One of the most neglected areas of academic research into the media is that of radio audience behavior. In the second post from one of our funded project partners, Lyn Thomas from London Metropolitan University examines the online behavior of fans of BBC Radio 4's The Archers.
The sample of online fans that responded to the online questionnaire was predominantly female (76%), white British (81%) and aged 40-59 (62%). Despite stories reflecting the multicultural nature of British society, online fan cultures around The Archers remain white spaces. The level of education was very high indeed - 74% have been through Higher Education. The Archers is unique among British soap operas in attracting this middle-class, highly educated demographic, and the BBC Archers website has reinforced this effect. It provides a space for keen listeners to keep up with the programme and exchange views with others. Catching up with the programme via Listen Again, podcasts or synopses is the most popular use of the site. The weekly vote - which significantly is easily accessed from the home page - is also popular. For some, the website provides a visual accompaniment to the programme.
Only a third of our respondents said that they used the BBC Archers messageboards, which nonetheless were the most active of all the Archers fan sites we mapped. The Facebook Archers Appreciation group is also growing rapidly and has over 2000 members and a younger demographic. We found much less activity on most of the independent fan sites, with the exception of the 'umra' usenet group, which has about 100 regular posters (posting mainly on topics other than the programme). The official fan club site, the 'Archers Addicts' has a faithful group of around 20 posters.
For some, the BBC messageboards are an important social network, and they can be a lifeline. They can also intensify the pleasures of the programme by providing a 'double dose soap' in the form of the messageboard 'characters' and their exchanges. Some of the posters on the BBC Discuss The Archers board negotiate the apparent contradiction between their middle-class cultural status and soap opera fandom by adopting ironic or even 'anti-fan' postures, while others are more celebratory. This clash of different versions of fandom, or 'fan-tagonisms' is, however, typical of fan cultures generally, and by stimulating discussion, it contributes to the liveliness of the boards. Those who find the discussion 'too critical', too fast-moving or intense, migrate to other online spaces such as the 'Archers Addicts' or the Facebook Archers Appreciation group. It's possible that if the BBC Archers site provided an alternative, easily accessed space, with a lighter kind of discussion, they might find their way there. The presence of the host 'Mr Keri' on the BBC boards and the sense of connection with the programme and the producers that this provides make the posters feel at home and 'listened to'.
The online discussions provide a space in which very detailed visualisations of characters and scenes can be developed, shared and compared. Comparing imagined versions of characters or scenes permits multiple interpretations, in contrast to the threatening closure of photographs of actors (which in the case of The Archers, listeners frequently refuse to look at). In this way, the messageboards extend the openness of radio, by providing a space where new meanings and stories can be generated by listeners, and where the imaginative work of listening can, in some measure, be captured.
The Archers has a unique relationship with its audience because of the fact that many have been listening since childhood. The culture of the programme and of many of the online websites we analysed is one of femininity, which of course does not prevent a minority of men from participating. However, for the mainly female fans, narratives emphasising the capacity to repair relationships and the role of community in supporting vulnerable individuals are likely to be pleasurable.
The 'anti-fan' and ironic fan postures adopted by some BBC messageboard posters can lead to a strongly critical tone which those involved in the programme's production may, quite understandably, find undermining at times. However, our research shows both that the messageboard posters are a minority, even among online fans, and that these kinds of engagements are typical of fan cultures more broadly, particularly in online spaces. We would recommend that these discussions, like the website as a whole, be seen as a successful adjunct to the programme - a sign of, and opportunity for passionate investment in the programme by some listeners. They also indicate that The Archers is part of a changing context where new technologies are blurring the boundaries between cultural producers and consumers. Fan cultures, as the independent development of the Facebook site attests, have their own modalities and conventions, and cannot be predicted or indeed controlled.
Lyn Thomas is the Deputy Director of the Institute for the Study of European Transformations, London Metropolitan University. Her paper forms part of the output from a collaborative research team funded through the AHRC/BBC Knowledge Exchange Programme. Details of a parallel study into the fan cultures of Radio 2 listeners by Bethany Klein from University of Leeds can be found on the Radiolabs blog. The full AHRC/BBC KEP report includes contributions from Tim Wall & Andrew Dubber (Birmingham City University) and Matt Hills (Cardiff University) and further examines the fan cultures of Archers listeners as well as the online communities built around personality DJs and specialist music. The report can be found here.