MEDIA ANALYSIS: An hour for more than just women

Woman's Hour is as influential as ever. With its strong desire to inform, it tackles subjects from make-up to the Darfur crisis and remains a key medium among opinion formers and community leaders alike, says Kate Magee.

Woman’s Hour has come a long way since its first broadcasts in 1946 when presenter Alan Ivieson discussed items such as ‘how to hang your man’s suit’ and ‘cooking with whalemeat’. Now the Radio 4 show is more likely to discuss the thong and whether marriage has a place in modern society, while the arrival of new presenter Jane Garvey will see another personal style thrown into the mix.

Garvey joins from Radio Five Live, where she co-hosted the Drivetime programme, and replaces Martha Kearney, who left in April to become the main presenter of World At One. Garvey presents alongside Jenni Murray, whose open attitude to her diagnosis of breast cancer last December prompted a wave of sympathetic headlines for the presenter subbed by one newspaper as the ‘Nation’s Favourite Voice’.

Eclectic audience
What has not changed during its 60-year history is the programme’s reputation as extremely important and influential. PROs are agreed it rea­ches a powerful audience of decision-makers that can be hard to reach through other media, but they agree it is notoriously difficult to influence.

Head of communications at Westminster City Council Alex Aiken says: ‘We target Radio Four – and Woman’s Hour – because we track the media habits of our target audience. The people that make communities work – opinion formers, community leaders and community activists – listen. It is a very important medium for us.’

Although many think the programme’s audience profile is women in their mid-fifties, the programme actually reaches a much wider group of people. Editor Jill Burridge says: ‘Forty-two per cent of our audience is male and we have a significant amount of student listeners – 10am is often a wake-up time for them. There are also a lot of young women on maternity leave who want the company and stimulation of a programme which informs, entertains and challenges them.’

And here, Burridge has identified what sets the programme apart from other female media such as women’s weeklies: its desire to inform. It might cover lighter female subjects such as celebrities or make-up but is equally happy to cover the crisis in Darfur or pension schemes.

It often looks around the themes of an issue – covering Britney Spears losing her children, for example, through a discussion about the shame mothers feel when their children are taken away from them. Burridge says: ‘We do touch on the lighter subjects. When we had mice in the office, we did a piece on why females have a mice phobia. But we brought in a phobia expert and a pest control expert to discuss the issue with us.’

The programme pulls ideas from a very large pool, but the programme makers have a very clear idea of what they are looking for. Burridge warns PROs against submitting ideas that promote products, but says they would cover any subject.

Books, music, arts, celebrities are all on the menu, but each idea needs a female slant: ‘We have stories about fathers and men’s health, for example, because it is often the wife or partner in the relationship who notices the symptoms and nags the husband to get a doctor’s appointment.’

Liz Sich, director of Colman Getty, agrees that it is not always the most obvious subjects that are chosen. ‘You may think that coverage for certain subjects is a given, but you would be surprised. The programme covers things that are not obviously Woman’s Hour subjects because they think very laterally.’ Her advice is to concentrate on themes. ‘They are looking for different angles and hooks and unusual and interesting ways of covering subjects.’

Westminster City Council successfully pitched a story recently about a new programme to encourage parents to get their kids to cycle to school. Schools asked students to design cycling clothes, which were then displayed at a fashion event. ‘The team at Woman’s Hour takes a reflective approach and is very choosy and very rigorous,’ says Aiken.

Kinross & Render consumer director Rose Bentley warns that selling a story in to Woman’s Hour is a long process: ‘We follow a formula. Just like the Today programme, it takes more than just one hit.’

Her formula comprises contacting the forward planning team to initially discuss a story, sending an email, then following up: ‘Don’t be dismayed if you are passed around three or four different people. Selling in to broadcast is a fairly labour intensive process.’ She has also found that an idea may be used but for a piece six months down the line, or in an adapted format. She advises perseverance and managing clients’ expectations accordingly.

But the National Autistic Society’s comms director Benet Middleton thinks this labour is worth the effort. ‘The programme handles complex issues in a clear and sophisticated way. This makes it a very good medium for voluntary sector organisations because they take the time to explain them,’ he says.

Quick turnaround
Every Monday the editorial team has an ideas meeting where it sketches out a rough schedule for the following week’s shows, as well as filling in the gaps for the week coming up. Burridge says that if a story is big enough – such as a new development in HRT treatment, or a revelatory new drug for fertility treatment – then it may do a ‘quick hit’ the following day, but generally the programmes are decided further in advance.

Burridge encourages PROs to email ideas to the programme inbox, which is checked regularly, but notes they cannot personally respond to each email. ‘We will get back to you if we can take an idea further,’ she says.

But both Sich and Bentley agree that personal relationships are paramount. With producers rotating regularly and staff working on different shifts, this may be more difficult than with other media, but as Bentley says: ‘If you get a name and number, treat it like gold dust.’


Editor: Jill Burridge

Presenters: Jane Garvey, Jenni Murray (r)

Contact email:

Programme times/presenters: The programme airs 10-11am on Monday to Friday and 4-5pm on a Saturday. Murray presents Tuesday to Thursday, while Garvey fronts the Monday, Friday and Saturday shows.

Format: Each hour is made up of a varied mix of four to six items.

Deadlines: Get ideas to producers a few days in advance. For celebrity bookings, contact further in advance.

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