Let’s say it for women radio presenters

Vanessa Feltz BBC London Twitter account

Vanessa Feltz BBC Radio 2 and BBC London Radio presenter. Image: @VanessaonAir

Editorial for Londonmultimedianews.com

Written by Tim Crook.

It’s now 2015 and licensed broadcasting has been going on in Britain for 92 years.

But there is still not equality in the representation of gender of radio presenters.

This is a problem recognised in a recent parliamentary report which made it quite clear that ‘Broadcasters must do more to encourage women in news and current affairs.’

And late last year the Guardian in an editorial lamented: ‘The Guardian view on women in broadcasting: still the second sex.’

The disparity in representation across the BBC and commercial sectors is also the focus of a magnificent campaigning and empowerment group Sound Women

This is ‘a network of over 1000 women and men working in audio,’ and its aims are positive and developmental:

-Help women get more out of working in radio; – Help the radio industry get more out of women.

The lack of on air equality is ludicrous and unacceptable.

As the group so accurately states UK radio is a flourishing and successful industry.

As a medium it is still highly predominant with over 90% of people in Britain tuning in every week.

It is also a fact that the sector employs around 23,000 people, half of whom are female.

But if you examine the gender profiles of presenters at BBC R2, R4, R3, R1, R6 etc and LBC, Capital, Heart or Classic FM women remain a minority.

The situation is much better than when I got my first staff job in an independent radio station in 1979. There was just one apparently ‘token’ woman presenter.

She was actually quite brilliant and hugely knowledgeable about music.

I was always impressed with the depth and interest evident in her ad-libbing between tracks.

But she was consigned to the late hours- nearly the graveyard shift.

I noticed how some male listeners and commentators unfairly characterised her as a some kind of sound femme fatale.

Her close microphone technique and deepening of the voice drew the ridiculous and offensive comment ‘our own radio deep throat.’

I decided to examine the nature and pattern of my listening to women presenters.

It is a measure of progress that those I listen to are not consciously ‘women who present well- what a surprise!’

Nor do I feel that I am being given a ration of female presentation and in some inverted patronising fashion I’m choosing to listen and celebrate to be the ‘right on’ male feminist.

The BBC sometimes in its desperate and well-intentioned liberal desire to redress the injustices of thousands of years of discrimination against women clumsily and messily goes over the top with paroxysms of ‘we will do better- here are the women we employ!’

Early BBC representation of women- 'The aunties of radio.'

In its first years the BBC always ghettoized women presenters for children’s programming and called them ‘Aunties.’

You can find examples of this in feature articles in the BBC’s staff magazine Ariel in the 1930s and the Radio Times in the 1940s and 1950s.

A full or double-page spread of an equivalent FBI most wanted passport style photographs are montaged to make an awkward and usually misleading point.

Image used for criticism and review- sourced from library of Goldsmiths, University of London.

The BBC’s Radio Times presenting their ‘women broadcasters’ in 1942. Image: Archive of issues of the Radio Times, Goldsmiths Library, University of London.

In my auditing of BBC radio women presenters on 3 national networks I have been able to identify regular tuning into:

BBC R2: Vanessa Feltz, Jo Whiley, Sara Cox, Claire Balding, Janice Long, Claire Teal, Claire Winkleman.

BBC 6: Lauren Laverne, Mary Ann Hobbs, Nemone, and Liz Kershaw.

And on BBC Radio 4: Martha Kaerney,  Ritula Shah, and Mishal Husain.

Their work is authoritative, engaging, communicative and journalistic.

They span genres of radio formats from the popular musical to niche musical and traditional current affairs.

The fact of the matter is when I listen to them I think of them and respect them as high quality professional presenters in the same way I think and imagine their male equivalents.

There is no difference.

In the case of Vanessa Feltz her presentational abilities for a music format show on BBC Radio 2 between 5 am and 6.30 am weekdays are iconic and emblematic of the quality and professionalism of contemporary women broadcasters.

Vanessa Feltz profile image from BBC R2 page.

Vanessa Feltz on BBC R2. Image: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00xzvq5

There is no question of her needing to be seen as marginalized.

With most of Britain’s cities operating an earlier morning rush-hour her scheduling position is actually peak-time.

For example as early as 5.45 am when tuning into her show you are presented with outstanding and intelligent reviews of newspapers, interaction with faith speakers in pause for the day, enthusiastic exploration of ‘words’ of the day along with email and social media, and live interviews.

This messaging informs and entertains a mainstream audience in London that includes the frequent slow moving tail-backs on the A2 from the Blackwell Tunnel to Woolwich.

Vanessa has a control of articulation and diction that is as complex and artistic as that of an opera singer.

Her ability to phrase and pace ex tempore paper reviews in varying time frames and fill with meaningful anecdotes in a carefully structured and very well produced music show is usually an aspect of radio not properly appreciated by reviewers.

One morning I heard her deal deftly with an impromptu cough- no rude blasting of the microphone or interruption of the flow of speech.

Vanessa is a model of the best of popular British broadcasting.

She is a presenter where brain and sensitivity is totally connected to mouth and voice.

Her ability to improvise and rally to catastrophic and demanding circumstances means that I know that should the earth-shattering stories break during her air-time BBC Radio 2 would never be embarrassed by her control of the microphone.

Only last week she ‘filled’ mellifluously and with panache when Chris Evans- the headlined BBC R2 breakfast presenter failed to start his show- explained away as an alarm-clock malfunction.

But while we no longer listen to and behold the likes of ‘Lady V’ as a rare and ‘surprisingly good performing’ phenomenon in radio broadcasting, how do we sort out the gender imbalance?

I think the solution is very simple.

Those who hire have to take the initiative and select pro-actively among what will no doubt be, and should be recognised as, an equal pool of available talent until there is equality.

When there is parity the recruitment would continue to be meritocratic.

It has to be a conscious decision and action.

It does not need to be over-stated and problematized, or legally discriminatory.

I don’t believe that in the adjustment period there is any justification for the engagement of law because of some misconceived perception of discrimination against men.

The discrimination is ended by the process of adjustment.

What happens after that is a semblance and expression of equality.

This attitude, and I believe it only a matter of attitude rather than policy, can be applied to the unfair representation of non-white or disabled people in radio presentation as well.

When you think about it the radio/sound medium is probably the easiest medium of communication to be non-discriminatory.

In the meantime the success and brilliance of presenters such as Vanessa Feltz is down to the fact that she is a great broadcaster, not because she is a peculiarly and separately great woman broadcaster.
  • Editorials are opinionated comment by the author and do not represent the views of londonmultimedianews.com or Goldsmiths, University of London;

  • Editorials are entirely separate from journalistic postings that aim for impartiality, fairness and balance.

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