Joyce Fegan: Behind the airwaves – Why are women’s voices under-represented on radio?

While much has been done for the gender balance of influential shows at national level, in local radio, which has a bigger reach, 89% of presenters are male
Joyce Fegan: Behind the airwaves – Why are women’s voices under-represented on radio?

In Ireland, radio holds tremendous influence and power — 3.19m people over the age of 15 tune in for almost four hours every weekday, according to the latest JNLR/Ipsos MRBI report. Stock picture

Local radio is king, the mid-morning talk show in particular, where 89% of presenters are male, but the listenership is made up of more females than males.

In Ireland, radio holds tremendous influence and power — 3.19m people over the age of 15 tune in for almost four hours every weekday, according to the latest JNLR/Ipsos MRBI report.

While national radio is popular across the country, we actually tune in more to our local and regional stations.

National radio has 46.9% share of all minutes listened to in the country, while local and regional radio holds the majority share with 53.1%.

National radio has the majority share in Dublin (59.8%) and in the greater Dublin commuter belt (59.8%), while local and regional radio is in the majority in the rest of the country — achieving its highest share position in Cork at 64.5%.

In Cork, 96 FM has the biggest market share (22.6%) of any radio station in the country, including RTÉ Radio One (17%).

So, with more people tuning into local and regional radio in Ireland, what are they listening to most often?

Radio listening in Ireland peaks in the mid-morning, with the peak quarter-hour being 9 to 9.15am.

Separate to that quarter-hour, the local stations combined have their highest reach between 9am and 11am on a weekday, reaching 22.3% of the adults in their franchise area.

Therefore, 9am to 11am on local and regional radio make up the “hours of power” on the Irish airwaves.

And it’s not just idle chit-chat or easy-listening music that is being churned out, it’s news coverage, hard-hitting political interviews, and current affairs. It’s often a station’s “flagship” show.

It’s during these “hours of power” where the first draft of public policy is formed.

However, on local and regional stations, the majority of these shows are anchored by male voices, to the tune of 89%.

The absence of women’s voices in public debate is not uncommon.

In 2015, the most recent data available, the National Women’s Council’s ‘Hearing Women’s Voices?’ study found that women continued to be under-represented across news and current affairs on all the Irish radio stations that were monitored. 

The overall figure was 72% for men and 28% for women — and that wasn’t just for presenters; it was for contributors and experts too.

A much more recent report, on the gender balance of Irish artists played on Irish radio, also showed a huge disparity.

The Why Not Her campaign — led by leading gender and diversity equality advocate in the music industry Linda Coogan-Byrne — compiled data from June to December 2020 on the top 20 most-played songs by Irish artists on radio stations across the country. It found that 85% of artists in the top-100 airplay charts across all stations were male.

Linda Coogan Byrne of the Why Not Her campaign.
Linda Coogan Byrne of the Why Not Her campaign.

But why does it matter? Can’t men speak for women, represent their perspectives, and highlight their problems?

A new report by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation about media coverage of the pandemic, coupled with the current erosion of women’s rights globally as a result of the pandemic, shows why everyone needs to be represented.

The Gates Foundation study sampled 2,100 quotes from 80 publications across six countries. It showed that men were quoted nearly three times more frequently in the news about Covid-19 than women in the UK, nearly four times more frequently in Kenya, more than four times more frequently in the US, nearly five times more frequently in South Africa and Nigeria, and five times more frequently in India.

With the voices of women missing from the public debate, other data shows that women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic.

New data from the UN shows a 9.1% increase in the poverty rate for women because of the pandemic, while in America there were 2.2m less women in the workforce in October 2020, compared with October 2019, because of their inability to manage paid work and childcare.

Back in Ireland, these “hours of power” on local and regional radio actually reach more female listeners than male, despite being 89% anchored by male voices.

Between 9am and 11am each weekday morning, local stations have a female reach of 23.4% and a male reach of 21.2% — that’s 279,000 women and 247,000 men.

