IWD: WHAT'S IT LIKE TO BE A WOMAN IN RADIO?

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HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!

To celebrate today, I was prepping this blog piece when an email came in from BBC Bitesize, asking if I’d answer a few questions for their coverage around IWD too. It’s always humbling to take part in these opportunities and so I sent over what I had been working on and Bitesize fixed together a really inspiring article featuring myself and four other women doing incredible things in their own industry.

Understandably, Bitesize couldn’t use all of what I had written and so below is my original blog post, with my answers in full, punctuated by Bitesize’s questions to help provide a fuller picture of both our articles.

There’s lots to say about being a woman. And I am glad I have found lots to say about being a woman in radio…

Have you ever felt under pressure at work as a woman, to be something other than yourself? 

There’s been many times when I have felt under pressure to bend who I am to be someone or something else. I believe what lies at the heart of this can be summed up in one word: Acceptance. 

Last week, I covered the KISS Breakfast Show for the first time in my life since winning the KISS Chosen One competition in 2016. Unlike the hundreds of other applicants who entered the same competition as me, I rocked up to my audition without any radio experience or even a thorough understanding of what it meant to be a radio presenter. And yet, fast forward time and here I am covering the Breakfast Show on KISS…and when I sat down and the fader went up, the pressure was on.

Now, there are a good number of reasons why a radio presenter would feel under pressure, especially when live on air: there is a pressure to be credible; to deliver great content; to deliver great content in under two minutes; to speak and not stutter; to be funny; to be original; to go to the toilet before the end of the ad break…and the list goes on. Whilst it is true that all these reasons (and there are more) are mutual to both male and female presenters, I wonder if I experienced one particular pressure that may be exclusive to women when co-hosting alongside a male presenter: the pressure to compete.

Of course, this isn’t to say women do not compete against each other. Regardless of industry, women will compete with other women in the workplace. This competition may be fierce or friendly: women may compete for anything from the same job or to go on lunch at the same time.  Though, when talking about the pressure to compete with male presenters, particularly as a woman in radio, I am referring mainly to my observation of power and the need to sound like yourself.

When I look at radio today - and my main focus here is on shows for I would need to write another article entirely to share what I have observed of the power distribution, or lack of, at the top level in radio - most radio shows with two presenters tend to include a male and female presenter, with the male assuming the lead. As last week was my first time covering KISS Breakfast, I was more than happy for my co-host, Alex, to lead. And he couldn’t have led any better. 

Alex is funny. He is quick-thinking. He is warm. He is one heck of a good story-teller with more plot twists than your favourite Netflix series. (Now ladies, my admiration of Alex here is not to imply women cannot lead a radio show. Quite the opposite. My point is this: when trying your hand at something new – for me, covering the national and well-renowned KISS Breakfast Show– it would have been rather silly of me to assume the lead position over someone who is more experienced than myself. The learner driver cannot overtake their instructor on their first lesson. Here, humility, which also requires strength, must kick in for you to learn the ropes before you can deliver what you have learnt with your own sauce and stamp on things.)

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And so, to answer the question fully, during my first couple of days covering the Breakfast Show, I admit I found myself bending under pressure to be more like Alex than myself. It was subtle: I felt silly for not knowing as much as him about Fortnight; I felt out the loop that I didn’t watch Game of Thrones; and I certainly couldn’t keep up with the Kardashians. In some moments, I felt the need to be funnier and speak more; I wondered if I needed to become a gamer and binge all of Netflix to come up with the kind of content Alex delivered. But then something remarkable happened. 

One morning, Alex made a joke about Fortnight and how he knew more about the game’s landscape than he did Gravesend where he lives. Rather than laugh along for not having anything Fortnighty to chime in with, I let go and made a comment that turned Alex’s joke on its head.

“Come on Alex, you’re a big man and know more about a game than your own ends? What’s wrong with you?” Alex burst out laughing. The producers were rolling. And I was cracking up at everyone else cracking up – all over live radio! The moment I said what I really wanted to say rather than what I thought I should have said, the show sparked and we co-hosted one of the best weeks of radio I’ve ever done. 

In my favour, Alex is every presenter’s dream of a co-host: apart from his ripped jeans, he’s super easy to work with and happy to offer up the lead role when setting up stories and content during a show. Once I found my feet, (and ran a few jokes on him!), we shared the lead and had the show cracking every morning from 6am!

So women, do not bend under the pressure of wanting to be accepted. Shine with all your strengths, qualities, and personality traits that allow you to add value at work and wherever you are. If anything, perhaps the real challenge lies in turning the pressure upside down so people will always bend towards being themselves?

 

How have you developed your self-confidence and individuality in the workplace?

I am proud to say that there isn’t anyone at KISS who sounds like me. And it is for this reason that I will not change how I sound. 

Imagine this: on the day of the KISS Chosen One competition, I left the real me outside and bowled into my audition acting as someone completely different. I spoke like them, laughed like them, even dabbed like them. Imagine I was able to keep up this act for the short while I was in the audition room. Imagine this short act helped me to win the competition! Now, imagine that I started working and managed to sustain this act for a matter of weeks. But then soon enough, when cracks begin to show, imagine how disappointed and annoyed my employer would be when finding out that the person I had auditioned as was nothing but a fraud as eventually this persona will wear off and my true self will shine through? Unable to deliver as the person I pretended to be, my employer may very well fire me and hire the person I had tried to be the entire time. But what could be worse than losing my dream job? Exactly this: finding out that the person my employer hired next was someone acting like me and not themselves. For this would only prove that my employer wanted me the whole time.

Unlike TV or hosting live events, radio leaves little room to hide. When on air, I cannot hide behind fancy outfit changes, or make-up, or anything exterior because the listener has nothing to see but everything to hear. And so as a woman; as a woman of mixed-heritage; as a woman from a Caribbean, Mauritian, Chinese background living in East London; as a woman who understands culture and the language of the artists I play on my show; it is inevitable that I will sound like me. Because, like my employer, the moment my listeners detect I am trying to sound like someone else, they’ll switch off and find that someone else and tune into their show instead of mine. Mad.

And to end, may I say a thing about being proud. C.S. Lewis taught me that there is a sharp difference between being proud of yourself because you’ve done a good job, and being proud of yourself because you think yourself better than someone else. Anyone wanting to get into radio must be careful not to confuse pride with boasting. Boasting in yourself is caught up with comparison and there’s no such use for comparing in the radio industry, or any industry for that matter, unless it is to shine light on people’s differences. If not for this reason, comparison will tear you down as you cannot be anyone more fully than yourself. 


Swarzy Macaly