From Inclusion Riders to Cultivating Care: What Lifetime Can Teach The Industry about Entertainment By and For Women, Pt. 2
Miranda J. Banks and Kristin J. Lieb / Emerson College

Screenshot of Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly

Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly

This is the second part of a series. For part one, click here.

The televised awards ceremony creates its own form of melodrama: nominees’ faces filled with anxious hope, from the ingenue to the seasoned star, the surprised delight (or disappointed congratulations to the victor), and of course, the tearful often protracted narrative of the artist’s rise to this celebratory moment. At the Golden Globes this year, Regina King’s speech for Best Supporting Actress started as an alternately misty-eyed and revelatory listing of her collaborators for If Beale Street Could Talk. But then her speech took a turn as she self-reflexively noted that this was her chance to talk about issues larger than her personal experience—namely, the Time’s Up Movement. The “wrap it up” music began to play, but nevertheless, she persisted. And rather than raising the volume and cutting away from her, the song quieted and the camera remained fixed on her, allowing her to finish. The industry—at least those producing the show that night—is finally listening. They broke their time-honored policy to amplify a powerful voice that demanded to be heard.

Regina King’s Golden Globes Acceptance Speech

Changing production cultures is no easy task. And it takes not just a voice, but a vision. To want to do this work is only a small step in a complicated process. And few companies in the industry appreciate the challenges of executing systemic change better than the Lifetime Network. Lifetime’s bold executive move toward equity in its production—arguably its savviest executive decision since the creation of the Lifetime movie—brought about just such transformational change. In Spring of 2015, Lifetime launched Broad Focus, a sweeping employment strategy that aims to establish gender parity in above-the-line talent across the network’s original programming. What has made the program distinctive is that its goal has been not just to hire, but also to support and develop, the work of female writers, producers, and directors. Danielle Carrig, Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs at Lifetime, conceived of Broad Focus as a way of doubling down on Lifetime’s mission of making television by and for women. [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))] As part of the initiative, Lifetime started scouting for talent, partnering with AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women and the Bentonville Film Festival, to usher at least one project a year from each through the network’s development pipeline. (Lifetime has also committed to airing one winning film from each of the festivals annually). At the time, A&E Networks’ (Lifetime’s parent company) president and CEO, Nancy Dubuc, celebrated Broad Focus as a challenge, not just for the network but to the industry. “In this day [and] age, it’s hard to believe as an industry we still struggle to fully recognize women’s talents in behind-the-camera roles, especially as directors… Broad Focus will inspire us to look deeper and in nontraditional places to discover women among those storytellers. I’m proud we are challenging ourselves and our friends in the industry to do more to support them.” [ (( Zumberge, M. 2015. “Lifetime’s Broad Focus Hopes to Find Jobs for Women in Hollywood.” Variety. May 6, 2015. ))]

Lifetime's Broad Focus

Lifetime’s Broad Focus

A month after the Broad Focus announcement, Lifetime premiered UnREAL, a series in which the network went meta on itself, chronicling the scripting of a reality dating series. The idea struck a chord with audiences, garnering record ratings for the network and abundant critical praise for the show. UnREAL both parodied and fueled the wish-fulfillment storytelling formula, historically so vital to Lifetime’s own success. Up until then, the network’s track record with original scripted programming had been decidedly uneven, with only six series lasting beyond two seasons. [ (( Newman, E.L. and E. Witsell. “Introduction.” The Lifetime Network: Essays On “Television for Women” In the 21st Century. Ed. E.L. Newman and E. Witsell. MacFarland. 1-17. Newman and Witsell include Any Day Now (1998 to 2002, four seasons), Strong Medicine (2000 and 2006, six seasons), The Division (2001 to 2004, four seasons), Army Wives (2007 to 2013, seven seasons), and Drop Dead Diva (2009 2014, six seasons). We also include here Devious Maids (2013-2016, four seasons) and UnREAL (2015-present, three seasons). ))]

Partnering with the Broad Focus’ initiative, UnREAL‘s creative team ensured not only the hiring, but the financial support of women working on the series—including those at the bottom. Stacy Rukeyser, co-executive producer and later executive producer of UnREAL, noted the impact of subsidizing typical pay rates for assistants on the series. Doing this diversified their pool of job candidates to include those who could not normally work at such low rates without going into debt. (Assistant jobs, which often put novice talent in the same room as people who might one day help them get staff jobs, often pay little. Typically only those people who have saved up funds, or who have family members willing to support them while they take these jobs, are the only ones able to capitalize on these opportunities.) As Rukeyser said, “Paying just a couple more hundred dollars a week opens doors.” [ (( Bennett, A. “Hollywood Harassment: Best Fight ‘Is to Have Inclusion’ — Produced By.” Deadline. June 10, 2018. ))]

In January 2019, Lifetime aired the six-part documentary series Surviving R. Kelly. The series extended the promise of the network brand, moving from revealing the drama behind the melodrama of reality television to making a haunting documentary about sexual predation that amplified Lifetime’s commitment to telling more inclusive stories by women and for women. Where other networks passed on Surviving R. Kelly, Lifetime believed that the series fit within their brand: this time not as a scripted biopic, but rather as a documentary told through the voices of the young black women who were survivors. But others needed convincing—including filmmaker and writer Dream Hampton, whom Lifetime approached to executive produce the series. “I didn’t want to get involved… And Lifetime, I had watched them fictionalize Aaliyah’s story [Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B]. I said, ‘I’m not interested in doing some re-creation of R. Kelly’… The fact is, I didn’t pitch this. And there wasn’t some buffet of people trying to do this story about black girls.” [ (( Lockett, D. “Why Didn’t Surviving R. Kelly Happen Before Lifetime Entered the Picture?” Vulture. January 18, 2019. https://www.vulture.com/2019/01/why-surviving-r-kelly-aired-on-lifetime.html. ))]

The trailer itself moves from centering the infamous star to bearing witness to survivors’ stories.

With this move, Lifetime stepped more securely into the realm of making television that matters, with integrity, by women and for women—without going off-brand. Lifetime achieved this by greenlighting the story, enlisting Hampton to serve as Executive Producer, and relying on more than 50 interviews to chronicle Kelly’s trail of abuse and bring the stories of his survivors to light compellingly, journalistically, and respectfully. The focus of the series is bearing witness to the women, not sensationalizing the fall of the infamous star, and thus the frames shift as well, making for novel, nuanced television about the entitlements of fame and the hazards and horrors of comparative invisibility. Where other networks said no, Lifetime said yes. By opting to tell an in-progress story about justice for wronged women–rather than offering a safer, post-facto dramatization—Lifetime has expanded its portfolio of meanings to include words like bold, daring, and activist.

