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Fan cultures in radio (5) - Specialist Music and Public Service Media

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Tristan Ferne | 15:32 UK time, Friday, 3 October 2008

This week we are publishing a series of short posts from researchers who have been studying the online behaviours of listeners and fans of BBC radio and today we come to the last study. This one's a bit different as it started off looking at fans of specialist music but also ended up studying us - the BBC Audio & Music team. So here's Andrew Dubber and Tim Wall of Birmingham City University...

Specialist Music and Public Service Media

Over the past year, we have been researching the activities of specialist music fandom online and BBC Radio professional practice. The aim of this research has been to develop some recommendations to help the BBC further its public service objectives in the area of music broadcasting and online provision.

Our central recommendation is that staff should discuss ways of making a conceptual shift from the practices of 'Public Service Broadcasting' to those of 'Public Service Media'. At first sight the difference may seem purely semantic, but the distinction between an emphasis on 'media' and 'broadcasting' is significant, as it allows a way to rethink the corporation's approach to the public communication which underlies all its activities.

Drawing on our examination of the fan activities of specialist music enthusiasts, and the way BBC staff who serve their interests conceive their professional practices, we think such a shift would allow discussion of the difference between a 'one-to-many', centre-to-receptive-audience model and the 'many-to-many' forms of communication that are more typical online. More to the point, the term 'broadcasting' pretty much just means radio and television, when in fact recorded popular music is a media form in itself.

This is certainly not an argument for BBC staff to disavow a broadcast orientation, because it continues to offer fans of popular music a unique experience. Rather, we think that if broadcasting is reconceptualised as part of a broader Public Service Media mindset, the opportunities to extend the way in which the BBC meets the needs of specialist music fans can be enhanced and made as relevant to their online experience as it is to their radio listening experience.

Our work with BBC staff revealed that there are a significant number of people within the BBC operational teams who have started on this journey, but that different individuals are going at different speeds towards its realisation. We believe that those within the BBC who are already well down this path should be encouraged and enabled to spearhead this transition.

We believe that the BBC is faced with a unique opportunity to develop and advance Public Service Media ideals through specialist music provision, and in our report we have outlined and detailed a number of suggestions that will assist in that transition.

In headline form these include:

  • recognise music fans as more than simply 'listeners';
  • utilise the opinion leadership of specialist music presenters as a key asset for online media, and position tastemakers as focal points for discussing, sharing and making meaning from music (that is, as central figures in music 'scenes');
  • indulge, and provide a platform for, the music enthusiasms of key personnel that expand beyond the bounds of scheduled programming;
  • identify and empower the 'savants' - music fans who possess (and can communicate) high levels of specialist knowledge of popular music through BBC channels;
  • index, tag and make available all music-related content in a modular form, whereby BBC-created content about artists, genres, record labels, scenes, etc. could be navigated, discovered and repackaged (including by future programme makers) in ways that are separate from the individual radio brands, presenters or programme slots;
  • develop and support bbc.co.uk/music as a media brand in its own right - on an equal footing with radio brands - so that it provides a focal point for online media engagement around popular and specialist music forms;
  • consider ways to resolve the tension between creating a 'walled garden' of content, and providing free programming to commercial services;
  • continue to link to popular online services such as MySpace and YouTube, but also provide a commercial-free alternative space for Public Service Media;
  • offer and prioritise platform-independent audio formats which have wide acceptance in specialist music fan culture, rather than proprietary streaming software;
  • focus on the development and provision of metadata and metacontent;
  • develop radio programme production workflows that consider online delivery and discussion as an equal partner to the broadcast service

This last suggestion is perhaps the most significant. It will allow the BBC to reconfigure the broadcast production process so that online provision is understood as more than an add-on service designed to enhance the radio brand, within the tight budgets and limitations on the busy programme production teams.

Andrew Dubber is an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellow in online music and radio innovation and Tim Wall is Professor of Radio and Popular Music Studies at the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University. They are key members of BCU's Interactive Cultures research centre, which explores how communities are built through new and emerging media channels, and helps professional, commercial and community bodies in the radio and music extend their work online.

Note: Andrew has written more on the notion of broadcast and online orientations over on one of his many blogs, New Radio Strategies.

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