Women's radio forced to humour men

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The Independent Online
IT IS called Viva] 963 and it will be the first British radio station for women. But in a paradox worthy of Alice in Wonderland, one of its biggest priorities will be to please men.

This is because audience research for the station, which won its franchise last month, has discovered that Nineties women are apparently shockingly unliberated when it comes to radio: if their male partner does not like it, they will turn it off. Nor will they listen if it smacks too strongly of feminism or is 'anti-men'.

So the station intends to offer them, when it launches its 24-hour service to London and the South-east in May, the radio equivalent of a cross between the women's magazines She and Marie Claire. In other words, all the old favourites that women (and men too) have traditionally given women: sex, relationships, children, health tips, shopping hints and how to rustle up a dinner party in 10 minutes flat.

It has been unkindly suggested that Lynne Franks, the former publicist who is non-executive chairman of the station, and Katy Turner, appointed its managing director last week, want to play wall-to-wall Barbra Streisand.

They retort that this is unfair, and point to a more sophisticated playlist including 'When a Man Loves a Woman' by Percy Sledge, 'Love and Affection' by Joan Armatrading, and 'Sexual Healing' by Marvin Gaye.

Viva] 963 is owned by Golden Rose Communications, the parent of another radio station, JFM, and has already recruited the former editor of Elle, Sally Brampton, agony aunt Claire Rayner, journalist Carol Thatcher and broadcaster Paula Yates as potential presenters to attract an estimated weekly audience of 375,000 women, mostly aged 25 to 44.

Scheduling puts heavy emphasis on relationships and the family. Features will include 'Dodge of the Day', where parents and teachers ring with their children's excuses for not attending school; 'Brand New', with critiques of new food products; 'Cash and Carry', explaining the stock market; 'Educating Rita', listing adult education opportunities; 'Honey I Shrunk the Kids', about problems with teenagers, and 'Recipe on the Run', for working women who wish to rustle up a dinner party in a hurry.

Sex is generally considered to be highly interesting to women, but the new station is anxious not to emulate the saturation coverage of magazines such as Cosmopolitan. 'We want to create the sort of environment women have when they get together - very irreverent, very funny,' Ms Turner reveals cryptically. Ms Franks is franker: 'I'd like to interview someone about tantric sex.' (where the act of sex goes on for hours).

Both claim to want a glamorous, stylish, intelligent output which does not patronise women. Ms Turner talks about 'interviewing world leaders - not just Hillary Clinton but ones in their own right' - but it is not clear how this regional station will pull such major players. Nor is there much obvious programming for the more intelligent woman, who will have to content herself with pragmatic items such as 'I'm Bored, Mum]' or the 'Green AM' slot on the environment.

Julie Burchill, the columnist and author, thinks the whole idea is horrible.

'There's something about the sound of women's voices which is like a flock of birds. I hate it even though I know my own voice is high and squeaky,' she says.

'Lynne Franks and all that lot have the IQ of a bunch of molluscs. It'll be a bunch of stupid women sitting around talking.

'Women are really self-pitying and talk about men all the time when they get together. They don't talk about interesting things like money or politics.'

She may be one of the few influential women in media who dislikes the concept. Ms Franks, with her incomparable contacts, has recruited a long and impressive list of powerful British women to support the station behind the scenes.

It is a network so influential that Viva] 963 threatens to become the female media networking equivalent of the Groucho or Garrick clubs in London. Its circle of inner advisers include Glenda Bailey, the editor of Marie Claire, Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago Press, Louise Chunn, former editor of the Guardian women's page, Marcelle D'Argy Smith, editor of Cosmopolitan, Barbara Follett, wife of the millionaire thriller writer and Labour supporter Ken, and Linda Kelsey, who is editor of She.

Many of these will present a weekly item called 'Edited Highlights' - 'a weekly spot given to editors of magazines Marie Claire, She, Esquire, Cosmopolitan'.

The question, however, for down-the-line feminists is whether a woman's station should exist at all, a debate that has long rumbled about one of its 'ghetto' supporters, the Guardian women's page.

Yesterday, Joan Smith, the feminist writer and critic, said: 'I've always thought it was better to throw one's energies into the existing power structures.'

This debate is not one that Ms Franks is interested in pursuing. 'The reality is that there isn't anything full-time on the radio which has a woman's point of view. Women do have a different perspective, although that doesn't mean we are cutting men off from being on it or listening to it,' she says.

This is a powerful point, because all marketing research carried out by Golden Rose Communications showed that women would not listen to it if their partners did not like it or it was 'anti-men'.

Perhaps as a result of this finding, the station hopes that one-third of its listeners will be male, even though it is expecting most profits to roll in from advertising specifically targeted at women.

It may also have an unexpected market among the gay community, even though it says firmly it is not aiming at them. Paul Burston, editor of the listings magazine Time Out's gay section, suggests gay men will almost certainly be interested. 'A lot of gay men I know tend to read women's magazines for the beauty tips,' he revealed.

(Photograph omitted)