Radio Audiences and Participation in the Age of Network Society

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


The listener as producer: the rise of the networked listener


"This book maps, describes and further explores all contemporary forms of interaction between radio and its public, with a specific focus on those forms of content co-creation that link producers and listeners. Each essay will analyze one or more case studies, piecing together a map of emerging co-creation practices in contemporary radio. Contributors describe the rise of a new class of radio listeners: the networked ones. Networked audiences are made up of listeners that are not only able to produce written and audio content for radio and co-create along with the radio producers (even definitively bypassing the central hub of the radio station, by making podcasts), but that also produce social data, calling for an alternative rating system, which is less focused on attention and more on other sources, such as engagement, sentiment, affection, reputation, and influence. What are the economic and political consequences of this paradigm shift? How are radio audiences perceived by radio producers in this new radioscape? What’s the true value of radio audiences in this new frame? How do radio audiences take part in the radio flow in this age? Are audiences’ interactions and co-creations overrated or underrated by radio producers? To what extent listeners' generated content can be considered a form of participation or "free labour" exploitation? What’s the role of community radio in this new context? These are some of the many issues that this book aims to explore."


Tiziano Bonini:

""This book is divided into two macro-sections: Interactive Publics and Productive Publics. These two sections do not represent two different worlds of practices but, conversely, describe two different moments of the same process: audience participation mediated by radio. We conceive of audience participation in radio as a process that is articulated along a continuum, moving from interaction (with a low level of activity) to co-creation (Banks and Deuze 2009) and co-production (with a high level of participation). Here we will show and analyse different innovative practices of interaction and participation.

In this body of work, interactivity is intended in both its minimal technical meaning, as a sequence of action and reaction, as well as in the wider sense of a social-communicative relationship (listeners that reply to a call by a radio host by either phone, smartphone messaging systems, email or Facebook/Twitter texts; listeners that react to a call by a radio host by doing something, such as downloading content or liking/commenting/sharing social media posts; radio hosts and authors that reply to questions and content coming from listeners).

The boundary between interactive and productive publics is traced according to the ideal model of audience participation (AIP model – Access; Interaction; Participation – see Carpentier (2007)), where: “this difference between participation on the one hand, and access and interaction on the other, is located within the key role that is attributed to power, and to equal(ised) power relations in decision-making processes.” (Carpentier 2011, 29). According to the AIP model, in the first section, contributors will analyse processes of participation that allow listeners to produce content (SMS, phone calls, social media messages, etc.) but do not let them take part in the co-creation of radio programmes in any way.

The first section of this work will analyse contemporary forms of interaction between radio and its listeners, using specific case studies to examine all the technological means that are currently involved in these processes: the telephone, short text messages, social network sites.

The second section will focus on examples in which the radio public not only reacts to the producers’ requests using the technology at hand, but consciously participates in the production of radio content and has some voice in deciding the content being produced. Some examples in this section will look at the collective production of a playlist used by music programmes: a number of programmes have been built upon listeners requests and music choices, by different means.

Further examples of co-creation refer to other genres, such as the documentary. In Sweden, Germany, Italy and Latin America, some radio producers seek to involve the public in one or more steps of the productive process of a radio documentary, by means of crowdfunding as well."


Preface by David Hendy

Introduction. The Listener as Producer: The Rise of the Networked Listener (Tiziano Bonini)

Part 1:

Interactive Publics (Telephone, Short Message Service, Social Networks)

1.When Speech Was ‘Meaningful’ and Presenters Were Just a Phone Call Away: The Development of Popular Radio Talk Formats in Early UK Commercial Radio (Guy Starkey)

2. Domesticated Voices: Listener ‘Participation’ in Everyday Radio Shows (Jan Pinseler)

3. Radio Audience Interaction: SMS Mobile Texting vs. Facebook (Asta Zelenkauskaite)

4. Listeners, Social Networks and the Construction of Talk Radio Information’s Discourse in the 2.0 Age (Belén Monclús, Maria Gutiérrez, Xavier Ribes, Iliana Ferrer, and Josep Maria Martí)

5. Sports Broadcasting in the Age of Network Society: Engagement with Listeners and Interaction throughout a Collective Experience (Toni Sellas)

Part 2:

Productive Publics

6. The Automatic DJ? Control, Automation and Creativity in Commercial Music Radio (Fredrik Stiernstedt)

7. Redefining Co-production in German Radio: Incorporating the Listener in German Radio Plays (Golo Föllmer)

8.Radio Ambulante: Narrative Radio Journalism in the Age of Crowdfunding (Manuel Fernández-Sande)