But to capitalize on powerful brand meanings and intentions, companies must continue to invest in talent at all levels. In an interview, we asked Carrig about the importance of economic investment to the bolstering of these initiatives. She responded: “We have to start talking about money and the flow of money and making sure women are in that path of the flow of money. It’s okay to start to talk about money. We’ve thought it’s like this dirty thing that women need to be in that line. If their time is being used—even if it is, in part, a learning experience—I believe in compensating for time.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2017. Interview by Miranda Banks. Audio. June 8, 2017. ))]

The network has continued to imagine modes of expanding its reach globally and programmatically. As the network expanded its international reach—with 122% growth in global audience from 2012-2015—executives elected to extend Broad Focus to Lifetime’s worldwide brand through investment in micro-budget content development and in engagement with female talent and audiences through local festivals and markets. Amanda Hill, Chief Creative Officer, International for A+E Networks, said at the unveiling of this plan: “[i]t’s imperative that we use the power of our reach as a media brand to break down the barriers of entry for talented women storytellers.” [ (( Carrig, D. 2015. “A+E Networks’ Lifetime Takes Broad Focus Initiative Global,” Press Release. A+E Networks. October 5, 2015. http://www.aenetworks.com/article/ae-networks-lifetime-takes-broad-focus-initiative-global. ))] In terms of sports programming, while Lifetime was an early supporter of the WNBA, it recently deepened its investment in women’s sports, acquiring an equity stake in the U.S. National Women’s Soccer League, and broadcasting games starting in the 2017 season. [ (( Hagey, K. 2017. “A+E Networks Buys Stake in National Women’s Soccer League.” Wall Street Journal. February 2, 2017. ))] Then by building a nightly block around “women who pursue justice and display courage as a routine part of their work,” [ (( Littleton, C. 2018. “Gretchen Carlson to Host Lifetime’s ‘Justice for Women’ Monday Night Block.” Variety. June 4, 2018. ))] the network embraced cultural momentum related to the #MeToo and #TimesUp Movements, rebranding its Monday night programming block as “Justice for Women with Gretchen Carlson.” Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who successfully sued Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, uses her voice on Lifetime to continue her campaign—and that of the network’s—to be a strong voice for gender parity.

With Broad Focus, Lifetime made its commitment to equity, care, and corporate responsibility clear internally and externally, improving its chances of achieving employee buy-in and industry success. As Colin Mitchell notes in the Harvard Business Review: “Turning points are ideal opportunities for an internal branding campaign; managers can direct people’s energy in a positive direction by clearly and vividly articulating what makes the company special.”[ (( Mitchell, C. 2002. “Selling the Brand Inside.” Harvard Business Review. January, 2002. ))] Lifetime is now poised to become more relevant than ever as it delivers on its brand promise of making television by and for women with as much responsibility, care, and equity as it can. With this recently refocused mandate, Lifetime can ensure that a wide range of women get to tell a wide range of stories, broadening and deepening representation on its network, and validating the diversity among makers and audiences in the process.

Neither one person, nor one company, can undo long-held entitlements and the unchecked privilege of those who have dominated the media industries. To ensure that well-intentioned individual efforts are not made in vain, they must be coordinated and supported by institutional measures focused on impact and longevity. Many individuals working autonomously can make many other individuals feel cared for, but this approach results in duplicative effort, wasted time, and burnout. Lasting change is possible, but only if Lifetime and its network peers operationalize their values by integrating them into every conceivable level of their organizations and brands, investing in and supporting relevant initiatives, using more inclusive labor practices, and establishing how they will more thoughtfully and comprehensively measure success—and justice.

Image Credits:

1. Screenshot from Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly (author’s screen grab)
2. Lifetime’s Broad Focus




The Devil in the Details: User Tracking Is Hurting More Than Our Privacy, It’s Doing Serious Damage to Public-Interest Media, Too.
Josh Braun / UMass Amherst

With the attention economy in full swing, behavioral targeting—tracking and assembling data about users in the service of online advertising—is giving rise to practices and infrastructures that threaten personal privacy, disrupt civic journalism, and incentivize the spread of disinformation.

As I write this, my social media feeds are consumed by the furor resulting from Jeff Bezos’s open letter accusing The National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, of attempting to extort him over leaked photographs from his affair. While much of the commentary rightly focuses on issues of digitally-enabled blackmail, Slate tech reporter April Glaser simultaneously muses at the irony of a privacy scandal befalling a tech CEO who’s garnered notoriety for “actively building a surveillance state.”

A few weeks on from “Data Privacy Day,” the international holiday aimed at promoting better protection for consumers’ data, the Bezos story is just one of many to raise questions about the individual right to privacy in the digital era. It follows closely on the heels of Facebook’s latest scandal—Apple pulled the company’s services from its app store after the revelation Facebook was paying teenagers to install tracking software on their phones—and years after a ProPublica report that Google had quietly abandoned its ban on collecting personally identifiable tracking data on its users. [ (( Particularly when it comes to Facebook, the hits just keep on coming, fast enough that I decided it’d be unwise to try to keep updating this piece during the proofing process. Editorial: Facebook, Zuckerberg’s sins now include preying on teens. (2019, February 5). The Mercury News. Retrieved from https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/02/05/editorial-facebook-2/; Angwin, J. (2016, October 21). Google has quietly dropped ban on personally identifiable web tracking. ProPublica. Retrieved from https://www.propublica.org/article/google-has-quietly-dropped-ban-on-personally-identifiable-web-tracking.))] Other recent reporting discusses how location information collected from our phones has found its way into the hands third parties ranging from robocallers to bounty hunters, raising deep concerns about individual privacy, personal safety, and even national security. [ (( Vogt, P.J., Goldman, A., Marchetti, D., and Bennin, P. (Hosts.) (2019, January 31). Robocall: Bang bang [Podcast episode]. Reply All. Retrieved from https://www.gimletmedia.com/reply-all/135-the-robocall-conundrum#episode-player; Cox, Joseph. (2019, February 6). Hundreds of bounty hunters had access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint customer location data for years. Motherboard. Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/43z3dn/hundreds-bounty-hunters-att-tmobile-sprint-customer-location-data-years; Valentino-DeVries, J., Singer, N., Keller, M.H., and Krolik, A. (2018, December 10). Your apps know where you were last night, and they’re not keeping it secret. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/12/10/business/location-data-privacy-apps.html))]

EverythingMe

A marketing screenshot for the Android launcher app, EverythingMe, which was downloaded 20 million times and eventually found to have been co-opted into a multi-million dollar ad fraud scheme. Co-opted apps tracked phone users’ behavior as a template on which to base convincing automated traffic, which could then be used to defraud advertisers by faking ad views. [ ((Silverman, C. (2018, October 23). Apps installed on millions of Android phones tracked user behavior to execute a multimillion-dollar ad fraud scheme. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/how-a-massive-ad-fraud-scheme-exploited-android-phones-to))] Ad fraud schemes siphon massive amounts of revenue out of the advertising market.

