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Talk Radio for Women, by Women: Victory or Cautionary Tale?

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Yesterday evening marked the official launch of GreenStone Media, a new national radio network "for women, by women." With powerhouses Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem serving on GreenStone's board, this looks like a wonderful day for feminists, indeed.

GreenStone promises to be "what is missing in talk today -- radio that is thought-provoking, emotionally involving, believable and trustworthy. Radio that talks with you, not at you." GreenStone took the unique approach of having Gloria Steinem host a conference call with a number of well-known women bloggers to help promote the concept that this radio network will be a two-way conversation. Steinem also gave the keynote address, titled Broadcasting: As If Women Mattered, at this year's The Conclave Learning Conference (a key conference for radio industry insiders). Her address is an interesting one and is well worth the read.

In her address, Steinem makes some surprising (at least to me) statements about women's interests: "Nine out of ten (women) said they want information about current events and issues – no topic ranked higher – and they also want humor; they want to laugh. They want information about health, about fitness, about relationships, about women in the news, and also – this is something they find virtually nowhere -- about how women live in other countries. How do those women handle many of the same things that women experience everywhere? Women wanted stories, stories and more stories. They also wanted to know what books and movies or worth their very scarce time. What do they want the least? Politics – because unfortunately, it has come to symbolize fighting -- and sports, because inaccurately, it has come to seem like “a guy thing.”"

I thought that the group might take this opportunity to reframe the political (and, for that matter, athletic) conversation. To make it so that talking about politics is not associated with Limbaugh-style confrontation. Instead, it seems, it's simply off the agenda. According to an article in Washington Business Journal, GreenStone President and CEO Susan Ness "says the company plans to add programming for every time segment and day of the week. The shows will steer away from politics and instead focus on issues such as faith, business, families and relationships. "The talk that typically appears on the AM radio tends to be harsh and confrontational, and that's not the kind of radio that women want to listen to," Ness says.""

It also struck me as a little strange that Steinem, of all people, seemed concerned in her keynote address that radio insiders not be put off by any feminist label: "I tell you all this about feminist not because good programming is about labels. On the contrary, it’s about information and humor and creating an on-air community, one that treats everybody with respect. I tell you this only as preventive medicine: Don’t let labels be used to keep you away from good programming – the programming most women want." And just in case any radio executives might still be hesitant about joining forces with arguable the country's best known feminist, she reaasures them, "I trust the intelligence of this audience to know that we aren’t going to burn bras."

The thing that struck me as most odd in the address, however, was that after a lengthy discussion of how women are ignored by mainstream radio, in spite of our earning power, education and lead role in major household purchases, one of her conclusions was this: "No wonder 91% of women are annoyed at the low level of ads and pitches directed at us."

Huh? What? I'm annoyed at ads, period. High level. Low level. They are all ads, trying to convince me to buy something I don't really need.

So then I thought I'd check out GreenStone's advertising policies because up to this point, I thought that it would be run along the lines of NPR. Suddenly the reading became even more interesting.

On the page designed for prospective advertisers, the network is described not as a place for women to be their "authentic selves" (as is described on the listener oriented page), but as "The Perfect Vehicle for Female-Oriented Brands". It describes how "GreenStone Media programs offer unparalleled advertising opportunities for people and products who are trying to reach the very desirable 25 to 54 year old women." They describe their approach: "We do it with powerful personalities with a sense of humor, big time guests, real world content, interactive talk about issues that women care about, and an approach that creates community: the best possible environment for female-targeted brands."

On the "Our Reach" page, they offer their advertisers access to their target market: "More than just radio, we’ll build brand awareness and drive sales with in-program product placement, guest experts, branded features, podcasts, and promotional campaigns -– on-air and on the web. These targeted efforts will bring your brand closer to the female audience than ever before."

On their page describing their Charter Sponsor Packages,they refer to an "Audience Database -- We know who our women are, where they live, what they like. . . and what they buy. Get product and logo placement, database research, targeted email, product sampling, and more." They offer these features: "Product Placement and Guest Experts -- Where appropriate, your products and experts will appear on our shows and in our content", "Sponsor Features -- Own a lifestyle feature: Parenting, relationships, beauty, entertainment, health, fashion, shopping, style, leisure, home, and more.", and "Long Form Commercials and Custom Vignettes -- Your brand becomes the star with audio content that entertains and sells your message."

