…and a big boost for radio. Cole Moreton meets the gamechanging new stars of the airwaves PHOTOGRAPHS: MATTHEW EADES
I feel really sorry for the photographer,’ says Lauren Laverne, laughing. ‘It’s been like herding cats, because we all know each other. I’ve seen all my favourite people in one place on the same day – it’s like a brilliant night out.’
The host of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs and the breakfast show on BBC Radio 6 Music is here today as one of six broadcasters – Zoe Ball, Clara Amfo, Claudia Winkleman, Moira Stuart and Myleene Klass being the others – gathered by YOU to celebrate the rise of women in radio.
Not so long ago the biggest shows across the stations were almost all presented by men, but look across the schedules today and so many of the most popular DJs and presenters are women – and collectively, our hosts reach more than 20 million listeners.
Clara, 37, who presents on Radio 1, welcomes these changes and says they
are long overdue. ‘When I was first on commercial radio in 2012 I told my then boss that I would really love to host a certain show. It just so happened that the show before it was also presented by a woman, and the reason my boss gave for turning me down was that: “Listeners don’t like to hear two women back to back”. It was ridiculous!’
Clara, whose parents emigrated from Ghana, grew up in London and got her first taste of radio on a school trip to the Design Museum where Capital had set up a studio for kids to record a few links. ‘I had a go and thought, “I need to do this.”’
She got her start as an intern on Kiss FM and found an early supporter and mentor in one of the women here today. ‘The first time I met Claudia was at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards,’ says Clara, embracing her friend. ‘I didn’t know anyone but I’ve always been a massive fan so I went up to her quite shyly and introduced myself. She was so nice and lovely that day, and has been my energy queen and life coach ever since.’
Claudia is as gloriously offbeat as ever at 50, making gentle fun not just of this love-in but of the age difference between its participants. ‘I’ve actually just breastfed Clara – I don’t know if that’s too much information for you. I’m just flagging it up.’
Claudia is a Cambridge graduate and daughter of veteran journalist Eve Pollard. As the presenter of the coveted Saturday mid-morning slot on Radio 2, and co-host of Strictly Come Dancing on BBC One, she feels she is part of a female revolution across broadcasting. ‘Strictly is completely run by women. Charlotte Moore runs the BBC, Helen Thomas is head of Radio 2. She said to me: “You know how you are when we chat – can you do that on the radio?” So on Saturday mornings we can now spend 45 minutes talking about whether you can have bacon with marmalade – and get over 7,000 texts on the subject. There’s a weird assumption that women are competitive with each other but that could not be further from the truth. Women look after women – that is the truth.’
Nobody knows this more than Myleene Klass, 43, who suffered a devastating miscarriage while broadcasting at the Smooth Radio studios in Leicester Square a few years ago and says it was her close friend Lauren Laverne who came to the rescue. ‘I went to the loo while the music was playing and there was blood everywhere. I didn’t know what to do. I had one hour left of my show. I rang Lauren and she said: “Do one link, take a breath, come out and call me.”’
It must have been so traumatic. ‘Lauren got me through. I did the next link and called her. We counted the links. I would go out, sob and come back in, take a deep breath and speak. I don’t know what I would have done [without her].’
Looking around at our shoot, Myleene is struck by the diversity in the room – one that is reflected on the airwaves. ‘You’ve got black girls here, white girls, I’m representing Southeast Asian girls. There’s such a mix. We’ve each had to elbow our way through and speak up, use our voices, literally, to get a place at this table. And here we are, representing so many. It’s extremely powerful,’ she says enthusiastically. ‘If I had to go back and explain this to my 15-year-old self, I don’t think she would ever believe it.’
Myleene has shows on both Smooth and Classic FM at the weekends, switching over from pop to classical music, but then that has always been her life. As a teenager in Norfolk she was classically trained before taking part in the reality series Popstars and being chosen for the band Hear’Say. That was when she met a zippy TV host called Zoe Ball.
‘My first lovely radio memories are of my dad,’ says Zoe, 51, whose father is former children’s TV presenter and national treasure Johnny Ball. ‘On a Saturday, he would listen to the football in the garage while doing DIY. Sundays, it would be all the big-band and jazz shows on Radio 2. And then there was Terry Wogan, who was hilarious and warm, like an uncle you’d never met.’
