70 years on air: Stylist goes behind the scenes at BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour

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Harriet Hall
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What started as a time-filler for housewives is now a ground-breaking feminist institution. On its 70th anniversary, Harriet Hall goes behind the scenes of the iconic radio programme...

At 2pm on Monday 7th October 1946, women all over Britain settled down and eagerly tuned their radios to Radio 4. “Good afternoon and welcome to our first Woman’s Hour...  it’s your programme – designed for you,” said the voice in clipped tones crackling through the wireless. A reassuring and engaging voice, yes. But female? No, the first programme dedicated to their interests was presented by a man.  

In a paternalistic age when it was assumed that women would happily ditch the dungarees they’d worn while working to support the war effort for the aprons of housewives, it was perhaps no surprise that the BBC decided that women would most like to hear about their concerns from presenter Alan Ivimey. A woman’s voice, it was thought, might feel patronising.  

Seventy years on and Woman’s Hour is the longest-running radio magazine programme in British broadcasting: a feminist beacon and 
a respected radio staple that is synonymous with its presenters Dame Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey, not to mention its enviable range of high profile contributors, from Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton to Angelina Jolie.  

But its origins came from humbler stock. Intended to entertain and inform housewives, Woman’s Hour was initially aired at 2pm to deliberately catch women settling down to nurse newborns or washing-up after lunch. Early topics on the show included ‘How to hang your husband’s suit’ and ‘I’m grateful to be a housewife’, while former presenter Sue MacGregor (1972-1987) recalls an internal note from the early years that read: “Producers are asked to bear in mind the very simple nature of the Woman’s Hour audience.” And it wasn’t until three months after it launched that Joan Griffiths joined the show as its first female presenter.  

Yet despite the initial prejudices
 about women’s ‘simple’ natures, the 
programme has always pushed
 boundaries while also covering
 domestic trivia. In 1946, the use of
 the word ‘vagina’ on air caused such 
uproar that the more restrained 
‘birth canal’ was used thereafter. And when homosexuality was discussed for the first time in 1955, listeners were given advance warning to turn the volume down if they wished.  

The hour-long show (45 minutes of discussion, 15 minutes of serial drama) remains true to its original formula – an eclectic but compelling combination of the timely (political discussion, health reports, celebrity interviews) and the traditional (plays and recipe tips) that has proved irresistible to its 3.7 million listeners. And it’s still striving to set the agenda. 

In 2013, the Woman’s Hour Power List, naming the 100 most powerful women, was launched and by 2015 it included transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner, demonstrating Woman’s Hour’s power to challenge taboos and honour true trailblazers.  

In 2016, a discussion surrounding the unsolicited receipt of ‘dick pics’, (which sparked a frenzied Twitter debate and national headlines) is just as likely to air as items on ‘Should you go out without a bra?’ and the menopause. So
 how has Woman’s Hour become such 
a long-standing phenomenon in an otherwise fast-changing world? I visited the Woman’s 
Hour studios to find out. 

Behind the scenes

It’s 9.30am on a Tuesday inside the Woman’s Hour office in Old Broadcasting House in London. There are only 30 minutes to go before the programme airs yet the atmosphere is as homely as the decor. Producers (mainly women) sit in front of a ramshackle bookshelf containing everything from the works of
 Malala Yousafzai to Mary Berry, while cups of tea scatter desks and a wall of blown-up tweets and newspaper clippings celebrate the good and acknowledge the bad (“Bravo, Beeb” reads one; “Radio knobs,” reads another).  

At two minutes past 10, I creep in to the studio to watch the programme go out live on air. “Why aren’t young people having sex any more? And we ask: what was suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst up to in Petrograd in 1917?” Snickering erupts in the control room at the strange segue. Presenter Jane Garvey glances up through the studio glass, a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth before moving swiftly into her introduction of the outgoing Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett. The control room is packed with producers; Alice Feinstein, the editor, is standing in the corner, barefoot, and listening intently.

It’s a world away from the frenetic environment I was expecting. Garvey, 52, is well-experienced having joined Woman’s Hour
in 2007 from 5Live. She’s jovial and forthcoming, with a dry self-deprecation. She ad libs easily as she interacts with guests between pre-produced pieces – the whole process seems remarkably relaxed. Garvey moves smoothly from sex habits to a daily serial about life on a dairy farm. “That’s Woman’s Hour for you,” says the studio producer. “From the sublime to the ridiculous.”  

After the programme, the producers congregate in the meeting room for a debrief. It’s serious and efficient but there’s room for humour. “That was a fairly robust interview,” says Laura,  the producer of the Natalie Bennett interview to Garvey. “I thought you were going to be nice!”

The conversation turns to the tweets and emails the show receives while on air, all of which the presenters can see. “I just sit at 
a computer screen looking at insults rolling on Twitter,” jokes Garvey. She admits, “Sometimes I’ll be in the middle of presenting and I’ll see 
a tweet saying ‘Jane Garvey is sh*t’ and it’s 
a bit of a downer”, but it’s clear nothing deters her passion for the show. “The most we can
 do is be a companionable and reliable presence in the lives of our listeners.”  

A discussion of tomorrow’s agenda follows. More producers file in and the room becomes crowded, the table littered with
 sandwiches (it’s now pushing 1pm).  Trainee assistant producer Tom Sabbadini is working to secure a live interview with gold medal-winning Team GB hockey players Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh for tomorrow but the couple have already been approached by TV’s Saturday Kitchen. “Two gay sportswomen prioritising Saturday Kitchen over Woman’s Hour? Get your priorities right,” jokes Garvey. “Offer them any time from 5am for a pre-record. We’ve got to do them.”  