As data privacy (or lack thereof) has begun to take on the dimensions of a crisis, another much-discussed emergency has been unfolding in parallel: the economic collapse of ad-supported digital journalism. Following a series of layoffs at news organizations ranging from TechCrunch to HuffPo to BuzzFeed and Gannett, respected tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote in The New York Times, “it would be a mistake to regard these cuts as the ordinary chop of a long-roiling digital media sea. Instead, they are a devastation. The cause of each company’s troubles may be distinct, but collectively the blood bath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make much meaningful room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants.” Two days later, Vice cut 250 more journalism jobs, or 10 percent of its workforce.

This rash of cuts is especially painful, given that “digital-native newsrooms” were only recently celebrated as one of the few areas in American journalism to have added jobs over the course of a decade-long 25 percent decline in employment led by steady layoffs at traditional newspapers. [ (( Grieco, E. (2018, July 30). Newsroom employment dropped nearly a quarter in less than 10 years, with greatest decline at newspapers. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/30/newsroom-employment-dropped-nearly-a-quarter-in-less-than-10-years-with-greatest-decline-at-newspapers))]

These two crucial problems—the erosion of digital privacy and the revenue crisis in American journalism—have tended to be discussed as distinct issues. They are not. [ (( Ryan, J. (2019). The adtech crisis and disinformation [Lecture video]. Vimeo. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/317245633.))] Rather, they spring from a common origin and, to paraphrase Thoreau, in solving them we would do better to strike at the root than to hack at the branches. [ (( Thoreau, H.D. (1910/1854). Walden. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., p.98))]

It is a commonplace that advertising pays for most of the free services we use on the the internet. The viral quotation from Jeff Hammerbacher, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” sums up much about the direction online business models have taken. And the solution that has been settled upon is programmatic advertising.

Brave

Screenshot from a document prepared by Brave (the company behind a privacy-oriented Web browser) showing some of the sensitive categories that ad tech firms attach to your persona as you browse the web. It’s a selective excerpt of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) “Content Taxonomy v2” list.

Programmatic advertising takes a number of forms, but generally speaking, in the fraction of a second that it takes a webpage or an app to load on your screen, an automated auction is being held for your attention based on tracking data that has been collected about you. The publisher puts up ad space for sale, brands put in competing bids to place an ad in the space, and intermediaries called ad tech firms handle all the transaction details. By the time the content you requested finishes loading, the auction winner’s ad appears on your screen alongside it.

While the most prominent news organizations, like The New York Times or The Economist, may still do a brisk business directly with branded advertisers, a vast number of other news organizations rely far more heavily on programmatic advertising exchanges to sell their inventory, competing not just with other news organizations, but with blogs, web forums, recipe sites, online games, and any other website or app that sells ad space in programmatic exchanges. This dramatically drives down the cost of ads and hence the revenue going to publishers.

Moreover, these transactions are often focused tightly around reaching particular consumers to the near exclusion of editorial context. To give one example, all of us have experienced “retargeted” advertising—view a suitcase on a retailer’s website and ads for the same piece of luggage follow you across the web for days or weeks.

As Malthouse, Maslowska, and Franks put it, programmatic advertising separates “the value of the content product from the audience product.” [ (( Malthouse, E.C., Maslowska, E., and Franks, J. (2018). The role of big data in programmatic TV advertising. In V. Cauberghe, L. Hudders, and M. Eisend (Eds.), Advances in Advertising Research IX . (pp. 29–42). Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer. p. 32.))] Couldry and Turow argue that for traditionally ad-supported news organizations, continuing to chase down advertising revenue in this new environment is thoroughly corrupting. [ (( Couldry, N. and Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm. International Journal of Communication, 8, 1710–1726.))] As advertisers begin pursuing users with particular behavioral profiles, while paying less and less attention to the actual publications they’re visiting, publishers can no longer rely as they once did on the quality of their work. Rather, they must increasingly play the role of data brokers, participating in user surveillance and producing increasingly personalized and/or shopper-friendly content that bins visitors neatly into behavioral profiles that will better draw the bids of advertisers—advertisers that now, at least in comparison to days past, pay scant attention to the name on a site’s masthead.

In the days of contextual advertising, ads for suitcases might best be placed in travel magazines. Under the user-tracking paradigm, not only do brands no longer need to rely on particular publications to reach the consumers they’ve identified as desirable, there is now a perverse incentive to place ads on the least reputable sites, since these are the locations where users’ attention can be bought most cheaply. This has led to a boom in clickbait-driven webpages, selling cheap ad space against vapid or plagiarized content focused around miracle diets and strange cosmetic trends. During the 2016 U.S. election, “fake news” did particularly well as a variant of clickbait and thus became a profit-center for scammers.

Originally from The Birmingham Mail, this image was appropriated by a hoax news article titled, “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse,” that, according to an expose in The Washington Post, was viewed by 6 million people and generated $22,000 in programmatic advertising revenue. Moreover, at the height of this influx of traffic, the web domain where the hoax was posted was appraised for a six-figure sum. [ (( Shane, S. (2017, January 18). From headline to photograph, a fake news masterpiece. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html.))]

I don’t use the term “scammers” loosely here—Jessica Eklund and I recently published a study in which we examined disfunction in the programmatic advertising industry. [ (( Braun, J.A. and Eklund, J.L. (2019) Fake news, real money: Ad tech platforms, profit-driven hoaxes, and the business of journalism. Digital Journalism, 7(1), 1–21.))] Industry executives explained that many hoax news sites were fronts for outright fraud, ginning up page views with bots and click workers and selling them to advertisers for a profit. Legitimate visitors to these sites were welcome, of course, but often their main value was confusing fraud-detection mechanisms by pushing down the ratio of automated to human traffic.

In short, it might be fair to expect news organizations to endure stiffer competition from new corners—not simply blogs or Craigslist, but gaming apps and recipe sites. However, in the current market, legitimate journalism is competing for ad dollars with sites engaged in aggressive fraud, sometimes with the assistance of ad tech companies themselves. Along with related enterprises like fake traffic generation, these siphon billions of dollars out of the advertising market annually [ (( Fulgoni, G. (2016). Fraud in digital advertising. Journal of Advertising Research, 56(2): 122–125.))], contributing to the larger problem of market failure [ (( Pickard, V. (2015). America’s battle for media democracy. New York: Cambridge.))] in contemporary journalism.

To review, then, the massive system of commercial surveillance we see online not only impacts us in terms of privacy, safety, and security, it has dramatically increased the amount of information pollution [ (( Wardle, C., and Derakhshan, H. (2017). Information disorder. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Retrieved from https://firstdraftnews.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/PREMS-162317-GBR-2018-Report-de%CC%81sinformation-1.pdf))] in the public sphere, gutting news budgets—and hence newsrooms—by driving down the amount paid for ads, turning trusted news organizations into data brokers that produce less civically valuable content, dramatically incentivizing the creation of clickbait and outright disinformation, and kindling remarkable volumes of fraudulent activity that simultaneously fleeces advertisers and diverts hefty amounts of money away from public-interest media.