She has grown into one of the BBC’s most trusted and best-paid presenters, benefitting from the drive towards equality with a substantial pay rise when she took over the top-rated Radio 2 breakfast show from Chris Evans in 2019. ‘I think things are getting better for women. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But I look at my daughter [Nelly, who at the age of 12 has been appearing as a DJ at festivals alongside her father Fatboy Slim] and I think: “OK – yeah, things are improving.”’
I ask her why she thinks women are flourishing on radio right now and she says, ‘There’s a softness to women. I think there’s that mothering, nurturing element. We’re good at listening.’
Radio played a big part in Lauren Laverne’s upbringing and career, including the very first time she went to London from her native Sunderland at the age of 16 with her band Kenickie. ‘The first place I ever came to was the BBC studios in Maida Vale when we did a session for John Peel. My dad drove us down in a van. It was so exciting,’ says Lauren, 43.
Success with the band led to being asked to sit in as a guest presenter on Radio 1. ‘It was so exhilarating and so intimate. Radio is for people who love to show off, but in private. Being out in front in a band is quite exposing. Radio had all the excitement of playing live, but it felt like telling a secret to a friend. I just loved it.’
In 2018, after a stint guest editing Woman’s Hour, Lauren was given the presenting role on one of British radio’s institutions, Desert Island Discs, taking over from Kirsty Young who had to step down due to illness. Some devoted fans of the show weren’t keen, seeing her as the wrong fit – something Lauren understands: ‘People care massively and if someone suddenly appears on your favourite radio station, it feels like an intrusion. I get that.’
Yet she has won over listeners with superb interviews on that desert island and continues to host the morning show on 6 Music. It’s an unusual combination, but she is quick to bat away any suggestion that she is doing something extraordinary, instead deflecting the attention on to Moira Stuart, who she says is the real pioneer. ‘I thought we should do a photo where Moira was in the middle and we were all lying at her feet, but she wouldn’t let us,’ says Lauren. ‘She’s too noble and wonderful to allow us to do that.’
Moira, 72, who has her own Saturday show on Classic FM, grew up listening to
the radio in Hackney in the 1950s, and wrote to the BBC as a young woman. ‘I thought maybe I could be useful behind the scenes. It never struck me I could actually pick up
a microphone. Then in 1977 a woman changed my life.’
Moira was spotted by the first female controller of Radio 4, Clare Lawson Dick, herself a groundbreaking figure who was said to have slept in the basement at Broadcasting House during the war when her flat was bombed. ‘She thought I could be an announcer and spoke to the head of presentation about me,’ says Moira. There was an interview process but she wasn’t hopeful. ‘The only people of colour working at Broadcasting House were either cleaners or in catering. I figured it wasn’t going to happen. But they said yes.’
Getting this break meant making a big decision early on. ‘By and large, for women of colour who were in the public eye then – like Cleo Laine and Shirley Bassey – their private lives were seen as fair game. I figured the only way I could be of use to people coming up behind me was to not make that part of the deal. My private life was my private life.’
She kept firmly to that vow as her career blossomed, eventually becoming one of the country’s most famous TV newsreaders. Yet even at such heights, things behind the scenes weren’t easy. ‘You were patronised like there was no tomorrow. [Male colleagues] were not used to seeing someone like me.’ Things got nasty at times, she says. ‘I’ve had hate mail for ever – not only from hatred of race, but also hatred of gender.’
How has she coped? ‘Quietly. I have close friends I talk to. But I do also get the most beautiful, inspiring and moving letters from people who seem to know me better than I know myself.’
That close contact with listeners is something everyone here says they cherish, and which has only intensified lately. Clara believes that Covid changed things dramatically. ‘Before the pandemic, the text messages would be about going off to football practice or on a first date. Then I noticed it shifting to: “I got out of bed today, and that was an achievement.”’ Listeners would also share their most private news. ‘I had people telling me they’d sadly lost their partner.’ That must have been hard to deal with? ‘Yes, but I wanted everyone listening to know they weren’t on their own.’
Possibly the most uplifting story comes from Myleene, who started getting messages from a labour ward while presenting her Saturday afternoon show. ‘A man got in touch requesting songs for his wife. He said, “We’re in the labour ward, we’re listening to you, please can you play something to keep our spirits up?”’
