It feels so good to return to the blog with my friend, Bob Runkel. Bob is proudly a podcaster with CP (cerebral palsy), and we are celebrating eleven years of The DJ Bob Show this summer! When I first tuned in not that long ago, Bob’s show immediately brought me joy, taught me things I didn’t know, and confirmed my passion for pop culture. Bob Runkel met me where I was, and he didn’t even know it. He’s delivered fantastic interviews for over a decade in every realm of entertainment. Did you know that he found Boo from Monsters, Inc. (Mary Gibbs) and interviewed her? Or that he talked to Josh Radnor from How I Met Your Mother??
My first Zoom conversation with Bob took place earlier this year, and he and I had plenty to talk about. Every time we catch up, we realize how many pop culture memories we share and how similarly we feel about the entertainment industry of today. Bob’s favorite Radio Disney Jams CD is Volume 2, mine is Volume 3 (it was an important Radio Disney episode of The DJ Bob Show with Robin Jones that truly brought us together). We both love Jump5 and remember the lyrics to their songs. We’ll randomly start singing “Floorfiller” by A*Teens. We can laugh and get excited about our shared interests, but we’re also rather academic about them.
I’m so grateful to get to share some of my interview with Bob. He discusses his experiences with the goal of creating a more inclusive world in life and on television. He’s been on the air since he was a teenager, and I know you’ll love Bob’s show–check it out right here, and enjoy our conversation below!
Allison: When you started the podcast, you had bands, authors, more indie people. Even now, it’s not all about nostalgia, but that’s one of your pillars of pop culture. What is your philosophy of nostalgia, as a fan, as a person working in this field?
Bob: The stuff from my childhood means more to me because I couldn’t really do much else…There are some things that I just can’t physically do, and that’s okay. But something that I’ve always been interested in is the new song on the radio or the newest TV show or the newest album. I remember getting Backstreet Boys’ Millennium on release day. That whole late-90s era resonates with me, but I’m not afraid to talk about new stuff that matters.
Allison: “Pop culture past and present,” you’ve proven that with the kinds of episodes you’ve done.
Bob: All this stuff is based on my memories, the nostalgia stuff. If you’ve noticed, I’ve talked more about my disability in the episodes, and even that is rooted in the nostalgia angle because I never saw myself on TV as a kid. You know? And I want to cover those things too, like the rare occasions that disabilities were onscreen back then, because it’s important.
For those not familiar with cerebral palsy, Bob talks a bit about what it has meant for him.
Bob: When I was born, I was born three months early, and that caused me to be delayed. I wasn’t walking straight up and by the age of two, I was diagnosed with CP, which is a birth defect. It’s essentially a brain injury, but it’s mainly physical…A lot of it has to do with accessibility. “I can’t do this mixing board because of my hands. How can we make that work? How can we alter it?” So everything, especially now with this new mic that I just got, everything is through the computer. No knobs, no buttons, it’s just controlled with the mouse. That’s it. So the simpler, the better. But I also don’t want simple to override quality, so I try to find things that kind of check both boxes.
Bob and I share a passion for the scholarly side of nostalgia, pop culture, and television. He had the honor of interviewing Blue’s Clues creator Angela Santomero. She told Bob, “I know who you are. I’ve been looking forward to this interview all day.” Bob has also interviewed Josh Dela Cruz and Carolyn Fe from Blue’s Clues & You! There’s a reason that such great guests keep coming back to The DJ Bob Show.
Bob: They always want to talk to me…I love that I can be a place where people can go that I’m not just another interview for them. That they can feel safe and they can feel comfortable expressing their thoughts.
Allison: You bring people together; you’ve had reunions (like this epic virtual meet-up with the cast and crew of PB&J Otter).
Bob: My favorite thing to do.
Allison: That’s awesome. You’re organizing something where people who may not have spoken to one another in years–because of you, and your love of what they made–are back together again. That’s really cool. You find ways to engage with people and draw out something they’ve never shared before. You have a way of bringing out creators’ unique experiences working on those projects and what their lives were like during those times.
Bob: I’ve been able to have time with these people off the air, I know what to hit.
Allison: Let’s talk about you and puppetry. You have a huge interest in puppetry, which is cool. You aren’t only dealing with kids’ shows there.
Bob: I’ve never thought about that! Wow, I do talk about puppetry a lot. But, do you wanna know why?
Allison: Sure, yeah.
Bob: Not only people in children’s entertainment, but people in puppetry are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. You’ve kind of gotta be if you’re working in that space. You’re being creative and out like that. I always tell puppeteers when I talk to them in private, because of my physical limitations, when I have these conversations, I’m living vicariously through them. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of it like that.
Bob is close to Noel MacNeal, the legendary voice and puppeteer of Bear on Bear and the Big Blue House! Noel actually turned the tables and interviewed Bob last year for the tenth anniversary of The DJ Bob Show.
Bob: The puppetry thing really started with Noel. Noel was the first foray into nostalgia for this show, and if you know what works, keep it. The first time I met Noel, we went to this puppetry slam where everybody showcases their act, and there was this real adult actor that came on, and my mom just thinks these puppets are just cutesy, bitsy…Let’s just say, two foam letters were doing something other than talking about the alphabet. And you got to see their relationship grow, even to the point where they had a kid. My mom was like, “Puppetry can do that?”