One recent survey indicated that a sizable majority of the American public already sees the collection of their data in the service of targeted advertising as unethical. [ (( RSA. (2019). RSA data privacy & security survey [Report]. Bedford, MA: Author.))] I imagine they might feel even more strongly about the issue were it more commonly linked with dramatic declines in the health of public-interest media. As we witness the introduction of digital privacy policy conversations and frameworks, whether the GDPR in Europe or bills proposed in individual states here in the U.S., it’s time to begin examining commercial surveillance not just as a privacy issue, but as a notable threat to our media institutions and public discourse.

Image Credits:

1. With the attention economy in full swing…
2. A marketing screenshot for the Android launcher app…
3. Screenshot from a document prepared by Brave…
4. Originally from the Birmingham Mail, this image was appropriated by a hoax news article….




“The Game on Top of the Game”: Navigating Race, Media, and the Business of Basketball in High Flying Bird
Courtney M. Cox / University of Southern California

High Flying Bird 1

High Flying Bird attempts to capture the business of basketball through agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg).

On the surface, it appears to be a film about basketball. Netflix’s High Flying Bird (2019) boasts the back of a jersey on its cover, the sneaker squeaks of the gym, and the voices of some of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) real-life up-and-coming stars (Reggie Jackson, Donovan Mitchell, and Karl Anthony-Towns) interspersed as vignettes with the film’s scripted SAV Management, an agency representing professional athletes. The main character, Ray Burke (played by André Holland) is an agent representing NBA rookie Erick Scott, the first pick in the previous draft who has yet to play his first game due to a league-wide lockout. At first glance, it’s a version of HBO’s Ballers meant to be taken seriously; the viewer spends time following Scott navigate the financial pitfalls of being a young millionaire-to-be who hasn’t gotten his first check, while Ray maneuvers through a firm struggling under the weight of the lockout as owners engage in battle with a players’ union fighting on behalf of its athletes.

The film tackles sport under late capitalism through slick visuals and overly-dramatic dialogue.

But close up, the film is a critical, albeit heavy-handed look at the global phenomenon of basketball and the racial and economic shifts which have shaped the game. Early in the film, old school coach Spence (Bill Duke) tells Ray, “There’s a reason why the NBA started integrating as the Harlem Globetrotters’ exhibitions started going international. Control. They wanted the control of a game that we play, we played better. They invented a game on top of a game.” The game on top is an ecosystem comprised of agents, television networks, marketing execs, and team owners who profit off of the spectacle of a majority-Black sport. Even Ray, a Black agent, is positioned outside of the power circle of his own firm and the greater “game” operating above the court.

Much of the film operates through smaller screens, filled with familiar faces and voices of TV personalities such as Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe, shows like TMZ, and tweets between players. The media isn’t a subplot of the film; it’s a major character. High Flying Bird focuses on the media’s role as a catalyst for both the actions of players, their families, and league representatives while simultaneously delving into the major media contracts between the NBA and TV networks, which comprise a large portion of the league’s annual revenue.

High Flying Bird 2

The media play an integral role in the film’s plot development.

Ray’s ingenuity in concocting a plan to end the lockout is rooted in creating “something that they can’t bottle up,” after his former assistant asks if they’ve “run out of story” (in the same way one could run out of money). One fabricated Twitter beef and 24-hour news cycle later, a one-on-one hoops showdown on a community court between two rookies draws in millions of views to shaky cell phone video, proving they may be out of money, but aren’t yet out of story. The exclusive nature of an untelevised one-on-one game between two players yet to take the court in the NBA takes the social media posts of those at the game viral and results in the potential to create new exclusive streetball games—”lockout ball”—while negotiations continue. Ray schedules meetings with Facebook and yes, even Netflix.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of sport scholar Lawrence Wenner’s Transactional Model of Media, Sports, and Society Relationships. Wenner offered a blueprint of the “game on top of a game” in his canonical Media, Sports, and Society (1989). His visual representation of what has been called the sports-media complex (the interdependent relationship between sports and media) offers a bird’s eye view of the ties and tensions and between sports organizations, media conglomerates, and fans. [ (( Wenner, L. A. (1989). Media, Sports, and Society: The Research Agenda. In Media, Sports, and Society (pp. 13–48). Newbury Park: Sage Publications. ))]

Wenner model

In the late 1980s, Lawrence Wenner offered this model to explain the symbiotic relationship between sports, media, and society.

During a lockout, it is particularly difficult to ascertain what’s going on within the “sports organizations” triangle, comprised of athletes, owners, league officials, and the players’ association. It is interesting that Wenner chooses to place athletes within this particular grouping rather than outside of it (a la “sports journalists” in their own triangle from “media organizations”). Sports fans may remember 2011-2012 as particularly fraught for player-league relations as three out of the “Big Four” U.S. men’s professional leagues faced lockouts across the National Basketball Association, National Football League, and National Hockey League. Jonothan Lewis and Jennifer M. Proffitt, in comparing coverage of a lockout in 2011 to the mid-1990s, found that the media continues to focus on many of the same major themes: a consumer focus (the fan as the ultimate loser in these labor negotiations), lockouts as a “millionaires vs. billionaires” problem (rich people’s problems), and the players as “gaming the system.” [ (( Lewis, J., & Proffitt, J. M. (2013). Sports, Labor and the Media: An Examination of Media Coverage of the 2011 NFL Lockout. Labor Studies Journal, 38(4), 300–320. https://doi.org/10.1177/0160449X14522324. ))] High Flying Bird seemingly reifies this model throughout the film, locating athletes who wish to operate outside the league’s framework as deviant, or, as Ray defines it, “disruptors.” As negotiations between the players’ union and team owners stall, the concept of players and agents joining forces to create their own league and negotiate media rights deals feels like fantasy, even when housed within the realm of a scripted film. The concept of a lockout league is shopped around to interested media factions outside of the standard ESPNs, NBCs, and FOX offerings. Ray sets up meetings with Facebook and yes, even Netflix. “For a second,” Ray says, “I could see an infrastructure that put the control back in the hands of those behind the ball instead of those up in the sky box.” However radical this vision appears, the film captures how his eventual actions serve to move him socially and financially closer to sky box rather than realigning power to those on the court.

High Flying Bird 3

Ray’s attempts at a radical readjustment of power merely operate as a means to embed him further into the institution of corporatized sport.

