FEATURE: Infrequency Leads to a New Wave? Gender Balance on Mainstream Radio: The Need for a Retuning




Infrequency Leads to a New Wave?


IN THIS PHOTO: Annie Nightingale was the first female presenter on BBC Radio 1 (she joined in 1970); she is the station’s longest-running presenter/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Gender Balance on Mainstream Radio: The Need for a Retuning


THIS is another of these subjects that...

 PHOTO CREDIT: @rangel/Unsplash

I have broached before but, as the situation is still apparent, it has motivated me to revisit older arguments! I listen to radio every day and it is an invaluable source of entertainment and music. At a time when there is so much music out there and it is impossible to get on top of everything, I feel like radio is a saviour and vital tool. There is nothing to suggest that, decades from now, we will get rid of radio. New acts rely on stations to spread the word and get their music to new people. That is great and I love the fact that radio holds such a precious place in our hearts. It is not only the artists who feature on radio that we tune in for. More and more, many of us are tuning in for the presenters. I have written a lot about stations such as BBC Radio 6 Music and how it seems to be the last real place one can hear eclectic music and true quality. That might be a subjective statement but there is something in it. Look at stations like BBC Radio 1 and 2 and there is not the same scope and majesty as you get with its sister. One big reason why I listen to the station daily is its incredible D.J.s who provide that awesome music and entertainment. One thing bothers me when I look at the line-up and that of other stations: the lack of women being given shows.


Apologies if I am covering old ground but we have no time for disclaimers and backstory. I write about gender inequality in radio because, like so many other areas of music, there seems to be little improvement. I am a huge fan of BBC Radio 6 Music and few out there champion the station more than me. There is no fault their way but look at the current roster and there has been little change over the past decade. With only two women in daytime slots during the week (Lauren Laverne at breakfast and Mary Anne Hobbs right after) there is a raft of men who make up the ranks. On weekends, there is Cerys Matthews and they have Liz Kershaw; Gemma Cairney and Amy Lamé present on the station but, for the most part, it is the men who make up the majority of shows. The fact that there is a gap and need for something to be done makes me a bit angry. There are those who say that, so long as the line-up is popular, then why change things? I would argue that, even on the best radio stations, there are cracks and that need for change. There are great occasional presenters like Jon Hilcock and Tom Ravenscroft who are waiting; fantastic female D.J.s like Georgie Rogers who warrants her own show. When BBC Radio 2 announced its line-up change last year and reordered things so that three of its biggest daytimes lots went to women – Zoe Ball at breakfast; Sara Cox and Jo Whiley taking us through the afternoon and evening – I was happy.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Jo Whiley presents weekday evenings on BBC Radio 2/PHOTO CREDIT: BBC

Some have contested the switches and claim that BBC Radio 2 was bowing to pressure. I think, when you have fantastic women on your station, there is a time when you have to wake up and realise that they deserve equal footing. The best radio comes when you blend voices and have a diversity of personalities. If you have a station that is predominantly make-driven then you do not get that! Think of pioneers like Annie Nightingale – still going strong – and the fantastic D.J.s on stations such as BBC Radio 6 Music – Lauren Laverne and Mary Anne Hobbs are two of the finest talents they have. BBC Radio 1 has Dotty and Annie Mac but, again, there is a heavy leaning towards male D.J.s – even BBC Radio 2, despite its changes, is still largely housing men. Things are better when you look at independent stations and Internet radio but think of the more popular and widespread stations and can we say that what we have now is great? I mean, there is sensational music coming to the people and I know there are a lot of women who would kill to have their own shows. Either they are on weekends or a late slot or they are working at smaller stations and feel that they will never get a shot in the mainstream. Like festivals and the lack of female headliners, there are those that things are fine now and why alter that?


 ART CREDIT: Toni Demuro

This argument has always frustrated me as it suggests people think women are not good enough to headline festivals or they are not as popular as the men. The same can be said of radio. If a presenter has a fanbase and has been with a station for years then why shift them?! In order for radio to improve and inspire, there needs to be new blood. Ironically, whereas there is ageism in music as a whole, on some radio stations, there is a reliance on middle-aged presenters; very few younger D.J.s are given the opportunity to shine and have their own shows. Maybe things are slowly moving in the right direction but why does it take so long for real progression to happen? So many of the biggest radio stations stick with who they have and do not understand how many great women there who would provide something special, unique and hugely popular. When I started writing this blog in 2011, I came across this article, written by Miranda Sawyer (who presents on BBC Radio 6 Music), regarding the state of radio in 2011:

So why did this year's Sony Radio Academy awards make me, and many others, so cross? "The year of the lad", it was deemed, with TalkSport winning station of the year, 5 Live's Fighting Talk bagging a gold and Absolute's celeb-jocks Ronnie Wood and Frank Skinner also winning big. Host Chris Evans displayed his familiar "chivalry" (can any woman feel comfortable when a man bangs on about how much he fancies her, to her face, in front of an audience?). Jenni Murray and Annie Nightingale won special awards: well deserved, but outside regular categories. And lots of great women got up on stage: Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Kirsty Wark, Mariella Frostrup, Moira Stuart. Unfortunately, they were there to hand over gongs, to men.


