London Metropolitan University Research Institutes

BBC / AHRC Knowledge Exchange Programme: Listener on-line engagement with BBC radio programming

'Listener on-line engagement with BBC radio programming' was part of a pilot Knowledge Exchange Programme between the BBC and the AHRC. The project aimed to explore the creativity and on-line activity of listeners and how the BBC can promote these new forms of participation in their output.

Lyn Thomas carried out a case-study of on-line activity around Radio 4's long-running soap - The Archers. She drew on her previous work on Archers fans, which she wrote about in her book, Fans,Feminisms and Quality Media (Routledge, 2002).

Professor Lyn Thomas was filmed by the BCC at a symposium marking the joint 60th anniversary of The Archers and of the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading University last May.  The clip, where she discusses the Archers audience and the balance of contemporary issues and nostalgia in the programme, can be viewed on the BBC's website:

Other case-studies were based on the radio one and two messageboards, music radio and DJ celebrities, Terry Wogan and Chris Moyles. Lyn worked with Maria Lambrianidou on The Archers research.  The other case studies were led by Dr Matt Hills of Cardiff University (celebrity DJs), Professor Tim Wall and Dr Andrew Dubber of Birmingham City University (music radio) and Dr Bethany Klein of Leeds (radio 1 and 2).  The BBC partner for the project was Tristan Ferne, Senior Development Producer, BBC.

Audio and Music Interactive.

The project ran from September 2007 for one year. The research was presented to a large audience of radio, research and development and future media and technology staff at the BBC in September 2008.  The final report on the research has been published on the BBC website.

Lyn presented her research on The Archers at the final showcase event for the knowledge exchange organised by the BBC and AHRC in London in April 2009.  She has written an article on the research to be published in a special issue of  The Radio Journal devoted to the project later in 2009.  She is planning further articles, on class and gender in online fan cultures around The Archers, and online fan cultures around The Archers as white spaces.  She also plans to contribute a chapter to a book on user-generated content emerging from the knowledge exchange, entitled 'UGC at the BBC' to be edited by Helen Thornham of City University.

A summary of the research findings is pasted below:

Online fan cultures around The Archers: BBC/AHRC Knowledge Exchange 2008


Lyn Thomas, Institute for the Study of European Transformation, London Metropolitan University

Our research on online fan cultures around The Archers recruited online fans mainly through the BBC Archers website but also 10 people were recruited via the official fan club 'Archers Addicts' website and 7 through the Facebook 'Archers Appreciation' group.  We conducted 18 telephone interviews and received 108 completed questionnaires (with open-ended questions regarding the programme, the websites and listerers' online engagement with The Archers).

This sample of 126 online fans is 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 is 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 say they use the BBC Archers messageboards, which nonetheless are 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' (Johnson 2007) 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 programe 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 (see  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 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 or 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 (see Thomas 2002 and 2009).

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 productions 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 listerers.  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.

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
Thomas, L. (2009 forthcoming) 'The Archers: An Everyday Story of Old and New Media', The Radio Journal.



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