In the same way, it is fascinating to consider that this film, shot by director Steven Soderbergh in two weeks on an iPhone (with a working cut available within hours of completing shooting), also represents a shift in the gatekeeping of filmmakers and production in general. While shooting a film on a smartphone is nothing new (thousands of film students do this daily), Soderbergh offers a potential disruption because of his position as an established industry figure. However, like the normalization of streaming platforms and social media networks into the entertainment industry, these technological shifts do not inherently make these spaces more egalitarian; rather, they become embedded into the system (an Oscar nod, the ability to hire and retain top talent, etc.). Ray’s desire to collapse the game on top of the game merely resulted in a regulating mechanism to stifle any potential dismantling.

Ultimately, the threat of reasserting the “control” that Coach Spence references at the beginning of the film is enough to end the lockout; Ray, in an attempt to assert himself within this game on top of a game, uses his position—along with the players as pawns—to change the power structure, if only for a moment. He, in turn, is rewarded, but once again absorbed into the larger framework. At best, he can only shift the model for his own benefit, not destroy it entirely.

Image Credits:

1. High Flying Bird attempts to capture the business of basketball through agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). (author’s screen grab)
2. The media play an integral role in the film’s plot development. (author’s screen grab)
3. In the late 1980s, Lawrence Wenner offered this model to explain the symbiotic relationship between sports, media, and society. (author’s screen grab)
4. Ray’s attempts at a radical readjustment of power merely operate as a means to embed him further into the institution of corporatized sport. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




Lucifer’s Women and Doctor Dracula: Conjuring a Cult-Cult Canon, Pt. 2
Phil Oppenheim / Oppanopticom / EPIX / Brown Sugar SVOD

description of image

A glimpse at Sir Stephen in Lucifer’s Women.

“Cult” is a confrontational sensibility and set of aesthetics that “seeks to promote an alternative vision of cinematic ‘art’, aggressively attacking the established canon of ‘quality’ cinema and questioning the legitimacy of reigning aesthete discourses on movie art” [ ((Sconce, Jeffrey. “‘Trashing’ the Academy,” Screen 36.4 (Winter 1995): 374.))]; cultist consumption marks “a radical refusal to become associated with the anonymous mainstream.” [ ((Mathijs, Ernest and Xavier Mendik. “What Is Cult Film?” In The Cult Film Reader, Ed. Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008): 4.))] Or maybe cult media appreciation amounts to only “minor subversions and assertions of individuality” that leave its viewers “feeling better about ourselves and our world … [a] simultaneously dangerous and safe trip” that results in a “pleasurable transgression” [ ((Telotte, J.P. “Beyond All Reason: The Nature of Cult.” In The Cult Film Experience, Ed: J.P. Telotte. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991): 15-16.))]; on the other hand, perhaps being a cultist is more profound, and can “save your life,” instituting a form of “therapy, self-medication, means of private escape and pragmatic material for furnishing a meaningful existence.” [ ((Hunter, I.Q. Cult Film As a Guide to Life. (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016): XV.))] For some, its lauded oppositionalism is really just a “species of bourgeois aesthetics, not a challenge to it,” [ ((Jancovich, Mark. “Cult Fictions: Cult Movies, Subcultural Capital and the Production of Cultural Distinctions,” Cultural Studies 16.2 (2002): 320.))] a “conflict within (rather than against) the bourgeoisie” that serves to “reaffirm rather than challenge bourgeois taste and masculine dispositions” [ ((Jancovich, Mark, Antonio Lazaro Reboll, Julian Stringer, and Andy Willis. Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003): 2.))]; for others, cultists’ praise of abject media objects and disdain for the noxious effluence that flows from the spigots of multinational corporations signals a powerful and much-needed FU to The Culture Industry.

Cult is celebratory, performative, and oppositional, as when Rocky Horror fans throw toilet paper at the screen and sing along to the transformational anthem to “Don’t dream it, be it” [ ((… or like the Rajneeshees singing along to “We All Live in the Orange Submarine,” Jonestown members performing in skits and dance routines, Synanon members playing The Game, Manson Family members playing home invasion/furniture rearranging Creepy Crawling games, or …))]; drawing from the twin traditions of cult and camp film performative criticism as pioneered by Manny Farber and Parker Tyler, it champions “self-expression as resistance to a form of culture for which the critic had only limited respect,” wielding “pop mythos as an assault weapon.” [ ((Taylor, Greg. Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp, and American Film Criticism. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999): 68-69.))] Among the most fervent features of cult media performance is its adherents’ proselytizing; cultists counter their dismissal of the perceived mediocrities of mainstream culture by pointing potential initiates towards more transcendent alternatives. Cult clerics like the staffs of independent record-stores, comic-shops, book sellers, and DVD/VHS rental shops [ ((I’m fortunate enough to live in Portland, Oregon, where these shrines to cultdom still exist; if you’ve got some of these in your neighborhood, please support them while you can!))] steer neophytes away from the junk market-tested content that populates the algorithmic “Suggestions” of Amazon and Netflix (and the remaining big box stores) and towards the dark recesses of where the good shit resides, accessible only to the enlightened, illuminated few.

Lucifer's Women on Blu-ray

Lucifer’s Women on Blu-ray.

And so, I proffer unto you: Lucifer’s Women. Check it out:

Lucifer’s Women was released in 1974, shortly after the verdicts were returned in the Manson Family trials (1971, with the death sentences commuted to life imprisonment when California abolished capital punishment in 1972), The Exorcist stormed the box office (it was the #1 film of 1973, earning $193 million and vomiting pea soup onto over 21 million ticket-holders), Time magazine noted Satan’s big comeback in their cover story “The Occult Revival” (June 19, 1972), and Cosmopolitan offered sexy tips on five witchy love spells to try out on unsuspecting men (May 1973). [ ((To offer a handful of moments of pop cult culture among many, many others of the era.))] Writer-director Paul Aratow surfed the wave of occult interest with his film, but Lucifer’s Women was targeting a different audience than the mainstream; his exploitationer was liberally slathered with nudity, harnessing scenes of strip-joint dance routines and “love-making” (with a variety of exotic combinations of kinds and number of partners) destined for grindhouses (versus the red carpet of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the cast, director, and writer of The Exorcist would find themselves in 1974).

One suspects that Lucifer’s Women probably hit the bull’s eye of its raincoat-crowd’s crotches, but the picture aims higher too; more than just flesh, the film delivers an entertaining, intriguing gloss on the dynamics of charismatic cult leadership. Its tawdry plot: An egomaniacal male academic—you probably know the type—writes an acclaimed biography of Svengali [ ((Svengali was, of course, a character in George du Maurier’s Gothic novel Trilby, but I’m not sure the audience for Lucifer’s Women fretted much about the seducer’s leap from fiction into reality.))], but turns out really to be his reincarnated spirit; in order to keep his newly possessed body, he must sacrifice a young woman (a burlesque performer named, you guessed it, Trilby) at “the moment of orgasm” at a Satanic mass, officiated by (and engaging in sex with) the creepily Luciferian cult leader Sir Stephen. The real Wainwright falls in love with Trilby, and battles Svengali for the possession of his own body; meanwhile, Trilby’s landlord/drug-dealer/wannabe-pimp, Roland, tries to sever her growing fascination with Wainwright and lure her into a threesome with his current obedient, long-suffering steady girlfriend.

