I'm listening to the podcast 'Homecoming' at the moment. I'm not very far in, so can't tell you what it's about, except that something very mysterious is afoot in the life of a waitress who, in her old job, used to work with demobbed traumatised soldiers. In any case, what has interested me so far is not so much the podcast itself as the five minute 'aftershow', broadcast immediately after the main episode, which - in its own words - brings "one of the show's contributors into the studio to talk about the episode and to share some behind-the-scenes insights into great storytelling". They discuss the creation of the show, the intentions behind it, its formal structure, how it's recorded and acted, and so on. To be clear, this isn't a separate podcast, it's part of the show.
Aftershows or their equivalent abound these days, from the 'diaries' attached at the end of nature programmes showing how they were filmed, to complete programmes such as The Apprentice: You're Fired and Great British Bake-Off: An Extra Slice. The presumed idea, put cynically in terms of audience numbers, is to generate yet more interest in the main programme, as well as a relatively easily acquired set of viewers/listeners for the spin-off. The concept is not limited to non-fiction: a brief Google search reveals The Doctor Who Fan Show, the Pretty Little Liars Aftershow, Talking Dead and Thronecast, among many others (I'm assuming the main demographic for these shows is people who don't have jobs: who has the time??).
The popularity of the format notwithstanding, I wonder whether it is a good idea from every angle to include an aftershow as part of a radio drama podcast, attached to that very podcast, as Homecoming does. My qualms are about the potential for interference with full imaginative immersion in the main show's story. In a nutshell, it seems strange to deliberately include something, so soon after the listener's engagement with the main drama, which will undoubtedly draw to the very front of her attention the constructed, artificial nature of the show.
It is true that what you imagine is to a great extent compartmentalised from what you believe. You can believe that you're sitting in a dreary carpark yet at the same time imagine that you're lying on a sunny beach: no problem. However what you can't do so easily, I suggest, is focus consciously and attentively on the fact that you are sitting in a dreary carpark, whist imagining vividly that you're lying on the sunny beach. In other words, conscious attention to one's present beliefs and perceptions can interfere with the ability to imagine things which conflict with those beliefs and perceptions. A parent makes use of this phenomenon when she tells her child who is scared by a movie that 'It's only a set with actors on it'. Arguably, it is why our perception of bad acting in a film inhibits our imaginative engagement with it: we can't ignore the fact that acting is occurring.
The worry about Homecoming's aftershow is that in effect it forces listeners to focus on the fact that the show is constructed and acted, and the events in it are not real: and this inhibits the immersive power of the main fiction. Now, I suppose someone might argue: but doesn't the aftershow happen, precisely, after imaginative engagement has ceased? It happens at the end of every episode, not the middle. So what's the problem? Well, one problem is that often, in the immediate afterglow of reading or listening to a fiction, one remains lost in imagining about it: thinking of the fictional scenario described as if it were real, mulling over the details and so on. This pleasurable effect looks ruined as soon as the aftershow kicks in. This problem is excacerbated by the fact that in this case the aftershow kicks in automatically, straight after the main episode, so one has to listen, except if one turns it off. In contrast, television aftershows are usually separate entities in their own right, the watching of which is a positive choice; and, of course, given digital TV and our increasing use of it, some time will often elapse between the two watchings.
One might object: isn't it always obvious, when one engages with a fiction, that what one is imagining isn't real? After all, even when one reads that most traditional of formats, the novel, there is usually a back cover, with an author description and various reviews commending the author's artistry, both of which make clear the constructed nature of the work. This is true, but we should also note that the back cover of a book is, precisely, on the back, and can usually be ignored unless, again, a positive choice is made to engage with it (whereas the more visible front cover usually has an image relevant to the plot and aimed at enhancing imaginative engagement).
Of course, there are many, many fictions whose authors deliberately seek to disrupt a reader's imaginative experience: postmodern novels which use self-referentiality and mise-en-abyme, dramas which 'break the fourth wall', and so on. However, though I could be wrong, I don't get the feeling that this is what the makers of Homecoming want. I suspect they want us to get immersed in the old-fashioned way: gripped, even. I'm going to persist with it for now, but I'll be making sure that around five minutes from the end, I can easily reach for the off switch.
Image credit: Newsboy at Vaudeville Theater by Lewis W. Hine, 1910, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.