Sexing the airwaves

Tune into a commercial pop station these days and you get either blatant laddism and Mike and the Mechanics or cosy chats and Celine Dion. Sexual stereotyping attracts advertisers but produces cringe-makingly awful radio, says Matthew Sweet

IT'S WEDNESDAY morning, the time is just coming up to 9.38, and you're listening to the Chris Evans breakfast show on Virgin FM. The hot topic of the morning is "Have you ever met a woman that wasn't mad?" It's casual misogyny plus the ironic get-out clause - and more fun than you can have with a rolled-up copy of FHM. But material like this also suggests why radio is slowly becoming more gender-specific, and why - like His'n'Hers perfume gift sets - most of it is so inescapably naff.

The Evans effect has been good for Virgin - they've put on listeners like Pub Man puts on Lynx aftershave, and generated some of the most attractive advertising slots that the medium has to offer. Never an hour goes by without the voices of Nick Hancock, Neil Morrisey or Martin Clunes trying to sell you breakfast bars, cough sweets or cars. And commercial radio is a booming market for such advertisers.

So, a fortnight ago, when the star of the Soho Square-based station took a holiday, it made good sense to leave an Evans clone minding the shop. Robin Banks (surely one of those joke names, like Seymour Knickers?) kept Virgin's listeners and advertisers happy with a familiar patter: farmers, apparently, have found that playing relaxing music to cows makes them produce more milk. "If you've got a grumpy cow," advised Banks, "do what I do - let them pick the restaurant on the date." (Cue Mike and the Mechanics).

Despite the gruesomely alienating nature of this stuff, attempts to formulate radio stations for women have not met with much success. After a high- profile launch packed with dazzling celebrities (well, Lynne Franks, anyway) the female-dominated Viva! was reaching audiences that were too small to measure - earning the nickname Vulva! among radio journalists didn't help much, either. It's successor, Liberty, is less obviously tailored to women listeners. And is it giving Evansite laddism a run for its money? Retune to 953KHz and what do you find? Early morning femme FA? A crepuscular Handbag session? Some disco diva larging it over her Golden Grahams? Janice Long, even? You should be so lucky. Instead, the station's breakfast show has become the final resting place for Simon Bates - he of "Our Tune" fame. As Liberty's owner Mohammed Al Fayed would probably concur, it's like a bit of fugging 1981 that's somehow managed to survive into the present day. The ads are for the Curtain Mill, the play-list is Bee Gees- led, and instead of weather, Liberty supplies a gossip round-up after its news bulletins.

The difference between Viva! and Liberty sheds some light on the attitude of female listeners to their radio. Launch something that's brazenly gender- specific, and women switch off in droves. Trowel on the soft-centred girliness that's the female equivalent of a Ben Sherman shirt drenched in pissy lager, and commercial success is easier to attain. No-one ever lost money overestimating people's capacity for bad taste.

A mimsy, fluffy name-tag helps - London has Heart 106.2 and will soon be able to tune into First Love. It's best not to have too many female DJs, either. Heart's orientation towards women listeners is evidenced not by female presenters, but by its ads for fitness centres, healthy breakfast cereals and Ladies Nights at unspeakable nitespots. For those listeners on their way to such places, the frequency offers the Saturday night pre-club warm-up of Dancin' in the City. For those who didn't manage to score, there's 2am reassurance from Jeff Stryker - the fact that he shares a name with an Eighties porn star who marketed his own range of prosthetic penises is presumably coincidental.

The breakfast show's Morning Crew are like a scrubbed, softer, gentler version of the Virgin team: they have a Willy Boy rather than a Johnny Boy, an atmosphere of cosy chat rather than uneasy sycophancy, and a playlist of misty-eyed Celine Dion and The Lighthouse Family. Kara Noble leads the show with all the good-humoured basso profundo that she perfected at Capital Radio under her erstwhile mentor, Chris Tarrant and there are no cow jokes and no husky maidens breathing "Stick your tongue in it," just acres of comfy cuteness. The trouble is, it's not very interesting.

However, I hear that the breakfast show on Radio Tirana is terrific - accurate goat forecasts, corking Enver Hoxha jokes and neither Aerosmith or Celine Dion on the playlist. You have to stand on the roof and wave a coathanger around to pick it up, but anything's worth a try.

FOR GIRLS

Capital gold MW 1548: proper "choons" from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties for retired rock chicks who aren't too proud to get down to Leonard Skynner as they hoover. Listeners: thirtysomethings who never had that much taste in music in the first place

Heart FM 106.2: lots of solo songstresses, lots of chart, plus keynote golden oldies from Katrina and the Waves and the Eagles. Non-crunchy and Gallagher-free. Listeners: office girls; teenagers; suburbanites

Melody FM 105.4: slushy love songs, showtunes, the Carpenters. Radio 2 with ads, only less challenging. Listeners: new-borns and the hard of thinking

FOR BOYS

Virgin FM 105.8: Britpop, Mike and the Mechanics, Aerosmith, Steve Winwood, plus irritating indie pop from the Lightning Seeds et al. Listeners: New lads and old bores

Jazz FM 102.2: Otis Carmichael, er, Fats Backgammon, that sort of thing. Frankly, it's a mystery to you and me. Listeners: polo-neck wearing, chess- playing, purist jazz bores who tune in to complain about commercialisation and jazz-funk fusion

XFM 104.9: Very alternative, very cutting edge, very indie, very hard work. The John Peel show for the chemical generation. Purveyor of fodder to the review pages of the NME and Melody Maker. Listeners: erstwhile fans of the Cure; disaffected youth; depressives

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