Does radio lack female voices?

As female journalists gather this weekend for the Women in Media conference, Marjorie Brennan wonders why there are so few female voices on our radios.

Does radio lack female voices?

At the annual Women in Media conference in Ballybunion this weekend, there’ll be no shortage of female voices discussing and celebrating the contribution of women to the national discourse.

However, turn on your radio when it’s all over and you might be forgiven for asking, where have all the women gone?

In November 2015, the National Women’s Council and DCU published a report for the BAI called Hearing Women’s Voices, which explored women’s underrepresentation in current affairs radio programming at peak listening times. It found female voices got an average of only 28% of broadcasting time on current affairs shows.

The report recommended that programmes monitor gender breakdown on a weekly basis to ensure at least 30% of on-air voices are female. A year-and-a-half later, it is difficult to gauge whether the situation has improved much.

Jane Suiter of the School of Communications in DCU, who co-authored the report, believes there is greater awareness of gender balance but adds that change is hard to quantify without solid data.

“It’s hard to know without the evidence and research. I think there is a greater awareness. Certainly on RTÉ, I am hearing more women’s voices in relation to sport than I would have a number of years ago.

"It is still not near 30% or anything like it. I think there are far fewer all-male panels. Newstalk goes some way towards it, with Sarah McInerney on Drivetime, but it is a pity the breakfast show is all-male again; it would be nice to see a female replacement for Colette Fitzpatrick.

"There have been some changes but more so in public-sector broadcasting than the commercial sector.”

While RTÉ Radio 1 is strong in terms of female current affairs presenters, with the likes of Áine Lawlor, Mary Wilson, Rachael English, Audrey Carville, Keelin Shanley, Claire Byrne, and Miriam O’Callaghan, commercial stations such as Newstalk and Today FM still have a long distance to go in achieving gender balance.

Miriam O’Callaghan: One of the strong coterie of female voices in RTÉ’s current affairs department.
Miriam O’Callaghan: One of the strong coterie of female voices in RTÉ’s current affairs department.

“The media needs to reflect the diversity of the people consuming and interacting with that media,” says Suiter.

“Women are 50% of the population; young girls and women deserve to have positive role models.”

In terms of presenters on mainstream music shows, women fare even worse. Lilian Smith has presented several highly regarded music shows on RTÉ Radio 1 and is currently hosting The Weekend on One. She agrees that women’s voices need to be heard more.

“They’re lacking from the music field, certainly. Myself and Sandy [Harsch] did the Sisters Doing It For Themselves series last summer and it went down a storm, it was great. Female colleagues in Radio 1 have taken note of that and a producer friend is working on similar strands — to get more female voices talking about music on air.”

Smith has encountered blatant examples of sexism in her more than two decades of broadcasting.

“I am constantly asked ‘Who picks your music for you?’ I got a message from a 23-year-old young fella saying, ‘Hi, I’m a freelance producer, and I’d like to offer you the opportunity to have me curate an hour’s music for you’. And you think, ‘OK my 20-something years of experience count for nothing’. A young woman would never approach you like that.”

Prime-time radio remains very much a male-dominated arena, with many talented female broadcasters given early-morning, late-night, or weekend slots. They can also be heard in the ‘sidekick’ role, such as in the case of 2FM’s Ciara King (Chris and Ciara), and Jenny Greene (The Nicky Byrne Show with Jenny Greene); invariably, the woman doesn’t get top billing.

Alison Curtis: Today FM stalwart has a very successful show at the weekends.
Alison Curtis: Today FM stalwart has a very successful show at the weekends.

Alison Curtis has a very successful weekend morning shows on Today FM, and Louise Duffy has an evening slot (after a move from prime-time afternoon).

Louise Duffy has a successful evening slot on Today FM, following a move from prime-time afternoon.
Louise Duffy has a successful evening slot on Today FM, following a move from prime-time afternoon.

But across all stations, there is also a glaring absence of women in opinion-led slots. Where are the fulminating female provocateurs like George Hook? Perhaps it is a cultural

issue, that women are discouraged from being adversarial from a young age. “We need to ask if we prefer it when women are not opinionated or don’t speak up,” says Suiter.

