More women in radio: But fewer patronising phonecalls

An edited version of this article appeared in Village Magazine, August-September 2013 edition

Coming just as the silly season got into full swing (the MacGill Summer School is always a sure sign) Pat Kenny’s move to Newstalk is a gift to editors wondering how to fill a few pages. For political nerds, the debates over who will replace him brought out the same level of intensity as the Whovians discussing who should replace Matt Smith at the helm of the Tardis, and whether Peter Capaldi was too old for the role.

And just as the science-fiction devotees argued over whether it was time for a woman to take on the part, so too the same debate took place over who should anchor the mid-morning RTE current affairs slot.

There’s an accepted wisdom in media circles that “research shows listeners of both sexes preferred male voices on the radio.” It gets repeated regularly and without much thought, as when last year John Murray held a competition to find the deepest bass voice in Ireland, during which voice coach Paul Moussoulides repeated the canard.

WomenOnAir founder Margaret E Ward spent some time looking for this frequently cited research when she first set up the advocacy group in 2010 to address to gender imbalance on the Irish airwaves. What she found what that what “everybody knows” in broadcasting is based on a single 1935 study of 88 listeners. One study, 78 years ago.

Stop and think about that for a moment. 1935. A time when Marlene Deitrich was considered a crazy rebel for daring to wear pants. When the Irish constitution recognising the support women gave to the state by “by her life within the home” was still two years in the future.

Radio was still a new medium in 1935 and the research, by Hadley Canrtil and Gordon Allport, was groundbreaking for its time, but it was also the first attempt to measure the effects of radio, and very much of its time.

The problem wasn’t just that the past is a different country. The study also looked at quite a narrow question, the preferences of listeners when it came to advertising announcements.

Yet over the years it has grown along with radio, applied to everything from disc jockeying to news and current affairs, often by people who never heard of Cantril and Allport and refer vaguely to “research”.

In the 1970s, for example, BBC Radio Four editor Jim Black told an interviewer that “If a woman could read the news as well as a man then she could do it. But a newsreader needs to have reliability, consistency and authority. A woman may have one or two of these things but not all three. If a woman were to read the news no one would take it seriously.”

Old media may still cling to such ideas, but new media research goes in the opposite direction. In the US, Apple’s Siri app has a female voice. “It’s much easier to find a female voice that everyone likes than a male voice that everyone likes,” says Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, an expert on social-psychological aspects of human-interactive media interaction. “It’s a well-established phenomenon that the human brain is developed to like female voices.”

RTE has no shortage of female talent, yet the prime time radio schedules are curiously male dominated. Between Morning Ireland (Aine Lawlor, Rachel English) and Drivetime (Mary Wilson) every programme was fronted by a man until recently, when Miriam O’Callaghan was drafted in as a temporary substitute for John Murray. Women’s voices are heard on the flagship station, but usually as guests or contributors where they are outnumbered by men, or during late night and weekend slots.

Whether through a need to refresh the schedule, or because of continued pressure from groups such as WomenOnAir, the message does seem to have mde an impact in RTE. News and current affairs director Kevin Bakhurst usually restricts his tweets to items linking to breaking news or pointing out upcoming RTE programmes, yet when the news of Kenny’s departure broke, the link he chose was to an Irish Independent article by Martina Devlin calling for a new female voice, along with the comment “quite interesting”.

Paddy Power bookmakers at least took note, pricing Miriam O’Callaghan at 9/2 to take over from Kenny in the Autumn. O’Callaghan is well placed, having grown the listenership in the 9AM-10AM slot while standing in for John Murray. It’s not hard to imagine the show expanding to 11AM, and tackling more serious issues. While her radio personality tends to be more soft focus, dealing with human interest stories or the weekend Miriam Meets format (something Kenny always struggled with) her television career, from BBC Newsnight to Prime Time, demonstrates that she has the ability to be every bit as forensic and credible as Kenny in dealing with hard news.

Prime Time co-host Clare Byrne is also a contender, even if her pregnancy would result in some scheduling conflicts this Autumn, and has shown on the Saturday Show that she is equally at home behind a radio microphone as in front of a camera. From the Morning Ireland stable, both Aine Lawlor and Rachel English are strong contenders, and English previously successfully hosted the Drivetime slot solo.

RTE also has the option to look outside the station, though it may be reluctant to do so as internal belt-tightening continues in order to close the deficit in its finances. But whether it does so, or whether it goes for an internal choice, it seems likely that going for a female voice will be the most radical decision senior management commits to.

But there is a bolder option.

The RTE radio schedule riffs on a single theme. Sometimes there’s one presenter, sometimes two. Sometimes a programmes goes for a soft focus, sometimes a harder news angle. But from 7AM until 7PM, outside an hour of easy-listening music with Ronan Collins at midday, there’s a consistent pattern. Studio-bound hosts interview guests, broken by occasional off-site interviews, many of them with a journalist at the scene of a breaking news event. Commercial stations, when not playing wall-to-wall music, follow the same template.

The truly radical move would be to dump the idea of a single “personality” anchoring the mid-morning slot. Instead, the programme could be reinvented as a true magazine. Irish broadcasters go on location and record “actual” all the time, then use it as colour. Think of Paddy O’Gorman. In twenty minutes with Pat Kenny, the voice you hear most is Paddy’s, occasionally interrupted by “this next clip”. Marie Louise O’Donnell takes this minimal approach to location to its logical extreme, coming back to the studio to describe the sights and sound she heard and tell us what other people said to her.

Radio reportage can be much richer than that. Brian O’Connell prepares regular packages for Pat Kenny (an now Myles Dungan) giving the full atmosphere of a story, and allowing the people he meets to speak in their own voices. Morning Ireland sometimes features the same technique, though their position as the breaking morning news programme can make it more difficult to integrate.

Current affairs broadcasting has, much too often, become the story of journalists interviewing journalists who mediate the views of the public, or journalists interviewing politicians who, most of the time, are doing their level best to say nothing much at all.

A mid-morning show, without the same breaking news imperatives as Morning Ireland or News at One, could take the time to be less about news and more about current affairs, with longer stand-alone feature reports prepared by a team of journalists, breaking out beyond the four walls of a studio to cover the news behind the news.

This is audio used the way it should be, to create a sound essays and in-depth reporting. It would be a true magazine programme, full of audio “articles” letting people tell their stories in their own words.

Not one voice, but many.