From a post on Modern Soundling I recently returned from a Doctor Who convention. In addition to being fun, it was also instructive in terms of how fans of cultural content interact with each other and share their interests. There are useful parallels between Doctor Who, (the long running BBC scifi TV show) and radio drama.
Television used to be like radio. In the early 1960's, when Doctor Who premiered, video tape was extremely expensive. Programs were shot “live to tape,” for broadcast. After the episode aired, they were copied onto film to sell overseas and then erased. The tape stock was then reused. Because the BBC had no archive mandate in its charter, and because the concept of repeats, syndication, and home video did not exist, many of the film copies of Doctor Who episodes were junked as well. This practice resulted in many lost episodes of many different programs.
In other words, TV used to be just as ephemeral as radio. It went out into the ether – was seen (or not) and then disappeared forever. Until DVDs came along, most TV shows, even popular ones, were not even released on VHS. Die-hard fans traded off-air recordings amongst each other. With the advent of DVD releases, people were eventually able to own, collect, and consume entire seasons of popular TV shows. It became easier to become a fan. Combined with the internet, we have fervent, energetic fan bases for all sorts of TV shows. And we have better TV shows.
Doctor Who was an early exception to the ephemeral nature of TV. In part because of its unique subject matter and format, young fans greatly desired to re-access the TV broadcasts. Its popularity and cult following grew. Early fans made reel-to-reel audio recordings, and voraciously consumed the Target novelizations of the TV stories. Even though many of the 1960's episodes no longer exist, fans have long been able to access aspects of them – either by reading the book, listening to the surviving audio recordings, or playing with the related toys. Doctor Who, in other words, has a visible past that remains in dialog with its present and future self. But then, isn't that to be expected from a Time Lord?
Radio drama had similar aspects. Loyal followers, off-air recordings, and the loss of a significant body of work as a result of lack of foresight. For several reasons, this has remained the case. There's no Target novelization to buy. There's not even a script to buy. A modern audio dramatist has great difficulty entering into a dialog with earlier works. It's hard to be inspired or influenced by something that is completely unavailable. And that's assuming that a recording of the broadcast even exists.
Doctor Who fandom is a rich environment. One can not only consume the 700 episodes of the series, but also delve into a deep pool of fiction and nonfiction books, fanzines, official magazines, documentaries, and an ever-growing number of audio dramas. Now, Big Finish's Doctor Who audio dramas are a topic for another conversation. But let's just consider a new fan's perspective. There's a vast, exciting world to explore, with a well-documented past and footholds in every possible artistic medium. No wonder the fandom is so huge – it has something to offer everybody. The story structures are often self-contained, so you can consume Doctor Who episodes piecemeal over a lifetime, and not have to worry about story order or continuity. There almost isn't any. But there is – if you want there to be. See what I'm getting at? It's a big world, but not unmanageable.
Audio drama is a similarly large world, with a vast body of work that can be consumed in individual pieces. But it has no outreach into other mediums, and has almost no availability. The early recorders and traders (pirates) of Doctor Who were eventually able to put away their reel-to-reels and buy the VHS and DVD copies of their favorite stories. And in doing so, they were able to treasure and transmit their enthusiasm to other people. The fan base has always been large and relatively healthy, with a few exceptions. In the early 90's, when the show went off the air in America, and VHS copies were more difficult to obtain, fandom activity decreased significantly. There wasn't enough fuel to stoke the fire. Well, there was, but it was stuck in the UK. But what American Doctor Who fans like me needed more than that was the one thing that was most difficult to find – other fans.
The world of online audio drama fandom is fractured. And that's really the only place where such fandom exists. There's no unifying place where people can get together – there's no Gallifrey Base. The collective effervescence that occurs when groups of people get together does not fuel enough enthusiasm for the medium. There's no hearth on which such a fire can be kindled. But more importantly, there's just not a lot of available fuel. There is a huge, shivering audience of millions of people all over the world, including millions of Americans (who secretly consume audio drama under the nomenclature of “full cast audiobooks”). And there's a huge pile of fuel, somewhere, scattered about the UK.
The availability and characteristics of content have a significant impact on the health of a fan base. Doctor Who, I would argue, could not have grown into the massively popular phenomenon that it is today without the ability of fans to consume and interact with a certain core mass of content. Who fandom might not be the same either, if the BBC had been more stringent regarding copyrights and trademarks – the little fanzines and newsletters and clubs that popped up would not have survived if they had been in the Star Wars universe. And look at how Doctor Who fandom today has resulted in the rebirth of the series – written, produced, and starring enthusiastic fans who honed their skills writing fan fiction and ancillary Doctor Who products. And notice, too, how Star Wars looks these days. Lucasfilm has a policy allowing fan-made comedy productions involving their universe, but not serious ones. Is there a cultural property today that is more stale? Or more ridiculed?
Audio drama has the potential to support and grow a significant fan base. That's something different from an audience. There's already a large number of ears actually listening. But if the BBC cannot rethink its approach to the content, then the audience will eventually dwindle, because any healthy medium requires not only an audience, but ardent fans.