Book of the Week: Radio Audiences and the Social Life of Radio Content (3)

* eBook: Radio Audiences and Participation in the age of Network Society. Ed. by Tiziano Bonini and Belen Monclus. Routledge, 2015

Key theme: The listener as producer: the rise of the networked listener

In this third installment, editor Tiziano Bonini explores the social life emerging around radio programmes:

From the Conclusion: The Social Life of Radio Content:

“In their latest work, Spreadable Media, Jenkins et al. (2013) affirm that we are facing a paradigmatic change in media texts circulation. A hybrid model of circulation is emerging, a result of the combination of top-down institutional strategies (the media corporations that decide what to produce, when and how to launch a film/album/radio or TV series/bestseller book/event) and grassroots/bottom-up tactics. Control over media-produced content is no longer fully in the hands of the media themselves, but is negotiated with the public, one that is now connected into networks and capable of establishing the popularity or failure of a given content through sharing on its network.

Content produced by the media, and by the radio in particular, has never had such a rich social life. In the past, what one heard on a radio programme could only be discussed with a private circle of friends; today, the opinions of networked listeners generate more noise in the public space of (private) social networks. Audiences are making more “noise” than ever. One can listen to content produced by radio again and again, with a podcast, by sharing it through Soundcloud, Mixcloud, Audioboo, on one’s social network pages or one’s own blog; it can circulate without broadcasters being able to control its movements.

In the ecosystem of spreadable media, content is both user-generated and user-circulated (Jenkins et al., 2013). Networked listeners are becoming more and more productive, and this productivity consists of both the generation of one’s own content and the circulation of media content. The simple act of posting a link to a radio programme’s podcast on one’s personal Facebook page, along with adding a comment that provides a context for listening, is a highly productive act, which requires time, effort, intelligence.
Listeners have become producers on different levels: they produce comments/likes/retweets; they produce stories about radio content that they then share with their own social networks; they reproduce radio content, share podcasts, and contribute to their circulation. Listeners produce content that is picked up by radio producers and included in the radio flow, such as SMS texts, posts and comments on Facebook, tweets, phone calls, but also audio, photo, video, and text contributions that allow them to co-produce radio programmes. They also become co-producers of radio programmes by financing their expenses (see chapter 9). Listeners produce feedback that influences the editorial decisions made by radio producers (as in the case of the co-creation of musical playlists; see chapter 10), and produce independent radio and sound content that bypasses radio (amateur podcasters, Spreaker webcasters, Mixcloud and Soundcloud audio content).

If the media companies do not get used to coexisting with this new ecosystem and do not allow it to grow, they risk losing the attention and affect of the networked publics because, as Jenkins et al. (2013) say, if content is not spreadable, it is dead. “Information wants to be free” was a famous slogan by American futurologist Stewart Brand. It is now time to say: “media content wants to be free”. Adaptation to the new media environment is fundamental. English scholar David Hendy (2013a) offers three examples of this adaptation: 1) the degree to which radio is enabling listeners to create their own schedule; 2) the degree to which it is abandoning a proprietorial attitude towards its own programme material and allowing it to be shared and manipulated in ways it doesn’t control; 3) the degree to which it ‘crowd-sources’ by drawing on the creative efforts of ‘ordinary’ people.

The new intimacy between radio and its public that is emerging with SNS is reshaping the notion of the public, as well as radio production practices.

Whether this new intimacy is potentially liberating and democratic, in the direction indicated by Benjamin (the “politicisation of art” (2008)), or a means toward further exploitation, is not only a question linked to the new social network platforms, but one that can also be moulded and managed by human factors. Radio producers and listeners can use radio and SNS to engage in a fruitful exchange of content and build a more democratic and participative model of communication, or, on the contrary, reproduce the old, hypnotic, Pavlovian broadcast communication based on a master-slave (media/radio/SNS-audience/follower) relationship.
In this ecosystem, the traditional media, including radio, are no longer the sole guardians of knowledge and its circulation: they are immersed in a network and connected to each other and with the public, and they are only – for the moment – hubs for sorting bigger information coming from the other nodes of the network that they belong to. But today’s followers could be tomorrow’s producers, and the relationships of power between those who produce and those who listen could be reversed, because, as David Gauntlett brilliantly asserts, the broadcasting culture of “sit back and be told” is hopefully, potentially, being replaced by a networking culture of “making and doing” (2011, 223). Radio has always been a product of two players: the makers – who speak at the microphone – and the receivers – who listen to it and decode the message – but now listeners have more tools than ever before to act as makers too.”

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