A new wave on the airwaves

For too long, commercial radio has caused women to switch off. But change is in the air, repo rts Meg Carter
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The Independent Online
Male voices have long dominated both the airwaves and the boardrooms of Britain's radio stations. ``Radio Bloke'', the unofficial name given to BBC Radio 5 Live when it relaunched as a news and sports service, could just as easily have been applied to much of The Independent radio's output too, disgruntled women in the business have long maintained. That is until now.

In the past three months, the number of women running The Independent radio stations has doubled - from four to eight. And while it is tempting to underestimate the significance of this in a UK market with 160 national, regional and local commercial radio stations, many believe the tide has finally begun to turn.

"Commercial radio in the UK is 21 years old. In any industry as new as this, it takes time for the number of women to reach critical mass,'' says Katy Turner, managing director of the radio station Viva, which promises to offer "a female perspective'' w

hen it launches in London next year.

"Over the couple of years we have been planning Viva, other groups have quite The Independently tested the water using temporary licences - such as Fem FM, Brazen and Celebration,'' she says. "Women listeners are not well served by existing speech or music stations. But things are starting to change.''

And about time too. Although many stations deny it, the traditional sound of UK commercial radio is still a male DJ flirting with his housewife audience. According to Dr Rosalind Gill, a lecturer at Brunel University, the notion of "housewife radio'' still dictates most programming despite the fact that women in the home represent a minority of listeners.

While The Independent radio newsrooms are dominated by women, in the news itself women are still often depicted as passive victims. Meanwhile, much radio advertising also perpetuates outdated stereotypes.

The result is that the UK commercial radio audience is male-biased. Women aged between 25 and 50 listen to as much as 25 per cent less radio than men, Ms Turner claims. "Whilst women listen as often as men, they listen for shorter periods,'' she says. "

Some have switched to coffee-time TV while others are searching the radio dial in vain.''

Undoubtedly, the stations are to blame. Commercial radio has always lagged behind the BBC, which has formalised an equal opportunities policy, and last year appointed Liz Forgan managing director, network radio. But it's not just a question of old fogeysbeing stick-in-the-mud.

When commercial radio launched in the UK back in the 1970s, senior management was appointed from the male-dominated ranks of journalists, DJs and financiers. "The traditional route to the boardroom was for a DJ to become head of music, programme controller, director and then MD,'' says Sheila Porritt, managing director of London's Melody Radio.

Since then, women have moved into all departments. Yet there has not been a comparable increase in the number of female voices on air. The reason is simple, Ms Porritt says: "When DJ jobs are advertised few, if any, women apply.''

Julie Hall, co-ordinator of the Women's Radio Group, says this should come as no surprise. "Traditionally, all music presenters have been men. There is just not a strong heritage of women in music programming.'' Ms Hall taught at the National Broadcasting School for six years until it closed due to lack of funds in 1986, and regularly observed male students elbowing female students out of the way.

"While the men would move forward to take charge of the desk, the women would hold back, doing the research as the men recorded and mixed,'' she says. "All too often women don't get the range of experience needed to become a programme director.'' This w

as one reason why WRG was launched in 1989.

It is hardly surprising that it is in sales and marketing that many women have come into their own. According to the 1995 Radio Advertising Handbook, three programme directors are women but there are 25 female sales directors. And of the eight women running stations, most have a sales and marketing background.

As City interest in commercial radio blossoms, what matters is results. A greater emphasis is being placed on the bottom line. And as new licences are awarded across the country, interested backers are being forced to identify gaps in the market.

This is why a number of new stations - from Heart FM to Viva - are positioning themselves to cater for women's tastes. Commercial opportunity rather than positive discrimination, it seems, is redressing the balance. The Women's Radio Group runs 10 courses a year on all aspects of radio production.

Tel: 071-241 3729.

Photograp Martina Dodson, 33, station director, Capital 95.8FM and Capital Gold 1548

Former newspaper sales executive Martina Dodson has been catapulted into one of the hottest seats in commercial radio. She is station director of the UK's largest, oldest and most successful local radio station, Capital Radio - effectively managing director of Capital 95.8FM and Capital Gold 1548.

Capital Radio is market leader, broadcasting to a potential London audience of just under 10 million. Until now, it has never faced real competition for listeners. But next year sees the launch of Virgin FM, Crystal FM and Viva. Ms Dodson's challenge is to improve what many agree is already a successful format. Small wonder, then, if her appointment in September raised a few eyebrows. But Ms Dodson is no media novice. Her first job was at the Observer, where she joined the tele-sales depar

t ment in 1982. After 14 months she moved to the Guardian's classified sales team and spent 10 years on the paper, becoming display sales manager in 1989.

In 1993, she joined Capital Radio as client services director, becoming sales director six months later. She reminds those who are surprised by her latest elevation that it has taken her more than 12 years to get there.

Ms Dodson believes the notion that women are poorly served by commercial radio is "overstated'', but concedes it's a different story in the boardroom. "Many of the industry's senior managers have been in place since commercial radio began in the UK,'' she says. "But now, things are definitely changing for the better.''

Suzy Mayzel, 36, programme director, Virgin 1215

Despite narrowing the gap between its male and female audience, Virgin 1215 is still regarded by many to be very much a male interpretation of a rock music station. But Suzy Mayzel, the recently appointed programme director, does not agree.

"It's not fair to say most women like one particular music genre while most men prefer another,'' she says. "The difference is in the flow and how you mix the music output together. If anything, age is more important than gender.''

Suzy Mayzel joined Virgin in October having spent six years as programme director at KOIT AM/FM - a top-rating radio station in San Francisco, the third-largest radio market in the US. She started in radio fresh from college in 1981 as programming assistant at soft-rock station WLS-Chicago.

She worked her way up through the ranks of music director, assistant programme director and interim programme director before moving to the UK in late 1993. She has since worked with London's Melody Radio and VH-1, MTV's second music channel for thirtysomethings.

Ms Mayzel is one of only four female programme directors in the UK. The US situation is not much better. But she maintains she has never encountered any obstacles while working in a male-dominated industry. "It was tough, but not because I was a woman. Competition is fierce. It's tough because it's tough.''

Photograp Lynne Wood, 36, managing director, Radio City Lynne Wood, who joined Radio City in Liverpool last week, readily admits she has no direct experience of radio apart from being an avid listener. However, she knows only too well its strengths and its weaknesses, having spent the best part of her career selling against it. Like many senior women in radio, Ms Wood's background is sales and marketing. She joined from Midland The Independent Newspapers where she was a board director and general advertisement manager. She began her media career in the north west, where she spent 12 years working with Thompson Regional Newspapers in Chester.

Ms Wood joins a station with a long tradition of employing women in senior management, according to Radio City chairman Terry Smith.

"When Radio City launched back in 1974, we had the only woman pro gramme controller - GillianReynolds,'' he says. Even so, Ms Wood admits to being surprised at the dearth of senior women in The Independent radio.

"Coming from a sales background I expect to be judged on results,''

she says. But it was only at the interview - through a particular line of questioning, that she detected the situation. She is motivated by the desire to join a fast-growing, dynamic business, she adds. "To me, being a woman is just not an issue.''