Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

About Digital Youth

"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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Radio Free Hogwarts: Stories from the Field

My introduction to the world of Harry Potter podcasts came this past July when I attended Lumos 2006 in Las Vegas. Throughout my first day at the conference, I noticed a growing group of attendees milling around the foyer of the conference hall with looks of desperation on their faces. To my surprise, these fans were not suffering from heatstroke or trying to wrap their heads around a particularly complex Snape-is-good-Harry-is-a-horcrux-and-Dumbledore-might-not-be-dead theory, but instead were waiting to obtain wristbands for admission to a podcast recording that evening.

My interest was piqued. How could the opportunity to attend a podcast recording be compelling enough for people to skip out on the conference sessions in favor waiting in line for hours in order to reserve seats? Why were fans, especially the younger fans at the conference, drooling over attending what is, in essence, a radio talk show?

Although I didn’t attend the podcast recording at Lumos, the event prompted me to begin listening to Harry Potterpodcasts. Many hours of listening later, I have made only a small dent in the hundreds of hours of content available online. I have counted nearly 100 Harry Potter podcasts ranging from single recordings of short, informal, monologues or dyadic discussions to hour-plus weekly programs with multiple hosts and preproduced segments.

Podcasts cover a variety of topics; some focus on a specific character from the series (SnapeCast, for example) or on fan production and events (such as’s SpellCast). A quick search of a podcast directory such as Podcast Alley can even point listeners to programs in a variety of languages—I’ve come across podcasts in German and Portuguese but so far, none in Parseltongue.

It doesn’t surprise me that Harry Potter fans have taken on Podcasting with such enthusiasm. It also doesn’t surprise me that many of the podcasts are produced by teenaged fans. The fandom has, after all, grown up (literally and figuratively) alongside amateur production tools and social networking platforms. Since the publication of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone nearly 10 years ago, fans have adopted a variety of technologies for sharing writing, facilitating discussion, creating artwork and computer graphics, and producing audio and video. Podcasting, then, seems like a natural fit for this technology-savvy fandom. In addition, podcasting creates a space for ongoing analysis of canon materials and in-depth, sustained commentary on fans’ consumption and production practices, discussions that do not necessarily have a home within other forms of fan production.

In an article in Podcast User Magazine, Simon Toon highlights the creation and maintenance of community as a key to successful podcasting. The audience is one important constituency to consider, and Toon recommends podcast producers attend to three particular characteristics of their audience: “a superior capability to give feedback, to spread the word and to contribute to a podcast’s content.”(Feb. 2006, p. 14) Unlike television or radio broadcasts, which are just beginning to leverage alternative platforms for content (such as interactive websites or mobile phones), podcasts are indigeneous to a media environment that takes advantage of multiple forms of delivery and extensive communication with audience members.

The acknowledgement of audience interactivity and the cultivation of community are quite evident in most of the Harry Potter podcasts I have heard. Audience members are encouraged to email questions to the programs’ hosts, to comment on the podcast website or blog, or to be a part of a MySpace or FaceBook group supporting the show. Some programs have utilized VoIP services such as Skype Voicemail to capture voice comments from audience members who call in to the show. Fan interviews, contests, and listener challenges are used successfully to promote a sense of community and participation by listeners.

The challenge of creating community has been very successfully accomplished by two Harry Potter podcasts in particular—MuggleCast and PotterCast. These podcasts are affiliated with two large fan sites (MuggleNet and The Leaky Cauldron, respectively) and have been featured by iTunes as top podcasts in the Arts category. In addition, both podcasts received awards at the 2006 Podcast Awards. Focusing on news, commentary, analysis, and fan activities, the podcasts have produced weekly episodes since the summer of 2005, and each is on the cusp of releasing its 70th episode. Both shows have large followings and loyal fans who participate in the fandom and the podcast community in a variety of ways—for example, by emailing or leaving voicemail comments about discussions, by contributing original fan art, writing, or filks to be incorporated into the shows, by voting for the podcasts in various competitions, or by sporting tee shirts advertising the shows. The podcasts are connected at many points, as listeners are often fans of both shows, participants on the parent websites, and members of Harry Potter fandom communities and show-specific communities in social networking spaces such as MySpace, FaceBook, LiveJournal, and Frappr.

