So many DJs, but so few women ...

The Smashie and Nicey era may be over, but radio is still a male preserve. Katie Sampson asks when girls will get a spin
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Indy Lifestyle Online
DISC jockeys don't just play records, they are stars in their own right - witness the amount of media fuss thrown up by Chris Evans's move to Radio 1. Before Evans, the last Radio 1 recruit to enjoy so much attention was Lisa l'Anson - but for rather different reasons. L'Anson, hired to fill the midday slot, is young, black - and female. In fact she is Radio 1's only daytime female DJ, and one of just five women DJs of a total of 17.

Radio 1 is not the only station to have such a small minority of women's voices on the air. For example, Virgin FM and London's Capital Radio each has its sole female DJ relegated to a late-night slot. Melody FM is run by a woman, but there are no female presenters; at Kiss FM, the influential club-culture dance music station, only two of the 25 resident DJs are women, and none holds a prime-time slot.

Across the stations, women are generally confined to the small hours; they usually surface on daytime radio as weather girls or traffic announcers - or flirtatious sidekicks to male DJs.

In January, the management of BBC Radio agreed to aim for a target of 50 per cent of women at all levels in network radio - so where are all the female DJs? Matthew Bannister, controller of Radio 1, is cagey. "Any station broadcasting to the public where women are in the majority should be more reflective of the population than perhaps Radio 1 has been in the past," he concedes. But he says he hires DJs on the grounds of talent rather than gender - and anyway, "of the bucket-loads of demo tapes I receive, only about one per cent are from women".

Bannister suggests this is because DJ-ing is somehow a male preserve. "Women seem to be less anoraky about their music, whereas men pursue this rather sad interest in the minutiae of music to a much later age and are therefore more likely to consider DJ-ing as a career option."

But female DJs and would-be DJs are starting to get angry at the lack of attention. "The discrimination is so blatant I don't know how anyone could fail to notice it," complains DJ Ritu, a freelance broadcaster who is one of the few to have broken through from club DJ-ing to radio. The Rankin' Miss P, the first black woman to have broadcast nationally, claims that most stations have an unofficial policy not to employ women. When she started at Radio 1, a senior member of BBC management reminded her that she was an exception to the rule.

"The reason we don't hire women DJs," he told her, "is because listeners don't like the sound of women's voices announcing records."

Audience surveys have indicated that listeners do prefer to listen to male DJs. But, just as all newsreaders used to be men, yet female newsreaders are now routinely accepted, this may well be simply because it's what listeners are used to.

"If women listen to their radios they will get caught up in the preconception that because it's 95 per cent men then it must be a man's thing," Miss P observes. Christopher Mellor, editor of DJ Magazine, agrees; he feels the problem is that stations simply aren't encouraging women to come forward, even though clubs are now giving women the opportunity to DJ. Even in clubs, female DJs do not get an easy ride. When DJ Sarah HB started working in clubs, men would put their beers down on her records while she was playing them, and she would often be paid much less than the other DJs. "And I'd hear men in specialist record shops saying 'She can't even mix a gin and tonic.'"

When Sarah eventually joined Kiss FM, she met a wary reaction from her male colleagues. "There were no role models around for me then. I was scared of being the only female, without any support, so I felt that I had to be hard in order to be accepted." As a result she gained the appellation "hard bitch", which she quickly incorporated into her DJ-ing "handle" as a reminder of her fight to gain recognition.

Even where women in senior positions have the power to appoint DJs, few have been keen to give a helping hand to other women who want to get a foot on the ladder of music presentation. Sheila Porrit has been manager of London's first easy listening station, Melody FM, since its inception, but she has never employed a woman as a music presenter. Lorna Clarke holds a powerful position as a hirer and firer at Kiss FM, yet still male DJs outnumber the women by more than ten to one.

Clarke admits that Kiss has a rather blokey image, but is indignant at the suggestion that she is not doing enough to encourage women on to the station. "You can't go steaming in to bring the numbers of female DJs up whatever the cost," she protests. "It's important to make a policy realistic. Changing people's minds is a slow process."

For some the process is just too slow. Recently Sarah HB decided to take the situation into her own hands by holding a DJ-ing competition for women on her late-night show on Kiss, the reward being a chance to DJ on the show. "It's absolute rubbish [to say] that women won't submit demos," she protests.

"I've received loads of demo tapes from women, and the quality is brilliant. But I've never heard anyone else publicly encourage women to get involved as DJs on air." She sees this as an essential part of the process of change. "Every station should do it. It's really the only way to bring in new talent." The Women's Radio Group hopes to help turn the tide. This is a networking organisation encouraging women into areas of radio where they are under-represented. It recently ran a course in music presentation, which focused on developing confidence and technical skills. For Julie Hill, who runs the group, gaining technical ability is vital for women who are seriously considering a career as a DJ. "Women create obstacles for themselves by lacking technical know-how," she points out. "To present music you must know how to drive a radio desk, and a kind of mystique still prevails that this is a man's domain."

Hill also acts as programme consultant for Viva! FM, Britain's first official station designed primarily for female listeners, which is due to begin broadcasting in July. She is confident that Viva! and other new stations will provide many new role models for women who want to present music. She is resolutely upbeat: "There are new opportunities opening up. The time has come for women to stop moaning."

n The Women's Radio Group: tel 0171-241 3729.