Jim Carroll

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Guest post – Alison Curtis – women on the wireless

Alison Curtis is a DJ on Today FM who currently does the 5-7am early breakfast show on the station from Monday to Friday and also presents The Last Splash every Sunday (8-10pm). As one of the very few female voices …

Wed, Sep 1, 2010, 09:55


Alison Curtis is a DJ on Today FM who currently does the 5-7am early breakfast show on the station from Monday to Friday and also presents The Last Splash every Sunday (8-10pm). As one of the very few female voices on the national airwaves during the week, Alison is in a much better position than any pundit or punter to discuss the issue of women on the wireless. Her guest post is after the jump.

For some reason in the past few weeks, there have been more and more articles written for various publications about the lack of women on Irish radio. The situation isn’t new, but the fact that so many people are writing about it is.

This issue has become topical for a few reasons, but mainly due to new radio schedules being announced, with the two focal points being Newstalk and 2FM. As Claire Byrne finishes the Breakfast show on Newstalk, no women will be present as hosts on either station between 7am and 7pm, the hours which are considered to be the hours that matter in radio. RTE Radio 1 has of course Aine Lawlor and Mary Wilson book-ending those important hours and the station I work for, Today FM, has only me as the sole female host of their own show across the entire schedule and I slip in just before it “counts.”

As a woman who began her radio career in the summer of 1999 and has had my own program on Today FM since May 2003, I have given this a lot of thought over the years. I have also given it a lot of thought looking at it from a producer’s point of view as I produced the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show for six years. And after examining the recent articles published on the issue such as Nadine O’Regan’s piece in the Sunday Business Post, RTE’s radio boss Claire Duignan’s letter to The Irish Times and most recently Gabrielle Monaghan’s lengthy article in the Sunday Times this past weekend, you realise that the same points keep getting raised time and time again, but not answered. So as someone who is “living” the situation, I’d like to offer my own spin on things.

When faced with the question of why there aren’t very many female presenters on their stations, managing directors, CEOs and program directors always offer up one of two explainations. One is a refute and that in fact there are loads of women represented on their digitial stations, weekend schedules, newsrooms and research staff. So perhaps it is the person asking the question that isn’t doing their job, what we should be asking is why are very few/none of all big time slots occupied by women? Then we might start getting a clearer picture of why the situation is as it is and why in 2010 it is actually bleaker for women trying to break through into those illustrious time slots on national or semi-national radio stations than it was in 2006 or even 2008.

The second answer commonly given by the powers that be is actually more a question; where are the women? And they offer up the ‘fact’ that most people coming to them for jobs are men. So in response to this I can assure you that we are here. Some of us don’t want jobs as producers, researchers or co-hosts. We would like the opportunity to front our own shows and to present our own opinions in our own styles based on our own life experiences like our male colleagues – after all, we can’t ignore the fact that Ireland’s population is half and half.

Unfortunately when you approach the situation with an overtly feminist agenda, armed with the sweeping statement just outlined, you annoy people and get nowhere. I even start to annoy myself when I make this issue into a burning feminist one, I really don’t want to be in the position of being a nag. No-one does.

In Monaghan’s Sunday Times article, Willie O’Reilly, Today FM’s CEO and my own boss (who I like and whose advice I rely on), said that the issue of men versus women on radio is not peculiar to any one station or to Ireland. Half of that statement is true, but the second half isn’t. The lack of women hosting their own shows is peculiar to Ireland and throughout the years I have struggled to answer this, but have not been able to (without becoming a nag).

As a Canadian and being familiar with syndicated and local radio stations in Ontario, I can safely say the situation isn’t the same there. Breakfast shows do still tend to be dominated by men with a female co-host usually present. But at one stage the two biggest stations in Toronto, Mix 99 (now Virgin Radio) and 102.1 The Edge, both had women presenting shows back to back from 10am until 7pm. At present, Virgin has one female and one male host holding down the breakfast show slot, followed by Maura, a lady, from 9 until noon and they seem to be staying a float. The Edge has had Joise Dye present a four hour show from 10am for the past six years and they have three female weekend presenters and a night time female jock too.

If we turn our attentions to the UK, there is definitely no shortage of women who have managed to secure and hold on to very successful shows on BBC Radio 1 and 2 during the money-making/high risk hours of 7am to 7pm. Fearne Cotton, Jo Whiley, Edith Bowman and Annie Mac are all managing to make it work.

Another issue which surfaces all the time when talking about men vs women on the airwaves is that research was apparently done in the years gone by saying that both men and women prefer male voices. Trust me, I have looked for this research and it’s a bit like proving unicorns once existed.

However, there has been lots of linguistical research done on other aspects of men and women’s speech, some of which I studied in university. The majority of those anthropolgical studies did find that it is tone and pitch in a voice that people prefer, rather than a black and white gender bias. I myself work hard to keep my voice even lower while I am on air, as I find high pitched voices hard to digest (at any time of day.)

The physiological reality is that women do tend to have higher octaves than men, but at the same time, you can’t voice (excuse the pun) a bias saying that most people prefer male voices, as not all female voices sound the same. Simply put, there are female voices that are more appealing than others, just as some men are more famous for the attractiveness of their voices over others. So I hope one and for all that this elusive research argument gets flushed.

I think we also need to look at development and start at the very beginning. Instead of just taking a snap shot of September 2010 and the radio landscape, stations need to be looking forward and developing a more balanced collection of presenters. It is at this level that it will be possible for radio schedules to be more diverse and representative of Ireland’s population in the future. In this instance, I do think station bosses and program directors need to spend a bit more time looking at possible female talent then perhaps they are doing at the moment.

I love my job, I love it a lot. I look forward to each show, I sincerely enjoy planning each show and spend a lot of time doing so. It is how I like to spend my time. And I consider myself very privileged to be doing it, even when two alarms go off at 4am every monring. But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t find it frustrating at times to feel that after ten years on air I have possibly missed out on opportunities based on my gender and not my abilites. And for once as a woman whose favourite word is “sorry”, I won’t say sorry for saying this. Onwards and upwards gals!