In Cork, C103 had a weekly audience reach of 25% among women, the same reach as among men, based on the measure of listening within the past week — a key metric collected for the JNLR/Ipsos MRBI report. Both 96 FM and Red FM reached more females in that same past week than males, with 96FM having a reach of 44% among women and 41% among men, and Red FM with 45% among women versus 37% among men.

C103 presenter Patricia Messenger
C103 presenter Patricia Messenger

Across the board, when you look at the most-listened-to 15-minute blocks daily on Irish radio, they are during the mid-morning shows, generally the current affairs show on local radio. Typically more females are reached than males during these times — with between a 1 and 9 percentage point difference.

On South East Radio, for example, its listenership peaks at 10-10.14am on a weekday, with 6% more females than males being reached at that time.

On WLR, its listenership also peaks at this quarter hour, with 9% more females being reached than males.

On Clare FM, its listenership peaks between 9am and 9.14am, with 2% more females being reached than males, while on Radio Kerry, — whose listenership peaks equally between 9am and 9.14am and 9.30am and 9.44am — there are 6% more females reached than males for both of those segments.

Of the 16 local stations surveyed by the Irish Examiner outside of Cork, only two — KCLR and Midlands Radio — reached more male listeners than females during their peak quarter hour on a weekday.

  • All data relating to listenership is from the JNLR/Ipsos MRBI report published in November 2020.

How the radio stations compare

The Irish Examiner contacted each of the 19 local talk shows surveyed for this article asking what steps their stations take to ensure gender balance in presenters.

96 FM, C103, LMFM, and Live 95 FM

“The conversation about gender balance is an important one to have across the whole of our industry. We’re very clear that while our off-air talent is pretty equally split between female and male, the same is not true on air. In the last year we have created a diversity and inclusion steering group within Wireless Ireland to plot a course to better representation on air,” said Wireless Ireland group content director Scott Williams.

“Clearly, things are not going to change overnight, but I’m confident we have the right strategy in place, and we’re committed to it,” he said.

Midlands 103

“Midlands 103 had four programme vacancies in 2020, including a Sunday breakfast talk programme. Three of these positions have been filled by women: Aisling O’Rourke, Tara McCormack and Ellen Leonard, not because of their gender but because they were objectively the best applicants for the jobs,” said operations manager Rebecca Donnelly.

Red FM

“You specifically mention the mid-morning shows. I presume you are aware our talk show is presented by Neil Prendeville. The two most senior production people on the team are women. Emer O’Hea Martin and Brenda Dennehy are integral parts of the show both behind the mic but also regularly on the microphone,” said CEO Diarmuid O’Leary. “‘[That] we have a gender balance across the schedule is one we do consider and will continue to consider as and when on-air opportunities and/or shows become available and then it’s also a case of who is the best and most experienced candidate for the position,” he said.


“On the face of it, the time allocated to men broadcasters is almost 70% of the time during the day.

“However, as the female presenters on our stations are presenting talk-based programmes, the time they spend talking on air is far greater than the two male presenters, who do music programmes, spend talking on air far less. Simply off the top of my head I would say the share of speech delivered on air during the day in terms of duration is somewhere in the region of 35% male, 65% female,” said CEO John Purcell.

Kildare FM

“Station-wide, our head of news or news anchor is female, two of four members of our news team are females, our administration manager is female, our traffic [advertising] manager is female, our financial controller is female,” said CEO Clem Ryan and host of the mid-morning talk show.

“One of our three live sports reporters or commentators is female, who reports live on both men’s and women’s GAA games, while we use another woman reporter occasionally at local soccer league [men’s] games also,” he said.

Clare FM and Tipp FM

“Our main morning shows on both stations are anchored by men, and we are fortunate to have an excellent female presenter who offers holiday and emergency cover when required for one of these shows. Currently, Clare FM have three talented female presenters who work exclusively on our traditional music shows, our newsroom also incorporates gender balance.

