Saturday, 21 May 2011

Shut up, ladies, can’t you see we’re trying to talk?

On Friday 20th March 2011, Radio 4’s Today programme featured 28 men, including the 2 male presenters, and 1 woman. The previous day they had gone completely mad, doused the studio with oestrogen, chocolate, pink paint, puppies, salad, shopping bags, hairspray, makeup and domestic cleaning products, shoes, chick lit, Pilates apparatus, flowers, babies, Feminax, hysteria, exaggeration, overreaction, emotions and tears (all the things women like) and gave us Ladies’ Day: 7 whole women spoke, including presenter Sue Macgregor, alongside 21 men. The day before that it was a much more acceptable 4 women and 19 men. I have no idea what that spike on Thursday 19th was about. 7 women! Using up the space that men could have occupied! By Friday, thank Patriarchus, He That Knoweth, natural order had been restored.

Downstairs in the Starbucks nearest Broadcasting House in Portland Place is a coffee table with old Radio Times issues incorporated into its design. It’s a nice local touch and an interesting read. The Radio Times of January 2nd, 1931, Southern Edition, announces itself in a slim and snooty font as “The Journal of the British Broadcasting Corporation.” Underneath this is an even prouder motto: “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation.” And then some small administrative details: “Every Friday. TWO PENCE. Registered at the GPO as a Newspaper.” This first Radio Times edition of 1931 is a handsome thing with a hand-drawn black and white illustration on the front, inspired by an art show no less international and well curated than the current exhibition of treasures from Afghanistan on at the British Museum. You’ll have noticed the posters for the latter: a bright gold fold-out crown for ad hoc, off-the-cuff coronations.

The Radio Times of 1931 has fatter, squatter proportions than our current A4 but is slightly larger than it and cleanly typeset with spindle-legged capitals. On the front is a short list of articles which are as fresh as anything to be found in a magazine like Time Out today and certainly more serious than anything in this century’s trashy Radio Times:

The Persian Exhibition Opens On Wednesday
First Talk to be Broadcast on Friday:
Article by R H Wilenski on Page 7

I can’t read Wilenski’s article because it’s been pasted into the surface of the Starbucks table, then laminated. But I do enjoy a rather bossy advert from one of the inside pages, placed by Mullard Wireless Service:

See to it that your value holders are always Mullard Equipped.
Mullard The Master Value.

I certainly shall see to it, Mr Mullard, forthwith.

By April 21st 1950, the Radio Times – this time the North of England edition – has changed its look a touch. The title is in solid stamped black capitals, the peacefully speaking nations are gone and the British Broadcasting Corporation is sufficiently secure in its identity to give itself a jaunty moniker: “Journal of the BBC.” It still costs tuppence. And you know what else is running? The headline on the cover reads

Woman’s Hour Celebrates its 1,000th Edition on Friday.

Upon seeing this I am filled with the wholesome, homemade, bunlike warmth of sisterly solidarity. Oh for the good old days when life was a never-ending costume drama adaptation of Stella Gibbons, the Mitfords, Dodie Smith, Agatha Christie, Barbara Pym and other purveyors of a charming world in which an Asian like me would be spat at on the street. Woman’s Hour wasn’t the only thing on the wireless waves (thank you, Mr Mullard, I hadn’t forgotten) that week. You could also hear the following, advertised thus:

Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company in Measure for Measure on Shakespeare’s Birthday (Sunday)
Twenty Questions: returns to the air this Thursday evening.
Boxing British Middleweight Championship (Monday)
World Flyweight Championship (Tuesday)
Speeches from the Royal Academy dinner broadcast from Burlington House on Thursday.
F A Cup Final commentary from Wembley on Saturday
Racing at Newmarket: Two thousand guineas (Wednesday) and One thousand guineas (Friday)

What a sexist world it was in radio then, eh? A bit of women’s stuff, little bit of culture, then onto the real business of men’s politics, debate, club-making and sport. Nobody, Patriarchus forbid, would point out the underlying homoerotic thrust of an entire nation of post-war British men agape at the runnings and jumpings and bodily prowess of fit young lads a-boxing, footballing or energetically riding muscly steeds. How exactly they could justify the domination of the wireless by these kinetic  enthusiasms and men’s network power reinforcement behaviours, then tuck all women away on the one ladies’ show per day, is beyond me.

