How Muriel blazed a trail for women in radio
For almost as long as commercial radio has been operating in Australia, women have been working in it.
Now, as the industry prepares to celebrate 100 years, today we speak to one of the trailblazers – Muriel Cooper, the first woman to become No. 1 on a prime-time radio talk show.
Muriel never set out to be a pioneer.
She says when she began her media career, the radio landscape for women was quite barren.
Starting out as a print journalist at a country newspaper in WA, one of the role models Muriel looked up to was 6IX Perth radio announcer Leslie Anderson.
The other happened to be a print journo like herself – a reporter at the Daily Planet, no less.
It was none other than Lois Lane.
Muriel says as part of their job, journalists at the newspaper where she worked would read the news at the local radio station at lunchtime on Fridays.
When it was her turn, Muriel says a station engineer recorded the segment and – unbeknownst to her – sent the tape to 6IX.
“They offered me a job in the newsroom in Perth.”
And so began Muriel’s career trajectory which – in the 1980s – would see her in the hosting chair, topping the ratings at Melbourne talkback station 3AW.
But there wasn’t much in the way of fanfare that day.
“My memories were that nobody took much notice of it,” says Muriel. “It was reported in the press, but nobody slapped me on the back and said ‘Oh, isn’t that great? Let’s have a party for Muriel!’
Muriel says come ratings day, everybody was upstairs drinking champagne and celebrating with then Mornings host Derryn Hinch, while she remained on air.
“A manager came down to the studio, patted me on the head and said – and I quote – ‘Aren’t you a good girl?’”
Muriel gave him short shrift.
When it came to equality in the workplace, Muriel says she never noticed any overt discrimination, apart from pay.
“I always behaved the way I expected to be treated. So if anybody did act in a discriminatory way around me, I’d just call them out on it.”
“I was at one stage described behind sniggery hands as the whinging feminist,” she laughs.
“But on the face of it, I got on well with my male colleagues.”
Muriel notes that it’s interesting to see how things have evolved over time.
“There are a lot more women on radio now. You only have to look at the ABC – it’s had some tremendous women. Virginia Trioli, Jacinta Parsons – just great women,” says Muriel, who also rates Diane ‘Dee Dee’ Dunleavy among our top female broadcasters.
Muriel says during her days at 3AW, it was billed as ‘personality radio.’
“We were personalities and we were given carte blanche to say whatever we liked, basically.”
“So I campaigned for women’s issues. For legalisation of prostitution and against domestic violence, in the days when it was hardly talked about.”
In 1980 – while presenting Mornings on the ABC – Muriel was at the forefront of driving change.
“On the ABC I think I did the first programs on sexuality on radio in Melbourne. And the ABC were really good about it, to be honest. I was expecting the Program Director to pick the phone up any minute and say ‘Look, this is not on!’ But we did it in a really serious way and we took calls from the public.”
Another standout radio memory involves the time Muriel had a male producer, a female researcher and female panel op.
“After a week, the producer said ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I said ‘What do you mean you can’t do it anymore?’ He said ‘I can’t work with women.’”
“I was just gobsmacked,” Muriel remembers. “I said ‘What’s your problem?’”
“He said ‘Your personalities are all too strong for me.’”
“I said ‘Do you think you’re here to tell us what to do?’ and he said ‘Well, I AM the producer.’ And I said ‘Well, you’re sacked!’” Muriel laughs.
Muriel’s number one piece of advice to other women broadcasters? Believe in yourself.
“Don’t get that stupid imposter syndrome, where you feel inadequate or intimidated. Have confidence in yourself.”
Muriel also urges women starting out in radio to get themselves a mentor, get some good training … and don’t cop any flak.
“Do what I do – instruct others on how you want to be treated if they get out of line.”
“People behave the way you train them to. And I’m meaning to be assertive. Not aggressive or rude.”
Muriel says radio continues to be a powerful medium.
“I think what’s great about radio is why podcasts are mimicking it. Because of the intimacy of it. It’s just you and the other person.”
“When I first took that job in radio, I was very, very nervous. The manager at that time said ‘Muriel, everyone’s got their own radio. There aren’t ninety thousand people all gathered around one radio. It’s just you and the other person.’ And that was tremendous advice.”
“I think that’s still true today. All these streaming services, podcasts … I think they’re tremendous. I love it, because it’s like you’re sitting in on a conversation.”
“I’d love to think radio is going to continue in the form that it has in the past.”
Australian commercial radio celebrates 100 years on November 23rd.
Other industry trailblazers who who’ve led the way for women include:
Gwen Meredith: Author of around 10,000 episodes of radio serials in the forties and fifties.
Queenie Ashton: featured in radio from the 1930s, including a long running role in the serial Blue Hills.
Grace Gibson: Opened her own production company in 1944 and became one of the biggest producers of radio drama.
Dorothy Crawford: Co-founded Crawford Productions, producing many successful radio programs.
Andrea (Dorothy Jenner): Known as the first ‘queen of Australian radio,’ who co-hosted a morning show on 2UE and later 2GB.
Mama Lena: One of the first dual language females on air, with a weeknight radio program on 2CH, 2KY and 2SERFM.
Gwen Plumb: Started her radio career as a radio copywriter and worked as a producer and scriptwriter before hosting her own radio show on the Macquarie Network from 1945 – 1974.
Mary Hardy: Co-hosted mornings on 3UZ in 1964, then became the host of the popular Afternoons program.
Robyn Slater: One of the first women in talkback radio, after becoming the first woman on WIN TV in 1961
Cherie Romaro: The first woman to hold the roles of Music Director, Program Director and General Manager in Australian commercial radio.
Trailblazers inducted into the Commercial Radio & Audio (CRA) Hall of Fame include Janet Cameron, Cathy O’Connor, Amanda Keller, Jackie Henderson and Laurel Edwards, the latter of whom holds the record as the longest-serving female announcer in commercial radio history for the same shift.