Entertainment Radio

Thursday 29 September 2016

Radio: The female of the species is still being ignored

Published 15/11/2015 | 02:30

Spy suspect: Elizabeth Bowen divided her time between London and the family estate in Cork.
Spy suspect: Elizabeth Bowen divided her time between London and the family estate in Cork.

Cassandra was a character in Greek mythology, who laboured under the supernatural double-whammy of being blessed and cursed at the same time. Blessed, because she could predict the future; cursed, because nobody paid any attention to her dire warnings.

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This column, on one topic at least, is the Cassandra of radio criticism. I have been banging on about the unfair, inexplicable lack of female voices for years. Banging on and on and on, like some slightly obsessive-compulsive Cassandra, about the fact that women are largely ignored on Irish airwaves: as presenters, contributors, commentators, "experts".

And nobody pays any attention. Or at least, nobody in a position to do anything positive about it.

The situation remains, well, woeful, as revealed on Morning Ireland (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 7am). Host Cathal Mac Coille spoke to Jane Suiter, one of the authors of a new report called Hearing Women's Voices. (Side-note: yes, he's male, but his co-presenter is female; and Radio 1 is pretty good in this regard, as we shall see.)

Suiter is Director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at DCU - that sounds like something cool out of a science-fiction movie, but I don't think it is - who, in conjunction with the National Women's Council, analysed news and current affairs shows across RTÉ (Radio 1, essentially), Newstalk and a few on Today FM.

They investigated whether women are under-represented during primetime hours: which is weekdays, from morning to early evening. And the results make for dismal reading, albeit timely, coming hot on the heels of the Abbey Theatre's mostly-male 'Waking the Nation' farrago.

Overall, Irish current affairs primetime radio involves 70pc male voices (this is everyone on-air, not just hosts). RTÉ do reasonably well with only 63pc; Today FM is surprisingly not-awful at 70pc; but Newstalk is a horrendous 82pc. In other words, only one person in five you hear on Newstalk is a woman.

In terms of presenters, Suiter went on, RTÉ actually had more women than men in their survey. Shockingly - or is it shocking, in truth - Newstalk and Today FM had none. That's right, not one.

Male voices were over-represented when covering things like war and science, though this is "sometimes unavoidable", Suiter admitted. Meanwhile, some shows on Newstalk were over 90pc male voices, eg sports; and don't forget, Off the Ball airs for three hours every single evening, and twice that on Saturdays and Sundays. By contrast, RTÉ had at least one-fifth female voices in sports.

Suiter also made the point that not nearly enough time was given to "female news subjects". By this she means regular citizens, interviewed in conjunction with some news story, who of course number male or female equally in the real world - but not on the radio.

Though this report concentrated on national stations, the locals are just as bad. My nearest station, Clare FM, has but one female presenter; a forlorn, lone figure surrounded by a dozen men.

In conclusion, the study urges programmers to work towards a target radio of 60-40 male-to-female, though again, Suiter accepted that this is not always possible eg in politics, where only 15pc of TDs are women. It's "just something to have at the back of programme makers' minds", she added.

Elizabeth Bowen was also a woman making it in a man's world: literature. The novelist and short story writer, whose career was in its pomp in the mid-20th century, was also Anglo-Irish, but she didn't sound Anglo-Irish. Indeed, she barely sounded Anglo-Anglo.

Bowen had one of those voices which are so plummy that they sound, if not an actual spoof of a "posh person", certainly affected. I did wonder, while listening to Documentary on One: The Brits, the Blitz and the Bedwarmer (Radio 1, Sat 2pm), how on earth someone who spent part of her life in Cork - Cork, boy, for God's sake - could still sound like she was auditioning to play the role of Queen Elizabeth in a broad farce.

Anyway, even more interesting than this fascinating linguistic discussion is the fact that, as we learned on Leeanne O' Donnell's documentary, Bowen was a well-liked figure in north Cork… but also suspected by some of having been a British spy. The programme tried to solve the mystery by delving into the background: her life during WWII divided between London, where Bowen had an affair with a Canadian diplomat, and the family estate in Bowen's Court.

So was Elizabeth Bowen a spy for the UK, at a time when tensions between there and here were incredibly high? Eh, yes and no. As in, sort of. But not really.

It's the complicated, subtle nature of Anglo-Irish identity, you see. Whether you'd regard her as a traitor really depends on whether you'd consider her to be Irish or British; and Bowen once described herself as being most at home "in the middle of the Irish Sea". In other words, both and neither.

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