This was probably for two simple coinciding reasons. On the one hand, as I spoke to content buyers I realised, as I have discussed at more length elsewhere, that to make full sense of their work I had to situate it in terms of its constant and intricate interaction with that of their colleagues in marketing, scheduling, channel management, and so on. But probably more pressingly, finding contacts who are open to giving interviews to a scholar-in-training and an individual with whom they are not already acquainted is not easy (something that Industrial Approaches to Media aims to address), so I eagerly pursued opportunities that arose to talk to anyone who was willing and who could shed any kind of light on my research topic.
This has led me to conclude that, at least from the point of view of postgraduate researchers of contemporary media industries, interviews are at once a highly imperfect means of answering research questions, their success contingent on a whole range of factors and their use to the researcher never unfolding in an ideal and comprehensive fashion, while at the same time they offer a level of understanding that is otherwise impossible and potentially self-perpetuating. To think through this mixture of difficulty and opportunity I want to consider some of my experiences, which have raises three questions related to the broader issues that underpin the Industrial Approaches to Media project.
When I started the PhD, conducting interviews as part of my studies was entirely alien to me and I have largely had to teach myself how to execute and use them. I had studied for a BA in English and Theatre Studies, followed by an equally text-focused MA in American Literature and Culture, so I had virtually no knowledge of the social science subjects from which media studies has derived this methodological tool. My idea of ‘research’ was suitably bookish, and to me ‘empirical data’ was something on which scientists had a monopoly. Now, clichéd images of ivory towers and canonical reading lists are not a useful comparison, and I do now make daily and vital use of my well-drilled skills as a reader of narrative texts (even if the ‘texts’ in question look very different to those of my Eng Lit days). But the plain fact of an academic background like mine is that actually talking to people was, at best, of vague methodological interest (if only because most of the people whose creations I was studying were, of course, no longer living).
This brings me to my first question, which I put very crudely, never having thought to ask before now: what are interviews? That is to say, how might we describe their status in the specific context of media industry research, with its straddling of the social science and humanities modes of enquiry? Are industrial interviews ‘texts’ to be critically analysed, or ‘data’ to be deployed in support of some general finding, or is this kind of work not actually reducible to either? More specifically, how should young scholars be taught about this crossover between the two traditions, especially if they come from a background firmly situated on one side of the methodological fence?
In that same cultural materialist tradition that first brought me to peer over that fence, the places in which I have conducted interviews have been as interesting to me as the interviews themselves. I have found myself in the North London converted smithy that served as the headquarters for a small but successful television production company, being brought croissant and fresh coffee from an apologetic producer rushing from his delayed tube, while other interviews were held in the canteen of BBC Television Centre (a few months before it closed earlier this year) with people coming and going, sometimes interrupting to talk shop with my interviewee. In both instances I was made excited and nervous: not just because I hadn’t seen the inside of any TV company before, and here I was in amongst the most famous one in the world; but more importantly, as an unseasoned postgraduate researcher talking to busy professionals on their own turf presented a clear disparity in status. The situation at the BBC was entirely to be expected, as the personnel in question had tight and relentless schedules, and had been kind enough to give up an hour of their day for me. Besides, the BBC’s headquarters is clearly going to be tight on security, so the semi-public canteen, just a few steps inside the front door made sense as a convenient place to conduct the interviews (and for the record, I was offered coffee there too). But it drove home to me what now appears as plain common sense: the location of an interview is important for all sorts of reasons, from worrying about noise levels for recording (thankfully it was never lunchtime when I visited the BBC) to the difference made by being in someone’s own daily workplace or in a more relaxed, neutral space.
Is there a way that we can develop more diverse, productive and open means of making contact between academia and industry?
