Kristina Busse

Podcasts and the Fan Experience of Disseminated Media Commentary

Response to Programming in an Era of Video Abundance

Flow (October 2006)

Podcasts open up a dense textual network that surrounds, comments on, and complements television programming, creating a shifting context in which officially produced texts and viewer responses connect and coexist. Media podcasts, be they official extensions of the TV programs or fannish responses by teens chatting about their beloved show, affect viewers and producers alike: not only do they transform the dichotomy between fan and casual viewer, but they also affect fandom and its relation to TPTB.

“Official” podcasts are usually created (if not recorded) by the TV shows’ producers and include background information on production details as well as interviews with actors and assorted members of the production teams. Such podcasts not only offer additional —if not alternative—dimensions to television programming, but also allow viewers to engage on a seemingly more intimate level with TPTB and gain insider knowledge.

Podcasts mainstream fannish engagement as they normalize and encourage previously exclusively fannish behavior, effectively creating (proto)fannish viewers. At the same time, podcasts also generate new dichotomies between those viewers able and willing to access supplementary information and those that are not. In one podcast, Battlestar Galactica’s producer Ron Moore appeals to the audience to tolerate the show’s repetitiveness because it is needed to attract and keep a more mainstream audience. He thus singles out podcast listeners as more involved viewers, creating an us-versus-them dynamic that links him with fans rather than with the show’s potentially larger, more normal audience.

Likewise, “fannish” podcasts may include reviews, commentary, and even creative responses such as audio plays and recorded fan fiction; they range from near professional productions mimicking official podcasts to very personal one-on-one reactions (Ex. DW: Podshock, Combat Information Center,Slashcast, Electronic Voice Phenomenon). Most are tied in with web pages and their textual/visual interfaces, though the auditory component adds levels of familiarity similar to blogs. Whereas many professional podcasts seem designed to create an atmosphere of intimacy and familiarity, fan podcasts often strive to sound professional.

In general, media-related podcasts work to bridge the gap between show and viewers. Podcasts are one of the more intimate media engagements, since they are most often listened to on an mp3 player and thus tend to be audited in private; they are easily portable and, unlike most TV downloads, podcast are specifically meant to be played on-the-go; finally, they are a good example of the way the divide between consumers and creators has become more complicated.

The blurring of lines between official and fannish contributions makes podcasts particularly apt for TPTB/fan interaction. For example, a recent Harry Potter podcast features a series of roundtable discussions by two fans (albeit prominent members of the semi-professional fan sites Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet) and a Scholastic editor. Sponsored by the publishing company, this podcast clearly connects the fan and pro world, legitimating both in turn.

Henry Jenkins advocates such close interaction between viewers and owners of media texts; he describes how such mainstreaming of fannish activities can make fans more visible (and accepted) and legitimate their practices. While there always have been specific cases of fans going pro, the greater number of self-identified fans and the processes of cultural convergence makes professionalization more common today (Ex. Russell T. Davis, Naomi Novik). Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal article described fandom primarily in terms of being as training ground for aspiring writers.

Such celebration of professionalization, however, ignores the large number of fans whose fannish identities are tied to quite different motivations. Many fans feel threatened by too much public visibility and contact with TPTB, fearing both legal repercussions for their derivative fan works and potential personal fallout from greater public exposure. Beyond fans’ varying personal responses to exposure, the fan texts themselves are not all equally easy to mainstream. In fact, legitimizing fannish activities and artifacts through various modes of convergence may create a two-tiered fan system of acceptable and non-acceptable fan productions by dividing the fan activities into those approved/encouraged by the producers and those that are not, legitimating the former and further ostracizing the latter.

Media texts are more widely disseminated and construct their audiences in ever more fan-like ways at the same time as fannish activities become both more visible and more legitimate. As a result, the distinctions between creators and viewers, between casual viewers and fans are continuously being redefined. It would be all too easy to see these changes as nothing but the possibility to create an idyllic convergence playground. In turn, the fannish community, however, might have to disavow those parts that do not please the owners of the media product (Ex. J.K. Rowling, George Lucas). Certain groups of fans can become legit if and only if they follow certain ideas, don't become too rebellious, too pornographic, don't read the text too much against the grain. That seems a price too high to pay.