Larry Hankin as Svengali

Larry Hankin as Svengali.

The plot of Lucifer’s Women funnels down concentric circles of charismatic power dynamics, with powerful men luring and manipulating servile women, in a pattern repeated from the (real-life) Manson Girls to the branded TV stars of Keith Raniere’s NXIVM. Sir Stephen humiliates Mary, a female initiate who resembles a hippie-chick Manson Girl down to the mark in the middle of her forehead, in the film’s most shocking scene, by having her kiss his feet while he pantomimes showering her with his urine. The film’s Alpha Males ultimately square off against each other, with Roland losing (his life) to Svengali, Svengali subordinating his will to Sir Stephen, and Sir Stephen submitting himself to Satan during a Black Mass. But the film suggests that powerful, self-assertive femininity might actually overpower fragile male dominance and cult leadership: Trilby and Mary turn the tables on the Demonic Duo of Svengali and Sir Stephen, destroying their plans for eternal malevolent life. The Satanic Cult may be seductive—during a romantic dinner-date, Trilby confesses to Wainwright/Svengali that “the kind of man that has power over women” is “everybody’s fantasy”—but is no match for a confident woman. [ ((… unless you stick around for the final ending of the film, which is a trick ending that repudiates this entire sentence.))]

Manson girl

Mary, the hippie-chick Manson Girl.

Cultist consumers enjoy connecting dots between outré artifacts; working through the networks of weirdos both to each other and to their interfaces and overlaps with the mainstream is a cultish joy of sects. Lucifer’s Women does not disappoint on this score. The film gets much of its cult-cult cred from the participation of Anton LaVey, the infamous founder of The Church of Satan (and notorious publicity hound), who supervised the film’s Black Mass sequences, lending them theatricalized, camp-adjacent (in)authenticity. The same year that Lucifer’s Women hit theaters, LaVey inducted Sammy Davis, Jr. into The Church of Satan, based in part on the actor’s 1973 busted NBC pilot about the comic travails of a demon trapped on Earth, Poor Devil. Paul Aratow, the writer and director of the film, found multiple tracks to fame after this film. Aratow bought the rights to a couple of Will Eisner’s classic comic-book characters to produce the ABC pilot for The Spirit (1987) and the schlocky Tanya Roberts vehicle Sheena (1984); he founded the Berkeley restaurant that launched “California Cuisine,” Chez Panisse [ ((Co-founder Alice Waters has been its Executive Chef since 1971; Aratow was its first chef de cuisine.))]; and he taught comp lit at UC Berkeley. But the kind of people who watch flicks like Lucifer’s Women may know him best from his highbrow-sleaze antique photography coffee-table collection, 100 Years of Erotica: A Photographic Portfolio of Mainstream American Culture from 1845 to 1945; Aratow shrewdly has Trilby flip through a copy of his recently published book and become aroused—a hilariously self-promotional, self-pleasuring moment of product placement.

Lavey Satanic Rituals

Anton Lavey’s The Satanic Rituals.

Philip Toubus, who plays the lowlife whose pimp aspirations get squashed (along with his body, under the wheels of a limo) by Svengali, began his career as Peter in Norman Jewison’s big-budget musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) but later found his talents (and his unique anatomy) more in demand in hardcore pornography; as Paul Thomas, his IMDb page is hundreds of titles long. Gangly, weird-bearded Larry Hankin plays charismatic Svengali; you’d recognize him as the guy who plays “Kramer” in the pilot-within-a-show that Jerry and George sell to NBC in the meta fourth season of Seinfeld. And a quick look below-the-line yields a familiar name as the film and sound editor; working his way slowly from sleaze to the red carpet is David Webb Peoples, whose screenplays include Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, and Unforgiven.

By the middle of the 1970s, the national interest in the occult hadn’t waned; simultaneously, the cult movie phenomenon was still in its youth. Lucifer’s Women may have opened and closed in 1974, but its life as a cult-cult artifact was far from over; its remains would soon be resurrected in a different form, for a different medium. What sort of dark arts were involved in its mysterious rebirth?

Image Credits:
1. Author’s screengrab.
2. Available on Vinegar Syndrome’s website.
3. Author’s screengrab.
4. Author’s screengrab.
5. Available on Abe Books’ website.




Five Ways I’ve Defined Fan Studies
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

SDCC Marvel Group Shot

A picture of the Marvel Cosplay meet-up taken at San Diego Comic Con in 2013.

When you make a career in fan studies, I’ve learned that you must get used to defining it quickly at parties (and conferences, sob). Four years after reading my first fic and twentyish months after arranging for fan studies to be (part of) my job, I still haven’t perfected my elevator pitch, in part because I like the field so much it’s hard to be succinct. But here’s what I’ve got.

    1) “No, not that kind of fans.”

Sometimes people go “Fans? Like, pfft-pfft-pfft, fans?” or make spinny hand gestures at me, which usually means they knew exactly what kind of fans I was talking about and find it ridiculous that there’s a discipline for that. Fan studies scholarship often begins by defending its right to exist, and while I wish that authors didn’t need to issue such disclaimers, I can’t deny that the field comes in for its share of neglect and derision.

A recurring theme in much of fan studies is the outsider status of the communities under study—they’re women, they’re nonbinary, their tastes are weird and fringey, they’re getting queer sex all over your faves. They’re under attack from the lawyers of wealthy creators because nobody’s gay in Star Wars; they’ve been offered a place at the table, as long as they play by the rules (they won’t) and it doesn’t turn into a PR disaster for the company (it will).

As fandom moves out of the margins—as fan writers grow up and gain access to the keys of the media kingdom—it becomes harder to make the case for fannish marginality as a cornerstone of fan studies. The lines between canon and affirmational fandom and transformational fandom, never all that firm to begin with, are collapsing all over the place.

    2) “It’s the study of how people interact with things they like.”

This is my best, most common response, because it encompasses a wide range of fannish activities, from literary criticism to cosplay, and the other person does not need to ask follow-up questions in order to feel they have understood my answer. But I’m also unhappily aware that things they like is an imperfect descriptor. I like the Captain America movie trilogy enough to want more time with those characters, yet not so much that I wouldn’t prefer to spend my weekends reading fics about Sam Wilson, the obviously best Avenger (do not @ me). If there’s one thing transformative fandom knows how to do, it’s love a thing while wanting it to be better.