And the final line, in bold, "GreenStone will deliver the women you want in a whole new way."

Yikes. Is it just me or is this a little unsettling?. I know that sometimes the end justifies the means and perhaps this is the game we play in order to get our issues on the agenda (Gail Evans, author of Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman is on the Board of Directors) but, wow, I've got to say this left me feeling a little weird. How can I be expected to have an open and honest conversation and to be my authentic self, knowing that somewhere out there a researcher at a consumer products company is mining my data to try to get me to buy more female-oriented products?

In fact, even in her keynote address, Steinem seems to be referring to how offering women what they wanted to hear can influence their purchases. She describes radio pioneer Mary Margaret McBride: "She ate food on air, could be lyrical about describing it, and became so trusted by listeners that advertisers forgave her for refusing to promote alcohol and cigarettes -- just as they now forgive Oprah for promoting products she actually likes." Cue radio industry audience chuckles.

I'd like to think that women are looking for ways to take an ownership role in the media and I don't kid myself that making a profit will not be high on the list of objectives. As more and more media consolidation is taking place, obtaining and maintaining ownership is critical to keeping the issues concerning women -- family, health, and yes, even politics -- on the agenda. But I just want to believe that the $3.1 million invested by Billie Jean King, Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Rosie O'Donnell, all strong and powerful women, might be used to do something other than "deliver women" to advertisers.

Ladies, I'm concerned. Please prove me wrong.


Jen Lawrence is an MBA and former banker who left the world of finance for the world of sippy cups and goldfish crackers. She writes about her experiences on her blog MUBAR (Mothered Up Beyond All Recognition). She is an Editorial Assistant for Literary Mama’s Reviews section and also contributes to the Literary Mama blog. Her work has appeared in The Philosophical Mother. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two children.


