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Where it all began:

An article by Una Mullally in the Sunday Times in 2010 led to the founding of Women on Air. We've republished it here for your now. Read on and let us know what you think on info@womenonair.ie

Has Irish radio killed the female star? With recent schedule changes across national radio, women are once again on the fringes of radio broadcasting. We crunched the numbers and found an astonishing gender imbalance on our airwaves, in spite of female presenters being some of the most popular programmes; Morning Ireland, Drivetime, Marian Finucane. So why is this? Why are women so marginalised in Irish radio? Is it an agenda driven by listeners or programming directors? Do we not want to hear female voices, and where does that perception come from? Are women themselves at fault for not making as much progression in radio as their male counterparts? In order to get real answers, we spoke to some of the country’s top female presenters, radio station management, and male presenters too. 

For several quite vague and often historically ingrained reasons, there is a reluctance to flood the radiowaves with female voices. Rarely does a station allow for female voices to be ‘back to back’, as in two programme presented by women one after the other, whereas this is never a problem for male presenters – just look at the RTE Radio 1 morning schedule, a female-strong Morning Ireland immediately followed by Ryan Tubridy, Pat Kenny, Ronan Collins, Sean O’Rourke, Joe Duffy and Derek Mooney. Gender balance returns in the form of Mary Wilson on Drivetime, before the men take over again; Darragh Maloney and Damien O'Meara on Sport at 7, Sean Rocks on Arena, John Creedon, and ten eventually Rachael English hosts the Late Debate, followed by Alf McCarthy on Late Date. 

The statistics are pretty astounding. When programmes are analysed in terms of how much content is male-led (as in, either wholly presented by men or a male presenter being the most dominant voice) the figures are shocking. 80% of RTE Radio One’s regular programmes are male-led and 80% of 2fm’s programmes are male-led. Newstalk has ten weekday programmes, none of which are presented solely by women although Claire Byrne co-presents Breakfast. The weekend schedule is a little more female friendly, with three of the eleven programmes presented by women. Overall 84% of content is presented by men. On their weekday shows, Today FM has just one daily female presenter, Alison Curtis. The station has 16 weekend shows and just three are presented by women. Overall 90% of their programmes are presented by men. In 4fm, just one of their 25 programmes is presented by a woman. 

Many members of station management and presenters we quizzed about the reasons for gender imbalance in their schedules simply said “I don’t know”. It’s an issue that all radio folk think about, but answers seem difficult to find. “Your points are accurate,” Today FM CEO Willie O’Reilly said in an email, “Without being defensive, 70% Today FM news staff are female, 90% sales staff in Today FM are female, 90% non execs of FTSE 100 companies are probably male. It is interesting how one gender can dominate one sector.”  RTE valiantly denied there was a gender bias as large as we put to them. We analysed 47 regular programmes on RTE Radio One, and of those 47, 80% were male-led, as in the primary voice was a male one. A spokesman for RTE said, “I think you are dramatically underestimating the presence of female voices on RTÉ Radio One, and substantially underestimating the number of female presenters” before listing off female voices on radio which included main presenters (whom we had taken into account), contributors and reporters. “For me, it's about great presenters,” Claire Duignan the managing director of radio in RTE said, “Male or female isn't the issue, being brilliant is.” 

So are there simply not enough brilliant female presenters? Perhaps the gender imbalance is to do with a unique position that men hold in Irish radio that female presenters simply don’t: opinion-led radio. Miriam O’Callaghan, presenter of ‘Miriam Meets’ on RTE Radio 1 highlighted this, “Some of our finest male broadcasters love bleating on about their opinions, going on rants, if you will, about what they think. We [women] don’t do that as much, we’re different animals. But we are great listeners, so radio would benefit from more women.” Would an audience be inclined to listen to ten minute rants at the top of a programme from a woman ala Gerry Ryan? Perhaps not. 

Apart from opinion-led radio, the roles of women in radio are also quite different to those of men. Occasionally, as with some of RTE’s most popular programmes – The Sunday Show, Drivetime and Morning Ireland – women are in charge and on an even keel with men in a gender-blind position. But often, women in radio will be relegated to talking about girly issues, a topic that turns off and irritates male listeners, and indeed many female listeners. There seems to still be that urge to make a programme presented by a woman very female specific, as if women only have an authority on ‘women’s issues’. Another role is the ‘sidekick’, a role created to allow for a female voice in a programme, but only as light relief or to display a kooky or almost clueless element that reinforces the male presenter’s authority. It’s important to note that throughout the radio programmes we analysed, it was often the case that two men presented a programme, or the show was male led with an accompanying female voice, but rarely were there two female presenters. 

Then there’s the voice issue. There is a perception that listeners prefer to hear lower register voices on the radio. That’s why, even if women are placed in a primetime slot in the schedule, they will tend to have a lower register voice than the average woman in an attempt to appease the listener on what is apparently an issue. Alison Curtis of Today FM who studied anthropological linguistics isn’t sure this is actually a legitimate reason to exclude women from schedules, “I think about it often, why is this the case? People quote studies that you could never find any evidence of that men and women prefer male voices.” She calls the current lack of women on radio schedules “worrying” adding, “I can’t answer whether it’s direct sexism, sometimes it feels as it is, but I can’t say that definitively.” Another national radio presenter added, “I think there is a long held myth that men didn’t like women to listen... and women are seen as ‘difficult’ if they ask questions about it.” 

All of the female broadcasters we spoke to talked about the self-imposed limits that women sometimes restrict themselves to, that they don’t go for things in broadcasting with the same amount of confidence or ego that they’re male counterparts often do. A top female presenter on national radio who didn’t want to be named believed this was part of the problem with gender imbalance, “men are allowed to show ambition and really push. Women are much more self-critical. Men tend to be more comfortable with learning on the hop whereas women only want to put themselves forward for things they’re comfortable with.” Alison Curtis agreed, “Can you sit there and blame CEOs when there might not be a hunger there at the same level [for women] there is from a guy’s perspective?” O’Callaghan concurs to some extent, “I think we do impose our own glass ceiling. Sometimes I think we are too self-critical and we lack confidence whereas a lot of men don’t think like that, they think ‘I’m going to make it.’”

Everyone we spoke to said that positive discrimination wasn’t the way forward, but that there needed to be conversations about why so few women – especially outside RTE, who in fairness are streets ahead of other national stations – are rising to the top. Clare Duignan concluded, “Listeners want good presenters, vibrant personalities, insightful observers and strong interviewers. I'm not interested in achieving gender balance for the sake of it; I'm interested in good radio.”

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