Anthony Mackie

Anthony Mackie’s character in the Marvel Extended Universe, “The Falcon.”

Even so, this response gets at the scope of what fan studies is becoming. The differences between types of fandom don’t hold up to much scrutiny if you take the patriarchy out of the equation. (Which, can we just do that? Would it be okay to just topple it already?) As Kavita Mudan Finn and Jessica McCall note,

In a world of undead authors and readers unsure of their own critical authority, fanfiction provides a unique avenue in which to actively undercut the positivism of traditional approaches to interpretation. [ ((Finn, Kavita Mudan and Jessica McCall. “Exit, Pursued by a Fan: Shakespeare, Fandom, and the Lure of the Alternate Universe.” Critical Survey 28, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 27–38.))]

The difference between a solid meta and a piece of literary criticism is gender, class, money, access; but both arise from the writer’s desire to engage with, grapple with, a piece of work that they like and find interesting.

    3) “It examines how people participate in the things they care about, and especially how they resist and rework those things.”

Or, the slightly more detailed version of #2. I like to follow this up with the example of pro football fans’ responses to NFL players protesting police brutality during the national anthem (including Eric Reid, who’s out of LSU!). I use this example because I’m from South Louisiana and we have a brand to maintain; because it’s a situation that a lot of people know a little about; and because I like to shake up the idea (that other disciplines have) that fan studies only cares about girly stuff. Or to put it the other way around, I like to get my girly-stuff-fan-studies cooties all over everything else.

Kaepernick kneeling

Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem in a stadium filled with fans.

As with all my other answers, this one dissatisfies me. I am interested in fandom-as-resistance, but I am also aware that fannish resistance in one area is no protection against fannish prejudice in another. [ (( Do yourself a favor and follow Stitch’s Media Mix for consistently insightful critiques of fandom racism.))] To return to the Captain America example, just toddle over to AO3 dot org and you will find a wealth, a cornucopia, of fic that reimagines Captain America as queer. But if you desire to read stories starring Sam Wilson, the obviously best Avenger (yeah, I’m doubling down on this), you will find yourself wading through a lot, a lot, of stories in which Sam Wilson is only there to provide emotional support to the white Avengers.

    4) “It’s a subdiscipline of [insert field here].”

No matter what I put inside those brackets, I can’t help feeling that I’ve told a filthy lie. At the recent Fan Studies Network–North America conference, discussion turned to making more space for fan studies within the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Well and good as far as it goes, but a literary fandom scholar pointed out that they live under the umbrella of English departments, and don’t have access to SCMS events and resources. Liking things is not confined to a single academic field, not media studies or communications or literary studies, which makes it tricky to find a disciplinary definition for fan studies.

I suspect, though, that the discipline’s liminal status within the academy has given it some of the same strengths that outsiderhood has given to fandom. While literature and film and cultural studies gatekeepers weren’t watching, students who grew up in fandom crept into their departments and started chipping away at the distinctions between the serious (bell hooks, Theodor Adorno) and the decidedly unserious (Johnlock conspiracy theories, Teen Wolf ABO fanfic). Standing within fan studies and surveying the terrain, it seems impossible that fan studies won’t have its hooks into every university department in a few years’ time.

Because the true answer I want to give, when someone asks me to define fan studies, is one that I’ve never actually used:

    5) “It’s the field that’s going to remake the Humanities.”

Image Credits:
1. A picture of the Marvel Cosplay meet-up taken at San Diego Comic Con in 2013.
2. Anthony Mackie’s character in the Marvel Extended Universe, “The Falcon.”
3. Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem in a stadium filled with fans.




What Happens When Chinese and Western Podcasters Meet?
Siobhán McHugh /University of Wollongong

podcast presentation

Siobhán McHugh delivers a keynote on podcasting to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Chengdu, China, October 2017.

The success of podcasting, in the English-speaking world at least, is closely linked to its emphasis on the personal. Podcasts have hosts, not the more formal “presenters,” and these hosts, who often speak directly into our ears via our headphones, are like new friends. So how would podcasting work in a culture where “people’s sense of themselves as individuals atrophied…” That quote is from the Chinese satirical novelist, Yan Lianke, profiled recently in The New Yorker. [ ((Jiayang Fan, 2018. Yan Lianke’s Forbidden Satires of China. The New Yorker, 15 October 2018.
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/10/15/yan-liankes-forbidden-satires-of-china
))] Lianke, mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner, attributes the “dark, fierce realism” of contemporary China to decades of living under a highly controlling Communist government.

With the post-Mao reforms of the last four decades and recent globalization and economic growth, many Chinese are reclaiming personal space, a development that Chinese media scholars Wanning Sun and Wei Lei call the “privatisation of the self.” Sun and Lei describe in fascinating detail how the market-driven transformation and social stratification of China have had a direct impact on perceptions of intimacy. [ ((Wanning Sun and Wei Lei. In Search of Intimacy in China: The Emergence of Advice Media for the Privatized Self, Communication, Culture and Critique, Volume 10, Issue 1, 1 March 2017, Pages 20–38, https://doi.org/10.1111/cccr.12150)))]

In a society where the very notion of individualism was anathema for so long, how would the promise of digital intimacy, the implicit foundation of so much of our engagement with podcasts in the West, be received?

That’s the question I asked myself in October 2017 as I prepared to give a keynote on Tuning Into the Podcast Revolution, in Chengdu, China, at the General Assembly of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU), whose members broadcast to over half the world, some four billion people.

Would audio storytelling’s ability to build empathy and connection, prized by Western radio makers and podcasters over decades, resonate in a nation where, Lianke asserts, Communism had “made it impossible to express true feelings in conscious life…”

The short answer is yes, absolutely. The interest was palpable and I was subsequently invited by the ABU to run an intensive podcast training workshop for participants from China, Vietnam and Malaysia.

In the run up, I held a masterclass in Sydney for delegates from China Radio International (CRI), the English language arm of the state broadcaster. Many see CRI as part of a global Chinese push to conduct soft diplomacy. But the persuasive power of podcasting appears to have largely slipped under the radar. In the class, I hesitated before playing a clip from Serial Season One, thinking it might be too old hat—it had had c.300 million listeners by then and been the subject of countless articles. “What do you know about Serial?” I asked, before bringing up the slide. A broadcaster reflected. “It’s something you have for breakfast?” He was not making a joke. That’s when I realized what cultural difference truly means.

