How do we engage with audiences as media-makers? This has been front of mind during the last few months as I’ve worked to make sense of how to keep working with audio amidst a bad economy and amidst a shrinking media scape. Three MIT Media Center theses in the past ten years have dealt with this subject. Following is an excerpt from the 2005 thesis by Joellen Easton, High Interactivity Radio, How the Majority Report, Sean Hannity and Talk of the Nation are using the internet to build community. Not only does she address the subject, but, she does so by introducing the entire topic with the seminal FDR fireside chats. Brilliant.
This construction of the ‘audience’ is opaque in that audience members are not identifiable as individuals: they have little agency and are not aware of fellow members other than as an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1991) of fellow listeners/viewers/readers...David Ryfe (2001) writes about an early example of the opacity of an audience becoming more transparent – he analyzed several hundred letters written to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in response to his ‘fireside chats’ over the course of 12 years.
Letter-writers expressed their representation of public opinion in two ways. On the one hand, they conceived of their letters as adding to the sum total of the actual opinions of many individuals: ‘I feel I must add my voice to the chorus of praises…’, ‘I wish to add my appreciation to the many like expressions…’, ‘May I add a word of appreciation and congratulation to those of the other hundreds of thousands…’ …. The rhetorical basis of such letters is their empirical accumulation. Alone, a single congratulation for a radio message is not likely to be very meaningful. Included with the praise of thousands, however, such letters gain rhetorical force. They are powerful precisely because they are part of a mass opinion (777).
Ryfe has here located an audience acting together, not just being labeled together. Each person wrote about their individual and unique response to Roosevelt’s chats, but in so doing added their “voice to the chorus.” By forming a self-motivated chorus of response, the audience acted as something else: a public. Daniel Dayan (2005) locates the difference between an audience and a public as being “not a matter of numbers. A public is not simply a spectator in the plural, a sum of spectators, an addition. It is a coherent entity whose nature is collective; an ensemble characterised by shared sociability, shared identity and a sense of that identity” (42).