Listen up to the boys’ club: Ivan Yates returns to primetime radio

Yates’s switch to Newstalk’s drivetime show highlights lack of female voices on Irish radio

 Broadcaster Ivan Yates: “They’ve gone with safety. They know what he’s going to deliver. It’s not revolutionary in any way,” said Craig Farrell of Zenith Media. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Broadcaster Ivan Yates: “They’ve gone with safety. They know what he’s going to deliver. It’s not revolutionary in any way,” said Craig Farrell of Zenith Media. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Later this week Newstalk will decide whether to have an official launch for its autumn schedule. It’s where the presenters get to do a meet-and-greet with advertisers and the media.

Photos are taken and it’s a chance for a radio station to introduce the faces behind the voices, to show off its star talent, and to proclaim that all-important business attribute, brand identity.

If taken today that photo would look more like a snap from a golf club agm or a backslapping old boys’ schools fundraiser because, with the announcement last week that Ivan Yates is to present its weekday drivetime show, the broadcaster now has an all-male presenter line-up in the programmes that count, weekdays from 7am to 7pm.

To find a prime-time slot for Yates, who presents a weekend show after his gap year from the station, Newstalk ditched the current team of Chris Donoghue and Sarah McInerney. It says much about the lack of women’s voices on Newstalk’s airwaves that the season launch last September, which featured McInerney and Colette Fitzpatrick (who resigned from the blokeish breakfast line-up in February), was much commented on – positively – for its baby steps towards gender diversity. The bar is so low that blue moons get less attention.

Male dominance

But then you think that surely such a photocall couldn’t take place. That in a cultural environment where the Waking the Feminists movement erupted and shifted mindsets, where the recent furore of the gender pay gap in British broadcasting spilled over into Ireland; and where activists on social media such as #Wherearethewomen monitor gender balance in boardrooms and on panels, Newstalk would be too mortified to parade its stable of male presenters for the cameras.

And then you spot the “Oh It’s On” brand campaign for Today FM, its brother station in the Communicorp group. The poster features nine presenters: seven men who anchor programmes in those prime 7am to 7pm time slots, and two women, Paula MacSweeney and Louise Duffy, who host programmes outside those hours.

As the campaign proudly shows, it’s possible to listen to an entire day of primetime Today FM without hearing the voice of a female presenter.

Two years ago there was hope that things might change. The male dominance of the Irish airwaves was laid bare in a report by Dublin City University and the National Women’s Council, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).

It went further than counting lead presenters: it also looked at the gender balance when it came to contributors. It found that male voices made up 72 per cent of news and current affairs radio broadcasting time, with Newstalk’s programmes the worst offenders. It noted there were 63 per cent male voices on RTÉ Radio, 70 per cent on Today FM and 82 per cent on Newstalk.

The report made recommendations on how stations should address gender imbalance (raised consciousness, gender audits and the like) and suggested the BAI could set minimum gender quotas for guests/experts over a three-year period .

That’s the stick, but surely the audience-boosting carrot is that women are the majority gender in this country, not some minority to be catered for. The census figures alone should be enough to make the persistence of the dominance of male voices on the airwaves all the more puzzlingly regressive.

Safe choice

“The drivetime slot is highly competitive,” said Craig Farrell, managing director of Zenith Media. “You could argue that last year’s announcement of Chris Donoghue and Sarah McInerney in the slot was an experiment, [one] that didn’t work and that the move to put Yates in is an attempt to shore up listenership in that time slot. They’ve gone with safety. They know what he’s going to deliver. It’s not revolutionary in any way.”

In the statement announcing Yates’s move to the 4pm to 7pm slot, Newstalk managing editor Patricia Monahan seemed to concur with this analysis, describing Yates as “one of Ireland’s foremost commentators” and noting his long history with the station. There was no sense of a window being opened and fresh air being allowed in.

It’s a tough time for radio. Analysing the most recent set of JNLR listenership figures, John Clancy, managing director of media agency Carat Ireland, noted the stations had a “solid set of figures” but that taking the longer view and comparing 2016 to the full-year 2015 figures, Radio 1 has lost 20,000 daily listeners (down 2 per cent), Today FM has lost 45,000 (down 10 per cent) and Newstalk has lost 26,000 (down 6 per cent).

Retreating to the safe choice is one option in the face of such challenges.

Then, as if to underline the dominance of the old boys’ club came reports at the weekend that Matt Cooper and Yates are to replace Vincent Browne on TV3’s late night current affairs programme.

Reviews of that programme over the years regularly remarked how his panels were usually gender balanced and that his holiday stand-in was often a woman, usually an experienced journalist. In the media chatter about who might replace Browne several of those women were mentioned, including McInerney.

That presenters of rival drivetime national radio programmes – Yates’s programme as described by Newstalk sounds the same in terms of content as Cooper’s – should present the same TV programme just a few hours after they both go off air shows just how closed to new voices Irish broadcast media has become.

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