Preview of Chapter Seven, Audience Participation and BBC’s Digital Quest in Nigeria, by Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar
New Technologies and Interactivity
One of the key features of the contemporary media landscape is the increased level of interactivity which some theorists use to illustrate ‘the blurring of boundaries between production and reception’ (Jenkins 2006; Sundet and Ytreberg 2009: 383). New technologies enable audiences to simultaneously create and consume media content in a more noticeable manner. Mainstream broadcasters capitalize on this to pursue participatory programming and trumpet it as the triumph of freedom of expression. Interactivity does have multiple bene ts of directly engaging audiences, generating content from them, infusing variety in programmes, providing instant feedback and exerting subtle in uence on audiences.
The BBC World Service, as the case study here, has its interactive programming pol- icy set out in its editorial guidelines: ‘Interactivity provides choice and gives opportunities to be heard, to participate and to create content’ but it ‘must be conducted in a manner that is honest, fair and legal’ (BBC Guidelines 2010: 184). It must also to the broadcaster’s public service remit, ‘be distinctive, have a clear editorial purpose and match the expectations of the likely audience’ (BBC Guidelines 2010: 185). The broadcaster therefore has its procedure and purposes for pursuing participatory programming, and new technologies have enhanced them. In the following comments, two editors—a former executive editor for the African region based in London and a bureau editor based in Abuja, Nigeria—explain how the BBC has been integrating greater interactivity in its programming and how this is widening its engagement with audiences.
In terms of engagement, the only sort of engagement we used to have was actually in the form of listeners’ question-and-answer slots; and there wasn’t anything like ‘Have Your Say’ [the special interactive pro- gramme] with people setting the agenda. Whereas now, even in lan- guage services, say in Hausa or Kiswahili or in Somali, you nd out
Audience Participation and BBC’s Digital Quest in Nigeria 151 that our listeners now tend to react almost instantly. Sometimes while programmes are on air listeners are able to give feedback.
Officially, we come to realize that the audiences are trying now to sort of drive the BBC agenda on a daily basis because to a greater extent some of our […] outputs come from user-generated content […]. You nd out that the amount of text messages, that is SMS, and the requests you get from people who say they want to be on air to say something […] [are] just growing by the day.
The notion of audiences themselves, and not the BBC, setting the agenda is the of cial line of the broadcaster to stress its hands-off attitude in order to project itself as an impartial platform that merely conveys audiences’ views. This makes audiences less suspicious of the intent of the content (after all it is ostensibly theirs—not BBC’s) and therefore more likely to be influenced by it.
In reality, though, what is presented as user-generated content has in it many trappings of the BBC because it is the BBC that selects the topic for discussion (though there are instances where topics are suggested by audiences), decides the trend of the debate, and shapes its outcome (Hill and Alshaer 2010).
It is not just in the specific case of the BBC that this issue of predetermining what content participating audiences would produce (or at least deciding its mode and direction) exists, it is a phenomenon noted in other studies too (Carpentier and De Cleen 2008; Willems 2013). Carpentier and De Cleen (2008: 1) have argued that many aspects of participatory programming do sometimes ‘cover-up a multitude of restrictions that deal with muting voices, appropriations, techniques of surveillance, inequalities, and exclusions’. The broadcasters have their own objectives for introducing participatory programming and they do try to attain them. For instance, the idea of expanding interactive programming in the World Service is essentially to achieve the BBC’s ‘global conversation’ objective (BBC 2008; Abubakar 2011) which is linked to the Foreign and Commonwealth Of ce’s ‘digital diplomacy initiatives’ (Sreberny et al. 2010: 280; Hill and Alshaer 2010). The key argument is that mediating the ‘global conversation’ may generate the outcome that the corporation and its pay- masters desire.
The argument that interactive programming has other motives beyond audience participation and enhancing democratic values is not just limited to the issue of attaining the cultural and ideological objectives of the producer. There are economic and commercial purposes in it too (van Dijk 2009; Dean 2010; Willems 2013)—though not all of them are applicable to audience participation in global media programmes. Dean (2010: 4) has noted that communicative capitalism does bring a strange convergence of democracy and capitalism in which ‘communicative exchanges and their technological preconditions become commodi ed and capitalized’. And van Dijk (2009: 55) has argued that participation should not only be seen from the perspective of audiences’ civic engagement but also from the economic meaning of being producers, consumers and data providers. Willems’s work (2013: 224) reinforces this argument, highlighting the corporate logic of participation ‘in the sense that audiences’ use of the internet and mobile phones leaves behind a trail of personal data that can be deployed in the service of communicative capitalism’.
Analyzing the ‘corporate logic to the rising popularity of the use of new media in audience participation’ in local radio programmes in Zambia, Willems (2013: 230) unveils how local stations have incorporated participatory programming ‘into their marketing and income generating strategies’. The last aspect would not apply to international broadcasters like the BBC World Service since direct income generation is not primarily their remit but telecoms and other communications agencies that facilitate the communicative exchanges would derive economic benefits from such interactive programming. With this in mind, the key argument that the new trend enhances communicative capitalism (Dean 2010; Willems 2013) still holds.
However, for many staff of the BBC World Service who engage in organizing participatory programming, interactivity and the use of new technologies are primarily meant to enhance ef ciency and journalistic output. They feel that this approach does enable them to assess audiences’ perceptions of their programmes and help improve their performance, as explained by this senior correspondent in Nigeria:
In the past you [were] just making programmes, airing them; sometimes you [didn’t] even know who listened [to them]. But here you get feedback, people telling you the [output]; they react to what you do; even if you don’t see them or feel them, at least you read what they say. So this will encourage you to improve on what you are doing.
As this and earlier responses indicate, the integration of new media into the services of ‘old’ media has been transforming the pattern of broadcasting and the media-audience relationship. Price et al. (2008: 156) have argued that ‘new technologies means far more than reaching more people, reaching faster, penetrating through greater barriers […], new technologies beget a new media environment’. The convergence allowed by both the internet and mobile telephony, for instance, has brought many changes in the BBC Hausa Service’s broadcasting and in its engagement with audiences, as this Abuja bureau editor explains:
There is now the BBC Hausa Facebook [through which] we send out a particular burning or topical issue online, and the amount of responses and the debate among people who visit that site is just interesting […]. Now the BBC has started getting content on to mobile phones, podcast and stuff like that […]. A lot of people are coming in and saying, ‘Look, this is a new development’. I had one listener with an old telephone handset [who came] and said: ‘Look, you guys said I can get whatever I want with this, show me how I can get such content’. I told him, ‘No, look, your telephone is not a web-enabled phone, so you
Audience Participation and BBC’s Digital Quest in Nigeria 153 can’t get it on this’. Believe me, the next day, the man came back with a web-enabled phone and asked me to show him how to do it.
Delivering Hausa Service content through various platforms—radio, online and mobile—and interacting with audiences through those platforms as well as getting them absorbed in debates and discussions through both the radio interactive programming and social media platforms indicates the BBC’s determination to widen its reach and increase its audience gures. Harnessing different platforms ensures that it does not miss out on any useful platform. For instance, the distribution of content through mobile telephony, as former head of the BBC Hausa Service Jamilah Tangaza notes (Tangaza 2009), holds great potential in Nigeria which in 2009 was identified as the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world, at that time with 70 million subscribers (Okonji 2009)—a gure that, as noted earlier, had reached 120 million by April 2013 (NCC 2013).
Full title: Everyday Media Culture in Africa: Audiences and Users edited by Wendy Willems and Winston Mano, and published in 2017 by Routledge, New York and Oxford.