“Tipp FM is no different in its mix with one of our main weekday shows and weekend shows anchored by some amazingly talented female presenters. In fact outside of on-air, females in both companies make up a high proportion of the workforce. We always endeavour and strive for gender balance in all aspects of our business,” said general manager Susan Murphy.

Radio Kerry

“Radio Kerry has run a digital journalism and radio production course with Kerry Education Training Board since 2005 and it provides multiple graduates for the sector. The majority of participants have been female — and the current class which had to have restricted numbers because of Covid — has six female participants and two male.

“Radio Kerry has participated in and piloted training run by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland under a Women on Air scheme [this is separate to the current Women on Air group],” said Radio Kerry general manager Fiona Stack.

Midwest Radio

“Midwest Radio Mayo are very aware of the importance of gender balance regarding on air presenters.

“We have seven female presenters across our seven-day schedule. Of our four full-time journalists at the station, two are female and our news editor is Teresa O’Malley. We have a very open and transparent policy when it comes to recruitment of on-air personnel and we feel we hire the best regardless of gender,” said station manager Tommy Marren.


“The station has three male presenters in prime-time (7am to 7pm) and two female presenters. The weekend news/magazine programme is anchored by a female member of staff. During the 2020 GAA season, WLR also introduced a female co-commentator to the line-up and our new Irish language programme is anchored by a female. “Diversity and gender balance in the workplace is very important. WLR employees have the same opportunities regardless of whether they are male or female,” said programme director Michael Byrne.

East Coast FM

“In other areas of programming we have a female presenter on our breakfast show, Freshly Squeezed and a female presenter on our evening time show, Love Songs on the Coast. However I will reiterate that these people are in these positions because they are the best people for the job.

“Largely, the hiring decisions are based on who applies for the role at the time and I don’t ever recall getting a CV from a female in relation to programme presentation roles. I believe this is one of the main reasons why there aren’t more women presenting shows. And of course that begs the bigger issue, why is that so?” said CEO Ciara O’Connor.

“There are some initiatives in place to try and redress this. Learning Waves, the industry training body, is doing good work in attracting college graduates and even transition year students to the industry by providing introductory courses and mentoring programmes to entice new talent, both male and female in,” she said.

  • There was no reply from South East Radio, Galway Bay FM,Shannonside, or Highland Radio.

Sue Nunn at Radio Kilkenny In 2001. File Picture
Sue Nunn at Radio Kilkenny In 2001. File Picture

‘I think they just discovered that people loved the talk’

Sue Nunn was the first ever female anchor on local Irish radio, and was the only
female anchor for a long time. She is the daughter of the late Maeve Curtis — the former Irish Examiner women’s editor.

After doing a return-to-work radio course, after the birth of her three children, Sue ended up working for Radio Kilkenny.

“I first got paid in 1991, and I got £30 a week. I got my own show after less than a year and I basically never stopped,” said Sue.

“Two guys in Radio Kilkenny gave me the start when I think the board was very dubious — general manager Pat Kennedy and programme coordinator David Walsh,” she added.

In the 1990s, Sue was the only female anchor on Irish local radio. “You were female and it was said: ‘But people don’t like female voices on the radio’. It was said as if it was gospel. It wasn’t said to me as a put down though, and clearly they allowed me to continue. I think they just discovered that people loved the talk.”

When KCLR went on air in 2004, Sue took on talk there too, and covered the 9am to 12pm or 10am to 12pm slot until her husband died in 2015.

“We realised we were getting far more listeners all the time, when talk got hold — local talk.

Local talk is it, people couldn’t get enough of it. We’d cover council meetings, they would never have been covered like that before. The councillors would have been straight onto the radio over huge controversies and the listenership was massive, that had never ever been done before.

“I covered a lot of planning controversies, Phil Hogan sent me a couple of legal letters. They’d all want to come on when they were passing through — Bertie [Ahern], John Bruton, they knew the power of local radio,” said Sue.