PHOTO CREDIT: @jonathanvez/Unsplash 

'When I first approached Radio 1 about being a DJ [in the late 1960s], it was an all-male enclave. I asked why that was and was told, in all seriousness: "DJs are husband substitutes." Things have changed considerably since then. Hopefully, in the future everyone with talent and dedication to music broadcasting will get a chance to give it a go' Annie Nightingale, DJ, Radio 1, Thursday evenings”.

A new organisation, Sound Women, was launched that reacted to the imbalance in radio and the desire to change things:

Sound Women will soft-launch at annual industry conference the Radio festival this week. We've made a promotional film and have a website. More importantly, Skillset, the skills council for the creative industries, has gathered together existing research on women in UK radio into a report, which we're also launching on Tuesday; and we've set up a mentoring scheme for women in radio, to be run by the BBC. On our to-do list is creating a network of contacts, so that employers and conference organisers in radio can easily track down brilliant females; funding more targeted research; and possibly, eventually, an annual glitzy do.

'I've got the best job in the world! The Today programme has a healthy mix of men and women behind the scenes, but when you listen, you don't always hear that. Today recognises that as a problem. Sound Women is clearly an organisation that is trying to help work through such dilemmas' Sarah Montague, presenter, Radio 4's Today programme”.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Johnny Vaughan is part of a largely-male line-up on Radio x/PHOTO CREDIT: Radio X

That was nearly eight years ago and, whilst some big stations have promoted women to big slots, there is still a problem. Whereas more women are producing mainstream shows, there is still an absence of presenters on the front-line. All the stations I have mentioned have not really altered things since then; the number of women working at these stations is pretty poor. Maybe it would be unrealistic to say every station would employ a fifty-fifty split but we are not even close in many cases! Those who feel that ratio would be pandering and extreme need to realise that there are so many women who are fantastic presenters; they are not being given an opening and fee that doors will always be closed. Away from the BBC, stations like Absolute and Virgin have a real problem regarding the number of women at their station. Perhaps the biggest culprit of gender imbalance is at Radio X. Aside from its crappy name, the station is dominated by men. Look at their website and how they publicise the station: a line-up of white, middle-aged men who are playing Indie and Rock with very little else. The fact that, in 2019, there is a station so proud of its male hegemony is quite appalling. Last year, the launch of an all-female radio station, JACK, gave me some hope. You can read about it here…but it has come to the point where women have had to set up their own station.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @_imkiran/Unsplash

I understand there are schemes and bodies that are providing courses on production and presenting for young women who want to be on the radio in years to come. Internet radio provides an indiscriminate platform where anyone can have their voice heard but will all these great new stations with fantastic women on them give the mainstream stations pause for thought?! Some stations are worse offenders than others but I do wonder whether those with a great gender imbalance need to pledge greater commitment to putting women on air. A big reason I am writing this new piece is because I have heard from a lot of female presenters on smaller stations – and those who work occasionally on bigger stations – who say that they really want to move to a mainstream station but feel like they (the stations) are inflexible and rigid when it comes to hiring. The change at BBC Radio 2 is a welcome wave that, hopefully, will be taken on-board by other large stations. Maybe it is just me but I tend to find the most appealing and strong voices on radio are women. It is unfortunate that change is happening slowly but I do hope there is a day when we will see more gender equality on the airwaves. This is just me being frustrated but I am seeing all the fantastic work by women in radio and wonder whether there are any truly progressive leaps being made.

 IN THIS PHOTO: BBC Radio 1’s Annie Mac/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I am hearing too many male voices in the big slots still and, without compromising or declining in quality, many stations could afford to promote women or bring fresh talent in. It is all very well saying that change will come in years but why do we have to wait that long?! Even my favourite radio station has some stale edges that could be revitalised and cured by bringing in fresh talent – quite a few very promising female D.J.s that deserve greater exposure. I can understand those who feel that there is a risk when you change line-ups and make big alterations but I feel it is a move many stations need to make. If we want to encourage more women into radio (which we do) either as producers, researchers or on-air talent, then there needs to be greater consciousness from those at the top. Aside from blatantly sexist stations like Radio X, there are small movements happening in the right direction. That is all well and good but how long will it be until these actions translate into something meaningful and equal? If we want to make radio as rich and strong as it can be then there needs to be more women brought in, in front of and behind the microphone. I listen to many stations and there is definite room for improvement and revitalisation. There are so many fantastic female news presenters, producers and D.J.s that are waiting to come through and want to shine. Let’s hope that, sooner rather than later, radio stations listen and we…

IN THIS PHOTO: BBC Radio 6 Music’s morning host, Mary Anne Hobbs/PHOTO CREDIT: Jessica van der Weert 

VALUE how important female voices are.