My grandmother raised seven children as a housewife. After she died in 2011, my mother inherited a bag full of cassette tapes. That’s when I remembered what I had heard before: my grandmother volunteered as a radio host on a small station in Bourgogne, France, for a few years. It must have been in the 1980s, when she was about 64 years old. Pierrette Sandré — her real name — chose Camille as a radio nickname back then. Thinking about it now, I wonder how she felt about being Camille on the air, what it brought to her daily life.
Today, on the occasion of World Radio Day, I wish I knew more what it was like to be a woman in broadcasting 40 years ago in rural France and how things have changed since then. Celebrated on Feb. 13, World Radio Day was introduced by Unesco and officially adopted in 2013 by the United Nations General Assembly, citing radio’s importance in democracy. The theme of this year is “radio and peace,” reminding us of the essential role independent radio can play in resolving conflict and building peace.
“When I first started doing research, there was a terrible myth that audiences, male and female, didn’t want to hear women’s voices, and that myth was very persistent,” said Caroline Mitchell, a professor of radio who teaches participation in the medium at the University of Sunderland, in England. “It goes back to the Romans and Greeks, when women were not able to speak in public. Their role was seen as being quiet and silent, while the privilege was given to men. So I think there was a deep societal, cultural, totally misogynistic sort of culture around what was seen as normal on air.”
In this male-dominated industry that didn’t want women’s voices to be heard for far too long, women made their own way through community radio. In March 1992, Mitchell co-created Fem FM, Britain’s first women’s community radio station, where everything “from the marketing to the station management” was produced and presented by women. Fem FM was broadcast for eight days from a studio in the center of Bristol. Using the local broadcasting model, they brought a woman’s perspective to not only family life and sexuality but also to subjects like politics and economics. (Generally, community and local radio are noncommercial media sectors meant to be a public service, with the former being informal and the latter following a format.)
“For many years, books have been written about how women have to transform communication, how women have to take the narrative back and formulate the things in their own way, with their own voices, from their own experiences,” said Birgitte Jallov, a Danish media specialist and founder of Empowerhouse, an organization that, among other things, conducts international projects to lift women economically.
From 1998 to 2004, Jallov led a Unesco project in Mozambique, located on the southeast coast of Africa, aiming to strengthen democracy through developing the media. She helped communities create their own radio stations and observed how they affected women’s lives. “They were beaten up a lot less, because when you have a community medium, things are being covered and it breaks the silence around domestic violence,” Jallov said in an interview with PassBlue.
A recent study by Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee professor of government and the press at Harvard University, focusing on the crucial role radio can play in a democracy, found that “local stations are locally owned and operated, positioning themselves to address their communities’ information needs,” Patterson said.
The study underscored the increasing importance of local radio filling the news gap created by the collapse of local newspapers and the value of finding new funding to keep local stations alive.
Nowadays, women are more visible in the radio industry than ever before. A 2018 report by Ofcom, Britain’s media regulator, put the percentage of women in British radio at a healthy 51 percent. The same report, however, found that men hold 68 percent of the positions at board and senior management level. A 2020 McKinsey study suggested that women remain locked out of top jobs in media and entertainment in corporate America.
Radio, like all other media, remains an ever-changing platform, and the rise of podcasting is also disrupting and changing radio. Although women are still far from gender equal in podcast production, the medium gives women an alternative way to amplify their voice. (PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series began with two women producers; it is now gender equal.) “For women to have microphones wherever they are campaigning around issues of relevance to them,” Mitchell said, “and for that message to go around via the various ways we have of broadcasting and podcasting is incredibly important in order to be able to hear those women’s voices in all their diversity.”
In her own way, my grandmother, who raised seven children before taking to the air in her 60s, defied all odds. Sadly, I couldn’t find out much about this part of her life. The bag full of tapes has been thrown away in the rush of a move. Doing research for this article, I learned that my grandpa typed her scripts — which warmed my heart — but that’s about it. I’ll only be able to imagine how she felt in the studio.
In 2020, I joined a growing coterie of women in podcasting by starting my own show, called Synchrone, which analyzes environmental issues through a French-German lens, as if I unconsciously inherited my grandmother’s passion for broadcasting. One thing is certain from now on: I will think of Camille every time I speak in front of the microphone.
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Chloé Cosson has a master’s degree in cultural journalism from Sorbonne University, in Paris, and a B.A. in literature (writing and English studies) from Lumière University, Lyon. She was most recently a digital managing editor of Arte TV, in Strasbourg, France.