Why radio doesn't like girls aloud

The latest Sony nominees include a disturbing lack of female radio presenters, writes Ciar Byrne
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The Independent Online

There were plenty of cheers and not a few grumbles when the nominations for the radio "Oscars", the Sonys, were announced last week. Some thought the BBC was up for too many awards; others muttered that commercial radio had been unduly favoured. No one mentioned the most startling inequality of the evening. Out of 50 nominations in the 10 categories that recognise the prowess of presenters, only one was for a woman in her own right - Late Night Lisa (real name Lisa Duncombe), who won her midnight slot on Classic FM by writing to station bosses to complain they weren't doing enough to attract younger listeners.

There were plenty of cheers and not a few grumbles when the nominations for the radio "Oscars", the Sonys, were announced last week. Some thought the BBC was up for too many awards; others muttered that commercial radio had been unduly favoured. No one mentioned the most startling inequality of the evening. Out of 50 nominations in the 10 categories that recognise the prowess of presenters, only one was for a woman in her own right - Late Night Lisa (real name Lisa Duncombe), who won her midnight slot on Classic FM by writing to station bosses to complain they weren't doing enough to attract younger listeners.

The only other women named in the nominations were part of boy-girl teams: Edith Bowman, who co-presents Radio 1's lunchtime show with Colin Murray, and Jo Russell, one half of the breakfast duo on Nottingham's 96 Trent FM. Is the Sony shortlist representative of the state of the radio industry? Surely there are plenty of successful female DJs, from Jo Whiley, Mary Anne Hobbs and Annie Nightingale at Radio 1 to Janice Long at Radio 2, Victoria Derbyshire at Five Live and Xfm's Lauren Laverne?

Trails have undoubtedly been blazed, but raw statistics suggest true equality on the airwaves is still some way off. On the BBC's five analogue stations, women make up about 28 per cent of presenters. In the commercial sector, the proportion of female DJs varies from 10 per cent to a third. Music radio - in particular, the all-important breakfast show - is dominated by men.

Yet behind the scenes, women dominate radio advertising sales teams and are breaking through into station management. The most powerful figure in British radio is a woman - BBC radio chief Jenny Abramsky - while at Emap, Dee Ford is managing director of Emap Performance, overseeing stations such as Magic and Kiss FM.

One explanation for the shortage of female presenters is the enduring image of the male DJ. Mark Story, the managing director of radio programming at Emap, says: "Women don't aspire to do music radio, because the stereotype they have grown up with doesn't see them doing that job. The emergence of the disc jockey came in the Sixties, when the stereotype was guys on ships playing music."

Out of every 100 demo tapes sent to Emap by wannabe DJs, between six and 10 come from women. Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas concurs: "It was true that historically radio presenters were male. The advent of presenters such as Janice Long began to change that. However, the well is still full of more male than female presenters to draw on, so if you are looking for presenters who have experience, you are almost invariably drawn to male presenters."

Research showing that men and women prefer listening to male presenters is another obstacle. "Empirically from industry focus group research, we know that female presenters are less liked by listeners and, ironically, it's women who most dislike them," says Alexis Thompson, the managing director of Radio Aire.

Douglas is not convinced: "I think that is no longer valid. That research tended to be done at a time when women were just entering the radio field. There was an issue around familiarity and tone, which I believe is no longer relevant." Radio 1 DJ Nemone agrees: "I know from the feedback I get that there are many women who enjoy listening to female presenters."

But the received wisdom is that men's voices are better suited to radio. "This will sound sexist, but more male voices are fitted to radio because of their pitch," says Sandra Chalmers, a former editor of Radio 4's Woman's Hour and presenter on PrimeTime Radio. "It's easier to accommodate female voices if they're lower."

Trent FM's Sony-nominated Russell has a more forthright theory. "There is an inequality. I believe it is for a number of reasons, one of those being the male ego. Blokes don't like to be outfunnied, especially by a woman."

Russell is one of the few women to run the desk on a breakfast show, breaking the traditional mould in which the woman is relegated to the role of sidekick, or reading the travel or weather. Choice FM DJ Angie Le Mar says: "It's amazing that when two men present a show, they're on an equal footing, but when a woman is in the mix, she is called a sidekick - someone not to be taken too seriously."

Radio 1 sets an example for the rest of the industry. Although the current breakfast show host is a man, Chris Moyles, the station has been home to two of the best-known female breakfast presenters: Zoë Ball and Sara Cox.

"Inequality is something that has never crossed my mind at Radio 1," says Edith Bowman. "There have always been strong women on the station."

Jo Whiley, who hosts Radio 1's mid-morning show, says: "I feel very positive about women in broadcasting from what I'm hearing on the radio now. There are a lot of brilliant women presenters and the fact that's not reflected in the Sonys is very disheartening. I've always thought broadcasting is a bit different from the music industry, where women have to fight harder and make sacrifices."

Whiley admits that motherhood has influenced her career choices. "I was doing the Evening Session and my daughter was three or four and she was crying every night because she wanted me to put her to bed. That was a large factor in my deciding to leave the Evening Session."

When women such as Cox and Ball started to break through, they were accused of being "ladettes", talking about their drinking exploits and cracking coarse jokes. Sheena Borthwick, the managing director of Scotland's West Sound FM, says: "I think a lot of the women who have chosen to present radio have tried to become men, adopting laddish talk and behaviour. It's quite downmarket and smutty. I think if women would be themselves on radio, they would have a far better following." Virgin Radio presenter Kelly-Anne Smith agrees: "I've never felt like that. I'm a girly girl. I think to be a good DJ, you have to be real. I don't understand how you can keep up an act."

In speech radio, women have achieved a more equal footing. Five Live has shaken off its blokeish image, with Shelagh Fogarty co-presenting the breakfast show with Nicky Campbell, Victoria Derbyshire in charge of the mid-morning phone-in and Jane Garvey co-hosting drive-time. Fogarty says: "It was made very clear when I was offered the job that it was parity. A woman who I worked with in local radio was once told that she couldn't do a particular shift because it involved reading out the sport. At Five Live, sport is such a key part of what the station does that we're expected as a presenter to know what's going on."

Male or female, Whiley believes success stems from passion. "I'd give the same advice to boys and girls who want to get into radio - it's all about knowing your subject, whether it's music or football, and being really passionate about what you want to do."

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