The large cover illustration of this issue is one pert flourish of patronage. It shows skinny, curvy, avid, delighted-looking women in pinnies, dusting, sweeping, rocking a baby, washing the carpet and shopping, all with one hand to their task and the other tuning the wireless to listen in to Woman’s Hour. A woman’s work is never done and always dull. During the wars women were engineers, pilots, fighters, activists, organisers, resisters, drivers, technicians, factory workers and worldly, strong heroines. Indeed the vote was extended to us pathetic females partly because of the value of women’s war efforts. But, come 1950, there we are, back doing the repetitive, boring, routine, unchallenging work and being made to look like we love it.

I am so glad that times have changed so profoundly.  Oh – pardon me. I beg the forgiveness of Patriarchus. They haven’t changed a bit. I did a survey of the numbers of different presenters on a variety of radio stations and networks from 6.30am on Friday 20th May 2011 until 6.30am on Friday 27th May 2011. From the worst offenders, with a 7% female presentership, up to the dizzying Pankhurstian heights of feminism, with 25%, here we are:

  • XFM has 13 men and 1 woman (7%)
  • Kiss has 24 men and 3 women, one of whom presents the breakfast show with two male colleagues
  • BBC Radio One has 28 men and 4 women, of whom one is Annie Nightingale doing one show on Thursday from 2am until 4am
  • BBC Radio Two has 38 men and 7 women
  • BBC 6 Music has 23 men and 4 women, of whom one is not a regular but is presenting a one-off six part series
  • Heart London has 12 men and 3 women, of whom two are in mixed duos
  • Absolute Radio has 12 men and 4 women
  • Magic has a cosy routine of the same 6 men and 2 women regular presenters, as well as one afternoon show on a Sunday presented by Kim Wilde
  • Classic FM has 12 men and 4 women (25%)

In seven full days of the week, monitored across 24 hours, the number of women presenters anywhere on nine different stations never gets above 7, which it does only once, on Radio 2… alongside 38 male presenters. On the other eight stations the highest number of women is just 4. XFM, supposedly the cool new strand that’s breaking all the rules with its original playlist and passion for music, actually follows the rules of marginalisation very faithfully. It is not rebellious but deeply traditional: a white men’s club. The medieval monastic gentleman, his script far pre-dating the Radio Times, believed that women ought neither to be seen nor heard as our aimless clucking, vicious tendencies and stunted minds were closer to the animal world than to man’s sophistication, let alone God’s perfection. XFM guy is right there with him.

Looked at more broadly the firm enforcement of the marginalisation is shocking. Radio can do anything at all except employ women as speakers. The formats, styles of music, styles of presenting, bandwidth, network, audience profile, balance of music and talk or news and arts, the balance of live and pre-recorded material, types of output, areas of focus and topics of discussion are dazzling in their variety, but the sexism never changes. It is the one thing that holds steady no matter what else is going on. There are no rules except the unspoken one tacitly banning women. Because giving a woman a voice rather than using her for her labour away from the mic is just a step too far.

In reality, though the people in power may loathe the stench of it, women are 52% of the population. Men are 48%. On the radio men are given between 93% and 75% of all presenting jobs. You might ask, whither equality? Whence this disparity? Is it down to psychology, to culture, to evolutionary biology, to timidity and shyness and innate female mimsy syndrome (and other victim-blaming insults)? How can it be that the majority of workers being exploited, overworked and underpaid behind the scenes are women – executives, producers, broadcast and studio assistants, researchers, runners and gofers – but the people who get to speak, are relatively well paid and put into starring roles are men? How can it be that there are many influential women in radio, yet so many behave like man-worshipping, submissive little grovellers? What, I wonder as I gaze in worship at a nude bronze effigy of Patriarchus, could it possibly be?