By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent
Beginning today (11/2), TALKERS is launching a multi-part feature story about the status of female talk show hosts in the radio business that will run throughout this week.
Part 1: Setting the stage
NEW YORK – One of the two most FAQs presented to the TALKERS editorial staff, year after year, is “Why aren’t there more female hosts on talk radio?” (The other is, “Why aren’t there more liberals…” – but that has already been the subject of numerous articles in this publication, not to mention discussions at its conferences… so we’ll devote this piece to the lesser-explored “woman” question.)
At the outset, however, several points of clarification are in order:
First, when we use the term “talk radio” in this series, we are referring to “news/talk” radio and even more specifically, “political news/talk radio.” That’s where the woman issue exists.
Many flavors of talk radio
As our publisher Michael Harrison is quick to point out, “Over the years, the popular sub-genre of ‘political news/talk’ radio has hijacked the broader term ‘talk radio’ in the minds of many. This is unfortunate because there are other viable forms of talk radio out there beyond traditional ‘news/talk’ – and the potential for expansion into even more realms of pertinent topicality is huge.”
The most successful example of non-political “talk radio’’ is the burgeoning, dynamic world of sports talk. (That format has an even greater imbalance between its male and female performers than news/talk… but for obvious reasons that deserve their own separate discussion.)
Ironically, not all marquee programming featured on “news/talk” formatted stations deals directly with politics and hard news. Major successful examples of prime-time deviations include Dr. Joy Browne, who specializes in relationships and popular culture; Dave Ramsey, who specializes in finance and lifestyle; and George Noory and (the recently-returned) Art Bell, who preside over the paranormal and cosmic consciousness. In the field of medicine, there’s Dr. Daliah Wachs – a rising female star in that arena, heard daily. There are also “specialty” performers within the news/talk realm that talk about technology, alternative health, home improvement and a number of non-political topics that are usually heard on weekends.
We also mustn’t forget the presence of the “pop culture host” (still known in some circles by the obsolete term “shock jock”) that overlaps in many cases with traditional news/talk radio. This year’s recipient of the TALKERS “Woman of the Year” award in June was Robin Quivers – a key long-time player on the Howard Stern show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio. According to Harrison, “We consider it all to be ‘talk radio.’”
Second, women have made great progress over the years in closing the gender gap in the general radio business both on the air and off. Women are regularly heard on-air in music radio as well as all news radio. And, although the number of female program directors and station managers in the news/talk sector still lags behind men – the management disparity shows ongoing signs of changing.
Women in power
Third, although the statistics have remained generally the same for the past two decades in the news/talk realm – indicating that male hosts outnumber female hosts by approximately seven to one – there are and always have been more than just a handful of outstanding, talented and successful women behind the microphone in the format.
The present crop of top female players represented in the 2015 edition of the TALKERS “Heavy Hundred” (The 100 Most Important Radio Talk Show Hosts in America) for general talk includes:
#20. Laura Ingraham – Courtside Entertainment
#24. Dana Loesch – Radio America
#27. Dr. Joy Browne – Genesis Communications Network
#28. Stephanie Miller – WYD Media
#39. Kim Komando – WestStar TalkRadio Network
#51. Terry Gross – National Public Radio
#53. Dr. Laura Schlessinger – SiriusXM Satellite Radio
#60. Mandy Connell – KHOW, Denver
#82. Elisha Krauss – KRLA, Los Angeles (member of three-host team)
#83. Leslie Marshall – The Leslie Marshall Show (independently syndicated)
#88. Joyce Kaufman – WFTL, Ft. Lauderdale
#99. Karen Hunter – SiriusXM Satellite Radio
Keep in mind that the Heavy Hundred is published once per year each February and remains posted for a full 12 months regardless of subsequent changes in employment by its designees. Thus, the publication of the 2016 edition is only a few months away and the TALKERS editorial staff is admittedly hopeful that several more females will join the ranks of the prestigious list in 2016.
