Friday, 19 July 2013

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

Jack FM Oxfordshire
Programme Director Sue Carter and Deputy PD Sophie Law
"Do you drive your own desk? Do your breasts not get in the way? That's amazing. Isn't she good?”

At a Radio Academy event in London a few years ago BBC 6 Music presenter Lauren Laverne was quite scathing about sexist attitudes towards women in the radio industry.

"I go to a meeting and they comment on my clothes, saying 'Ooh, you look nice.' I kind of think, would you say that to Johnny Vaughan? In a way it's worse in radio than it is in television. You kind of want to garrotte people but you can't. It's illegal. I worked for a guy for three years and he only ever called me darling.

Has the role of women in radio changed?

The campaign and networking group Soundwomen has recently published their research into women in radio and Sound Women on Air - 2013 reveals some interesting facts:
  • 1 in 5 solo voices on the radio is female
  • That figure is 1 in 8 during peak-time breakfast and drive hours
  • In co-hosted shows, you are nearly 10 times as likely to hear 2+ male presenters as you are to hear 2+ female presenters
  • Solo women are more likely to be on air at weekends than during the week.
Women in music radio tend to fall into two distinct camps. On one side there are those, such as Lauren Laverne, Jo Whiley, Annie Nightingale and Janice Long; all good, knowledgeable communicators in their own right.

On the other there are what have been referred to as the ‘Breakfast Bimbos’ whose role seemed simply to supply suitable giggles on cue when required by the other (male) members of the breakfast team. US consultant Dan O’Day calls them ‘Sidechicks’ and makes the point that they are not considered fully-fledged radio personalities by those around them. “You're the only female on a team show, and your duties consist primarily of being the focus of cheap sexual innuendo and/or acting as a cheerleader for the boys on the team; i.e., reacting from the sidelines but never really participating as an equal.”

Although there are considerably more women presenting programmes in their own right now than there were even ten years ago it’s worth noting, though, that the rise of women has been far greater in areas such as news, sales and management than as music presenters. There are, of course, some excellent women presenters in speech radio, including Dame Jenni Murray, Martha Kearney, Fi Glover and Shelagh Fogarty.

Discussing the subject with a number of people (both male and female) the feeling seems to be that women generally have a life; often several lives, juggling careers, family and a social life, rather than spending much of their spare time engaging in ‘anorak chat’ with other (male) colleagues. As a result women often tend to be better communicators because they have more life experience upon which to draw and are, therefore, able to engage more easily with their audience.

Surely, therefore, this should mean more women on-air; especially on stations targeting a primarily female audience.  After all, as a dear friend and mentor, the late Angela Bond, once put it,"Your balls and boobs are purely for reproduction. They have no bearing on your ability to do the job."

Maybe it's because "Women don't like listening to other women on the radio"; something which is often trotted out as an excuse for the lack of women on-air.

Frankly I don't believe it. 

I’ve read a lot of stuff over the years on radio programming and research, but while I’ve come across research that outlines differences in the way men and women listen to radio I’ve yet to find anything that actually proves that oft-quoted mantra. Even a major research project into listeners’ attitudes towards radio presenters carried out in 2001 on behalf of the Radio Academy, ‘Presenters - Who Needs ‘Em?’, didn’t touch on it.

Whenever I've challenged it in the past nobody seems able to provide any sort of definite proof.

I suspect this may be some sort of 'received wisdom' handed down from the old days of the BBC, who certainly held that attitude for many years and believed that women were only suitable for typing, filing and making tea; they certainly did not recruit "young ladies" into technical categories!

This BBC letter was dated September 1969. Just over four years later, in October 1973, both LBC and Capital had women technical operators at the helm at the moment they launched.

I would really be interested to see that mythical research about women presenters and politely suggest that those who still believe it's true should put up or shut up.

PS. I've been reminded that the BBC were recruiting women as Studio Managers back in the 1960s but my understanding is that, thanks to the unique way the BBC was/is organised, an SM was not the same as a Technical Operator and not employed on a technical grade. In fact in 1955 a re-structuring of the BBC's Engineering Department meant that women could no longer be employed as Technical Operators. No, I don't know why either.