TV & Radio

Mar 8, 2012

Talkback radio: the one medium where feminism dare not enter the waves

When you ask Amanda Blair, the only female radio presenter on commercial AM radio in Australia, if she's encountered sexism in the workplace, her war stories seem to never end.

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

Ask Amanda Blair -- the only regular female radio presenter on metropolitan commercial AM radio in Australia -- if she's encountered sexism in the workplace and her war stories seem to never end. "I've had program directors ask me if I've got my period if I've complained about something," she told Crikey. "I've had program directors say to me 'why can't you just be like all the other girls who make cups of tea and are nice to me?'. I've had 'look, you probably shouldn't talk about politics because you're a woman'. I've had 'I probably shouldn't ask this, but are you going to get pregnant again? Because if you are then it might determine how long I'm going to sign you for on your contract'." Blair hosts a show (1-4pm) every afternoon on Adelaide's 5AA and previously hosted the breakfast show at SAFM, part of the Austereo network. She's careful to add that these experiences are retrospective and she no longer works with any of the managers involved. "I'm on a number of government and industry boards and I kind of feel like I am living two lives," said Blair. "I have normal life where things are regulated and where people say decent things to each other and people are rewarded for being intelligent. And then I flip into radio world where sometimes you feel like you've got to play the role of Francis Farmer post lobotomy to survive. " Last week radio presenter turned online publisher Wendy Harmer wrote an article ("AM radio tunes out women") about the lack of women on AM radio in Australia for her new site The Hoopla. In response, Scott Muller wrote a piece on Radio Today noting there are only two female content or program directors working for FM radio. "They're on ABC radio, they're in newspapers, they're in magazines, they're editors. They're everywhere but they're not on the AM dial and more to the point they're not in management in either AM or FM radio," Harmer told Crikey. It seems commercial radio -- particularly AM -- is the final frontier for feminism in the media, a bastion of old white men who will go to their graves still holding onto their mics and old-school stereotypes. "I'm just waiting for them to die off," Susan Mitchell -- a former host on Sydney's 2GB and 2UE, as well as a stint hosting mornings at ABC's 612 in Brisbane -- told Crikey. "When 2UE was up against 2GB I used to say 'why don't you have some women up against the Ray Hadleys and just see'," said Mitchell. "The answer is always the same: 'we did it once and we failed and we're never doing it again'. Well, if that was true of sex no one would ever be born." Industry scuttlebutt recently had 2UE announcing a new show starring Tracey Spicer and Prue MacSween to take on shock jock Ray Hadley's domination. But then it seemed the show collapsed even before it began, with reports that both Spicer and MacSween had pulled out of discussions with 2UE. Both MacSween and Spicer didn't want to comment for this story, with Spicer acknowledging that contract negotiations are still underway -- hinting the show may still go ahead. Spicer did note however that despite media reports she'd turned down the show due to flexibility issues with children, 2UE had been supportive of juggling work and family and it wasn't a factor in current negotiations. According to reports, one of the main factors in the negotiations is pay, with the highly-experienced media performers apparently offered $150,000 each for the role -- compared to the salary of David Oldfield, current host of the mornings slot, of $200,000. That's fairly typical, according to Harmer: "They take the money they're going to pay a man and they divide it in half." The anecdotes align with a new survey conducted by journalism academic Louise North from Monash University. North surveyed 577 women working in the Australian news media about their experiences, including incidents of sexual harassment and promotional opportunities. Of those surveyed working in radio -- 82 women -- the majority worked at the ABC. "Women in commercial radio are few, and hard to track down," North said. Still, 58% of women working at metro radio stations said they'd experienced sexual harassment (compared to 40% at rural radio stations). Around 22-25% of all surveyed women in radio said they'd left jobs in the media because they felt discriminated against in their promotional opportunities, a figure double the overall industry results. When asked if she ever felt discriminated against when it came to promotions, Mitchell replied: "At the ABC I never felt like that. But 2GB had no women presenters. I was given midnight to dawn, as a test I thought; 'let's see if the girl can do it'. So I was determined to prove I could do it ... [but] you're only ever going to be a fill-in for a gap when someone was away on holidays."She remembers starting a poetry hour at 4am where listeners could call in and read their poems. "We had queues of 40 people waiting to get on ... no one had ever had that. But they [management] said: 'this is a news station, what are you doing having that poncy poetry on?'". Men who work in radio management don't understand women on radio, adds Blair. She recounts a story -- "I'm quoting this verbatim, because I've told it at a million dinner parties" -- where she asked someone in senior management (who no longer works at FiveAA) what they thought of her show:
"And they said 'yeah, it's OK, but sometimes it's a bit girly'. At that point my eyes actually rolled back into my head. And I said 'I'm just wondering if you tell the men that their shows are OK but sometimes they're a bit blokey? Considering I'm the only female, is that a bad thing?' He sort of went 'oh, oh ...' "I said 'why do you think it's a bit girly?'. And he said 'cause you talk about cooking sometimes'. And I said 'what do you mean?'. And he said 'well, you were talking about MasterChef today'. And I said 'yeah, that's cause it's the highest-rating television show of all time'. "And I said 'right, what else?'. And he said 'well, you were talking about mushrooms'. And I went 'yeah, with one of the clients who's the Mushroom Board, and that's a bloke I was talking to'. "And he went 'yeah, and a little bit further on you were talking about wheat bags'. And I said 'yes, because there was a press release from the Royal Adelaide Hospital because people are burning themselves on their wheat bags'. And he went 'well that's food, so that's three food things'. I just went 'right ...'. "I couldn't say anything to that stupidity ... apparently he thinks that you eat wheat bags. And I just couldn't be fucked telling him that you don't."
If AM commercial radio doesn't change it will die, notes Harmer. "You look at the demos, people who are listening to AM radio are getting older," she told Crikey. "They are not breeding up a new generation of listeners. Unless they start to embrace a more youthful outlook -- hiring people who aren't just old men -- they are looking at oblivion."

