The news that Zoe Ball’s BBC Radio 2 breakfast show has experienced a drop in ratings has been spun as a narrative of failure and defeat. But what it really reveals is a gross and pervasive level of sexism against female radio DJs.
When the news was announced that Zoe Ball would be taking the reins of the primetime breakfast show on BBC Radio 2 at the beginning of this year, critics were sceptical that the next in the line of succession to Terry Wogan and Chris Evans could do the show justice. The first front-woman of the network’s school-run slot, was, after all, a woman.
Much was made of Ball’s decision to play Aretha Franklin’s Respect as the first record of her debut show. A clear statement emphasising her gender, according to some. Then came a track by Rita Ora. The audacity! The Guardian noted that the next two voices heard - of newsreader Tina Daheley and a phone-in participant - were also female. Things were looking bad.
Over on Twitter, a gendered commentary began to unravel in real-time. Ball’s voice was ‘shouty’ and ‘irritating’. Her style ‘forced and ‘giddy’. She was accused of talking too quickly and being too ‘over the top’ for the mornings. Her ‘fake optimism and broadcasting style’ were ‘embarrassing’, one user bitterly complained.
If you read those tweets with dismay, you might remember thinking that a day would come when the naysayers of Ball’s tenancy would have a bona fide reason to properly attack her school-run slot. And today, that golden opportunity presented itself in the form of the news that her breakfast show has “lost” 780,000 listeners.
Truly, the newspaper headlines could not have been more celebratory. “The biggest breakfast-time loser is Zoe Ball” cawed one prominent right-wing newspaper, while another headline gleefully asserted that listeners had “deserted” the flagship breakfast show. Meanwhile, another publication fatalistically intoned: “Zoe Ball’s Radio 2 breakfast show suffers a huge drop to lowest ratings since 2010”.
While we’re speaking of loss, failure and falling ratings, it’s important to note that while Ball’s figures decreased from 9.05m to 8.27m in the second quarter of 2019, according to industry body Rajar, her breakfast show is still the most popular. So why the backlash?
It’s no secret that female DJs have historically suffered in the notoriously male-dominated world of radio. And despite the prominence of veterans like Annie Mac, Sara Cox and Annie Nightingale, it’s hard not to notice how few female role models there are helming the decks of both commercial and specialist radio stations. Little wonder that in 2013, a study from Sound Women revealed a major gender imbalance in UK radio, with only 20% of shows hosted by a solo presenter involve female broadcasters.
With female DJs so vastly underrepresented, it’s not surprising that listeners are 10 times more likely to hear male voices than female ones on the airwaves. And while the BBC has pledged that gender parity on-air will reach 50/50 across its radio stations by 2020, progress remains painstakingly slow.
What the lack of representation doesn’t excuse, however, is the unwarranted tide of sexism that accompanied the latest industry figures. On Twitter, one user denounced her “off-putting combination of nervous excitement and verbal diarrhoea.” Another condemned the BBC’s “SJW agenda” and claimed people were “fed up with the campaign to replace Evans with a woman (any woman), instead of the best person for the job,” while a third chimed in: “I had enough of that breathless, whispering style. Also everyone is fabulous, brilliant and fantastic.”
Then the tweets turned overwhelmingly gendered. “Seriously - does Zoe Ball ever shut up. She gets on my tits. Where’s the off button!” wrote one user. Another commented, “Zoe Ball just isn’t likeable enough and show is a mess.” One irate user could barely conceal their loathing: “I am fed up with female presenters being foisted on me. I call Zoe Ball a screaming harpy!!!”
In the midst of the outpouring of sexist commentary, one user sagely noted that in 2010, Chris Evans’ BBC Radio 2 breakfast show lost just over one million listeners in three months. But Ball’s critics have conveniently forgotten those statistics.
It hasn’t escaped some people’s notice, though, that a radio show’s listenership naturally changes when a shakeup in scheduling occurs. So Ball’s sudden “loss” of 780,000 listeners is actually more likely to be Evans’ loyal followers pursuing his new show, instead of an exodus based on her perceived incompetency. Let’s amplify that narrative instead.