9. User-Generated Playlists: Radio Music Programming in the Age of Peer-to-Peer Production, Distribution, and Consumption (J. Ignacio Gallego)

10. Community Radio and Participation: Listeners as Productive Publics (Salvatore Scifo)

11. Radio Wnet: From Mainstream to Grassroots:A Case Study of Productive Listeners (Grażyna Stachyra)

12. Getting Listeners Involved: Rádio Ás, a Community Web Project (Stanislaw Jedrzejewski and Madalena Oliveira)

13. The Value of Productive Publics in Radio: A Theoretical Frame on Value Creation in Participatory Culture (Adam Arvidsson)



Tiziano Bonini:

"The title of the book Radio Audiences and Participation in the Age of Network Society highlights the paradigm shift that is transforming the nature of mass media audiences and publics. The rise of the network society (van Dijck 1991; Castells 1996; Wellman 2001), due to the diffusion of ICTs, is also restructuring the topology, the properties and the very nature of media audiences, which are no more understandable only as diffused in time and space (Abercrombie and Longhust 1998). Audiences and publics attracted to media such as radio are no longer invisible, silent and disconnected. Listening habits are changing and listeners are increasingly more used to both listening to radio and leaving comments on social media, where their feelings and opinions are public, searchable, accessible and measurable, as Lacey claims: “Listeners are able to represent their listening to their social networks and track others’ online listening in real or archived time. On the one hand, this means that listening is a practise that is increasingly surveilled and increasingly open to measurement and commodification. On the other hand, it is also a sign of persistent desire to create and partake in forms of collective listenings to mediated music, sound and speech, albeit in virtual space.” (2013, 155).

Radio audiences are a mix of traditional radio broadcasting audiences and networked publics (Varnelis 2008; Boyd 2011). This not only means that new media are changing the nature of listeners/viewers, transforming them into interactive users (Livingstone 2003), but also that radio publics, once organized into networks, now have different properties, different behaviours and different affordances. Networked publics are made up of listeners that are not only able to produce written and audio content for radio and co-create along with the radio producers (even definitively bypassing the central hub of the radio station), but that also produce social data, calling for an alternative rating system, which is less focused on attention and more on other sources, such as engagement, sentiment, affection, reputation, and influence. What are the economic and political consequences of this paradigm shift (see chapter 6 and 14)? How are radio audiences perceived by radio producers in this new radioscape (see chapter 1, 2, 4 and 7)? What’s the true value of radio audiences in this new frame (see chapter 6 and 14)? How do radio audiences take part in the radio flow in this age (see chapters 7, 8, 9, 10, 12 and 13)? Are audiences’ interactions and co-creations overrated or underrated (see chapter 2) by radio producers? What’s the role of community radio in this new context (see chapter 11, 12 and 13)? These are some of the many issues that this present book aims to explore.

From Mass Audiences to Networked Listeners: The Four Ages of Listener Participation

There have been several attempts to periodise the history of audiences. One of the best known analyses is that by Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998). They identified three broad periods of audiences: the simple, co-located, face-to-face audience; the mass audience; and the diffused audience, which is “no longer contained in particular places and times, but rather part and parcel of all aspects of daily life” (Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998, in Livingstone 2005, 26). The diffused audience seems to be the most appropriate category for describing contemporary audiences, but Abercrombie and Longhurst published their work in 1998, at the beginning of the web 1.0 era, and their periodisation now needs to be updated, given the great changes in the use of media content caused by the Internet and its further developments (web 2.0, social media). For this reason, this work aims to propose a different historical periodisation of radio listening, one that is similar to Abercrombie and Longhurst’s work, but more suitable for the comprehension of the properties of a media public in the age of the network society. The periodisation developed in the following pages identifies four historical ages corresponding to four different auditory regimes, the last of which is characterized by the hybridisation of broadcasting media with networked media. It remains clear that the emergence of a new regime and a new type of audience does not mean the disappearance of previous ones. As Lacey maintains, “at any one time there are likely to be multiple ‘auditory regimes’” (2013, 22) that coexist.

The periodisation proposed here will attempt to portray how audience participation in radio has changed over time, and investigate the causes that have determined the emergence of a new relationship between radio and its publics. This work does not want to focus on the progressive increase in the public’s participation, corresponding to new technological integrations (telephones, mobile phones, the Internet, social media), but will instead highlight the different potentialities of the public’s participation, inscribed in each auditory regime. Regardless of how the radio broadcasting public has often been described, as “disciplined and docile listeners in a space, drastically separate not only from that of the performer but from the fellow public as well” (Hilmes 1997, 186), the historical analysis proposed here shows us how interaction and participation have always been permanent features in the history of the radio audience. Listeners, as Lacey (2013, 113) claimed, “have always been active”. Audiences have always longed to participate in radio, but over time this participation has taken on different forms and features."