She credits “having no fear of authority” as the secret to her success, something she learned from her mother. “She would have been embroiled in many controversies, famously the Catholic bishop [Cornelius] Lucey disapproved of her writing about social issues, and made his disapproval known to [newspaper owners] the Crosbies.

“She worked all my childhood, and nobody else’s mother worked. She went off in her suit to work, or she’d be working on a Sunday evening to get copy off.

“There were always interesting people coming to the house, she loved it and she was completely fired up by her work and her interest in people. So it was completely natural to me to have opinions and not be scared by authority.”

And in 2021, what does she think of the statistic that 89% of Ireland’s local stations mid-morning talk shows are hosted by male voices?

“I’m kind of shocked,” said Sue. She believes that the problem can be addressed by empowering women and developing talent.

“When they say: ‘You can’t be it if you can’t see it’, I hope I would be enormously supportive of young women in my radio station. I know I have tried to encourage women to cover for me, and they say: ‘oh Jesus no’.

“To me, it’s as natural as getting up and having breakfast, for other people it may seem intimidating, there is no school of radio presenters, and maybe for the lads, DJing was an entirely male preserve so they’re more comfortable about getting behind the mic and talking to people and women aren’t comfortable because they don’t see it as much,” said Sue.

She does, however, credit her colleagues across local radio talk shows.

“They’re connected, they’ve developed this wonderful powerful local talk radio, they have a connection with local communities, and people like them.”

Broader cultural change is needed to encourage girls

The only place on Irish radio where gender balance has been achieved is with the “vox pop”, where members of the public are stopped on the street and asked their opinion.

Aileen O’Driscoll, is assistant professor in media at the School of Communications, in DCU, and some of her research has looked at the representation of women’s voices on Ireland’s airwaves.

“Women continue to be underrepresented on the airwaves as presenters, reporters, sources, experts, and as musical artists,” said Dr O’Driscoll.

Save for firing people from their jobs, what is a path forward for creating and sustaining gender balance on our airways?

“The issue of creating a better balance of male and female presenters, production staff, as well as contributors to radio is not about pushing out men. Rather, it’s about looking at how we can encourage organisational change so that there is a value placed on women’s involvement and contribution and which considers the principle of equal participation of men and women as a good one, and one which reflects the make-up of Irish society,” said Dr O’Driscoll.

She said that “broader cultural change” is required in order to encourage girls and young women to speak, in very real terms.

“This could mean getting girls involved in debate clubs, starting their own podcasts, and setting up the conditions in our homes and classes where they will enjoy engaging with their peers – both male and female – on a range of topical issues that might interest them,” said Dr O’Driscoll.

She cited research that showed the effect of social scrutiny on women’s willingness and confidence to go on air.

“The issue of additional scrutiny – both real and perceived – for women in the public eye can act as a deterrent for girls and women to pursue a career in radio. On this issue, Lis Howell and Jane Singer identified, in their 2016 paper, a ‘pushy or princess’ dilemma in relation to the issue of female experts’ appearances on TV and radio news programmes. For the women surveyed, who are experts in their fields, they reported anxiety around how they might be considered ‘pushy’ for making an appearance on broadcast news programmes, suggesting a fear of coming across as ‘domineering’ or ‘bossy’ or overly confident or too opinionated; traits that have typically been seen as negatives in women.

“Researchers, producers and journalists who are tasked with putting together pieces for their news shows say that women require more encouragement and cajoling than men before they agree to appear or contribute to the piece [hence the ‘princess’ comparison]; this leads to those in these important gatekeeper positions feeling like it’s less hassle to approach male experts in the first instance,” said Dr O’Driscoll.

And it is not just women who gain from improved balance on our airwaves.

“When we foster an environment where all voices, regardless of sex, age, race, sexual orientation or disability are afforded equal status, we create a far richer and more interesting public sphere; one in which we all have a stake and where we all have access,” said Dr O’Driscoll.

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