People have this stigma, if you heard my chat with Stephanie D’Abruzzo, she talks about the stigma of puppetry and kids’ TV. Some of my favorite shows are puppetry-related. There was a show on Disney XD called Crash and Bernstein awhile back, and the performer of Crash was like, “It was too edgy for them.” When people see puppets, they think it’s going to be Sesame Street all the time; that’s been an institution for like 52 years now. I think they just wrapped 52. Puppetry has always been a mainstay of the show because they’re some of the nicest people.
Allison: I just think about the Muppets and Jim Henson. Some of that’s for children, but plenty of it’s not.
Bob: The pilot of The Muppet Show was called “Sex and Violence.” It’s nothing new to them. There are adults creating this stuff.
Allison: That’s making me think it’s like a lot of other things we love about pop culture. There’s something for every age group.
Bob: One of my favorite interviews is Chris Thomas Hayes. We Facetime at least once a week. We’re just bros. We just talk about what everybody’s doing, and we’re creative. We’re working on projects together. The puppetry world is so small, but it’s so fun to be a fly on the wall.
Allison: It was interesting at the end of that episode because you said if you could reboot any show, you would do Family Matters. Tell me about that.
Bob: Family Matters is a special show to me because I always consider myself, especially when I was younger (not so much now), I was the white version of Steve Urkel. When I was in middle school, I had a huge crush on this girl that was way out of my league. Another thing you’ll have to realize is, because of my physical limitations, I’m not really that into sports. I can’t do them, technically. I told the gym teacher that I wanted to stay after for the basketball game. They know that I’m not into sports. There’s only one reason I want to stay—to impress the girls, and try to be the hero. I’ve always kind of resonated with Steve.
Allison: I’m a huge TGIF fan, so I was like, “another thing we have to bond over!” You said you would have a character who’s just like Steve, except he or she is in a wheelchair. I’m interested in the things you bring to light about disability representation on screen.
Bob: I was so not ready to talk about it because I didn’t want it to be that show. I’ll be honest. I’ve met disability podcasters where they use it to their advantage, to get stuff.
That’s not what Bob does. In fact, he shared his standard interview request letter with me:
“The DJ Bob Show has been celebrating pop culture, past and present, for over a decade. My life with cerebral palsy has afforded me a unique opportunity to explore subjects of great interest and passion, and this is reflected in my body of work.”
Bob: It’s never “feel bad for me.” It’s there, out in the open. In and out, that’s it. I’m not gonna hide it! You can’t hide it, the wheelchair’s huge!
Allison: You have spoken about a show that had disability representation, but the wheelchairs were really outdated.
Bob: People don’t care. Unless they live with it or live with somebody with it, it’s just a passing thought…They don’t know any better. They don’t know anything about people in wheelchairs, especially when that stuff was being written. Most times, you don’t see a powerchair. You see the thing with the two wheels and the spokes. As a wheelchair user, that shit is uncomfortable.
Allison: It looks uncomfortable…I’ve been thinking more about representation on TV, and representation of disability doesn’t take enough focus.
Bob: You know why? Not enough stories are being written, not enough stories are being showcased. Not enough stories are things we haven’t seen before. Disability representation is important, too. That can be sandwiched in between other things. Because it’s important, but the story has to be right.
Allison: When you say the story has to be right, I’m thinking of a couple of things. Do you prefer that the story be written by someone who has experienced it? And do you prefer that the story be acted out by someone with that experience, instead of someone without?
Bob: That’s a loaded question. I don’t care who writes it or who tells the story, as long as they get some kind of intel, and they’re not just getting their research from a book. They’re not getting their research from an interview they watched on YouTube for ten minutes. They’re not taking one experience they’ve had with someone with CP and doing a one-size-fits-all thing. They’re examining every aspect of CP. And one thing I do want to express is that I’ve talked about being the poster child for CP and how I didn’t want to be that. I do want to inspire people. What I want to do with my podcast is talk about my disability in a different way and have it correlate to pop culture, and I’m sure you’ve realized that.
When we started the podcast, I never talked about my disability, ever. I just wanted to be the regular guy that did a show. Once I realized my show was different, I thought I should probably talk about why. But it creates a dialogue. If I talk more about my disability, that gives you an opportunity for you to ask questions, for my guests to ask questions, and then we can have a nice conversation like you and I are having right now.
Allison: Because you have been open about it (which you don’t have to be), I think that makes people more comfortable. And people who come on the show have learned more from you because of that.
Bob: One of my goals is for one of these directors or producers to take my conversation into consideration when they’re working on their next project.
Bob: And to say, “Oh, he taught me something today. I’m going to implement this.”
I’d like to thank Bob and congratulate him on his 11th anniversary of podcasting this summer. Watch for new episodes as the podcast celebrates! For me and Bob, the conversation is ongoing. We are collaborating on some exciting projects this year and were guests on the That’s So Matthew podcast recently! Join the conversation. You can find me on Instagram @pastfootforward or fill out the form on the site (under Work with Allison). Here’s how to reach Bob:
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST! We know you’ll love it.