Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

Comment from Peter Saxon

When I first joined 2WS1224 (AM) in 1978  it was the first new commercial licence awarded in 35 years in the Sydney market.

In another first, WS added two females to its on-air staff, Sandy Kaye and Debbie Lew. They were traffic reporters or ‘traffic chicks’ as they were more often referred to. 

Women on music radio, in any on air role, was a big deal in those days where they’d rarely let a woman near a mic in the news booth, let alone pull a whole on-air shift. Conventional wisdom of the day was that women just didn’t possess the gravitas it took to present news or music. Sandy did, however, later become Sydney’s first female newsreader.

Apart from a few major exceptions at the ABC – notably Caroline Jones and Margaret Throsby and the odd agony aunt such as Gwen Plumb on 2GB, in the 70’s, women in radio were deemed better suited to clerical duties than on air. 

It was a vicious circle for women who, even if given a whiff of being on air were not given much opportunity to make a few mistakes and acclimatise to the job. Young jocks like me (male) were nurtured and mentored by local program managers – all of them male. If one of them had the courage to try a woman on air, she needed to be an instant success or the higher ups would ask what in the hell possessed him? Thus a woman wouldn’t get another chance at that station anytime soon. Today we call it Confirmation Bias.

What made things worse, as Amanda Keller herself confirmed, many women lacked self-confidence, leading them to miss opportunities that came their way. The Radio Hall of Fame inductee, on a panel of Powerhouse Women, told the packed room at last Friday’s CRA’s Radio Alive Conference, that earlier in her career she would give her best material to some deep voiced man rather than deliver the line herself.

“The male female thing was in my own head really. When I started working in the comedy field I had imposter syndrome and would defer always to the male ego. I am only now getting better at that,” said Amanda.

It’s taken nearly 40 years but thankfully, happily, things have changed a lot since 2WS launched with just two traffic chicks in 1978.

Most people agreed that The Powerhouse Women in Media panel discussion was the best session among many excellent presentations at the conference. Apart from WSFM’s Amanda Keller the panel featured the Hit Network’s Carrie Bickmore, Nova Brisbane’s Susie O’Neil, 2GB’s Erin Molan. The session was moderated by TEN Network Entertainment Editor, the incomparable Angela Bishop

Here were five confident forthright women who could each captivate an audience in their own right. And they were funny! I mean that in the most profound meaning of the word.

Here’s what I mean. I bumped into Ryan Fitzgerald of Fitzy & Wippa fame on the escalator and told him I thought he was really funny. “Ohh, thanks mate,” he enthused. Unlike Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, Fitzy thought it was the greatest compliment anyone could pay him.

It takes brains, wit and guts to be funny. More than that, if you present a live radio show, you have to be spontaneous too – as well as authentic. That takes  real talent.

So, here were five women who are all those things. Gender no longer came into it. I wanted to listen to these people talk because they had something to say without taking themselves too seriously. And while saying it they made me and everyone else in the room laugh. They were genuinely funny.

Each of them are different. Amanda who was the grande dame of the group would the following night at the ACRA’s become the first woman ever inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame as an on air personality. Other female inductees such as Janet Cameron and Cathy O’Connor came from management ranks.

Carrie Bickmore is the consummate professional with radio in her blood handed down from her father, Brian Bickmore, an early board member of Austereo in Adelaide. Her first job was at Nova because she wanted to make her own way in the industry. She is equally at home on television (as all five panelists are) and has made a name for herself on Ten’s The Project.

Even today, if ever there was a tough role for a woman in a male dominated show it would be alongside Ray Hadley and The Continuous Call Team. But Erin Molan has not only fitted in but become a star. Her confidence, her strength of character and the fact that she’s side splitting funny means she needs no concessions from her counterparts. With the positive audience feedback she enjoys, she has earned the respect of the blokes on the team.

Finally Susie O’Neil, already a household name as a swimmer, of those on the panel, she is the latest addition to the airwaves. What a revelation! Compared to, say, cricketers who travel the globe and interact with a variety of people, swimmers who spent most of their time in silence contemplating a black line at the bottom of a pool rarely make good radio presenters. And are even less likely to be funny. But O’Neil is.

For me, the best line from the panel was when Susie spoke of the similarities between breakfast radio and swimming, “It’s live, it’s challenging and there’s competition and prizes with the ratings.” At this point Amanda chimes in, “And the early starts.”

Reading that on a screen is funny enough but it was a scream live at the conference because it included another essential ingredient for those presenter’s who aspire to be funny: timing.

While these five women represent the pointy or deep end of the female talent pool, there are plenty of others who could have been on that panel… Fifi Box, Kate Langbroek, Em Rusciano and Kate Ritchie to name a few.

It seems that finally Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves. Management can no longer claim that women don’t work on air. Women are no longer barrel girls or smiling hostesses on game shows. If they’re on a team, they’re not mere side-kicks but fully fledged members.

There’s still a ways to go before women are equal to their male counterparts in radio.

The current battle ground for gender equality is pay parity. On the heels of Lisa Wilkinson jumping ship from Nine to Ten, reportedly because Nine wouldn’t agree to pay her the same as her Sunrise co-host Karl Stefanovic, Jackie (O) Henderson has revealed that about a year ago she was ready to walk if KIIS wasn’t prepared to pay her as much as Kyle Sandilands

“I’ve had some good negotiations where they’ve been amazing and some not so great ones, but it all depends on who you deal with and I think this company [ARN] has been amazing for that. I do think they really appreciate the women that work on air here,” she told

It is rumoured that having read that, Brendan “Jonesy” Jones is now pressing ARN management for equal pay with Amanda.

“Being yourself on radio is a very hard skill to learn and that’s the bit I love about radio,” says Amanda.

“It’s been a very interesting lesson to be yourself in front of others.

“I can’t think of a more immediate, a more liberating a more open and honest discourse you can have with someone.”

From top to Bottom (above) Amanda Keller, Carrie Bickmore, Angela Bishop, Erin Molan and Susie O’Neil.
Photos: Life Portraits Photography.


Peter Saxon

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