Advances in technology enable ordinary people to create, publish, and share a wide range of digital media to global audiences. While this allows people to contribute to culture in different ways including through blogs, videos, photos, and illustrations, this project focuses on the burgeoning media genre of podcasts. Podcasts are digital audio files which are created and uploaded online. Anyone can then download these files and listen to them on smartphone apps or computers. Podcasts are relatively easy to record and require minimal technological and financial resources (Meserko, 2014). The surge in smartphone usage and the attendant apps make it easier to find podcasts and listen to them at one’s convenience (McGregor, 2019; Mollett et al., 2017). Since there are relatively low barriers to creating podcasts, they offer room for more niche topics and diverse formats than mainstream radio (Sterne et al., 2008).
Podcasts can be interactive and participatory. There are opportunities to include multiple voices in creative and engaging ways (Chamberlin, 2018; Day et al., 2017; Durrani et al., 2015). Social media lets podcast listeners provide feedback to the creators who can then incorporate this into the show (Yeates, 2018). This inclusion of multiple viewpoints can increase the diversity of perspectives and interpretations. Such dialogue can also promote a collaborative construction of knowledge. Additionally, podcasts can act as alternative media that allows marginalised cultures to present their own counternarratives which challenge taken-for-granted assumptions about them (Carrillo and Mendez, 2019). It also allows groups whose perspectives are missing in mainstream culture the opportunity to shape culture in ways which highlight diverse issues (Barber, 2016; Carlton, 2018; Copeland, 2018; Day et al., 2017). At the same time, podcast projects by traditionally oppressed voices can face online harassment and threats (Richardson and Green, 2018; Tiffe and Hoffmann, 2017).
Doane and colleagues (2017) highly recommend Serial, a true-crime podcast, and host Sarah Koenig’s feminist methodology which presents multiple viewpoints and challenges the notion of relying on a single privileged voice. They make a firm distinction between activism and feminist public scholarship – a distinction I cannot quite agree with. They argue that the goal of activism is to engage through confrontation and disruption while the goal of feminist public scholarship is to engage through entertainment. However, I believe that engaging through explicit critique is also a valid form of feminist public scholarship. Indeed, encountering explicit critiques of my favourite popular culture texts is what influenced my own thinking about them and shaped the direction of this project. The wholehearted recommendation of Serial as a feminist project also lacks any intersectional analysis of the podcast. As people have pointed out, while the podcast was tremendously popular, it featured a white journalist commenting on the lives of the three protagonists who were black, Korean-American, and Pakistani-American. Koenig did not interrogate her own position in the project, nor did she explicitly engage with ideas of privilege, race, religion, journalistic responsibility, and the failings of the criminal justice system (Durrani et al., 2015; Peterson, 2017; Weiner, 2014).
While podcasts offer scope for marginalised voices, research has found that the typical independent podcaster tends to be older, white, educated, male, upper middle class, and largely from the U.S. (Bottomley, 2015; Markman, 2012). Most independent podcasters do not podcast full-time though an increasing number of them are experimenting with new business models to make podcasting sustainable (Markman and Sawyer, 2014). This lack of financial stability perhaps explains the lack of diverse, marginalised voices being able to devote resources to creating podcasts regularly. Podcasting is often touted to be an alternative to mainstream media; yet, even within this alternate media, a mainstream has been created which further marginalises certain groups of people. In recent years, however, minority voices are beginning to challenge white-dominated podcasting (McHugh, 2016). Florini (2015) examines how a network of black podcasters in the U.S. is creating an alternative digital space for black audiences by foregrounding black culture, language, and contexts beyond the oppressive white gaze of mainstream media. Like most media on the internet, creating a podcast isn’t automatically empowering though it does offer a new site for public expression (Jarrett, 2009).
