In the six months since the initial report on gender disparity in Irish radio by Linda Coogan Byrne, Andrea Cleary asks what progress has been made, and where we are now…
As a journalist covering Irish music, I’ve come to learn that I work in an echo chamber. My Twitter feed, WhatsApp groups and conversations with friends are filled with musos sharing and celebrating music by Irish artists. We watch Denise Chaila live streams together, giddily typing “this is a moment” in the chat; we share news of Pillow Queens performing on American prime-time television; we pass around a new Niamh Regan album like a quiet gift. We send photos of CMAT merch, Pitchfork reviews of Aoife Nessa Francis albums, streaming numbers for Tolu Makay covers. We’re excited by the world-class quality of Irish music right now, which is being led from the front by experimental, talented, brilliant women.
So, when I tune into the radio, the experience is jarring, to say the least. Irish people who rely on radio to discover new music might struggle to name more than a handful (or even one full handful) of Irish women artists. Of the artists mentioned above, only Denise Chaila has had meaningful airplay on Irish radio in the past year, despite the others receiving international recognition.
In the spring of 2020, the conversation around Irish women’s representation on the airways exploded due to the Gender Disparity Data Report 2019/20, researched and written by music industry publicist, and founder of the Why Not Her? collective, Linda Coogan Byrne. The report analysed the airtime given to Irish artists on Irish radio stations, both national and local, in terms of gender representation. The results confirmed what many people in the industry have long believed to be true: We are not hearing Irish women on Irish radio.
“The report was the result of spending 15 years looking around and asking: where are the women? Why aren’t their voices being heard?” Coogan Byrne tells me, for rogue, over a Zoom call from her home in London. It’s early afternoon, and she’s in the middle of a long day of calls and meetings with media and press. Despite this, she launches into the topic with energy and candour – a woman very much on a mission.
Each week, Coogan Byrne writes a report, for each of the artists she represents, on their radio play and streaming numbers. During this process, she noticed a disparity in the reach of female artists, especially on radio, and so decided to take the opportunity of more free time during lockdown to dig into the numbers.
Using data from Radiomonitor (the industry-standard music airplay monitoring service, used by labels, management and PR to assess artist airplay), she collated the top 20 most-played songs by Irish artists on each individual radio station in Ireland over the previous year. The results of the report signalled a far sorrier situation than many people in the industry initially feared.
Gender parity eluded the vast majority of Irish radio stations (with the exception of RTÉ Radio One, who had a 50/50 gender balance in their top 20 played Irish artists). Some stations played as little as 10 per cent (98FM, 2FM), 5 per cent (Spin 103.8, TodayFM) and even 0 per cent (FM104, LMFM) Irish women in their top 20 Irish songs.
Across the top 20 most-played Irish artists in Irish radio, just over 7 per cent were women. The report was presented objectively, and nobody in the industry could argue with the numbers. Still, the harsh reality of the data was a tough pill to swallow for many people in radio.
“At the time, most [radio DJs and station managers] thought I was throwing them under an oncoming vehicle,” Coogan Byrne laughs. “But this isn’t about them. It isn’t about me, and it isn’t about my opinion. This is about a generation of Irish women whose voices have been silenced off the airways – all I want to know is: Why?”
A clear answer as to ‘why?’ has yet to present itself. There were many (tired) arguments made about Irish women simply not releasing as much music as men. That they tend to thrive in alternative spaces, and that Irish women simply aren’t making radio-friendly pop music. Coogan Byrne’s thoughts on these arguments?
“We have Ruth Anne [Cunningham] who has written some of the biggest pop songs – not just in Ireland – but in the world. She has 3 billion – 3 billion! – streams on Spotify for songs she’s written for One Direction, for John Legend, for Niall Horan, and Avicii. I mean, come on. That argument is ridiculous.”
“The likes of Orla Gartland has more streams than, say, Wild Youth [who are played on Irish radio regularly]. Pillow Queens were just on James Cordon’s show, one of the biggest commercial TV shows on the planet. Pillow Queens haven’t been invited on to any major TV shows in Ireland.”
If Irish women aren’t getting support from radio, it’s little wonder that there hasn’t been a breakout female pop artist form this country in decades. “People think that [Irish women aren’t making pop music] because they’re denied these spots on radio playlists. People can only go by what they’re exposed to.”
Reluctance to change
Though it’s easy to understand why the public might be under this impression, the same can’t be said for the gatekeepers of Irish radio whose job – you would assume – is to seek out and champion new music. Unfortunately, many radio stations are reluctant to discuss the topic, and six months on from the initial report, Coogan Byrne is still facing resistance to change.
A frustrating narrative that she’s faced is the idea that transformation “needs to happen slowly”. That small, incremental changes are enough to address the issue of under-representation. “Women don’t need things to be done slowly,” she says, laughing. “We would accept and welcome equality tomorrow morning! So, who exactly are we going slow for? Who are we easing into this gently, when 51 per cent of the population are women?”
Six months on from the release of the initial report, there has been some improvement in the numbers.
2FM, for example, have increased the number of Irish women artists in their top 20 by 30 per cent since the first report, and artists like Denise Chaila and Wyvern Lingo feature in their top 5 most played Irish artists.
Spin 103.8 have increased representation in their top 20 by 40 per cent in the last six months. However, their top 5 most played Irish artists in this period are all male. Stations with no change in representation in the past six months include East Coast FM (5 per cent women) and Cork City FM (5 per cent women).
For many stations, the small increases were to do with the release of the Irish Women in Harmony project – a collective of 39 Irish women artists who released a cover of The Cranberries’ Dreams in aid of Safe Ireland, a non-profit which supports women and children victims of domestic violence in the home. Though Coogan Byrne welcomes support for the release, it’s not enough to address the inequality in the figures.
“It isn’t enough to just support Irish women in Harmony,” she says. “There were 38 women on that track – where is the support for each of those women? Just because stations supported that song, it doesn’t mean that their work here is done.”
Similarly, Tolu Makay, this week, became the highest-charting female solo artist ever on the Official Irish Homegrown Chart with her cover of The Sawdoctors’ N17. According to OfficialCharts.com, “Irish Women in Harmony – which Tolu is a member of – are the only female act to top the Homegrown Chart since its inception in May 2019”.
“Tolu has [very few radio plays] so far since the release of N17, and that’s even with all of the media support outside of radio. She is becoming a beloved new artist on the scene by the Irish public. Will radio now support Tolu?” she asks. “And why does it take a woman covering a song by someone else to get airtime?”
Despite coming up against resistance, Coogan Byrne is determined to continue her efforts to campaign for women’s equality in the music industry. When she released a similar report for UK radio, major stations responded with a pledge to do better, and the report was covered widely in the UK press. Later this year, she intends to release the Gender Disparity in Radio report for the US, a monumental undertaking that she has been working on with a team of people for the past number of months. “I don’t sleep, by the way,” she laughs upon seeing my shock at the sheer size of such a task.
For Coogan Byrne, it is the women in her life who inspire her to keep striving for change and equal representation. “I have a beautiful niece who is an incredible artist,” she says. “She can play any instrument, she’s an incredible singer, and she has told me that she’s going to pursue art instead of music, because what’s the point in doing music?”
“That breaks my heart,” she says. “We’re losing out. We’re not just denying women who are currently making music a voice in radio, but we’re missing out on future voices because girls looking around them and they don’t see or hear anybody like them”.
The Gender Disparity report, as well as the six-month update, are available at Why Not Her.
Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash