Media and Marketing: On radio, sadly, testosterone talks

The ‘Hearing Women’s Voices?’ report found male voices dominate on commercial radio

In a recent discussion about how the new gender quotas for political parties are playing out, Newstalk Breakfast Show presenter Chris Donoghue said, "Yes but when we look at minorities such as women, Travellers, migrants . . . "

I have no idea how that sentence ended, because the steam coming out of my ears precluded hearing more. Because – newsflash – women are not a minority. It’s handy shorthand to say that women make up 50 per cent of the population but even that’s not true.

According to the latest, 2014, CSO figures there are more women (2.35 million) than men (2.29 million) in the State. So women are in the majority. Not that you’d think it listening to radio – and not just a throwaway remark in a fast-moving breakfast show.

Male voices predominate. It's obvious to any regular radio listener but a study published this week delivers the proof. Hearing Women's Voices?, a report by the National Women's Council of Ireland and Dublin City University with funding from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, examines gender balance on primetime news and current affairs programmes on RTÉ, Newstalk and Today Fm.


In terms of presenters it found that on Radio 1, 52 per cent were male (which is good), on Newstalk, 96 per cent were male (shameful, obviously , for a national broadcaster), with no female presenters on Today FM on the two programmes monitored (ditto).

But presenters are only part of the listening experience – and it doesn’t get better when it comes to reporters or guests. Of the contributors asked for their opinion, 78 per cent of time devoted to experts was given to men on RTÉ Radio 1 and 85 per cent on Newstalk.

Overall, when all voices heard are measured for the programmes surveyed, RTÉ came closest to parity with 63 per cent men and 37 per cent women which suggests that the station is aware of the need for women’s voices on air and its producers and researchers are prepared to go and find them.

Not so at Newstalk and Today FM where testosterone talks – 82 per cent and 70 per cent of on air were male.

General figures of course mask the shocking gender imbalance on particular programmes: George Hook's guests on Newstalk's The Right Hook were 94 per cent male – and this is a drivetime show that covers everything from politics and economics to health and popular culture – were there really such a tiny number of women qualified to speak in any of these areas?

While on RTÉ's This Week, a puzzling 89 per cent of the people called on to give their opinion on the political landscape were men.

Commercial stations fared considerably worse than the State broadcaster when it came to gender balance. RTÉ had more lead female than male presenter voices on air during the week surveyed with many of the main shows being fronted by women. Newstalk has no lead female presenter during the week and only one at the weekend. Both of the Today FM shows monitored were fronted by men.

So hand-wringing aside, and murmurs of “I told you so” from women who have been long aware of this aural gender imbalance, what to do?

The Hearing Women's Voices? report by Dr Kathy Walsh, Dr Jane Suiter and Orla O'Connor makes several recommendations in its conclusion.

They boil down to programme makers being actively aware of gender imbalance and then actively (that’s the crucial part) doing something about it.

What is more interesting is the section where it gives recommendations to the BAI which detail a big-stick approach – something that will be familiar to those tracking the process that has led to the current position on gender quotas in politics.

The BAI, it says, “has the capacity to compel stations to meet minimum targets, if these targets are linked to the licensing process”.

Specific actions that the BAI should take, it says, include: requiring all stations (public and private) to report on gender equality performance; setting minimum gender quotas for guests/experts of 40 per cent female over a three-year period; and a name-and-shame approach of highlighting programmes and stations that achieve the target of 40:60 and challenge stations and programmes that do not show improvements over time.

That’s something that just might hurt commercial stations because advertisers hate getting caught up in controversies or negative headlines.

Listen up, change just might be coming, slowly.