Within the context of academia, podcasts can make scholarly knowledge accessible beyond academic journals and conferences in informal and engaging ways (Barber, 2016; Chamberlin, 2018; Mollett et al., 2017; Richardson, 2017). Richardson and Green (2018) argue that podcasts offer intersectional solutions to those scholars who are unable to travel, disabled, working class or have lower-value passports by allowing them to access and share knowledge. Podcasts can be used for qualitative data collection and analysis which can be empowering to both the researcher and the participant by providing a space for democratic dialogue. It can also encourage those situated outside academia to contribute, making knowledge-building a collaborative exercise (Day et al., 2017; Kinkaid et al., 2019). As a result, podcasts can diversify academic knowledge creation and dissemination by including alternative voices and multiple viewpoints in the research.
THE FANDOM STORY
Fan podcasts are an increasingly popular but under-researched form of fan texts (McGregor, 2019). Fan podcasts and their listeners also exemplify a different kind of fandom engagement, the likes of which are rarely examined in fan studies. Podcasts allow fans to act as cultural commentators as they express their opinions and critiques and engage in dialogue with each other and their listeners (Meserko, 2014; Salvati, 2015). As Diffrient (2010) finds in his analysis of two fan podcasts, fans can balance their love of the text with critique about elements that disappointed them.
McHugh (2017) argues that podcasts are increasingly used to negotiate a range of contemporary issues. Fan podcasts do this within the framework of fandom. Florini (2019) studies the prolific podcasting habits of African-American Game of Thrones fans. Florini argues that black fans create separate online enclaves of fandom since they are otherwise marginalised, ignored or even targets of hostility in mainstream fan spaces. In these black-dominated spaces, fans use the prism of black culture and language to engage with their favourite texts even when, such as in the case of Game of Thrones and most science fiction and fantasy media, black people and culture are largely absent. In the alternate fan spaces they create, blackness is normative.
Harry Potter fan podcasts use the fictional framework to discuss social, cultural, and political issues within the text and in the real world. Dennis’s (2018) digital ethnography of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text found that the hosts and guests frequently discuss contemporary and sometimes contentious issues such as feminism, politics, body image, the LGBTQIA community, bullying, race, education, and religion. Harry Potter re-reading podcasts are an emerging genre within fandom. Based on a survey of fans of Harry Potter re-read podcasts, McGregor (2019) finds that fans listen to them to participate in a like-minded community which is enthusiastic about their favourite texts, find new understandings of their favourite books, develop their critical thinking and analytical skills, encounter ideas and interpretations they hadn’t considered, and use Harry Potter as a cultural framework to discuss other issues. McGregor also discusses Witch, Please, a Harry Potter re-read podcast she co-hosts. The two hosts, both of whom are academics and fans of the books, use the framework of the fantasy series to critically analyse popular culture and make academic concepts accessible to those unfamiliar with the terms and themes. McGregor argues that fan podcasts create an interactive fan community of passionate readers and the participatory nature of these podcasts has the potential to create pedagogical spaces. The collective discussions and interactions allow fans to access and develop new interpretations in light of new information. A fan of Witch, Please explains why she enjoys the political nature of the podcast and its balance of loving and critiquing the series:
“As a queer POC […] I think my expectations of ‘seeing myself’ in literature are quite different to white queer people that I know and talk to this stuff about – and I was really struggling to articulate even to myself what I think it means for a book to be ‘representative’, (or even just lovely!) and how to simultaneously criticise JKR for the things that are sad about the books […] So i suppose what I’m trying to say is that listening to Witch, Please is a way of working through all those feelings about Harry Potter – my real life Harry Potter friends either uncritically adore it and everything JKR does, or no longer like to talk about it except to criticise the latest JKR tweet – so it’s reassuring to hear other people loving it and also criticising it.”(McGregor, 2019: p. 377)
This engagement with love and criticism was a common response in the survey, reinforcing the belief that it is possible to both love and criticise a favourite text without diminishing the impact of either.
I started listening to fan podcasts earlier this year and realised they perfectly encapsulate my research interests of public pedagogy, intersectionality, and critical literacy. And while they do require people to actively choose to listen to them, they simultaneously exemplify a more passive form of fandom. I can listen to the podcasts at my convenience and still feel like I’m a part of the community without interacting with the hosts or with other listeners. Fan studies rarely examines this dichotomy in fandom engagement. Consequently, this project also aspires to expand the boundaries of what fan studies includes.