They kept in touch for the next three hours. ‘The whole thing was absolutely magical. I swear [by the end] we were crying in the studio. He sent a video of his wife with the baby, and us playing Toto on the radio. The nurses were all there, swaying away,’ she says with a grin. ‘We’ve been surrounded by so much sadness and fear but stories like those have lifted everybody.’
Zoe agrees. ‘That’s what has come out of this difficult time. We’ve realised why we do this job: so that someone who is on their own has got a friend. You’re never on your own if you’ve got a voice with you there on the radio. It’s a privilege to be that voice.’
As our time with these pioneering women comes to an end and everyone starts to pack up to go home, Lauren surveys the warm goodbyes and perhaps sums it up best: ‘After a long time being in situations where I was the only woman, I really feel like I’ve found my people. All these amazing broadcasters. It’s the best gang. And the best bit is that anybody can join in. All you’ve got to do is switch on your radio. Everyone is welcome.’
More brilliant radio presenters to know…
Amanda Holden, Heart Breakfast on Heart Radio
With 1.8 million followers on Instagram and 4.6 million weekly listeners on Heart Radio, Amanda Holden is one of the most prominent names in the industry. The actress slash presenter got her start in TV – Holden appeared in EastEnders and Cutting It prior to becoming a judge on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent – before landing the gig as co-host of Heart Breakfast, the UK’s biggest commercial radio show, alongside Jamie Theakston in 2019.
Rachel Burden, 5 Live Breakfast on BBC Radio 5 Live
One of the station’s most recognisable voices, Rachel Burden began her career as a reporter for BBC Radio Suffolk before eventually joining Radio 5 Live in 2003. Having presented the weekday breakfast show for over a decade, Burden (and co-host Rick Edwards) are household names and are responsible for bringing their loyal listeners all major UK news and sports stories in the early hours of the day.
Emma Barnett and Anita Rani, Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4
When Emma Barnett first hosted Woman’s Hour at the age of 26, she was the youngest presenter in the show’s long-running history – the programme has been on the air since 1946. After regularly chairing the Woman’s Hour Power List, she was announced as one of two voices to replace long-time hosts Jane Garvey and Dame Jenni Murray.
The other was veteran radio broadcaster and TV presenter Anita Rani who takes over the show’s Friday and Saturday editions.
Jackie Brambles, The Evening Show with Jackie Brambles on Greatest Hits Radio
Jackie Brambles has had a booming radio career. She joined Capital as its youngest ever DJ and became the first female presenter to have her own prime-time show on BBC Radio 1 – before stepping away and relocating to the US. After moving back to the UK in 2005, she is a regular on our TV screens but it wasn’t until the start of 2022 that she returned to national radio to host The Evening Show.
Ruthie Henshall, Magic At The Musicals on Magic Network
After making her stage debut at the age of 19, actress, singer and dancer Ruthie Henshall went on to star in a long list of West End and Broadway productions such as Cats, Les Misérables and She Loves Me – the latter won her an Olivier Award for Best Actress. In April 2020, the theatre legend joined Magic At The Musicals, the sister station of Magic Radio, to highlight some of her favourite musicals and musical stars on Saturdays and Sundays.
PICTURE DIRECTOR: ESTER MALLOY. STYLING: SASHA BARRIE. STYLING ASSISTANT: MEG EDMOND. CLAUDIA’S MAKE-UP: DEBBIE DARNELL, HAIR: SARAH TAYLOR. CLARA’S MAKE-UP: YASMINA BENTAIEB USING LANCOME, HAIR: AFI EMILY ATTIPOE USING CHARLOTTE MENSAH: MANKETTI OIL. MOIR A’S MAKE-UP: DANI GUINSBERG AT CAROL HAYES USING SISLE Y, HAIR: ALEX SZABO AT CAROL HAYES USING REDKEN. ZOE’S MAKE-UP AND HAIR: ALEXIS DAY USING NARS AND T3 HAIRCARE. MYLEENE’S MAKE-UP: VANESA GUALLAR, HAIR: BEN COOKE AT FRANK AGENCY. LAUREN’S MAKE-UP AND HAIR: LIZ BECKETT USING BALANCE ME