Tracey Spicer’s unlikely mentor: Talkback kingmaker John Brennan
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He helped craft the careers of Alan Jones, John Laws, Mike Walsh, Ray Hadley and Andrew Moore during his 62 years as a program director. But some may be surprised to hear that John Brennan – the kingmaker of talkback radio – is also a champion for gender diversity.
Brennan, who retired in February this year, has long rallied for female personalities, including Tracey Spicer, Prue McSween, Shirley Stackhouse, Kathryn Griener, Fiona Macallum and Suzy Yates.
Following our recent piece on the lack of female talkback radio hosts, Women's Agenda caught up with Spicer for her perspective on the issue. As a regular host on radio station 2UE, she revealed that Brennan's been trying to correct the gender imbalance on the airwaves for decades.
"John has genuinely worked his butt off to get more women on radio. He's been wanting and trying to get us on air for more than twenty years. So here's this guy, he's in his eighties, he's from a conservative era, and he's the one who wants diversity," says Spicer. "He's the most beautiful, wonderful man and he supports strong women. He's a smart guy and he knows the time is right for women to be on air,"
But even Brennan met resistance upon trying to put more women in the line-up at 2UE. When Spicer started filling in as host at 2UE three years ago, it was up to her to pacify hostile talkback callers. To her credit, she's always done so with humour and patience. Interestingly, it was her age as much as her gender that caught listeners off-guard.
"Mainly the backlash I got was from older women, who were not accustomed to being told what to do by a younger woman. They're used to hearing the blokes say 'you should believe this' and being lead to their opinions to a degree by dominant males. But after six months, they got used to me and they accepted that I'm allowed to have an opinion. And I love talkback because I get to have a genuine conversation with those listeners."
Twenty years ago, the talkback industry was much harsher in its disdain for female voices. Spicer says she was told that "no one wants to hear the screechy sound of a woman's voice, because men are nagged enough at home". She was told to lower her voice a few octaves, to sound more like a man.
Radio stations operate as a business venture, and putting a woman in the hot seat is commonly dismissed as a commercially risky gamble. That line of "fear argument" doesn't sit well with Spicer, who actually believes hiring women makes perfect commercial sense.
"Advertisers want to reach a mass female audience, we know this," she says. "Yet here they are on talkback radio, getting men to read ads about women's products. It's jarring and it doesn't sound right. Every time I'm on 2UE, sales people rush up and say 'thank god, we've got a woman's voice to put on these products!'. I don't think it's risky at all, I think it's a surefire winner."
If Brennan has been championing gender diversity for decades, Spicer has proven that talkback callers come to trust a woman's voice, and advertisers see the sense in getting a woman to reach their female audience, is change imminent? Spicer is hopeful.
"I don't care which women they get on radio, but it's time to get some. We need role models in any arena, and it's time young women were able to look up and say 'gee, that's a potential job for me, I could do that'. That's why I sat on the couch with my daughter and cried when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister -- purely because I could say 'look, honey, that's something you can do now'."