The Week In Radio: Why Jenni and Jane know just what women want


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The Independent Culture

There are people out there, or so I'm told, who believe that Radio 4's Woman's Hour shouldn't exist. These are the same people, one presumes, who talk about feminism in the past tense, referring to that silly business when women got uppity about not being able to do things like vote or have a career, and being treated as simpletons. Alternatively, they believe the programme to be patronising and maintain that if women are to attain true equality they shouldn't be given special treatment. Come again?

We've reached a curious stage in radio where women are frequently being kept at arm's-length by mainstream discussion programmes, and are left to jump up and down and wave frantically at the back of the crowd to get themselves noticed. And yet when they are given the opportunity to elbow their way to the front, there are those who cop a strop and say: "Not playing."

More fool them, since they are missing out on all manner of brilliance. In the past week, Woman's Hour, still in the capable hands of Jane Garvey and Jenni Murray, has covered the kind of topics that you would find in a serious newspaper rather than a woman's magazine, from discussions about domestic violence, infertility and the rising problem of malnourished children in the UK to female reggae artists and the best way to help friends when they are seriously ill.

I could perhaps have done without the feature on the historical significance of doll's houses, complete with maudlin piano accompaniment, a niche pursuit made all the more weird by the sighing melancholy of its practitioners. For the most part, however, Woman's Hour provides balance in a broadcasting climate that still overwhelmingly favours men and the male experience, and does so with confidence, integrity and panache. More power to it that 40 per cent of its listeners are now men.

The percentage of women listening to Radio 5 Live's Men's Hour, which began a new series on Sunday, has yet to be revealed, though few will have missed the anxiety seeping out of the radio at the possibility of enraging the naysayers who believe that if having a Woman's Hour is patronising, having a Men's Hour is downright offensive. It's not, of course. The problem for those making it lies in unearthing unexplored areas of masculinity and not sounding as if your ideas have been pilfered from the latest edition of Nuts magazine.

This week, a discussion about how US presidential candidates set about winning the men's vote was weighty and illuminating though less so a feature on the mental cost of the economic downturn on men, which lost its way soon after Alison Murdoch, a Buddhist and champion of something called "universal wisdom education" recommended that men "don't become victims of the financial situation and find ways to keep their spirits up". This prompted a muffled sucking of teeth from presenter Tim Samuels but no actual challenge, presumably for fear of the nation's oppressed women marching on the studio with torches and pitchforks. Elsewhere, there was a piece looking at whether gaming is inherently sexist (the answer, broadly, was yes) and an interview with Hunter Moore, the man who started a website in which users can post humiliating pictures of their ex-lovers to exact their revenge.

Men's Hour still lacks confidence and has yet to strike the right balance of seriousness and humour, but then going up against Woman's Hour, a show with a 65-year history and presenters who are part of the BBC furniture, is no small challenge. For the time being, it's Men's Hour 0 Woman's Hour 1.