It’s not as if podcasting does not exist in China. Far from it, but it is different from Western storytelling and long-form conversation formats. China’s commercial podcast market is worth over 7 billion US dollars a year, based largely on subscribers who pay to access self-improvement and educational content, hoping to gain an edge in a highly competitive society. Lei has documented another popular set of audio products, distributed via listening apps and online platforms, which cater to two main streams: “knowledge products,” including audio books, poetry shows, business and finance; and “healing” content, which offer advice on personal and relationship issues, love and intimacy. Offerings tend to be short (under ten minutes) and simple: constructed of voice and music, without fancy production. [ ((Wei Lei. Radio and Social Transformation in China. Routledge, forthcoming.))] The numbers are staggering: Ximalaya FM, China’s biggest platform for shared audio content, reports 400 million downloads of its app. It has recently invested in an American podcasting distribution startup, Himalaya Media, which can monetize content by having listeners “tip” small amounts.

In my residential workshop, I wanted to see how participants responded to the Western podcast canon and how they might adapt it to cultural taste. Every morning I deconstructed the theory and practice of Anglophone podcasting, playing examples, analysing formats, structure and content, and expounding the grammar and logic of podcasting as a distinct media format, capable of producing “enhanced intimacy” compared to radio. All had brought, at my request, an interview in English on the theme of “absence.” Now we began to shape these into crafted stories, considering the choreography of sound, how layering and placement and even—especially—silence can alter impact and engagement.

podcast participants and Siobhan

ABU/UOW Power of Podcasting workshop, Nov 2018. Participants point to their story on the theme of absence. Niu Honglin, third right, Luo Laiming on right, Siobhán McHugh, centre.

The three Chinese participants from CRI had impeccable English, tertiary qualifications in arts, science and business, and over three decades’ experience between them as radio broadcasters. On Day One, I sent them out around the campus to gather sounds for a one-minute “audio postcard” from the university. The exercise showed how powerfully sound itself could evoke a place—they captured strange-sounding birds, the buzz of students in a café, the peace of a lake and its resident ducks. One, Zhi Ruo (not her real name, which she preferred not to use), scripted it as a moving note to her young daughter. The exercise convinced her, as she said later, that podcasting could function on a micro-level that allowed for content that radio could not:

Radio would not have the tolerance for you to do such family-bound things, you know, you’re pretending you’re speaking to just one person … your relative or your beloved one. So you’re taking advantage of a public platform to express your personal feeling. That is not okay … So, yeah, podcast, it gives me more “enhanced intimacy” to do that.

Luo Laiming, aged 32, who co-hosts a current affairs discussion program on CRI, also took to this style of audio crafting with alacrity. His sixty-second “postcard” (listen HERE) was a polished blend of philosophical reflection and personal commentary, including the line, “The University of Wollongong has the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen.” This simple statement carried more meaning than we first realized, as Laiming explained:

This is the first time I tried in my writing to use “I” instead of “one could expect.” I said “I have seen.” It’s always been my style on the show, when I go live on a talk show or in the movie review, that I write to hide behind the narrative, behind the language.

Laiming was not convinced it was a purely cultural factor; he said he knew a lot of people in China who were “not afraid of showing their true colours,” but that he had been raised as an only child with a father who was not easy to communicate with and so, “I kind of shut myself down.” But his early years of editing other broadcasters had taught him that authenticity was crucial to make people stay listening. “You could tell whether the hosts were being spontaneous or not, if the emotions they’re expressing are authentic or not … you could tell from their voices.” The informality of podcasting was now giving him the chance to try out a subjective tone.

But when Laiming re-voiced the audio postcard in Chinese, he found it quite different (listen HERE). “I’ve always paid attention to rhythms in English—more than the words. I’ve found this hard to represent in the Chinese language. Second thing is some of the translation. E.g. ‘on the planet that we share with many other species’: the English sounds a little modest; in the Chinese language I said it as ‘we are the owners of this planet.’ And there’s another part where I had to say the opposite of what I said in English: ‘we can’t get rid of all the material comfort mankind has so ingeniously invented’ becomes ‘we can’t go back to the traditional slash and burn.'” If Laiming does get to make a new podcast, he’d like to make one about Chinese fantasy and mythology—a topic that would surely yield rich pickings.

audio postcard script

Laiming’s one-minute audio postcard script.

The vivacious Niu Honglin, the third Chinese broadcaster, aged 29, already hosts two podcasts available on Western platforms: Takeaway Chinese teaches aspects of the Chinese language and Illuminating Chinese Classics looks at Chinese literature, going back centuries.

Illuminating Chinese Classics

Artwork for the podcast Illuminating Chinese Classics, from China Radio International.

In early production sessions, Honglin tended to include everything she had—ambient sounds, voice, music—just because she had it. “Like you’re a six-year-old, you’ve got a collection and you need to show all of them to your parents!” The effect was overpowering, undermining her very strong raw interview, with a man describing coming out as gay to his family, whose reactions were not all accepting. I advocated narration that does not bludgeon the listener into thinking a certain way, but invites them to reflect. We cut an overly-explicatory sentence, an intervention she appreciated. “It’s really much better, it’s [left] with the music, with the feeling, you’re wondering what will happen next. It’s just revealing.”

We finished our showreel, an eight-minute trailer for the forthcoming ABU/UOW podcast series called Stories From the Heart (listen HERE), two minutes before our workshop ended at 5pm on the Friday—as professional broadcasters, all respected the tyranny of a deadline.

It was left to Zhi Ruo to sum up how podcasting might differ from radio after all.

Doing a podcast, it’s not like a task that you go live every day on radio. Okay, I have to work now. Ding, Ding, Ding. The time is here. But for podcasting, whenever you have great ideas, you pop up your eyes and have shiny eyes, great ideas. There’s a light bulb, lighting up on the top of your head so you feel the passion to tell the story and strengthen that bond and make listeners want to come back and find you.

Will podcasting become a tool of self-expression in China? Passion is one key factor and politics is another. Perhaps, as with so much else, the market will decide.

podcast participants with Siobhan

Workshop participants on the last day in studio. Niu Honglin second left, Luo Laiming in white shirt, Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, ABU, centre, beside Siobhán McHugh. Participants came from China Radio International, Voice of Vietnam, VTV, Vietnam and Institut Penyiaran dan Penerangan Tun Abdul Razak (IPPTAR), Malaysia.

Image Credits:

1. Siobhán McHugh delivers a keynote on podcasting to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Chengdu, China, October 2017 (author’s personal collection)
2. ABU/UOW Power of Podcasting workshop, Nov 2018. Participants point to their story on the theme of absence. Niu Honglin, third right, Luo Laiming on right, Siobhán McHugh, centre (author’s personal collection)
3. Laiming’s one-minute audio postcard script. (author’s personal collection)
4. Artwork for the podcast Illuminating Chinese Classics, from China Radio International (iTunes)
5. Workshop participants on the last day in studio. Niu Honglin second left, Luo Laiming in white shirt, Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, ABU, centre, beside Siobhán McHugh. Participants came from China Radio International, Voice of Vietnam, VTV, Vietnam and Institut Penyiaran dan Penerangan Tun Abdul Razak (IPPTAR), Malaysia. (author’s personal collection)