“Don’t apologise. Stand by your views.” Women in Radio special series: Part 5


In this five-part series, exclusive to Radio Today, Brisbane radio presenter of more than 30 years Spencer Howson investigates the under-representation of women on Australian radio, and makes a series of recommendations aimed at challenging the status quo.

Today we present the final instalment.

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 2 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Read Part 4 here.

Recommendation #5 – Make great radio!

The final critical piece of the puzzle is that female presenters, backed by all the support and opportunities that the industry can muster, must then create radio that appeals to their target audience.

With that in mind, the nine presenters and nine managers that I interviewed for my research were all asked what advice they would offer to female presenters who wanted to be successful or, if they preferred, they could say what they liked about female presenters that they had heard.

At the same time, the nine listeners were asked what they liked about their favourite female radio presenters. The two lists were strikingly similar.

The first advice that came through was to “be yourself”. Deborah Knight (2GB, pictured above) offered: “Don’t apologise, have your views, stand by them, but also there’s nothing wrong with having a softer approach. So rather than just ramming your views down someone’s throat, be curious and ask questions of others. The key is authenticity. The audience can sniff out a fake in a heartbeat so just be true to yourself. Open up and be honest and share with your listeners what’s happening in your own life because they want to feel that they know you”.

And from Lindy Burns: “Just be you and you’ll find a whole lot of your people”.

Secondly, “be interested, and enjoy yourself on air”.

Former Macquarie Media CEO Adam Lang (pictured above) said it was as simple as “love it and want to do it”.

Majella Marsden (4BC, ABC) said that to be successful, you need to be “someone who loves their radio and wants to be part of the audience’s world”.

Sally Rope (ABC) said you should be “interested, not self-interested”.

And Kelly Higgins-Devine (ABC) said you should know when to shut up: “You know what it’s like when you’re having conversation with someone and you just know they’re on the tip of saying something they didn’t really want to tell you. And it’s like, come on, you can give me that story, you want to go there, give me that story. And so shutting up is just as important”.

The third piece of advice was “understand and be relatable to the audience”.

Ali Clarke

Ali Clarke (Mix, pictured above) described it this way: “Having empathy and understanding what your listeners are going through”. Clarke also said: “Get out, get out, don’t sit behind a goddamn computer screen and stay at work because you think ‘I’ve got to show the bosses I’ve got work ethic’. You will create a bubble around you [of] the people that work with you and you don’t want that. That’s the worst thing you can do.”

Mike McGowan (ABC) said: “Let the audience know that you relate to them, you understand their stage of life, or you understand their daily challenges”.

And Greg Byrnes (Nine) said that when considering hiring a presenter, he would always ask: “Are they relatable? Do they understand our audience?”

Fourth was “be informed”. Andrea Ho (AFTRS, pictured above) said: “I need her to be at least as smart as me and preferably a little bit smarter because I want to learn from the person I’m spending time with”.

Sally Rope said she would look for someone with “great general knowledge, but also happy to learn”. She added: “The best presenter I’ve ever worked with is Lindy Burns. She’s great with music, she’s great with sports, she’s great with politics, she’s a great dinner party guest, and that’s what a good presenter is to me”.

And Adam Lang said you should know what you’re talking about: “Be proficient in the discipline that you are speaking about. For example, if you’re talking out about music, someone drops in an artist’s name, and you have no idea who that is, your credibility will start to eke away. You don’t need to be an almanac but you do need to be proficient in that discipline”.

And finally, “communicate clearly”. Mike McGowan said you needed “clarity of voice simply so that there’s no issues of understanding. I’m not looking for the old English rounded voice. I’m looking for a natural voice that can communicate well and people who may be in less-than-ideal listening conditions can hear what’s being said.”

Cathie Schnitzerling (ABC) suggested: “Everyone should have voice lessons, voice coaching. They need to understand how their voice works. The more that you work with someone on their voice, and the more competent they are in using their voice, the better their voice is”. And Sally Rope summed it up in three words: “A good communicator”.

Here are some of the comments made by the listeners when asked what they liked about their favourite female radio presenters.

Erin Molan was described as: “Absolutely hilarious. She goes ‘oh, I can sing’. She can’t sing for nuts but you’d be sitting there crying because everyone’s like ‘when is she going to stop?’”

Kelly Higgins-Devine: “Always feels to me like she is having fun. She has got a tremendous range to her voice, she’s got the lovely deep tones but she’s also got the high tones. So natural on the radio. If you say ‘would you like to go and have lunch? You’d say ‘Oh God, yeah, I would because she sounds so amazing on the radio.”

Emma Freedman (pictured above): “Real, down to earth. You know, you’d take her to the pub and have a beer with her and you’d have an awesome time. Whereas there would be some other radio presenters that you’d have to get, you know, the best bottle of champagne from France. For me, I’d feel really awkward. Yeah, I don’t feel like I fit very well in that scene. I like the down to earth real people.”

Margaret Throsby: “Very knowledgeable so I find that interesting because then I’m finding that I’m learning from that.”

Laurel Edwards (pictured above): “I love her. Same age as me, she loves her motorsport too. I’ve seen her down at the Gold Coast and it’s just that same age bracket.”

Zan Rowe: “Knows what she’s talking about. She just has this everyday feel about her. She obviously has a very high level of skills to do what she does but she just has that easy ability about her.”

Thank you to all the listeners, presenters and managers who agreed to be interviewed for this project. Thank you to everyone else who offered to be interviewed. And thank you to everyone who is on board with the idea of hiring more women into prominent solo presenter roles.

Now let’s get to work on some strategies to achieve this.

Spencer Howson is a Lecturer in Radio Production at the University of Southern Queensland.

His career began in 1990 at Reading Radio 4RPH. Spencer volunteered, and later worked part-time, at Reading Radio whilst studying journalism at QUT. He has served on the Board of Directors at different times, including stints as Vice President and President.

Spencer worked for the ABC from 1993-2020, including 15 years as host of the top-rating ABC Brisbane Breakfast show. From 2017-2020, he held the position of Program Quality Advisor, which involved spotting, developing and coaching ABC radio presenters and producers across Australia.

From 2021-2023, Spencer tasted the world of commercial radio, hosting Weekends on 4BC.

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