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17 thoughts on “Talkback radio: the one medium where feminism dare not enter the waves

  1. Arty

    I am certainly pleased to see the prediction that the people who listen to AM radio are not breeding. I wonder how much damage they have already done with their previous breeding efforts.

    Against that, I get the impression that Talkback presenters and listeners might not be sufficiently aware of the necessary role of both sexes in the breeding process. They seem to be totally confused about the role of women in every other facet of life.

  2. Suzanne Blake

    I can’t see why women would not work on morning or indeed afternoon radio. Its all about ratings, if they are good enough they will succeed.

  3. SusieQ

    But they have to be given the chance Suzanne and its clear that is not happening at the moment.
    Look at the problems with getting a female to call Australian Rules football – you’d have thought the sky was about to fall in.
    And this surely is one reason why MTR failed in Melbourne – really, who wants to listen to a bunch of old blokes (mostly down the line from Sydney) ranting and raving about stuff? Maybe it is a generational thing, but do we really have to wait that long?

  4. Suzanne Blake

    @ SuzieQ

    It is happening on ABC and has been for many years.

    Its happening on some FM stations.

    Its all about ratings

  5. wendy.collins

    What a wonderful thought, “If AM commercial radio doesn’t change it will die.”
    Let’s euthanise it now and pull the plug on the angry-old-man radio.

  6. Freja

    What SusieQ said. I listen to RRR (Melbourne community radio) on the way to work in the mornings. Their breakfast show is hosted by two women and a man. The women are sharp, funny, political and in no way – at all – dominated by the man. Commercial radio creates a situation where men feel free and confident enough to be able to be funny and women are there to play their straight guy when they’re there at all.

    It makes it hard to find a voice that listeners like to tune in to when all you want to do is scream.

  7. Brian Williams

    About 10 years ago I gave up on listening to Neil Mitchell on 3AW because age had definitely wearied the silly old coot. In fact, his grumpy old man persona was so bad that I decided to regress to Triple J for a few years in the morning when Francis Leach was doing the show, and there was some really interesting and informative programming on that.

    Now, as a lifelong sports nut, the only AM station I’ll listen to is SEN, and I’d welcome more female input there…although hopefully none as moronic as Ripper Rita Whipper Snipper, or whatever her name is on the Friday lunchtime show.

  8. SusieQ

    If it is about ratings, then why won’t people listen to women on the radio?? Maybe cultural change is needed wider than just in radio-land. You only have to look at the Yumi Stynes hoo-ha/storm in an eggcup – she gets pilloried and abused, George Negus apologies too and no one seems to be unhappy with him – whats the diff?

  9. Mark from Melbourne

    I know this is blatantly sexist but I think the reason there aren’t many women on AM radio is that there is far less chance of finding a suitably vile, sanctimonious, jumped up, venal, over-opinionated, blowhard, bigoted, parsimonious, two-faced, loud-mouthed, bald faced, hypocritical, did I say vile?, tosser in our female ranks to replace the current crop…Sorry as well as being sexist it is mainly aimed at Sydney jocks. We in Melbourne appear to have seen off the latest attempt at shock jockery at MTR.

  10. Mark from Melbourne

    The clock is officially on the moderator. 4.23pm and counting….

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