Co-Creation or Exploitation?

"Radio makers (authors/presenters/producers) and radio listeners, once they are connected through SNS, belong to the same horizontal and multipolar network. On the SNS stage everyone, radio makers and listeners alike, is able to perform, to take part, to alternatively play the role of the actor (contributing with content) and of the audience (contributing with comments and liking). As Benjamin hoped, the boundaries between authors and “readers” have potentially been broken down.

The connection that has now been established between radio makers and listeners through social media also allows for new forms of content production to emerge, some of which will be analysed in this book (see chapters 7, 8 and 10). The extent to which listeners take part in these production processes is still controlled by radio makers, who decide how to give value to user-generated content. Much has been written about the ambivalent status of this content as a source of both intrinsic reward and potential exploitation, as social media corporations’ value, Andrejevic argues, relies on the “private enclosure of productive resources” (2013, 162). When can we still speak of co-creation, and when does cooperation become free-labour exploitation (Terranova 2000; Fuchs 2010; 2014)? Andrejevic (2013) claims that exploitation in social media not only occurs when audience labour (in terms of user-generated content) is not paid, but also when users lose control over their productive and creative activity. Ippolita et al. (2009) maintain that exploitation is embedded in SNS: however radical they may be, they will always be data-mined. They are designed to be exploited.

The free labour exploitation theorists have built their propositions on a consolidated criticism of the economic policies of commercial media, which was very popular in the 1970s. To a certain extent, the attention of a passive public required by traditional media was already a form of exploitation and production of economic value: this was the late-1970s approach of Canadian media theorist Dallas Smythe, who claimed that viewers were exploited as their viewing time was appropriated by media companies and sold on as ‘audience commodity’.

From a Marxist perspective, audiences have always been put to work by media corporations, who have made a living on the back of their audiences. From newspapers and radio to television, commercial media (Hearst’s newspapers of the early 20th Century; NBC and ABC radio in the 1920s; today’s commercial television networks like Fox News, just to name a few) have always sold the ‘work’ (attention paid to media content) of listeners to advertising.

Marxist researcher Christian Fuchs is one of the best known scholars to have contributed to the revival of Smythe’s approach to the political economy of media. In Fuchs’ view, “citizens who engage in everyday politics” and those “radio listeners and television viewers who call in live” (2010, 187) are somehow ‘unpaid’ knowledge workers being exploited by capital. For Fuchs, it seems, any participation by citizens in the public sphere itself is exploited labour, as opposed to the practical contributions to the democratic formation of public opinion that these citizens themselves clearly understand their actions to be. Fuchs goes even further in framing audience ‘labour’ as exploitation. He claims that digital users are also exploited: in the case of corporate social media, “the audience commodity is an Internet prosumer commodity” (2013, 217). Therefore, according to the free labour theories, the main reason for the exploitation of the audience’s work is its appropriation and commodification, operated by both traditional and new commercial media. As Murdock (1978) already noted, Smythe’s approach really only applies to advertiser-supported media. In the case of Facebook, it was Zuckerberg himself who, in 2010, publicly admitted the extraction of value from audience engagement in Facebook: “Our focus is just to help you share information and when you do that you are more engaged with our site and there are more ads on the side of the page and the more you do it the more the model works out.”

But even if we want to believe in the expropriation of value by commercial media, we would realize that yes, this value exists, but it is derisory. For example, let’s take the three Italian public service radio channels (Rai Radio1, Radio2 and Radio3, which are also financed by advertising) and divide their total advertising revenue from 2012 (€35.3 million, according to Rai 2013) by the grand total of their listeners on an average day (9.3 million, according to Eurisko 2012). This gives us the alienated surplus of every single listener, which corresponds to €3.79 per person for an entire year of listening. If we apply the same theory to Facebook’s earnings, we obtain similar results: if Facebook made a profit of $355 million in 2010 (according to its own figures), when the active users were around 500 million, this would mean that each Facebook user was a ‘victim of exploitation of surplus value’ to the extent of $0.70 a year. Gauntlett (2011) has made the same calculation for YouTube videos, showing that each video uploaded by users is worth approximately $1.20.

Smythe’s argument – that audience ‘work’ can be seen as being exploited in terms of the Marxian labour theory of value – was already controversial at the time of its publication (Hesmondalgh 2010). This argument by Smythe and his “sons”, such as Fuchs, has been criticised for two main reasons: 1) what they call audience “work” cannot simply be called work, because it lacks coercion, and 2) their approach doesn't take into account the pleasures of participation (Hesmondalgh 2010).

