A ‘Fail’ for AM radio

Staff Writer

Wendy Harmer is an author, broadcaster and editor-in-chief of 'The Hoopla' website.


The lack of women in AM commercial talkback radio in this country is bizarre. I’m struggling to think of one woman, in any capital city, who is holding down a high-profile shift by herself. Women are apparently good enough to write, edit and read the news, be opinionated and outspoken on TV in newspapers and online, present shifts on ABC radio…but not on the AM dial.

It really is the last bastion of blokiness in the media. And you have to ask yourself, why?

Is it because AM radio executives think women will go as silly as wheels once a month, talk about knitting or blather on about what’s for tea? Is it because they imagine women can’t handle big stories? Be tough and opinionated? Or is it that they fear women won’t be able to manufacture the required outrage on a daily basis? Put a flea in the ear of some listeners and call them ‘boofheads’ and ‘idiots’?

Perhaps that’s more like it.

Women, as heads of households, business people and consumers want to talk about politics, the economy, international affairs and the rest, and they are very happy to do that with other women. ABC radio is testament to this. The burgeoning number of online news and opinion sites for women is too. When will the boys in AM get with the program?

Latest news is that Sydney’s 2UE is considering putting journalist Tracey Spicer and her sparring partner, Prue McSween on the morning shift to go up against ratings leader Ray Hadley. It's the same spot Linda Mottram is holding down on ABC 702 with aplomb.

It’s a move that’s been called a ‘brave’ by some.

It wasn’t that long ago that a senior radio executive told me that one woman on the radio was difficult enough, let alone two. ‘I mean, you’ve been nagged all weekend by your wife and then you turn on the radio and you get nagged by TWO women,’ he said. And he was serious. "It's bizarre that in this day and age, it's seen as bold or even brave (to hire women in talk radio)…” said the new general manager of 2UE, Chris Parker last week.

That’s right ‘bizarre’, as in there is no rational explanation for it. ‘They throw this line at you that women are not interested in listening to women, which is absolute crap. I still get emails from women who loved listening to me,’ said McSween of a high-rating stint she had filling in for the late Stan Zemanek on 2UE some years ago. "It's just an excuse they use to validate the fact they don't feel comfortable with opinionated women on radio."

“AM talkback radio is one of the last remaining glass ceilings in the commercial media. Massive cracks are appearing in it right now, which is tremendous,” Spicer said this week.

There’s a little test that many use when assessing a movie for its representation of women. Called the Bechdel Test, it was devised by a US feminist in 1985. It says to look out for three things in a film: 1) it has to have at least two women in it, who 2) who talk to each other, about 3) something besides a man.

On that basis, AM radio in this country is a massive FAIL.

For three years now Angela Catterns and I have filled in over the summer on Sydney’s 702 ABC breakfast radio without the roof falling in. We seem to have been able to interview the Premier and Police Commissioner without getting into a girlie tizz. We have found that the majority of our callers are male and happy to discuss the big issues with us.

The one thing Ange and I always find bemusing however, is that when we have a good laugh together we get texts that accuse us of being a ‘couple of giggling gerties’. Tune into the cricket broadcast that follows and it’s often an all day laugh-a-thon with the likes of Kerry O’Keefe behind the microphone. I wonder if they get the same messages?

I’ll wager that there’s a whole audience out there (and you can’t call half the population ‘niche’) who would consider tuning to AM in if they could hear more about their lives and interests  as presented by feisty females. As it stands, most AM female presenters are relegated to weekend spots talking about gardening, astrology and relationships or they’re often sitting next to a man in the event that (I dunno), she has an attack of ‘women’s problems’ and can’t speak for herself.

Don’t tell me there’s no female talent out there. Fact is AM producers haven’t even looked, nor attempted to nurture and develop the women who could take on the likes of Mitchell, Jones and Sattler. There is no reason I can think of why a woman could not present  a talkback show and pull in the ratings.

Or am I missing something?

(And, by the way, I’m certainly not looking for a permanent shift in radio. I have my hands full with www.thehoopla.com.au I will be presenting the RN program Life Matters from April 10-13. )


Wendy Harmer is an author, broadcaster and editor-in-chief of 'The Hoopla' website, which you can see here.

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