Tuning into Today FM’s The Last Word one evening I was mildly startled at hearing a guest presenter’s voice. This wasn’t because the usual presenter was missing; Matt Cooper, like any of us, must have holidays and for these occasions a guest presenter takes over the reins. I have heard many people take speak into his mic over the years, so what was it that “startled” me?
The voice itself. It was female. Of course the female voice is not in and of itself unsettling. What was odd was that I immediately noticed the voice in terms of its being feminine, and, perhaps shamefully, it took me a while to adjust to this voice. This latter point is what “startled” me.
Speaking at a National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) event on Tuesday the 11th, journalist Alison O’Connor was able to explain what had occurred to me, a thing that occurs to many others. We have grown up with male presenters; we have grown up with a media narrative shaped by men. As such the female voice is alien to us, our ear is not attuned to it.
NWCI’s event was to launch “Hearing Women’s Voices?”, a study which “explores the extent and nature of the underrepresentation of women in current affairs radio programming and makes recommendations in relation to how this can be addressed to achieve a greater balance of women and men on air”.
This study, conducted by Dr. Kathy Walsh, Dr. Jane Suiter & Orla O’Connor, examined current affairs programmes on Today FM, RTE Radio and Newstalk over a three week period at the end of 2014. The research showed – among other points – that on average 72% of speakers were male, that when women were on programmes they were generally given less airtime than their male counterparts and that men represented the overwhelming majority of “experts” asked onto shows.
Of course criticism was immediately levelled at this study upon its publication. Current affairs is, by definition, time sensitive, and, it is said, the majority of high-level experts, politicians etc are male. Deadlines prohibit shows from engaging in time-consuming searches for female experts.
But NWCI’s research demonstrates that when an individual show makes the effort, gender parity can be reached. For instance the Sean O’Rourke Show has made concerted efforts to have greater gender balance, and has managed in the past year to almost double its female representation to 44%. Furthermore shows all have access to a list of female experts and commentators compiled by Women on Air. This list proves that there are capable, informed female voices out there; unfortunately the list goes ignored by many programmes.
The question now is, why should women’s voices be heard on radio? What is the value of that?
As O’Connor said, approximately 1 in 2 people are female. The agenda shouldn’t be set by men alone; female voices and ideas ought to in our public forums so that we have more representative discussions and debates.
Hopefully programmes take on board the recommendations put forward by this study and we will hear more women on air.
- By Una Power, Editor