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Fan cultures in radio (3) - TOGs or "This Ordinary Group"

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Tristan Ferne | 15:55 UK time, Wednesday, 1 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. Today's post comes from Matt Hills and Amy Luther, of Cardiff University, who have been researching the TOGs ("Terry's Old Gals/Geezers")...

TOGs - "This Ordinary Group" - Official and Unofficial Listener Activities around Wake Up to Wogan

Our part of the project looked at online listener engagement of a very specific kind: fans of celebrity DJs. We focused on an off-BBC case study: "Terry's Old Gals/Geezers", or TOGs, the loyal audience contributing (additional) wit and wisdom to Wake Up To Wogan (WUTW).

We analysed material in the public domain at www.togs.org and interviewed a number of TOGs. We rapidly discovered two things:

One, although TOGs can be analytically thought of as "fans", they don't really think of themselves in this way.

Two, although Sir Terry Wogan (STW) can be analytically thought of as a "celebrity", TOGs don't really think of him in this way either.

All was not lost. TOGs, we had learnt, felt a real sense of closeness to STW, hence for them he was just Terry rather than a distant, celebrity 'other' . WUTW was a "conduit" for their humour, and participating in the show provided a very real sense of achievement for some. And we learnt what TOGs wanted from BBC online content.

Some didn't know - they used the Internet but didn't always feel like experts. They were quicker to identify what the BBC didn't seem able to do: real-time interactivity accompanying the show, or letting audiences properly record the bits they wanted.

Others did know, and were far more expert than us. They argued for on-BBC interactivity as well as information provision; basically a bit less WUTW 'broadcasting on the web'. They wondered why there wasn't specific online content for established listeners as well as for new audiences curious about STW's 'underlings'. Above all, they favoured greater online integration with the radio show, and hence a meaningful web "overflow" of what WUTW meant to them on the radio: irreverence; gentle mocking of celebs and BBC shows; wordplay and badinage; TOG emails and commentary. Some TOGs are already creating their own archives of emails sent into the show, but the BBC itself could be posting, organising, and reorganising TOG emails online in all manner of interesting ways.

And why weren't TOGs "fans"? Well, because they didn't talk about STW and WUTW at togs.org. In fact, ultra-rare mentions of "Terry" were greeted with knowing responses of "Who?" 'Fans' are supposedly dependent audiences; TOGs happily display their autonomy from any one "brand."

But then the BBC's not a commercial broadcaster. It wants to serve different audiences. Distinctively. The TOGs, we suggest, are the BBC's 'heartlands audience 2.0.' An older, middle-class audience who trust and value the Beeb, and talk about a lot of its output, even if not WUTW, but who are also socially-networked just like those trendy young things. By not fully keeping pace with the online migration of this audience, the BBC is missing out on opportunities to support much more than just brand extension online.

Because although the TOGs don't talk about WUTW, they live it. The radio show banters and refuses to take life too seriously - that's the TOGs. The radio show involves invented names, wordplay and jazz-master-level improvisation of the chattering class - the TOGs do all that too. But they're not a dependent audience; they're co-creating, building their online identities through qualities in the show they (mostly) love.

Commercial broadcasters wouldn't care about the TOGs. They're not even talking about the brand, dammit. To any commercial logic, this is a no-no. But to a public service institution? This audience have integrated a brand or two (STW/WUTW) transformatively into their online lives. Viewed outside of a purely commercial gaze, the TOGs are brand performers, and may be that's worth supporting online. Distinctively.

The last thing that's important to remember about the TOGs is this: they are ordinary listeners. Some don't catch WUTW every day; some miss hearing whether their email's been read out. Not all are regular contributors. They are not an aberrant or "hardcore" group of listeners. They are the mainstream, but they happen to act in fan-like ways.

Dr Matt Hills is Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University
Amy Luther is a PhD student at Cardiff University



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