The lack of female contributors and expert voices on the airwaves was one of the issues tackled by the Women on Air initiative, which was set up by Margaret E Ward in 2010.

It compiled an extensive database of female experts that can be consulted by producers and researchers. However, the ‘token female’ approach is still very much alive, according to journalist and broadcaster Alison O’Connor.

“There is definitely more awareness [of gender balance] but it waxes and wanes. Some programmes are very good at getting women to participate but that can change depending on the producer,” says O’Connor.

“All too often, I find myself as a sole female in a studio. Sometimes you feel like you are representing all of womankind.”

O’Connor says the lack of female pundits on air has helped her professionally. “It could be said I have benefitted from the lack of gender balance because I’m willing to go on and if the producer is looking for somebody with a vagina, they will turn to me,” she laughs. “You could say it is positive discrimination.”

However, often producers and researchers struggle to find women who will go on air at short notice. Lack of confidence is often cited as one of the reasons; O’Connor says many producers have told her that women are more intimidated by appearing on radio or television.

“They’ll tell you women are absolutely traumatised by the notion of not being the ‘best girl in the class’. Going on air is such a public thing and they want to have all the angles covered before they go on. I would never go on air unprepared but I know a lot of men who would.”

Another oft-cited reason for the under-representation of women on radio is that people prefer deeper male voices.

“When I started in RTÉ 20-something years ago, I was told there was a time they wouldn’t allow a female voice to follow a female voice. It was seen as just too much,” says Lilian Smith.

O’Connor echoes Smith’s point: “I was told by radio stations that research showed listeners did not like the female voice. I’ve never seen this research — it’s like an urban myth. But I think there is an element of truth in it because listeners have never been given the time to get used to the female voice.

"The male voice is second nature to them, it’s what they expect to hear. It’s a subconscious thing on behalf of the listener — and another disadvantage to women.”

The DCU/NCWI report also found that not only were there fewer women experts on air, but the topics they were asked to contribute on were limited in scope. Female voices are heard less frequently discussing subjects such as science and technology, sports, and war/conflict.

“It’s a bit like the way the early women ministers were always responsible for education or areas that were meant to be female domains, not too close to the big boys’ stuff that matters — the numbers,” says Jane Suiter.

“Some of that is because there are more female and male specialists in either field but not in the ratios that you find on air.”

Many women are bypassing established media through digital platforms — take Elaine Buckley and Emily Glen, who set up the Fair Game podcast.

“Emily and I were going to a lot of sports networking events, and it was always the same conversation — giving out that there wasn’t enough media coverage of women’s sports,” says Buckley. “We decided to do something about it, even though we had no on-air experience.

“I listen to a lot of sports podcasts and while some of them, like Second Captains or Off the Ball, would have topical items on women’s sport, there are none exploring the background stories of athletes.

“We may not get massive figures, but the people that do listen do so consistently and appreciate what we do, and the profile we give their sport.” One of Fair Game’s goals is to give a platform to lesser-known female athletes: “It might be the first time they have done a proper interview — it’s about getting new voices out there as well.

"The next time someone is assembling a panel on women’s sports, they might think about using someone from our guestlist.”

Some women view quotas as a remedy: if gender quotas have worked in business and politics, why not the media? Norway and France introduced gender quotas for corporate boards and gender parity soon reached 40% and 33%, respectively.

“The only way this will change before I and my two daughters are dead and buried is if that kind of action is taken,” says O’Connor. “It’s about balance and fairness. Everything we hear about how decisions on our laws and policy are made are heard through the male voice. About 85% of the time, that’s what takes up the public space.”

Lucy Keaveney, a founder of the Countess Markievicz School, has carried out snapshot surveys of female participation on the airwaves and believes quotas are essential: “There is no policy, and gains made one year can just flop back the next year.

"I would only be satisfied with 50/50 gender balance on a panel and also gender equality training for all presenters. We need to do more than raise awareness, we need to take a sledgehammer to the prevailing culture.”

When asked if we’re heading in the right direction, O’Connor sighs. “We are, but at a snail’s pace. When you bring this up with male radio broadcasters, one thing they’ll say is, ‘Will you look out there, sure all my team is female’. My response is, ‘Yes, that’s the women making you look good, and guess who is on triple their salary, if not more?’”

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