In 2015 and 2016, Bel10 – a participatory political radio program of the Flemish public broadcaster VRT – aimed to tackle the divide between citizens and politicians. They gave citizens the opportunity to present their policy ideas to politicians on the radio.
The Bel10 program exemplified high promises set for audience participation. Our research findings, however, show that people do not ask for greater participation in the media production of political programs. Media users do value audience participation to place critical topics on the policy agenda, yet this can also be achieved through stronger collaboration between media producers and communities of citizens. Furthermore, when audience participation in media production is not implemented with care, the distrust that citizens experience towards politicians can be transposed to media producers.
What makes audience participation in media production valuable?
In total, we conducted twenty-four in-depth interviews with listeners participating in Bel10. In addition, we held ten focus groups with more than fifty Radio1-listeners and expert interviews with media producers and politicians involved
Strikingly, listeners did not ask for more opportunities to participate in the media production of political programs. Moreover, they did not always appreciate audience participation of other listeners either. It was only genuinely valued when participation contributed to societal objectives:
- Showing diverse opinions
- Allowing to critically scrutinize current policies
- Placing often-neglected topics on the policy agenda
According to those consulted, participation in public service media should be two-directional to become truly valuable. Instead of only expecting active participation of media users in the media, stronger participation of media producers in society is needed as well. Accordingly, this research helped to challenge the assumption made in public service media literature that more audience participation in media production is always better.
This study is part of a PhD on audience participation
The in-depth interviews, expert interviews and focus groups took place in February and March 2017. The lead researchers Eline Livémont and Anne-Sofie Vanhaeght, instructed bacherlor 3 students in communication studies to conduct the focus groups. We want to thank Charlotte De Backer, Lisa Ahenkona, Amber Demuynck and Lara Sentürk for their excellent work. This study is part of the PhD research of Anne-Sofie Vanhaeght about how public broadcasters VRT, BBC, France Télévisions and NPO deal with audience participation and was made possible by a PhD Fellowship of the Research Foundation Flanders.