Dr Lance Dann talks about the development of new audiences
04 May 2016
The ‘Matthew effect’ comes to mind while talking about new modes of audience with broadcast media practitioner and researcher Dr Lance Dann, who lectures in Broadcast Media at the University of Brighton’s Hastings Campus. This effect is often referenced when talking of money and the rich getting richer, but it is equally of relevance to those concerned with cultural collateral, the production and consumption patterns we all experience through mediated forms and which are providing a particularly vibrant area for research and exploration.
2015 was a year that has brought a number of successes for Dann, and the beginnings of exciting new opportunities. Dann describes his work across media production and dissemination where there is clearly a need for research towards a better understanding of those shifting patterns of audience in the twenty-first century and the increasingly liquid state of creative practice and engagement. Of particular interest to Dann is the podcast, which, ostensibly at least, challenges earlier models of broadcast success and potentially revitalises an industry where single dominant examples have often flourished.
The Matthew effect, so termed, based on a line in the New Testament, recognises a steep curve of growth and dominance by a small number of examples. In terms of audiences and producers this results in the inevitable ‘long tail’, which gives single primary examples massive cultural dominance. This is something that the digital revolutions were set to challenge, and yet research suggests that counter-revolutions have not democratised the podcast any more than analogue recording and broadcasting democratised music making. The world has one online bookstore, one search engine and this is an effect that in many other areas is equally extreme, even threatening.
Dann’s work brings a fascinating range of approaches that highlight the vital relationship between a number of practices: the practice of performance and broadcast, the practice of industry-informed interview and exploration, and the practice of critically sharp theoretical intervention. Working across these practices, Dann is writing a book on podcasting with Dr Martin Spinelli from the University of Sussex, supported by Professor David Hendy also at Sussex and based on work with major international podcasters including: RadioLab, Welcome to Night Vale, Serial and 99% Invisible. Some of these podcasters have emerged as culturally dominant, yet the podcast itself is a system that challenges earlier forms of institutionalised broadcasting.
Listening to a podcasts is a very personal and individual pursuit, new political changes around examples of behaviour that can be considered typical of the fan and its social media-fuelled evolution. Equally however, and challenging the Matthew principle, multi-participation fan-based narrative forms have led to fans taking elements of culture and reusing them, in for example www.theflickerman.com. These new style participatory audiences suggest a potential abrasion of time-honoured systems of close references, intellectual property and the earlier use of websites.
Lance and his co-researcher, Phil Connolly, both based on the university’s Hastings Campus, received Wellcome Trust funding this autumn to develop a fictional drama for podcast Bleeding Edge. Bringing an understanding of audience development to the commercial trade in blood, Bleeding Edge will be presented as a dramatic techno thriller, drawing its audience in with an exhilarating and engaging story.
This will be distributed as a podcast, the form being a major means to engage younger audiences with spoken word audio. Dann and Connolly want to capture this audience and the energy that surrounds the form. A website will embed film clips, text, links, images and maps into a player that will reveal the various web materials in sync with the audio drama. This will be a ‘layered experience’ where more dedicated fans can interact with the rich array of web-materials.
This draws on research into the ‘collective intelligence’ around digital sharing which results in the collective of online fans becoming experts, not just on the history of the show but on the themes and theories generated by the devised content. Bleeding Edge will engage audiences with real science in a way that is shared through a ‘epostempahilic’ pleasure not in simply knowing but in exchanging knowledge. Audiences are expected to develop independent expertise and re-share through the collective interac- tion they will have with each other and may then feed their collective intelligence back into the podcast either to the platform set up by the creators or, more likely, in their own space through, for example, fan-fiction.
Jenkins writes in Interactive audiences? The “collective intelligence” of media fans (2006), ‘collective intelligence expands a community’s productive capacity because it frees individual members from the limitations of their memory and enables the group to act upon a broader range of expertise.’
Again, the range of academic insight in Dann and Connolly’s work is considerably enhanced through engagement in production aspects as well as analysis and close theorisation. Writers scripting a drama bring their awareness of the podcast audience, the fan audience and the potential mashing, quoting and reusing processes that are part of contemporary audience engagement – with that in mind, do they write differently?
Dann is ambitious for his understanding of the podcast through research practices to bring audience-led developments. ‘One of the anticipated consequences of the project having an open ended narrative is that fans or power users will interact with one another positing their own theories about and endings of the story,’ he says. ‘Bleeding Edge is set up in such a way that emergent fan behaviours, including the creation of related blogs, spin-off podcasts, wikis and Reddits, will be encouraged without being directly instigated.’ The work on Bleeding Edge will come to a diverse public, including the podcast generation in 2016.