Monday, May 25, 2009

Where's the Market for Feminism?

Now that the death sentence of our women’s radio show has been temporarily reprieved, we have been thinking and talking a lot about what we want to do with it. Especially, we’re talking about what we can do and want to do to boost our listenership, since management’s main objection to the show is that, as they put it, “no one listens to it.”

Of course, one question that springs to mind is how do they know who is listening and who isn’t? The answer seems to be primarily from hits on the website, and that in itself might skew the results. According to a 2005 study by the Pew Research Center, men are faster to adopt new internet technologies, though women in most age groups spend more time online. In the 2005 study, women made up only 22% of those who downloaded podcasts, which was a very new technology at that time. Women seem to have made up a lot of ground over the last few years, and at least one study has women making up a majority of online listeners to public radio, but if the people I know are any indication – and they are at least a reasonable indicator of who might be interested in the issues that I cover – women are less likely to be in jobs that enable them to listen to the radio all day online. Geeks (otherwise known as IT professionals), for instance, are certainly listening to more internet radio during the day than schoolteachers or social workers. At my job eight of nine staff in IT are men, and the woman is the trainer. I decided that making a generalization based on nine people in one office might be considered a little unscientific, even for me, so I went online to see if my impressions were accurate. The National Center for Women in Information Technology reported that as of March 2008, women accounted for only 27 percent of the U.S. IT workforce, while making up over half of all professionals. In fact, according to the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) Taskforce on Workforce and Education's 2003 study, the gender gap in computer professions is widening, while other gaps are shrinking. “In 1984, 35.8% of all computer science degrees were awarded to women, but only 28.4% in 1996. Looking earlier in the pipeline, the College Board reports that only 17% of those taking the Advanced Placement test for Computer Science were female.” (

By contrast, 98% of kindergarden and preschool teachers, 79% of elementary and middle school teachers, and 83% of social workers are women.

Okay, so those are some interesting facts to mull over, and in fact maybe do some programming about, assuming we have a program. But in the long run, they are neither here nor there, because if people aren’t going to listen to us, even I have to admit that maybe we shouldn’t be on the air. After all, we’re not doing all this work just to amuse ourselves. If no one wants to hear what we have to say, no matter how brilliant it is, we might as well save ourselves the trouble and do something else.

So I go back to the question, why aren’t people listening to us? And more importantly, what are they listening to? I decided that maybe I should listen to some popular shows to get ideas. So I thought, okay, what are feminist radio or television shows that are popular? And that was when I had the epiphany – there are none! And moreover, there have NEVER been any! Is that possible?

I mean, there are shows that have feminist hosts, including Oprah, Rosie O’Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres. I would guess that even Amy Goodman and Terry Gross consider themselves feminists, though they sure don’t show it in their interviews, more than 70% of which are with men (more on that another time – the Democracy Now! survey 2008 is on the way, along with my survey of the last year and a quarter of The Nation). There are shows like “The View,” that pit conservative women against liberal ones. But there are no shows that focus on women’s issues, even loosely defined, unless you include the cat-fight, nails and hairstyles shows or the pop culture, gossipy ones. Oprah probably does more segments on serious issues of concern to women than anyone, but she also takes care to keep it non-threatening to the guys, and don’t get me started on her obsession with dieting.

The book Women and Journalism, by Deborah Chambers, Linda Steiner and Carole Fleming (2 Brits and a Yank, accounting for the strange spellings), contains only this short statement on the subject, “US experiments in feminist radio have been relatively sparse, although the left-wing ‘progressive’ network WBAI [she means Pacifica] has aired feminist programmes, as have assorted college and university radio stations. Many of these have emphasized music and poetry rather than news, and so, strictly speaking, they are not key to the history of journalism….”

So my first reaction is just sheer shock, that in all this time, over 40 years, since the second wave of feminism began, with the explosion of women into nearly every field, that there has not even been one attempt to capitalize on that energy with a regular national broadcast.

My next reaction is to get pissed off at women, who fail each other on so many occasions. I think about all the women’s businesses we used to have here in the Bay, which went under largely because of our fickleness and lack of support. Bookstores Old Wives Tales, A Woman’s Place, Mama Bears; Woman Crafts West, which sold lovely local jewelry, pottery and cards; bars Ollie’s, Amelia’s, Maud’s, Peg’s Place, A Little More; cafes Artemis and the Brick Hut; newspapers Feminist News, Lesbian/Contradiction and Sojourner (which was from the East Coast); I could really go on and on. And I think, well our little radio show won’t be the first or the last casualty of this curious inability to maintain a feminist version of brand loyalty.

Finally I get around to thinking, well what about looking beyond those who identify as feminists, and thinking about women. What would draw women to listen to a show that is not going to do segments on hair and diet, that is not going to be the public radio version of The View? What about this casually mentioned fact, that “many of these” feminist shows have emphasized music and poetry? We have done some shows that had a lot of poetry and they were never my favorites, because I don’t love poetry, but I think they were pretty well received.

The best solutions I can come up with are:

1) that we try to develop ourselves as a kind of Democracy Now for women. That is, we listen to what DN! does and try to do it too, but always looking for women with interesting things to say and a women’s/gendered perspective on the issues of the day. This is what my coproducer Rivian has been saying for a while. We obviously couldn’t do it by ourselves, because we’re a tiny little volunteer women’s collective, while DN has eight or nine full-time producers, plus interns, so we would need to join forces with all the other embattled women’s media projects out there, which I am pleased to say we have already started exploring.

2) that we do more pieces on relationships – not stupid self-help ones, but serious pieces that look at the dynamics of women’s relationships with each other, with men, in lesbian couples, with parents, in the workplace … Just in my casual research for this blog, I discovered a couple things that seem interesting to do interviews about, including a survey about bullying in the workplace which reports, among other things, that 37% of workers have been bullied, 57% of targets are women, 60% of bullies are men but women who bully choose other women as targets 70% of the time. I know that months ago, I mentioned wanting to do a piece about how women who are long-term single (like me) have to make new friends every few years, as our friends disappear into couples. And the women I mentioned it to immediately said, “Oh, yes, I’m really interested in that,” and volunteered their own stories on the topic. More recently, I’ve been thinking about my mom, who was only 54 when my dad died, which is 4 years older than I am now. She has now been single exactly as long as she was married and she’s had to create new circles of friends several times because so many of her friends have died out.

3) that we try to find a way to look at celebrity culture in a way that is not mainstream or mean-spirited. Katha Pollitt, the wonderful feminist columnist for The Nation, mentioned that when I interviewed her as something that women are very interested in, that left media typically won’t devote time or space to. When Eryn (a young African American woman who works with Women’s Mag) interviewed a couple of her friends just before the inauguration, one of the things they talked about was the Obamas’ relationship and contrasted it to Coretta King and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s relationship. Something I would never have thought of, but it was quite interesting and not dippy. I know a lot of really smart, critical, progressive women who are really drawn to celebrity gossip, and I think it’s something we should try to harness.

Okay, enough for now, if you have any feedback on any of this, please let me hear from you.

BTW, the agent I’ve been working with on my novel for the last two years just told me that she can’t do anything with it for the foreseeable future because one of her junior agents is ill and she had to take over all her clients. I’m getting ready to start combing The Writer’s Market again, and sending out queries, but if anyone has any suggestions, they’ll be most welcome.