The annoying and inspiring voice of women

Abstract: Women – the cause of all the trouble, the solution to a problem…

It was quite a while ago that women were the cause of all trouble, and not so long ago that the very sound of their voices would curl your toes; but now they are deservedly stepping to the fore, and our future is tied very much in their throats.

According to Greek mythology, Zeus was so incensed with man, that he sent something that would be man’s great undoing: woman, and her name was Pandora. It’s easy to chuckle at the far-fetched ramblings of the writers of Greek mythology, but let’s not forget that according to the Bible, woman, represented by Eve, was the one that wreaked things for man in the Garden of Eden. As a result, millennia of Western and Middle-Eastern history have viewed women as second-class citizens, as unfortunate necessities; and it’s only relatively recently that Western civilization gave them the voice through suffrage.

It’s also only relatively recently that women were allowed the opportunity to hear their voices on radio. When I started broadcasting in the mid-80s, there were few women behind the microphone, especially as hosts; and there was an outdated, and somewhat flaky, justification for that. But also, rather bizarrely, there was a broadcast policy that forbade scheduling back-to-back songs with female vocals. If that were true today, it would mean you wouldn’t hear, say, a song by Celine Dion followed by a song by Justin Bieber.

You’re right, that was nasty of me. But you get the idea. It has to do with the fact – as presented at the time – that the female voice has a tendency to be shrill and annoying. There was also an issue around their lack of leadership. This no doubt comes as a surprise to any man who regularly sees the necessity to diplomatically throw in the towel, bow to common sense, smile and say, “yes, darling”.

The theory went a little like this: a radio presenter was the voice of authority, and the deeper-sounding the voice, the greater the authority. There’s a sliver of scientific support for that: numerous studies have shown that women find deeper-sounding voices in men more attractive than higher pitched voices.

Hence, the realm of radio presenters were heavily populated by men, specifically men with deep-sounding voices. In such an environment, there was little demand, apparently, for the lighter-pitched voice of women.

As for the programming policy that no two female vocal songs should be played back-to-back on the radio, this was supported by my Programme Manager at the time – a woman – with the decree: “women’s voices are ‘too screechy and toe-curling'”. Hard to comprehend if you’ve ever heard Nina Simone singing “My baby just cares for me” or Marilyn Monroe purring “Happy birthday, Mr President”.

Thank heavens, this mindset has evolved; which is why when you listen to the radio now you can hear Celine Dion back-to-back with Shakira. Aren’t you lucky?

But it’s the still present lack of female voices as radio hosts that concerns me; and especially now, because now is when we really need them.

This realisation came to me one evening when I was at the airport, waiting for my wife to arrive from one of her numerous business trips to Johannesburg. Looking for my wife carrying her computer bag and briefcase, I noticed a number of women carrying computer bags and briefcases, and, coincidentally, a number of husbands waiting to meet them. I remember nodding, smiling and thinking, ‘my, times have changed’.

I also saw a Muslim man, dressed in a traditional long kurta shirt, and wearing a cotton kufi. He seemed somewhat reserved, but kept glancing at the doors to the baggage collection area with a clear degree of expectation. Suddenly the doors opened, and a young boy aged four or five ran out. The man exclaimed with unbridled joy, scooped the boy up in his arms and swung him around.

I was immediately surprised at the intensity of his reaction, and then shocked and angry at my surprise, a surprise that was obviously rooted in some arcane, groundless assumption that Muslim men were incapable of expressing joyous emotion towards their family. He was obviously the boy’s father and was excited to see him, and why not?

It made me realise that even though we’re almost 20 years into democracy, we still have a lot to learn about other cultures. This is especially the case in Durban, which enjoys a greater degree of cultural richness than most other cities in the country.

Which is why Durban needs a dedicated talk radio station – a platform for people to talk and to learn about each other, their cultural diversities, and, importantly their shared commonalities. And here’s the important part: the station should employ more women to host the shows.

Why women? Because radio has changed. It’s no longer the playground of big booming voices stamping their authority on those who simply listen. It’s a place where people come together to share opinions, and such discussion requires sensitive facilitators not authoritative presenters; and if there’s something women do well, it’s listen with compassion, and encourage others to talk.

And during those moments when a little dash of music is needed, they can simply play a little Nina Simone.

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 17 June 2012