in 1980 at the age of fourteen by landing a job at Atari after winning the National Space Invaders Championship. If you want to get a rounded opinion of a subject that’s so diverse, talking to someone who’s been in the industry that long is brilliant.
Ravi: Many roots of gaming are based in British culture and a lot of people either ignore that or don’t know about it. Another guest was Professor Richard Bartle, he created Multi-User Dungeons in 1978 or something, which was the first multiplayer online game. The level progression was based on the British class system, and that’s still implemented in games nowadays – things like League of Legends can all be traced back to it.

It’s amazing how far gaming has come in the last forty years...
Dan: It’s the biggest entertainment form in the world and it’s happened very quickly. Look back thirty years and people were playing Pacman.
Ravi: It’s crazy the rate that it’s changed. There’s so many interesting things that get lost because no one captures it or talks about it: companies like Atari, Commodore, BBC Acorn and others that were massive, their stories have almost been pushed out of history.
Dan: In the nineties, there were documentaries about IBM, Apple, yet never a mention of Sinclair or what was big on this side of the pond.
Ravi: It’s only been in the last five years that there’s a big resurgence of interest in the European scene. I used to go to a lot of computer shows and it would be eight people in a town hall with a bored girlfriend sitting at the side. Now I turn up and sometimes there are thousands of people. The whole scene has become big, so the time is right for our podcast.

You’ve had a lot of big names on already…
Dan: We’ve chatted to some of our childhood heroes. We had Tom Kalinske on: he was head of Sega during the Sonic era, and before that he worked for Mattel – he came up with He-Man, and brought back Barbie in the seventies. He was one of the biggest execs in the world and he’s the most down-to-earth guy who chatted away to us. I think it’s because a lot of these people are getting to a stage in life where they want to tell their story.
Ravi: And they tell us really cool stuff; Tom, who’s seventy, told us he’s still got a Sega collection in his basement that he still plays on.
Dan: There’s a book called The Console Wars about Nintendo and Sega, which Seth Rogan’s making into a movie. It’s about Tom and the company at the time, but he said he was so in the thick of it that he didn’t realise they were making history.

Do you ever worry about lining up guests?
The more people we talk to, the more contacts we get and the more information we get about stuff that’s interesting. The label ‘retro’ is so wide ranging – we’ve had musicians, we’re starting to get artists on, we can get different designers and programmers... The gaming industry has so many different roles, it’s endless. The hardest thing is convincing people that their knowledge or experience is actually worth talking about.
Dan: Jim Sachs, who did one of the first cinematic games in 1986 or something, Defender of the Crown, he said, “Well no one cares about that anymore, surely?” “No, honestly, we’ve got 3,000 listeners each week who would be really interested in this.”

There is a history of gaming and tech in Nottingham – have you touched on that much on the show?
Ravi: On my YouTube channel there’s exclusive footage of Warhammer Online, which was developed in an office down the small alleyway opposite Nottingham Contemporary. I think they spent about £60m on the game and then ended up cancelling it. It was one of the biggest mess-up projects. I’ve also got lots of old videos from ScreenPlay that I’ve been converting; great stuff like David Doak, who invented Golden Eye, playing against some kids; the guys from Second Life…
Dan: We had Paul Drury on the show, who writes for Nottingham Post and Retro Gamer. He was part of Screenplay so Ravi has known him for years; he gave us loads of advice and gave us a few big name contacts. David Doak came on our show and gave us a history of Rare, and told us about the early days when he first got the Nintendo 64 development kit that was the size of a photocopier. It’s great hearing the inside story on the games you used to play as a kid.

What is it that especially sets you aside from all the other new tech podcasts?
Dan: We touch some of the areas that more mainstream podcasts might not, like we had a special about piracy. We got a guy on who used to be involved with a lot of the big piracy groups like Fairlight, Skidrow and LSD. They ran pirate bulletin boards back in the early nineties and often had the games before they came out in the shops.
Ravi: There were worldwide syndicates who’d use stolen phone cards to dial up other countries, then connect and download games over phones. All highly illegal, but they told us the silly little tricks they used to do – like putting Pritt Stick over the stamp so you could wipe the postage mark off and use it again.
Dan: One of them got busted – not for ripping off millions of pounds worth of games, but postage fraud.
Ravi: Piracy was a big thing in the UK, it was just rampant.
Dan: It’s the unspoken. We did a presentation in Amsterdam and as part of it we showed a video of discs being copied on a programme called X-Copy that all the kids used on the Amiga. Everyone was cheering.
Ravi: We asked the ex-head of Commodore what his view on piracy was, to get both sides of the story. Sometimes you get some strange answers, some of them say, “Pirates helped us sell more of the actual hardware.”

What sort of feedback have you had about the podcast?
Ravi: We got nominated for the World’s Best Podcast. We came third – our rivals beat us.
Dan: It was a proper awards show with a do and all that. We’ve only been going six months so to be nominated for that was pretty crazy. We’ve had really nice feedback off listeners too. One guy said he sits on the bus on the way to work in the morning and forgets that he’s listening to a podcast because of the quality, and then we’ll mention the ZX81 and he’ll think, “What the hell?”

And you’ve been doing well on the iTunes Technology Podcast Chart….
Dan: Apple nominated us as a new and noteworthy podcast after the first month and we were featured on the front page of the podcast section for, like, eight weeks.
Ravi: We’ve hit the top five a couple of times, we beat Myth Busters. We’ve got listeners as far as Palestine, UAE, Japan, Brazil, and a massive US following. We get more Swedish, Danish and German listeners because the systems we talk about were part of that Euro gaming scene.

Where do you want to take it in the future – do you have any bucket list guests?
Ravi: Clive Sinclair. Definitely. He’s impossible to get to. Steve Wozniak as well, head of Apple.
Dan: Nolan Buschnell of Atari. We’ve got a friend who’s an ex-engineer of Commodore and he’s narrating a documentary that features him at the moment, so… maybe there’s a back door there. We’ve had massive key figures, for six months in we’ve done well. 

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