Radio 2 – the UK’s most popular radio station, with 15m listeners – has remembered that women have voices (and ears) too, and appointed Zoë Ball and Sara Cox to host its breakfast and drivetime weekday shows. Last week, Radio 2’s head of content commissioning said they were thrilled to be welcoming them both.
‘So what?’ you may think. These are two great broadcasters, who have proved their talent on both TV and radio: of course, they should be hosting such prestigious programmes. Well, yes. Except that for the past 20 years, Radio 2 somehow couldn’t find room for any female broadcaster during weekday daylight hours. From 1998 until May of this year, there wasn’t a woman in the host role between 6.30am and 7pm, Monday to Friday. It has taken years of pressure on the BBC’s top brass to get them to make this change.
Some of us formed a women-in-audio pressure group, Sound Women, way back in 2011, to try and help women progress in radio. We commissioned research that showed there was only one female hosting a breakfast show by herself across the whole of the BBC local radio network. That got BBC director general Tony Hall’s attention and, in 2013, he demanded that at least half of BBC local radio breakfast shows have a woman presenter or co-presenter.
Radio 2 still wouldn’t budge, though. It was rumoured that bosses were worried the available women hadn’t had enough experience for daytime shows. Argh! You can’t become experienced until you’re offered the job, as we all know.
So what has changed? Well, Chris Evans having his salary published meant that other stations could offer him more, and Virgin did. Evans leaving Radio 2’s breakfast show left a gap – the biggest job in radio – that a woman could ll. And, more importantly, in 2017 Ofcom, the Government-appointed regulator authority, started overseeing the BBC, and explicitly stated in the BBC’s licence that it must ‘reflect the diversity of the United Kingdom’. An all-white, all-male, all-over-50 daytime line-up certainly wasn’t doing that.
Should we think about that for a bit, though? It took actual legal regulation to force Radio 2 into changing its roster. That’s how hard it is to make some men realise that women should be hosting big shows. Well, such rubbish doesn’t wash any more. Men-only clubs, on air or in life, are no longer acceptable. Even if just from a numbers point of view. Radio 2 needs to attract people younger than 50 if it is going to survive, and a more diverse audience, too (ethnic minorities are also under-represented in radio).
Young-at-heart, eminently experienced Zoë Ball and Sara Cox have been waiting in the wings for long enough. They are overqualified for their new jobs. Radio 2 has taken its time, but finally it’s moving from ‘golf club’ radio into a station that welcomes us all.