Celebrity Culture and Role Reversals

Often when I turn on the car radio these days, I instantly wonder whether I’ll get to hear Joe. I probably sometimes have this thought even when it’s not during his weekend shift or perhaps even when I’m not tuned in to Gold 104.3 Melbourne to get a nostalgic boost of music from my younger years. In fact, it’s entirely possible that I heard Joe on FM radio a number of times before I joined the dots and realised who I was listening to, and that personalised connection makes a world of difference.

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Photograph by Adam Brown, 18 February 2017

I imagine I don’t need to explain this phenomenon too much. Anyone and everyone knows what it means to experience some kind of ‘closeness’ to a media identity beyond the conventional seeing/hearing them on the TV screen, online, or on the airwaves. It’s like when someone gets followed by Ai Weiwei or retweeted by Ricky Gervais. Such an experience brings with it a certain affect that is in many ways nothing drastically new, but nonetheless remains immensely powerful. In short, knowing Joe is kind of cool.

The above paragraphs might seem somewhat strange given that I first met Joe while I was performing the role of a teacher and he was playing the role of a student in early 2016. I stress the performative nature of our roles here, as a lot of my emphasis in my ‘teaching’ is to break down the power structures (barriers?) between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ given that everyone can – should – inhabit both roles in any productive learning context. In this blog I’ll try to tease out some key elements of both this ever-fluctuating role reversal and how it connects to the impact of celebrity culture.

Do You Know Joe?

Joe Bovalino provides a particularly interesting case of the blurred boundaries I’m thinking about here given that while studying digital media units I designed at Deakin University, he was also teaching radio production at Victoria University and continuing his 30 year-long career in radio broadcasting. Perhaps without being fully aware he was doing so, Joe even showcased this complex tripartite intersection in one of his earliest contributions to a unit I was facilitating through his creation of this six-second vine:

That was one of the first times I (and many others in the unit) ‘saw’ Joe: he made himself visible by being active online and by doing something different. The vine would have given Joe a moment of ‘fame’, reinforced by the retweets and likes it procured, and then dissipating as Joe and everyone else moved on in an endless cycle of networking and creativity. As countless other students who take the initiative and make media prove, I was already learning from Joe and – even more importantly – his peers were too.

In fact, on 18 February 2017, the roles of teacher and student entirely reversed when I had the good fortune to drop into the studio where Joe works. Following Joe around the labyrinth of recording rooms like an awe-struck kid in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and getting a real-world sense of how things actually work, I soon discovered that all my preconceptions about how radio is made (based no doubt primarily on a few episodes of Frasier) were misconceptions.

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I won’t even try to recount the various ‘lessons’ I learned that day. From the slick audio editing software to the neat little internal communications system, there would be a lot to say. I remember thinking how petrified I would be in Joe’s position when he galloped through a brief on-air segment live with me in the room (I haven’t been so quiet since my sister told me she loved me… she was drunk).

While I can’t capture the many nuances of media production and distribution I learned that day here, it’s worth mentioning the ‘buzz’ I got from stepping inside a radio broadcasting studio for the first time. Coming back to the subject of celebrity culture, this wasn’t entirely dissimilar from the affect(s) we experience all the time via social media. It is there that celebrity culture has become intertwined with the everyday media practices of millions upon millions of people.

Professor David Marshall (2010, p. 39) makes this exact point in one of his many articles on the impact of the celebrity industry and how it intersects with online persona(e):

Self-production is the very core of celebrity activity and it now serves as a rubric and template for the organisation and production of the on-line self which has become at the very least an important component of our presentation of ourselves to the world.

‘Self-production’ is not the only element of celebrity culture that resonates with social media behaviours. Exposure, visibility, reputation, and many other related concepts clearly relate to the activities of seemingly more ‘normal’ (but no less important) people than the Hollywood vanguard. Now people from all walks of life share aspects of their lives with diverse online communities that generally span the globe (if you’re keen to hear more about this kind of thing, feel free to check out my video or podcast interview with David).

I’ve blogged before about the role of ‘celebrity’ in my inclusion of my canine companion Tiffany in my teaching. Tiff has since opened up her own Instagram account and is exploring how to engage people on that platform in ways that overlap with my research interests in nonhuman animal welfare. Perhaps ‘The Barking Mad Podcast’ is just around the corner…? In any case, I continue to see the effects of this form of engagement, whether it’s through continued petitions to bring Tiff to seminars or more substantial fan-style media formations, as in the example below:

You Can Know Joe!

Just like the ‘old days’ of waiting for hours outside a music venue to snap a pic of one’s favourite cultural icon, taking a selfie with someone we’ve just met or even known for years is a powerful statement. For the second-and-a-half it can take to construct, the selfie remains a complex and constantly-changing articulation of individualised, creative self-expression and identity-building. The labelling of this kind of endeavour as highly destructive narcissism – or, as one journalist recently characterised it, as a ‘sewer of self-promotion‘ – is unlikely to go away anytime soon (it probably never will). As someone who actually takes precious few selfies, and has no problem with people who take more, I’m not all that worried about that concern.

While others stress about the end of times, I’ll happily stay connected and keep connecting. And if I get an affective boost from those I interact with, and who knows, maybe even give something back in return, then it’ll all be worth it. It won’t last long anyway. A major part of the ‘celebrity’ construct is its transitory nature – fame doesn’t hang around, and these days it can fleetingly pass by from moment to moment. Maybe Joe will feel like a bit of a ‘celebrity’ when he sees this blog; maybe tomorrow he’ll have forgotten about it. Either way, he’ll learn something from it, I’ve learnt something from it, and hopefully you’ve learnt something from it.

Drawing this post to a close, it seems fitting to reverse the roles again here and let Joe’s insights take over through a conversation I filmed with him in December 2016. If you’d like to hear some fascinating things about the impact of digital technologies on radio, the negotiation of one’s online identity, the role of gamification in education, and the crucial importance of lifelong learning, here’s your chance to know Joe (the below video is also podcasted, which Joe clearly has the voice for!)



Marshall, PD 2010, ‘The promotion and presentation of the self: celebrity as marker of presentational media’, Celebrity Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 35-48.

Featured image and images in slideshow: Photographs by Adam Brown, 18 February 2017.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Keith Edson says:

    Did you feel like you knew Joe on a certain level before ever ‘knowing’ him? Knowing him through his work on the radio? I think that concept of ‘knowing’ is what makes social media and celebrity interactions so popular.

    The quickness of Twitter and the voyeurism of Instagram lets you be a fly on every wall for any celebrity or public figure. We all know Ricky Gervais, his cats AND his bathing habits, despite not knowing him at all.

    As for the selfie, I find it in incredibly uncomfortable to initiate a selfie or be part of one – maybe it’s an age thing.

    1. Adam Brown says:

      Thanks for reading Keith! I think you’re spot on re. the personalised forms of communication leading to a sense of feeling like you know someone, though Joe and I had probably only had a few emails before first meeting to make the video. I certainly wouldn’t say I ‘knew’ him in any meaningful way beforehand. I’d actually intended to mention in the blog that I may well have heard Joe on the radio a number of times while teaching him without realising who it was – I might edit that in now – thanks for the reminder! It’s interesting re. the ‘ethics’ of initiating a selfie – although it may be surprising from my teaching persona(s), as I mention in the blog I take very few myself, with or without someone else…

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