It’s an oft-made assertion at this stage that Ireland’s musical grassroots is a few steps ahead of the more established industry infrastructure. While there’s always been world-class bands, solo artists, producers and DJs of all types emerging from their respective local and/or specific genre scenes, the bigger picture hasn’t always been the most representative of the wider palate of sounds and cultural experiences.
Nowhere has this been more evident than gender imbalances, a longtime bone of contention when discussing the direction of the music industry at any time in, well, living memory. A cursory glance at festival lineups, daytime broadcasting slots and, to a lesser but still significant extent, representation in print, throws up the spectre of unconscious bias and (incorrect) assertions about there being ‘less women out there’ making art, or some variant thereof.
Having worked for over a decade as a publicist, radio plugger and writer in Ireland, the US and the UK, Linda Coogan Byrne has seen first-hand the processes of national and regional media decision-making. With lockdown happening last year, she decided to finally crunch the numbers on gender representation in radio airplay, and the #WhyNotHer campaign came to life.
“I moved to London two years ago, and am very involved with music there, and when I came back to Ireland, my staff here asked me, ‘have you noticed the disparity here?’. I came over for my niece’s birthday, and got stuck in lockdown at my sister’s house, and as you know, the scene was decimated, so I said, ‘y’know what, what better time than now?’
“Because everyone was out of work, but we couldn’t have it so that predominantly white, male artists were set to make the majority of royalties off radio, which would be the bulk of some artists’ income during Covid, because streaming as you know, won’t (make up the difference).”
In assembling the information on who got played where for the initial report, Byrne and her collaborators went about the mammoth task of collating playlisting from publicly-available statistics, measuring national and regional commercial stations’ output. Although the idea of gender parity on mainstream airwaves has always been hotly contested, there was no arguing with the black-and-white statistics.
Measuring gender disparity across stations’ top 20 Irish artists, as well as airtime allocation, national broadcasters like 2FM and TodayFM topped out at 90% and 95% male respectively, with only RTÉ Radio 1 achieving an even gender balance. Regional broadcasters painted a similar picture - among others, Cork’s RedFM, Cork’s 96FM and Mallow’s C103 each weighed in with 95% male artists.
“I had the time, I had the tools. I’m a paying subscriber to RadioMonitor, and they said yes, fire ahead. Myself and Áine Tyrrell, a client of mine who had to move to Australia because she wasn’t getting the support here… that was really the point. Once the intimidation factor of working solely in Ireland was gone, I thought, what the hell do I have to lose?
“There are a lot of radio stations that aren’t on the report. We went on RadioMonitor data for music-oriented shows, because a lot of stations got back to us saying, ‘this isn’t reflective of who we are, on some shows we can only play 30% Irish music.’ That doesn’t excuse the fact that of that 30%, 95% of that is men, it’s not acceptable!“We went with major stations that are heavy on music and support music in particular, and are helping break new artists. We didn’t include RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta because the stats weren’t publicly available and we were only supplied with an overview. Dublin’s Radio Nova and Q102 are specialist stations, so it didn’t apply to them, and we didn’t include college or community stations because they wouldn’t have the listenership to break new artists.
“The heavy rotation of stations needs to be looked at, and if you look at the research, it’s the same ones over and over again. In the last ten years, there’s been no breakout female artists getting the same reach as men in terms of airplay and playlisting. Look at (singer) Tolu Makay - covering ‘N17’ on New Year’s Eve on RTÉ, the country at her feet - 200 plays, across all radio stations in the report, up to this week.”
As the initial report was coming together, and long-held suspicions were being confirmed, Coogan-Byrne’s instincts that an industry-wide conversation would be sparked were dead-on to say the least.
Upon its release in August of 2020, the report’s findings were met with support from artists and music professionals from all backgrounds, and generated significant debate about the state of play in Irish music, and the added importance of radio play for artists’ income at a time when live music was all but out of the question.
Coogan-Byrne discusses her experience of some deep-seated emotions in the run-up to its release.
“I remember ringing Áine one night, it would be morning for her in Australia. And I’m not exaggerating - we both cried. You’re talking about a generation of female-identifying artists that are not getting airplay. When you get the data - it’s not your opinion, it can’t be argued with. That’s the wonderful thing about data: it is what it is.
“I looked at it and knew the shit would hit the fan. I went to my family and said I might not be able to come home so often if I got less work, and my mam, who was sent to the Mother and Baby home in Bessborough in Cork, said ‘it’s important you do this, Linda. Your generation is being taken off the airwaves. You have what it takes.’ So it was just that moment of attachment to Irish history, before these facts came out.”
“When I put the report out, I got phone calls to the effect of ‘you’re throwing us under the bus’. I just went, ‘this isn’t about you’. What tunes do Irish women in music have to play in order to get playlisted? It can’t be just pale, male and stale! It can’t continue to be that, there’s so much variety and diversity.”
Last month, a follow-up report went out from the campaign that mapped changes in airplay in the interim six-month period since the initial report’s findings. While some stations have taken the initiative to carefully monitor playlists and reflect ever-increasing diversity in Irish music, there’s still a lot more for Coogan-Byrne and collaborators to accomplish, she says.
“At first we gave allowances to unconscious bias, but it’s not unconscious anymore. SPIN 103.8, SPIN Southwest, Beat 103FM, these are stations that put gender diversity in their conversations, brought it to their teams and made the changes. These are huge commercial stations. DJs at RTÉ 2FM have been great, they’re nearly at gender parity, as well.
“There is still a reluctance, this whole ‘oh, we just play what’s good’. What the hell? Womxn are just as good as men, Black people are just as good as White people who create music, y’know? But, I’m an optimist at heart, and it has to be celebrated that stations have turned it around, especially when there’s no official remit to do so, there’s no quotas. We’re going to keep trying, keep pushing for things to change, because they have to.”
Of course, prevailing wisdom has it that big ships take time to turn around, and the same could easily be said of radio, a staple part of most Irish people’s cultural diet, albeit in a more fragmented way in the age of streaming and podcasts.
There are people in and around the music business that are working to help change the state of affairs, and be more mindful of how they show their ongoing support for a wider range of Irish artists.
The campaign is currently raising further awareness of its goals, and garnering more public support, via social media posts featuring the hashtag #WhyNotHer, as well as video and photo posts featuring a broad swathe of Irish music heads, and it’s this diversity of voices that lends weight to Coogan-Byrne’s work.
“What we’re working on now is a plan to produce a large body of work, and an overview to send out to radio stations, DJs, programming directors, etc. on diversity and how to be aware of what’s going on.
“There is still a lot of unconscious bias, but we’re putting forward advice on how to make that better, because there’s a whole ecosystem here - if you’re on radio, you’re going to be booked at festivals, if you’re not, you’re not, so headlining slots can be kind-of homogenised as well.
“It’s about restructuring how playlisting is approached, and that has to be done at committee level and board level, so we will be furnishing them with that information, servicing it out. There have been amazing changes, and I believe stations want to support Irish music, I genuinely do. It is about everyone coming together, looking at the data and seeing what has to be done to change policies and create a more inclusive landscape.”
For more info on the WhyNotHer? Campaign, and to read its data reports from 2020 and 2021 check out whynother.net. Follow the conversation by searching #WhyNotHer across social media platforms.