Most episodes of MuggleCast and PotterCast are pre-recorded and edited prior to being posted for fans to download. However, the hosts of the two podcasts have come together several times to produce live episodes they call “LeakyMugs”—such as the podcast causing near-riots at Lumos or a similar event in September that likely represented the most people to ever set foot in a bookstore in Los Angeles.

The attendance at these events and the enthusiasm with which fans participate are remarkable. At the LA podcast, I met several fans who had gone directly to the bookstore where the podcast was to be held (which, by the way, was slated to begin around 7pm) immediately after school let out and waited for over four hours just to secure a seat in the recording area. Others nearly hyperventilated from excitement when chosen to ask a question of the hosts during the program. Although the live podcasts represent an extension of the community formed online and are clearly important to the fans of the shows, I do not want to overemphasize the value of an online community meeting offline—as if that somehow makes the community “real.” A binary distinction between online and offline interaction isn’t always meaningful or useful, especially for young people for whom online participation has always been a possibility. One can participate in the community without ever being present at a live event—just as one can participate by only attending live events.

You know, that's the beauty of podcasting. I can keep saying "pickle" and no one can throw me off [the air].
-Andrew, MuggleCast Episode 54

Harry Potter podcasts, like all fan production, are derivative. Therefore, they can be devalued or written off as play, unhealthy fixation, or a waste of time. While it is true that much of the content of the podcasts is not significant according to traditional standards for cultural production, Harry Potter podcasts are culturally important for several reasons.

First, they’re important because they are a prime example of “participatory culture,” a model for cultural production based on the idea that our current social formation, bolstered by powerful technological tools and wider access to such tools, allows people to be producers as well as consumers, freeing them from the tyranny of professional cultural producers and democratizing culture. Podcasting allows “regular people,” regardless of age, race, gender, political affiliation, etc. to have a public voice. (Of course, it is important to remember that “regular people” means people with the access, equipment, skills, and time to produce a podcast…)

Currently, the purpose, value, and legality of certain practices within participatory culture are highly debated topics. MuggleCast and PotterCast are, therefore, also important because of the position they hold as mediators between professional cultural producers (e.g. Warner Brothers, the film studio that holds the rights to the Harry Potter films) and fans. They are often highly visible players in the debates over copyright and fair use in the fandom. For example, shortly after the first episodes premiered, iTunes removed both podcasts because of concerns about copyright issues. (The podcasts were quickly returned to the iTunes music store once it was determined that there was no copyright infringement.) At the same time, as experts within the fandom, the podcasters are given access to privileged information such as film set visits and interviews with the professional producers of the franchise. They are, in a sense, model citizens of participatory culture—acting as ambassadors from the fandom to the media giants, but constantly poking at the boundaries of fair use.

Finally, the community that has arisen around Harry Potter podcasts (and Harry Potter fandom in general) is important for literacy and learning. Community, regardless of location or formation, has been recognized by scholars in education and media literacy as an essential factor in facilitating and motivating learning. James Paul Gee, for example, writes about “affinity spaces,” informal learning environments that result from association based on common interest. Participation in such spaces is motivated by interest in the topic and sustained through peer-to-peer teaching. The Harry Potter fandom certainly represents an affinity space within which fans undertake a great variety of literacy activities.

I have a feeling that the Harry Potter podcasting community will continue to grow and change as the fandom gears up for the release of the final book and the last three films and as the technology for producing such programs changes and improves. Perhaps established shows will change formats or switch from an audio-only program to a vlog. Perhaps the expert status of the current crop of podcasters will be handed down to a new generation of fans. Or, perhaps I’m completely wrong and the practice will fall out of vogue and be discontinued…it’s hard to tell. However, if we as researchers and educators approach cultural production such as podcasting as a model for learning, community building, and literacy within participatory culture, such production can have lasting effects regardless of how it changes.