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Radio producer Helen Mc Cormack offers a producer’s view of the lack of women on the air…

Veronica Walsh is absolutely correct when she points out in her Antiroom post that there is a large gender imbalance when it comes to discussion panels on current affairs programmes.

What are the reasons for this? Let’s not be so simplistic as to presume that radio producers have a bias against women and are determined not to have them on. In fact, my experience in the commercial radio sector is that the majority of people working in radio production teams are women.

I’m not here to make excuses for the lack of female voices but as someone who has worked as a radio producer at both a national and a local level, I would like to make a few points before we go screaming up and down and calling for heads to roll.

I have worked in current affairs and lifestyle programmes and have found it much easier to get women on lifestyle programmes. When I started as a researcher on Orla Barry’s morning show on Newstalk, Orla was particular about not having female only panels and would encourage us to have a good gender balance but there was never a problem getting women. Then I did the Breakfast show (in the Claire Byrne and Ger Gilroy days) before moving on to produce Tom McGurk on 4FM. With both Breakfast and McGurk, men were in the majority and we were making a concentrated effort to get women on at all. Now, producing Gareth O’Callaghan on Saturday mornings, I am finding, once again, it is incredibly easy to get women on. There have been several occasions when all the guests were female.

So why is this? I don’t have an immediate answer. Is it because current affairs programmes are using politicians, political correspondents, economists etc and within these groups themselves women are underrepresented? It’s 4pm and a political story is breaking and I have a show going to air at 5 and a worried presenter demanding to know who will cover the story. Who are my options as regards senior political correspondents? I can mentally count sixteen people, five of whom are women. So right from the start the odds are that a man will be the one to make it to air because honestly, I’m going to take the first person who agrees to do it.

Perhaps at this point, eyes are being rolled by women who are thinking “Try harder! Search out new voices, don’t just go for the old reliables!” Fair point. But I don’t have a massive staff. There’s me producing and a researcher. Two hours to fill every day with just the two of us (eventually, it was just me.) It’s the same for pretty much every commercial station out there. The Right Hook has, I think, a producer and two researchers and with two and a half hours to fill every day that’s not a lot. It takes an hour to go through all the papers / news sites etc before meeting to plan the show and divide out segments. Then you’re ringing around and people aren’t getting back to you. You have research to do, briefs to write, your presenter arrives in and may want to scrap a piece or something breaks and you’re back to the drawing board. You’re trying to get audio of the events of the day, pin down guests, get answers from Press Officers. You do find some new voices – I’m very proud to say we were the first show to put the excellent Andrea Pappin on the air! – but it takes a lot of time and effort that producers often don’t have.

To return to my point about it being easier to get women on lifestyle programmes – is this because the topics often have a female slant? It is more likely because they are conducive to family life in that they can give you a day’s notice whereas current affairs is more likely to be, at best, a few hours. Are men in general more confident in their ability to go on air and ‘wing it’ without doing copious amount of research? I have to say I generally found that they were. It’s not necessarily the right way to look at things but at the same time very often that’s what is required on a fast paced news programme. I know that on McGurk on 4, we found it far more difficult getting women to come on the panel. Not all women but we couldn’t use the same ones over and over again. I know our researcher used to literally have nightmares about not finding a woman in time for the Friday panel! Men used to get in touch with the programme regularly to offer themselves as guests or panellists (I’m excluding people who wanted to promote a product or event here) but women very rarely did so.

When Margaret Ward (one of the fabulous women who always said ‘yes’ to coming on the programme!) set up Women On Air, I was delighted to get involved because I thought it was a great way to encourage women to put themselves out there and for me as a producer to meet those women. I hope that many of those women go on air and knock socks off but for a really visible (or audible!) change to be made, women need to become more prominent throughout society. Veronica asked if current affairs programs discriminate against women. My answer to that would be no, they don’t discriminate. I really believe that the problem is deeper than that. When there is equality in boardrooms, in government, in lecture halls then there will be equality on air. But if we were to follow through on Veronica’s suggestion that “we demand some kind of gender balance be applied in the media pundit world”, I think, sadly, that current affairs producers would find it nigh on impossible to do their job.

Helen McCormack is a Freelance Journalist and Radio Producer who has worked in several radio stations including Newstalk, 4FM and Q102. She blogs at http://helenmccormacksblog.wordpress.com/ and is on Twitter: @HelenMcCormack

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Marian Finucane’s weekend radio show is something I try not to miss. Yesterday she interviewed Melanie Verwoerd, partner of the late Gerry Ryan, who spoke movingly about their relationship and his death. It reminded me for many reasons, not least because of her honesty and the palpable rawness of how she is feeling, of a recent interview that Stephen Gately’s husband gave on The Late Late Show. Both interviews included details of finding dead loved ones, of the moment of realising that they had passed away. This is extremely private information, and Finucane and Ryan Tubridy are certainly not at fault for asking. It’s clear that both presenters were aware of the sensitivities, perhaps even been reluctant to ask, but knew that we live in times when the public demand they ask scrupulous details about the most private acts. There’s an almost gruesome curiosity here, but should these moments be up for very public discussion? Maybe, but I don’t need to know about which room someone breathed their last breath in or how they were curled up vulnerably on a couch. It’s disrespectful to the dead who aren’t here to sanction talk of their last minutes, and nothing but harrowing for their loved ones to recount.

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