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Yikes, indeed. Something about this whole idea has been rubbing me the wrong way--the way Greenstone has been framed, how they've promoted themselves, the spokespeople they've chosen, just left me feeling nauseous. And this does not help. Maybe I'm a little too critical, but wasn't hte feminist movement criticized for decades for having Steinem as a leader? For making a middle-upper-class white single straight able-bodied woman, a person who embodies privilege in every sense except her class, the spokesperson for a movement that claimed to speak for all women? So why are they making her a leader for this, unless the message is "the unthreatening high-consumer feminism that advertisers and corporations like"? Don't get me wrong; she's a talented, outspoken, accomplished person, and I admire her. But she is not the face of feminism to me, and I was not impressed when I found out. It just seems like they plastered her (very attractive) face on this so it could garner exactly the right level of feminist cred--feminist enough to seem revolutionary, not actually feminist enough to challenge anything or promote any change. Exactly the right kind of feminism for households with high incomes. And the rest of their promotions strategy has reinforced that for me. Your post is just the last nail in the coffin. I don't buy what Greenstone is selling, and I won't be listening. (And I'm thinking of posting about this on my own site, if I weren't a wee bit nervous about a flood of hate mail.)
Having been one of those bloggers invited into the conversation, I would like to lend another pov. I have the interesting perspective as being both a rah-rah feminist, as well as a cynical of the media type - probably because I hail from the advertising industry. So let me be candid about that. I've got no beef with a for-profit radio network needing to make itself attractive to advertisers so that it can exist. It's not privately funded, it's not NPR. So they sell the network the way it needs to be sold to marketers ("deliver an audience" is a standard advertising term--so much so that it doesn't rub me the wrong way because it's just one of those overused business expressions like "think out of the box" which bothers me even more!), and they sell it the way it needs to be sold to listeners. In the end, the listeners will decide whether it's relevant and they will tune it or they won't. My guess is that when Susan Ness says it won't be political, that's because with a former FCC commish, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem on the advisory board, it's the first assumption people make. However if you tune in to the shows, politics is most definitely not off limits. Mo Gaffney - not political? Impossible. For what it's worth, if you listen to the conference call, one of the most impressive things I heard was that this is the first thing that Gloria Steinem has ever invested in, that's how much she believes in it. And particularly because she feels it can be a great source of funding and resource for the Women's Media Center. So I'm excited about the possibilities here. They're laying the groundwork for something potentially revolutionary in the radio medium. How it plays out is anyone's guess. But I'm all too happy to give them the benefit of the doubt, cheer the professional opportunities they're giving to women both on the air and behind the scenes, and hope for the best. Thanks for giving me so much to think about with this thoughtful essay.
I think that it's a stretch to claim that the main purpose of Greenstone is to deliver women to advertisers. As you yourself say, advertising is more or less key to ensuring survival in 21st century media. Women simply won't have a place to be heard as women (what Greenstone is trying to offer) if we cling to antiquated Marxist notions of what constitutes a 'pure' revolution. Media is what it is: it's largely driven by economic interest, sustained by advertising and/or sales. We might prefer that cultural discourse weren't so circumscribed by that fact, but that's the way it is. And I, for one, don't see much wrong with it. I live in a capitalist, consumer society, and I accept, even embrace, the terms of that society. If we have a problem with being 'sold' to advertisers and/or used as pawns by the capitalist system, that's another revolution altogether (one that, I should had, has been done, and not altogether successfully.) I don't expect the feminist movement, or any corner of that movement, to take on capitalism as a condition of its feminism (nor, as a liberal capitalist, would I want it to.) I simply don't take it as read that commitment to the feminist movement or efforts toward gender equality require a commitment to anti-capitalist ideals. Capitalism and commerce don't preclude the free exchange of ideas and promotion of change any more than does the established intelligentsia of a socialist movement (quite the contrary, I'd say). How, exactly, does the presence of advertisers or market researchers in the background of cultural or political discourse fatally impair that discourse? That's our world, people - all of the messages we receive are mediated (even in personal conversation; we're products of what social scientists call a knowledge system, and we can never entirely escape that system.) So long as we're aware of that, what's the problem? One of the biggest obstacles to the success of the feminist movement in its many and varied forms is the incidence of in-fighting and unproductive criticism from women. So Gloria Steinem is white and able-bodied and privileged and interested in working with advertisers. So? Does calling her - or her projects - down help the broader cause? To my mind, anything that gets women heard is a good thing. Anything that mainstreams women's voices is a good thing. Anything that makes women's voices a discernible part of the din of our culture is a good thing. If we sit around waiting for the perfect utopian solution or for the perfect spokespeople (disabled lesbian women of colour?) before supporting efforts that promote women, our cause is doomed. I'm not saying that we must refrain from critical analysis of our actions, but to make any suggestion that some projects might not be worthy because they don't fit a perfect vision of a transformative movement is, to this feminist, foolhardy. It's really not all that different from Hirshman saying that only women who remain in the workforce can call themselves feminists, or Flanagan saying that only women who stay at home can call themselves good mothers. Only certain kinds of feminists and feminist projects - those that reject privilege and capitalism and what have you - are good feminists and good feminist projects? Bullshit. This only hurts us, and our cause. And for the sake of full disclosure, I'm one of the those 'privileged' bloggers who has been invited to participate in Greenstone. About which I'll say this: any suggestion (not here; this is emerging elsewhere in the blogosphere) that I've sold out for supporting a project that promotes the voices of women offends me deeply as a feminist, and strikes me as evidence of what I've said above. We're calling down women for supporting Gloria fucking Steinem? We're doomed. (Sorry for the novel. Take it as evidence of your debate-provoking skills!)