Similarly, Arvidsson and Colleoni (2012) claimed that making the simple observation that just because media companies like Facebook or branded corporations like Apple live off audience and consumer co-production, does not necessarily mean that the value of such co-production can be estimated in terms of the Marxian labour theory of value. They argue, in response to Fuchs (2010), that the labour theory of value does not apply to the activity of online prosumers, because “the value of online advertising is not primarily dependent on the number of users that a site can attract” nor on the “time spent [in] online viewing or interacting with a particular site.” Instead, “value is ever more defined according to the ability to mobilize affective attention and engagement” (Arvidsson and Colleoni 2012, 144; see also chapter 14). Jenkins et al. claim that television (and radio too) is shifting from an attention economy that they call an “appointment based model” towards an “engagement based paradigm” (2013, 116).

Banks and Humphreys (2008) and Banks and Deuze (2009) claimed that users clearly enjoy and benefit from online activities, even if they generate value for commercial media companies. They suggest that user-generated content should be understood in terms of mutual benefit (identity and reputational benefits) rather than of exploitation. The idea that listener participation in radio’s valuable production (in terms of both attention and actions performed on the social media linked to the radio) can be a source of exploitation, is a useful point of view in order to defuse the rhetoric of participation and user generated content, which new and old commercial media have appropriated. Even so, this work supports the view that the new wave of Marxist criticism of the exploitation of content generated by networked publics, in both traditional and digital media, is unable to comprehend the real value of this participation.

As Jenkins et al. noted: “we feel it’s crucial to acknowledge the concerns of corporate exploitation of fan labor while still believing that the emerging system places greater power in the hands of the audience when compared to the older broadcast paradigm” (2013, 58).

We believe that many different distinctions can be found between these two extremes of exploitation and co-creation. A model for the analysis of the public’s participation in the production of media (especially radio) content, which this work finds to be highly capable of considering these distinctions, has been proposed by Carpentier (2007; 2011): the AIP model. Carpentier claims that “the key defining element of participation is power. The debates on participation in institutionalized politics and in all other societal fields, including media participation, have a lot in common in that they all focus on the distribution of power within society at both the macro- and micro-level. The balance between people’s inclusion in the implicit and explicit decision-making processes within these fields, and their exclusion through the delegation of power (again, implicit or explicit), is central to discussions on participation in all fields” (Carpentier 2011, 24). Participation is not the same as access or interaction: replying to a radio host’s call for action with an SMS is a matter of interaction, not participation; liking, commenting, sharing or retweeting a message published by a radio host on his/her social network doesn’t mean participating, but ‘only’ engaging with radio content. Participation, according to Carpentier, “deals with participation in the production of media output (content-related participation) and in media organizational decision-making (structural participation).” (2011, 68). Carpentier asserts that we can only truly call it participation if the listeners are recognized as holding a certain amount of power in the decisions over what content should be broadcast, or even in the broadcaster’s editorial and business choices. Even in this case, no single model for participation exists, but there are different forms and degrees. Audience participation is organized in many different forms by media institutions.

Carpentier’s model is invaluable for clearly defining the theoretical differences between access, interaction, and participation, but the complexity of the participative and cooperative processes generated by the compounding of old and new media in today’s context requires a model that is even more complex. One model for the analysis of the forms of networked publics’ participation, which builds on Carpentier’s considerations and goes into even greater detail, is that proposed by Hyde et al. (2010). According to the authors, in order to collaborate, participants must be aware of the fact that they are part of a collaborative project, and they must share its goals. If there is no intentionality, there is no collaboration. This first statement allows us to better respond to criticism coming from the free labour theorists. The aggregation of content produced by others (often unknown to them), which we may read as exploitation, is one thing; passionate and aware participation is another. There is a difference between the free appropriation of user generated content performed by big newspaper editors (i.e. users’ photographs of a particular news event taken from Instagram), which may even occur with the creator knowing nothing about it, and the participation of passionate listeners in a radio programme by telephone and through social media.

Hyde et al. (2010) have proposed a series of 11 criteria in order to evaluate the quality of participation.


This series of criteria provides a general guide for the qualitative assessment of the cooperative relationship. This work finds these to be excellent criteria for evaluating a co-creational or collaborative project, in either radio or online platforms such as BitTorrent, Slashdot, Wikipedia, Flickr, Vimeo, open source operating systems, etc.

If we adopt the points of view presented by Carpentier (2011) and Hyde et al. (2010), the forms of participation utilized by both traditional and networked listeners can be seen under a new light, equidistant from both the democratizing rhetoric of participation and user generated content, and that of the apocalypse of the exploitation of “work” extracted from the public.

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."