Stories and potential future guests are suggested, discussed and approved as the team knock the next edition into shape. It’s Feinstein who decides which ideas will fly. She’s been editing the show since 2011 and knows intuitively if a story will work. Women in grime music and Syrian refugees both make the cut.   

Team effort

In the afternoon, it’s heads down until they leave. Everyone knows their role in the well-oiled machine: producers source contributors, interview them, write briefs and hand their  work to presenters who play it out on air. It’s collaborative, friendly and calm. Although, Feinstein admits to a few high-stress moments, including when a very nervous A-list novelist had to be coaxed out of the loos moments before the show was due to air.  

The next day, I arrive just before the show starts. Garvey is discussing her script with 
a producer while munching on a bagel. The rest of the team have been there since 7am and the programme has been reordered following breaking news on maternity discrimination.  

“Are we ready? Wait, what happened to those hockey players? If they’ve gone to bloody Saturday Kitchen...” Garvey saunters off to the green room where she greets today’s contributors, including novelist Carol Birch and Maria Miller MP, chair of the Women & Equalities Commission and leads them into the studio. The show goes smoothly and, to the relief of all, the Richardson-Walsh interview finally airs live on Friday.  

Later, I meet Murray in her office – she presents the show three days a week. Murray, 66, has been a presenter of Woman’s Hour for 29 years. In her husky Yorkshire timbre (“I was blessed with a voice,” she says), Murray discusses the responsibilities inherent with presenting such an iconic programme. “To present Woman’s Hour you’ve got to be completely au fait with current affairs but you also have to know about music, literature, culture. It’s a huge range.” But even the most experienced presenter can get it wrong. 
“I was interviewing Margaret Thatcher, who terrified me. I asked her how she handled the constant references to her gender. She just looked straight at me and said nothing. That is an interviewer’s terror. A reviewer said it was the only time his radio had frozen over.”  

But the show is more than a job to Murray.
 In 2006, she announced her breast cancer diagnosis live on air, saying, “I’ll be away for
 a little while”. She says it seemed natural to share her personal experience with listeners who had shared theirs with her. “It was my duty to share that I had it, too.” The response was immediate. “I got so many emails, letters, cards – people saying thank you for saying that it can happen to somebody like me, as if I wasn’t just another perfectly ordinary woman.” And perhaps that’s the key to the show’s success. Woman’s Hour provides a place of trust and respect for women across the ages.  

“The reason Woman’s Hour can be so brilliantly radical is that it speaks very intimately to people,” says official historian of the BBC, Jane Seaton. “It’s always had a trusted voice. Even when it’s been very advanced about discussing things like the pill, they did it very carefully because they knew their audience.”  

Today, despite the digital revolution and proliferation of media, listening figures have gone up, not down. With the resurgence of feminism, the programme is gaining traction with younger listeners and a quarter of today’s audience is under 35 – partly thanks to the popularity of the free podcast, which boasts one million monthly downloads. In 2015, a monthly spin-off, Late Night Woman’s Hour, was launched with Lauren Laverne at the helm, to sate the appetites of the growing younger audience. “The Woman’s Hour office is livelier now than it’s ever been – partly because feminism is more out there, the lives of women are being discussed,” says Garvey.  

While the programme remains an important and firm fixture on our radios, Garvey believes the show still isn’t representing a diverse enough range of voices. Despite this, the programme continues to set the agenda. “On most broadcast news, the ratio is four men to one woman,“ says director of broadcasting at London City University, Professor Liz Howell. “But on Woman’s Hour, of course, it’s all women.” And 
as Garvey says, “How could anyone criticise Woman’s Hour for devoting 45 minutes
 to some of the most fundamental issues in human existence?”

Historical highlights of Woman’s Hour

14 April 1948 : Eleanor Roosevelt talks women’s rights 

The First Lady talked about her role in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Women, she said, should make their voices heard

7 Oct 1956 : Nancy Astor’s killer quote (listen here)

Britain’s first female MP Nancy Astor said: “I wanted the world to get better and I knew it couldn’t get better if it was going to be ruled by men.”

19 Sept 1960: Contraception controversy

A year before the pill was introduced, Woman’s Hour ran a ground-breaking segment looking at its potential impact on women’s lives.

16 Oct 1989: Oprah opens up (listen here)

Oprah Winfrey spoke openly to Jenni Murray about her harrowing sexual assault aged nine and how she gradually overcame self-image issues.

1 March 1999: Germaine Greer vs Julie Burchill (listen here)

The two women argued about the female body. Burchill was incensed by Greer’s suggestion that FGM could be likened to Western bodily alterations


27 Dec 1999: Woman’s Hour meets ‘that woman’ (listen here)

In a rare example of the whole show giving way to a single interview, Jenni Murray grilled Monica Lewinsky on her affair with President Clinton.


20 Dec 2005: Here come the brides

Rev Debbie Gaston and Elaine Cook became England’s first lesbian couple to enter into a civil sponsored_longform and appeared on Woman’s Hour to discuss the landmark.

19 May 2011: The masturbation question (listen here)

Artist Tracey Emin asked Murray live on air if she masturbates. Murray replied, “How dare you!”, and it led to a later item about the taboo of female masturbation.

3 July 2014: Hillary Clinton drops a big hint (listen here)

Hillary Clinton still hadn’t declared her interest in running for the US Presidency but admitted to Murray, “I want to see a woman in the White House.”

A special 70th anniversary edition of Woman’s Hour presented by Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey will broadcast at 10am on Monday 10th October

Dame Jenni Murray will be at Stylist Live on Sunday 16 October. Book tickets here.