Fan cultures in radio (4) - Online fan cultures around The Archers
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 Lyn Thomas, of London Metropolitan University, who has been researching fans of the Archers...
Online fan cultures around The Archers
The research confirmed that the BBC Archers website is used by large numbers of listeners who mostly like it as it is. A very small number of respondents - mainly IT professionals - were critical of the design of the site. It's possible nonetheless that a more 'modern', less traditional look would attract younger listeners (such as members of the Facebook Archers Appreciation group). There is a deep attachment, however, to the mustard colour! Our sample of online fans is predominantly female (76%), white British (81%) and aged 40-59 (62%). The level of education is very high indeed - 74% have been through Higher Education. The Archers is unique among British soap operas in attracting this demographic, and the website has clearly reinforced this effect - providing 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 say they use the BBC Archers messageboards, which nonetheless are the most active of all the Archers fan sites we mapped. The second most active board is the Facebook Archers Appreciation group, which is growing rapidly and has over 1500 members (though clearly a much smaller number are actively posting) and a younger demographic. Most of the independent fan sites are now used by very small groups. The official fan club site, the 'Archers Addicts' is popular, and the messageboard 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 adopying ironic or even 'anti-fan' postures, while others are more celebratory. The clash of different versions of fandom - or 'fan-tagonisms' (Johnson 2007) - found here 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'. This contrasts with Klein's findings in relation to the Radio 1 and 2 messageboards, where feelings of confusion and alienation were reported. Here passionate engagement, however critical, is the order of the day, and a marker of and contributor to the programme's and the website's success.
The various Archers messageboards provide a space in which very detailed visualisations of characters and scenes can be developed, shared and compared. In this sense, the messageboards add a new, shared dimension to the pleasures of the imagination which a radio programme can provide (see Thomas 2002). 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 which emphasise the capacity to repair relationships and the role of community in supporting vulnerable individuals are likely to be pleasurable. These qualities of commitment to relational work are also found in some of the online spaces, alongside, particularly in the case of the BBC boards, a middle-class highly educated culture which values critique. Our recommendation would be that rather than regarding the 'anti-fan' and ironic fan postures adopted by some posters as a threat, the BBC should consider these discussions, like the website as a whole, as a successful adjunct to the programme - a broadening of its cultural wings and a sign of the passionate engagement of some listeners. Fan cultures, as the independent development of the Facebook site attests, have their own modalities and conventions, and cannot be predicted or indeed controlled.
Johnson, D. (2007) 'Fan-tagonism: Factions, Institutions and Constitutive Hegemonies of Fandom', in J. Gray, C. Sandvoss, C. Lee Harrington (eds) Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World, New York University Press: New York.
Thomas, L. (2002) Fans, Feminisms and 'Quality' Media, Routledge: London and New York.
Lyn Thomas is Deputy Director of the Institute for the Study of European Transformations, London Metropolitan University