These practical (and, in a sense, ethical) issues have, of course, been debated by ethnographers, sociologists and others with infinitely more insight that I could provide. But I pick out this personal experience because it throws up my second question: where is the best place to do media industry research? I don’t just mean in terms of the choice between a busy canteen or across a desk in a quiet office (although, as I say, the difference is substantive). But more broadly, is there a way that we can develop more diverse, productive and – I think this is mainly what I’m getting at – more open means of making contact between academia and industry? Michele Hilmes’ suggestion in her interview with IAM of having industry professionals visit departments for periods of time in the same vein as the ‘Artist in Residence’ is one intriguing idea that would add a genuinely innovative element to how the relationship works. Conversely, the re-fashioning of the observational academic visiting for an hour or two, into something more sustained and mutually beneficial is a crucial possibility (as discussed by ISIR’s Catherine Johnson). It will probably require a change in some of the expectations and working practices that we have as scholars, whatever our background, and this is worth thinking through carefully. But just as my research has been both enhanced and made more difficult by interviewing people, so must it be the case with institutional and research practices more broadly if we are to properly understand the fast-moving, sometimes chaotic and never formulaic mechanisms of the media industries.
Of all my interviews, the most interesting setting for me was the headquarters of the broadcaster UKTV. I first visited the company in Hammersmith, London to talk to a member of the marketing team. When I first arrived he gave me a tour of the offices and I was immediately inundated with fascinating prospects for spin-off research projects to do with the organisation of workflows, internal branding, the self-identity of television professionals and so on. The offices were open plan and smaller than I had expected (although overwhelmingly fast-moving and well-populated) so as I walked around I could take in the workings of the whole organisation in a snapshot (quite literally, as the staff kindly encouraged me to take pictures with my phone). Signs at the ends of the group desks told me which department was working there, but each could interact with several others over the top of their computer screen. I overheard several conversations between colleagues, sometimes about aspects of the business that I – reassuringly – understood. The whole floor was centred around a kitchen with shabby chic decor and jumbo sized boxes of cereal (which provided a ready metaphor for television consumption at one point in another of my interviews). Most interestingly of all for someone interested in television channel brands, each of the sectioned off meeting rooms was decorated according to the branding of one of UKTV’s channels. The Dave room had leather sofas and ornate picture frames, for example, and the Watch room had a huge 3D replica of the channel’s logo. The interview itself took place in the Gold room, and for the first few minutes I had the strange sensation of sitting inside my own research project.
These experiences are an enjoyable and fascinating side effect of actually visiting the people and organisations that one is researching. But there is a more serious and important point that has occurred to me as I’ve looked back over my painstakingly typed up transcript and realised the mere text of an interview only goes a small way in representing the sum total of information that was available to me on the day. This could be put in terms of the simple question: How can I make best use of my interviews? Or, put quite pragmatically, what should I do next?
I’m acutely aware that interviewing these individuals shouldn’t simply be about eliciting cold hard data to take back to my desk and use to support a particular argument. Especially when considering something as dynamic as a television company (never mind a whole industry) the sense of losing the complexity and messiness of your subject can feel like nothing less than misrepresentation. Instead I have come to think how my few moments of contact with industry professionals presents the potential for a literally and figuratively three dimensional relationship that cannot help but lead to further and richer research questions – and, I think a richer idea of what it is to study media in general. This of course requires the generosity and open-mindedness of the professional in question, as well as constant vigilance about maintaining critical distance (even while being given the guided tour, as it were). But it also raises the prospect of developing the engagement between academia and industry in more innovative and adaptable ways as the current generation of junior scholars look to develop their research careers. My interviewee at UKTV showed me round his workplace more out of politeness than anything else, but pretty soon he realised I was more interested than he had anticipated in small details that go to make up the environment in which the very topic of my research was negotiated, discussed, compartmentalised, recorded and indeed, taken a break from. This all offered multiple avenues of future questioning for me as I find my way as a researcher. But more broadly, it made me sure that a more proactive and explicit approach to engaging with industry promises to deepen and broaden, rather than hinder, rigorous critical understanding.