Media Viewpoint: Don't let facts spoil a good franchise bid: One could argue as strong a case for a new radio station for men as for women

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The Independent Online
IN A few months' time there may be a new media type to put on this page: the women's radio station presenter. The illustration will have her clutching a record by Annie Lennox or Aretha Franklin.

But parodies can never match the real thing. Who could possibly dream up the politically correct gardening correspondent that Radio Viva, the station for women hoping to get a London franchise, intends to have? As its chairman, Lynne Franks, explains: 'We will have gardening, but it will be ecological gardening set in an urban environment.'

Two of the applicants for Greater London licences made it clear last week that they were offering services particular for women: Radio Viva explicitly said so, and London AM strongly implied it by saying that women's needs were not being met.

It is to be hoped that Lord Chalfont, chairman of the Radio Authority, will see through this. He, better than anyone, knows the enormous sums of money that can be made from a commercial radio station. Competition is fierce; a number of applicants are claiming niche markets - and what better niche than the most politically correct one of all?

But it won't wash. Ms Franks says in tones of amazement that nowhere in the world is there a radio station specifically targeted at women. Incredible. And here is something just as incredible. Nowhere in the world is there a radio station specifically targeted at men. The estimable Joan Bakewell, who is chairing London AM's bid, says that London AM will 'pay attention to the needs of women,' adding that women between 30 and 50 are 'actively dissatisfied with the radio they have at the moment'.

But the statistics simply do not bear any of this out. The independent Policy Studies Institute's latest edition of Cultural Trends, published last month, contains the most up-to-date radio listenership figures for both the BBC and independent radio, and breaks down the figures by sex.

They show that Radio 4 has more women listeners than men (57 per cent to 43 per cent); Radio 2 has exactly the same proportion of female dominance; Radio 1 has a pretty well equal split; and Radios 3 and 5 have more male listeners than women because, according to the PSI, of the heavy concentration of sports coverage on those stations.

BBC regional services attract 52 per cent women and 48 per cent men; BBC local radio 53 per cent women and 47 per cent men. The split on independent local radio is 50-50.

On statistics alone, one could argue just as strong a case for a new radio station for men as for women, though it would be equally foolish to do so.

If the justification for such a station is open to challenge, the justification for programme content is as well. Music, which despite all the socio-political jargon in the applications is to take up the bulk of programme time, will be female-oriented too. It will be soul music, says Ms Franks. 'There will be an emphasis on lyrics,' says Ms Bakewell. 'Women do not like rock.'

Where on the radio dial have these women been finding the rock music to dislike? I have been looking for years but all I have been able to find is soul music.

And, looking at the list of Radio Viva's presenters, there is a clear and, I think, very dubious assumption that women only like listening to women.

Many of the media fail to deliver news and feature material of particular interest to women. But can that really be said to be the case with radio, in defiance of all the statistics and the wide variety of human interest - family, health and education programmes - on, say, Radio 4? Indeed, women on the BBC listening panel gave all BBC radio stations ratings of over 65 out of 100. Jeremy Eckstein, a researcher with the Policy Studies Institute, says: 'On the basis of these figures, women appear to be well satisfied with the service they are getting on radio.'

It is true that radio advertisers tend not to aim their products at women (39 per cent of the money advertisers spend on television is directly aimed at women, compared with only 9 per cent of radio advertising).

The station that makes advertisers realise there is a large female audience out there will rapidly have a licence to print money. This would be the honest approach. Using ideologically fashionable but factually unsound arguments that women are not being provided with a service should fool no one.