According to TALKERS VP/executive editor Kevin Casey, “The approximate seven-to-one ratio of male dominance in this field belies the importance and accomplishments of those women who are doing well in news/talk and proving that gender, per se, does not have to be a factor in determining who gets these limited high-profile, income-sustaining positions behind the mic.”
Casey cites such accomplished female hosts as Heidi Harris, who recently returned to hosting mornings on CBS O&O KXNT, Las Vegas; late night host Patti Vasquez of WGN, Chicago; and syndicated weekend talker Rebecca Costa – all displaying different approaches and styles that work effectively under the “news/talk” umbrella of stationality. And there are more.
A number of questions, theories and myths about the state of the female host persist:
Are women the victims of hiring discrimination in talk radio because management is male-dominated?
Are women not interested in news and politics proportionate to men?
Do male listeners not want to hear a female voice or female opinion on matters of public policy?
Are fewer women interested in entering this area of radio than men?
Are there simply fewer women proportionate to men who have the required level of “talent” necessary to become a radio talk show host?
There are more.
In the coming days, this series of articles will present the views of a wide spectrum of talk radio professionals – male and female – from the ranks of on-air talent, station/group management, talent agents and radio consultants who will share their opinions and experiences in answering the above questions, premises and then some.
Robin Bertolucci’s perspective
We conclude today’s installment with the thoughts of one of talk radio’s leading veteran program managers, who happens to be a woman – Robin Bertolucci, program director of iHeartMedia’s KFI and KEIB, Los Angeles:
“Why aren’t there more women in news/talk? The best way to answer that question is for every programmer reading this article to pick up a mirror and look at what they see. That is the single biggest answer to that question. Maybe we programmers are afraid to forge new paths, try new styles and break the mold of what is for what could be. Maybe a large part of the audience hasn’t been ready to hear a woman talk host (outside of specialty shows in traditional female arenas)?
“News/talk originally evolved around men who were primarily doing political talk. Many women are not into that. It’s not that they don’t care about politics or have strong opinions, but the divisiveness of that style can be off putting to many women. So, more men listening leads to more male-oriented talk which leads again to more men listening. And a lot of the traits that a man has become something very different when possessed by a woman. A man who is described as tough, strong and powerful… that same person, as a female, can be perceived as shrill, bitchy, and a shrew. That’s a cultural reality that transcends news/talk and you need to understand that bias in order to overcome it.
“It seems to me that Ellen, Oprah, Chelsea, Queen Latifah, Kelly Ripa and even the pioneering Joan Rivers (to name a handful) from the TV side were all able to figure it out. I can think of a bunch of great, strong, smart and fun women talk hosts in radio that are making an impact in news/talk right now so I know it is happening and things are changing. That change comes from the women doing the talking, the programmers who are giving them a stage and the audiences who are listening to them.
“The trick is that women have to do it their own way, they can’t be just like men with female voices. They have to retain their femininity, their connectivity and their own style to really be powerful. Women in news/talk that mimic the boys remind me of how women dressed in the 80s as they were entering the workforce…. those big puffy bows in place of neckties . Women today are becoming more comfortable being women and sounding like women and ultimately that is their true power. They need to continue to find their own voice, their own lane. That power has only begun to grow and impact our industry.
“I would LOVE to see more women, and more minorities, in our business but not for the reasons you might think. It has almost nothing to do with my being a woman or because I’m trying to be politically correct. It has everything to do with my desire for this business to grow and reach as much of the available audience as possible. To do a show without at least considering every available listener means you’re limiting your potential customer base. Why would you ever want to do that?”
TOMORROW: Part 2 – “The State of Women in Talk Radio” continues with comments from both men and women in the business.
Jeff McKay, a veteran New York-based operations manager, newsman and traffic reporter, is a special features correspondent for TALKERS and RadioInfo. He can be emailed at McKayway@aol.com.