I am hoping that 9 out of 10 women DO want more political, current events and issues conversation, or there will be no readers for my blog. :) Seriously, all media are missing an opportunity if they don't tap into the desire qand audience for it. While there's plenty of blogging about motherhood and issues about raising our children, we need more in the blogosphere, radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, and wherever else we can think of, to get more women involved in the issues that men have controlled for so long. Just think -- if we paid as much attention to our political lives as we do to the latest fitness, fashion and make-up trends, our daughters would have a lot less to do when they reach adulthood.
Misinterpretation rules the day, I see. As I said, I admire Gloria Steinem. As I also said, I just don't see her as "feminism personified." She is not above criticism. There is a long history of criticism of her ideas from certain communities--mostly, communities she does not and cannot represent. Here is an article from a woman of colour about Steinem's ideas about feminism from 1994. Her response to Steinem's ideas about how to broaden feminism's appeal was "unmitigated anger." http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/sept94dasgupta.htm The point isn't that Gloria Steinem is a bad person. It's that her ability to represent communities she isn't part of is limited; and that criticisms of her ability to do so have been made consistently over the past thirty years and one would have thought that a "feminist" radio network might be more sensitive to this issue. Frankly I'm surprised that you don't know about this. there are a number of things that second wave feminism did very poorly--one of those things was its exclusive focus on privileged women. This is not a new idea. Here is a link that explores the limitations of second-wave feminism: http://www.jendajournal.com/vol1.1/oyewumi.html That GreenStone selected Steinem tells me that either a) they are unaware of this criticism or b) they don't care about it because they're not trying to appeal to Steinem's feminist critics. One of the primary ways that feminism has changed in the last thirty years is to encompass feminisms--the idea that there is more than one model--and yet they selected as a spokesperson the most well-known representative of the one form of feminism least likely to offend corporate interests, that is, the equality of well-educated middle- and upper-class white women with well-educated middle- and upper-class white men. That is personally not a brand of feminism I feel much allegiance to at this point in my life. I would have been more impressed had they also selected spokespersons representative of other forms of feminism as well--Andi Zeisler, maybe, or bell hooks. Either they didn't, or they asked and were refused. Either situation tells me something significant about the network; namely, that whatever brand of feminism they're promoting isn't one I would want to listen to. (That Andi and bell are not household names tells me something, too, about what form of feminism is considered palatable by the mainstream north american audience.) And I see this reflected in their advertising package. The fact is that they selected feminist spokespersons most likely to appeal to the feminist audience with the most income. This to me is not a truly feminist project, which would have necessitated involving women from a variety of economic and social classes, which would have made it necessarily less attractive to advertisers. That they have sacrificed feminist quality for advertiser preference before even beginning to play is just another reason I won't be tuning in. Frankly, I don't think that anything that gets more women's voices in the mainstream is a good idea. It depends on the voices and it depends on what they're saying. I don't think we need a women's radio network chatting about fashion and housewares and relationships, which will only cement stereotypes about women even further in the public imagination; I certainly don't think we need it packaged as "what women want." It's like the newspaper Life Section but on the freaking radio. What good has the Life Section done for women's issues? All it's done, as far as I can see, is keep important women's issues out of the "real news" section--my all-time favourite example is when I saw an in-depth issue on war-time gang rape in Bosnia covered in the LIFE SECTION. Which is about as close as a newspaper can get to saying, "this is kind of interesting, but not as important as *real* war crimes." Also, I took the time to look up the history of Ms. Magazine. You're right--it included ads, briefly. Then, after concern over the direction the magazine took with advertising content, it was bought back and published ad-free. This would seem to support Jen's point rather than refute it. (Here's the link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ms._magazine & http://www.alternet.org/story/1905) Frankly, the assertion that Gloria Steinem is unassailable and so any project she is involved in is also unassailable is just strange. Steinem is enormously accomplished, but she is not perfect. (Sorry, Jen; if I have more to say, I'll put it on my own blog.)
Andrea - nobody has said that Gloria Steinem is unassailable, or beyond criticism, if you review the comments that you're responding too. What's being said that is that it doesn't help the quote-unquote feminist cause - or women generally - for women to cut each other down because they don't live up to some ideal standard of feminism, womanhood, motherhood, whatever. It must be said, too, that Greenstone isn't claiming to be a feminist project, nor a vehicle for feminist projects. It's for women. And women (and feminists) come in different stripes. You don't think that there should be space on radio for talk by women about fashion and housewares? You think that this is bad, that women who enjoy such things are silly, or enslaved by patriarchal propaganda? THIS is exactly the sort of thing that undermines community among women, and feminism. It's what alienates women from each other, and from feminism. Emma Goldman said she wanted no part of any revolution in which she couldn't dance; I don't want part of any revolution in which I can't talk about purses. Nor do many women. Inclusivity means many things, and cuts many ways. Don't cut out those who disagree with your ideal vision of womanhood and feminism. It only undermines us all.
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