Linda Coogan Byrne Music consultant and campaigner for equality

Mind the gap: Irish radio and gender disparity

By Linda Coogan Byrne, Music consultant and campaigner for equality

In late June 2020, while Ireland was gearing up to return to some semblance of normality, many people were hoping that the pandemic would remain the major news story of the year. This wasn’t to be the case, as we have seen with the recent upsurge in human rights, domestic abuse, and racism concerns. Issues of inequality have come once again to the forefront of our collective conscience.

Many erudite articles seeking to understand the popular movements have briefly caught the public’s fleeting gaze, only to sink back into obscurity. While breaking news stories grip the public imagination, they can only hold on to it for so long. What evades our attention in these media headlines, however, is just how pervasive and pernicious are these disparities. Perhaps some of the issues emerging warrant a second look.

I compiled a study titled Gender Disparity Data Report on Irish Radio. The report was released on 24 June 2020, gaining the attention of several major publications and ultimately getting to an over 40 million audience reach. If the appetite for such a study could have been doubted before, it certainly cannot now.

The analysis of airplay in the report showed a dramatic disparity between the broadcast of male and female Irish artists in the top 20 most played songs by Irish artists in Ireland from June 2019 to June 2020.

Four stations, FM 104, LMFM, WLR FM and South East Radio, had no female artists whatsoever in their top 20 in an entire year. Of the remaining stations that did feature a female artist, most had just one woman in the top 20.

Women accounted for only eight per cent of the top 20 most played Irish artists across 27 music-oriented radio stations in the past year. The most played female act was also the only black artist featured in the entire report, Soulé. Yet her white male counterpart, Dermot Kennedy, received 80 per cent more airtime that she did.

I published a six-month update on 24 January 2021 and the figures haven’t changed much. The rotation across Irish radio playlists for Irish artists is currently sitting at 85 per cent for males, 11 per cent for females and four per cent collaborations between male and female acts.

What does this tell us? Those with the power in radio stations have been asked a simple question; what can be done to implement change across Irish radio - change that creates a level playing field for both male and female acts? They have been asked ‘Why Not Her’?

It was certainly not encouraging to discover most of the stations refused to comment publicly – or at all. Nor would they make an open statement to agree to take action. The only stations to make a public statement were the national broadcaster, RTÉ Radio 1(the only station who reached 50/50 gender balance in the report), and regional station, Beat FM. The rest didn’t reply because they didn’t have to. There is no legislation in place to ensure equal treatment of women who create music. Radio stations have full control of who and what they play and feel they don’t have to answer to us or anyone for that matter.

The Irish Constitution guarantees “equality in law and recognises that every Irish citizen should have the right to earn a livelihood”. So, if there is someone whose actions can be shown to be contravening our rights, then that demands our attention.

Presently we have Irish radio stations showing a complete bias against female artists. Furthermore, Government agencies such as the Broadcast Authority of Ireland (BAI) are granting licences to radio stations that are clearly discriminating against female artists.

A common reprisal since the publishing of the reports is that “people prefer male voices on the radio”. This is verifiably false. Seven of the top ten grossing artists in the world of music from 2019–2020 were women. That is reflected in radio airtime all over the globe.

There is no shortage of incredible female Irish acts. We have the same wonderful diversity that the US and UK music scene has, yet Irish radio stations are not showing support to a diverse array of female acts in their heavy rotation playlists, aside from being tokenistic. Our Irish women in music are at risk of dissipating without the support Irish radio is withholding.

Where are Ireland’s breakthrough female acts of the last decade? The biggest song by a female act in the last decade is the Ruthanne-led project Women In Harmony who covered The Cranberries’ hit song ‘Dreams’ which was recorded by a collective of 39 female acts. It has taken 39 women to get recognition and support from Irish radio, resulting in 48 million radio impacts so far to date. Since the release of his single ‘Giants’ and subsequent singles since 29 June last year, Dermot Kennedy has amassed over 355 million impacts on Irish radio. One man.

This inequality has devastating effects on our women who are creating music. An ominous message is being sent to young female Irish artists - that their voices will not be heard.

The last period in which an Irish female act broke through on a national or international level in comparison to their male counterparts, or the last time the Irish music industry propped up a female act was over a decade ago: Sinead O'Connor (1986-present), The Corrs (1990–2006, 2015-present), The Cranberries (1989–2003, 2009–2019), Samantha Mumba (1999-present), Imelda May (2002–present) and Laura Izibor (2008-present).

Following this period, so few female acts have risen from Ireland that none even come to mind.

In the post-Covid world, we’ll need to create a new normal as the old one wasn’t working for everyone. For inspiration we need only look as far as Other Voices/NYE Countdown, and what they have done for acts like Denise Chaila and Tolu Makay.

Irish radio now has an opportunity to take up this example and become the agency of change that flows with and shows people the changing fabric of our culture. Recent referendum results and general discourse have shown change is on the agenda for Ireland as a whole. We welcome the key playlisters on Irish radio to become the agents of that change in the music scene.

In the last two-year period, zero female acts have entered the official top ten singles charts or had a number one album. How could they? They are not being heard. Yet the kernels of progress are there; in recent weeks women have entered the official Irish homegrown charts in an unprecedented way as eight female solo artists have entered the top 20. Compared to the whole of 2019, that’s a massive 300 per cent rise.

Our diverse talent has always been there, and now through live performances, increased awareness, Spotify playlist inclusions and television placements, the country is getting to hear it. However, radio is lagging behind, and radio plays a vital role in truly breaking an artist.

For every Gavin James or Dermot Kennedy, there is a female counterpart. We are just not being exposed to them on the radio. Choices are being made for the listeners and the results are dictating the culture of music in Ireland.