The Week in Radio: Women rule the airwaves for International Women's Day - but men still call the tune


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The Independent Culture

"High-five a woman near you right now and tell them that they're great, because they probably are," instructed presenter Gemma Cairney on Saturday morning on Radio 1 during the 39-hour female takeover. This was the day that the station elected to feature exclusively female presenters from 7pm on Friday night through to 10am on Sunday, in honour of International Women's Day.

A radical idea? Some might say so. Would lady hormones flood the corridors of Broadcasting House, infecting the brains of male employees who would suddenly find themselves cooing over kitten pictures on the internet? Would the poor, ousted male presenters require counselling following the shock discovery that female employees aren't just there to read the weather and titter winningly at their jokes?

In the event, the world didn't end. And, let's be honest, radio wasn't revolutionised – at least not immediately. Cairney's mission was less to batter her audience with feminist ideology than to bring a sense of celebration to International Women's Day, gently cajoling male listeners between tracks into showing some appreciation for their girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters, grandmothers and their female colleagues and friends.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. Cairney knows as well as anyone that there's a lot more to International Women's Day than making your missus a cup of tea and congratulating her on her ovaries. Even so, it's probably not wise to scare your core listeners with the horrifying statistics on, say, FGM or domestic violence while they're fighting off hangovers on a Saturday morning.

In fact, the tone was kept deliberately light throughout the full 39 hours, although the presenters rarely missed a chance to remind listeners why they were there. On Saturday afternoon, Annie Mac elbowed Danny Howard out of his regular slot with the words: "Well, this is weird." More used to providing Friday night soundtracks and doing the graveyard shift on Sundays, she noted that she had now become "the filling in the middle," a position with which she quickly became comfortable.

In the evening Sarah-Jane Crawford's show was simultaneously beamed to Radio 1 and 1Xtra listeners, with Crawford bellowing, "No sausage fest out here tonight... it's all about the xx chromosome. Hehehe." She was a hoot.

One could ask how, in the long run, women stand to benefit from Radio 1 giving a bunch of male DJs the day off simply to prove to their listenership that, on one day of the year, they are, like, totally down with the girlz. And yet, on this occasion, they deserve some credit.

Giving over a day of broadcasting to women makes an important statement. It reminds listeners that, beyond children's nurseries, primary schools, maternity wards and other supposedly feminine domains, all-woman workforces are still unusual in the 21st century while male-dominated ones are the norm.

It reminds us that there is nothing good or defensible about the marginalisation of women on the airwaves in 2014. Last year a study conducted by the pressure group Sound Women found that only one in five solo voices on the radio is female, and that the ratio of men to women drops further during peak listening hours. Which, essentially, means that on the majority of mainstream radio, every day is International Men's Day.

It is, clearly, a sad state of affairs when it takes a global awareness day to fleetingly wake schedulers out of their misogynist torpor. But any initiative that addresses the gender imbalance and normalises the notion of multiple female voices on the radio is a good thing. It is, at the very least, a start.