Time women made waves in blokish culture
In a nation of radio listeners, women are poorly represented on air, report shows
We Irish are a nation of radio listeners. Just look at the headlines garnered by Pat Kenny’s recent departure from RTÉ.
Tune into the radio and whose voices will you hear? If you’re listening to news and current affairs the answer is generally men’s. Radio, and particularly radio newsrooms, are lads’ affairs, dominated by a blokish culture and with little space for women.
From the time Áine Lawlor or Rachel English sign off on RTÉ Radio 1 at 9am there are no permanent women presenters until Mary Wilson turns up at 4.30pm. On Newstalk there is not a single female voice after Norah Casey tunes out at 10am and on Today FM, there are none at all.
Change is coming, but it is slow, sometimes painfully so. A new study funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) finds only one in three voices on air is female. For political shows the figure falls to one in four. For sports it is one in 20.
The report coded all news and current affairs on RTÉ1, Newstalk and Today FM for a one-week period in February 2013. While this research is comprehensive it is limited to just one week and many things can skew coverage in a single week. This is particularly the case for some weekly shows where only one show will be included in the figures compared with say five weekday morning news shows. Rolling research, covering perhaps one day a week for a year could give us a more nuanced picture of women’s representation and would also allow us to measure progress over that year.
In addition, the time allowed to any one voice is not covered in this research but we hope this aspect could be considered in the future.
Those who question this situation are told that listeners prefer male voices. Delve deeply and it emerges from a very limited study contained in the 1935 book, The Psychology of Radio by Hadley Cantril and Gordon Willard Allport, that listener preference was for male voices. But this research is now completely discredited.
The next excuse is to blame women themselves. Women are hard to get, we are told. They dilly-dally and refuse to commit. Yet our new research prepared to the Global Media Monitoring Project (GLMP) standard and methodology has found that one or two programmes can and do achieve balance or close to it.
These are Claire Byrne’s lunchtime Saturday Show and Audrey Carville’s Late Debate. If these shows can do it there is no reason why others can’t too. In marked contrast, the number of women on Marian Finucane’s weekend shows reaches just 26 per cent, while on Newstalk’s The Sunday Show and Today FM’s Savage Sunday the percentage falls to just 20 per cent. A recent GLMP report concludes that the media’s tendency to talk about, rather than to or through, women is deeply embedded in culture.
But why does it matter? We Irish are a nation of radio listeners. Just look at the headlines garnered by Pat Kenny’s departure. When radio is good, it’s great. As Observer journalist and BBC presenter Miranda Sawyer has argued it is the most intimate of all media. It is in our kitchens, cars, and bedrooms. We all listen to it, more women than men even, both young and old, so it would be nice if we all felt represented by it.
There is a need for practical solutions that help get women’s voices heard in the public debate and, crucially, help create positive role models for girls and young women.
The National Women’s Council of Ireland has raised the issue, and aided in this research. Women on Air also offer practical advice and information for women who wish to speak on radio and television. The organisation has also produced a list of 1,000 women who are experts in their field and are willing to take to the airwaves on a wide range of subjects.
Earlier this year, RTÉ and Women on Air held Ireland’s first industry-hosted training and networking day for female area experts willing to become more active in broadcast representation. It marked an important step by the State broadcaster to help women play a fuller role in our democracy. It is to be hoped that this new research will help inform the decision-making of broadcasters when filling vacancies in their schedules.
Jane Suiter is a political scientist and lecturer in the School of Communications in DCU and research director of Women on Air. She led the BAI sponsored study of gender in Irish radio – Radio waves: Women on air in Ireland with Dr Anne O’Brien of the centre for media studies at NUI Maynooth