Continuing the Conversation: Responses to the NON-COMM #ShePersisted panel - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

On the third day of this year’s NonCOMMvention — the annual gathering of public radio programmers and music industry professionals — attendees gathered for something we don’t see often enough in this industry, or any other. For one hour only, attention was directed to four women representatives for a panel discussion titled #ShePersisted — Women Pursuing and Achieving Success in Radio and the Music Industry.

The panel was moderated by The Current’s Lindsay Kimball and was comprised of Jessi Whitten of Colorado Public Radio, Liz Felix of BirdNote Radio and Shannon Kurlander of Terrorbird Media. Discussing a number of topics related to the lack of equal representation in music, they covered as much ground as they could in the time allotted, focusing dually on workplace gender imbalance in the music industry and the unequal ratio of male/female artists we hear on the air.

Only 10.5% of radio programmers are women. There is only one woman General Manager in all of public music radio. Many programmers don’t realize that women are a significant minority of the artists they play on their stations, but when they look at the numbers, they realize how skewed their ratio actually is. These aren’t easy problems to fix, but the panelists attempted to outline tangible and immediate first steps toward change — number one being for programmers to take look at both their playlists and their workplaces to realize. As some noted afterwards, the panel could have benefited from a more intersectional approach, as the inclusion of people of color, nonbinary people and other underrepresented demographics was mentioned only briefly, and these groups were noticeably absent in the audience, as well.

During the following question and answer session, several audience members rose to add their thoughts. Several industry veterans spoke briefly, but each said that they both had so much more they could say, remembering the days when it was even worse but emphasizing how far we still have to go. Younger women in various facets of the industry spoke to the challenges they’ve faced trying to establish their careers and be taken seriously when people assume that they’re the intern or someone’s daughter. It was a productive discussion, but one which many felt was dampened by an uncomfortable moment at the very end. After the last question had been asked, a man in the audience made his way to the microphone to add a comment — which many saw as both unnecessary and an indication that maybe he hadn’t been listening to the panel and its points (like giving women space to have their voices heard) at all.

After the panel, two of my colleagues, photographer Rachel Del Sordo and writer Megan Cooper, and I realized just how many thoughts we had. We were eager to continue our conversation back in the office but thought that instead of just dwelling on our own reactions, we should see what everyone else thought, too. The three of us spent the rest of the evening (in between the fantastic musical performances) tracking down some of the panelists and women who were present in the audience to hear their thoughts, reactions and critiques. Here’s what they said.

Left to right: Shannon Kurlander, Liz Felix, Jessi Whitten and Lindsay Kimball | photo by Rachel Del Sordo |

Lindsay Kimball

Assistant Program Director, The Current

We had just enough time to touch on the touchstones. There were things we didn’t even get into, like Rita Houston from FUV brought up pay gap issues and stuff like that. There’s also the intersectionality between women and people of color, women and LGBTQ and that kind of thing; we didn’t get into that. But I think as far as starting a conversation with stations and promoters and labels about this topic is a great opportunity to open it up. I’ve had multiple conversations since we did the panel this morning, and the fact that people are talking about it means that people are thinking about it, which means people are that much closer to doing some action around it. A lot of people said “You should do this next year,” which, if we’re invited back to do it again next year, that would be great. And then we can keep measuring where we’ve gone and see what happens and what progress we can make, so that’s what I’m excited about.

Rita Houston

Program Director, WFUV New York

I thought it was very positive. I think a big part of what maybe we needed to add to the panel, or some of the things that we ran out of time to discuss, is the history. I’m definitely one of the more long-term programmers in our format, but on the label side, on the management side, on the radio side, there are a lot of women — and you see it in our photo — who’ve had our jobs for 20 years, 25 years. We’ve built the format; we’ve made this happen. And I think there were a lot of tough things that happened in that process, and there’s no need to necessarily detail those war stories because nobody wants to hear them anyway, “Oh, this time this idiot said that,” you know what I mean? But there is a history that brought us to where we are today. I think we ran out of time to tell that part of the story, but it has been an evolving process and it’s stark to think that the numbers, for as long the history is, the numbers aren’t even where we would want them to be. But it’s been a long road. When I first started in radio, you wouldn’t have two female DJs on the staff. They really wanted to hire me but they were like, “We already have a woman.” And I’m like, “Well you have like eight DJs!” And eventually I got hired to do overnights, but it was like I had to be far away. On FUV now we have a female midday host, we have a female evening host, I’m on the air all the time, many of our other voices are female voices. So that’s changed. But like, I’m not that old, and that was in my lifetime, when they were like “Oh, we can only have one female DJ.” And there was actually nothing wrong with being in a job interview and somebody saying that to you as a reason for why you’re not getting the job. And I didn’t even challenge it, I was just like “Oh, okay.” So it does show where we’ve come from.

Abby Goldstein

General Manager, WYEP Pittsburgh

The one main point I think needs to be made is regarding training and development. We are doing literally nothing to develop the next group of leaders in our industry. Men who keep a chair warm for long enough move into leadership positions with ease, even though they may be completely unqualified. Women don’t get the chance to even keep a chair warm and when leadership positions become available, we are actively discouraged from pursuing them. I have been fortunate in my career to have a couple of wonderful female bosses (and a couple of men as well) who helped me tremendously and took the time to give me some coaching and encouragement. But that is not the case for most of the other women working in mid-level roles and trying to build their careers. In the last few years, as I moved into a higher level leadership role, I have experienced more poor treatment from men in positions of authority than ever before. The higher up we go, the worse it gets, which may explain why there are so few of us at this level. There are many well respected female leaders in public media, but clearly not on the contemporary music side as was evidenced in that panel. We have to recognize this inequity and take action to fix it. Let’s provide professional development and coaching for women so they are ready to take on more responsibility when the time comes and are prepared to deal with the harsh realities of leadership in a male-dominated industry.

Photo courtesy of Rita Houston | @ritahoustonwfuv

Jess Phaneuf

Music Director, WMVY Martha’s Vineyard

There was a comment that I thought about afterwards a lot that someone made. They stood up and they said “Thank you for being so brave, to get up there, to say these things, to even just ask people to start this conversation.” I thought immediately, when someone said that, “Wow, they’re right,” because if I were up there I’d probably start getting emotional. It’s an emotional topic. And then I thought about the reaction of people, they would think I was being emotional. That’s the level we’re ingrained with this thinking. So it’s just important to talk, I think that’s number one. I’m thankful to those women for getting up there and asking people to think about it. It was just huge. It’s really an amazing piece of this whole conference.

Liz Felix

Director of Communications, BirdNote Radio

I think that it was a really great conversation. So many people have come up to me afterwards and said “I really appreciated that you guys did that.” To me, that says that this was needed for a long time. I just saw Bruce Warren outside and he was like, “Thank you so much for doing that.” And we’re so appreciative to Bruce and XPN for letting us pull this together and have this open conversation. I think it was really needed, and I hope that it challenged a lot of ideas that programmers have about their stations, and I hope that they go home and take a look at their playlists.

Kristina Dugan

Director of Major Gifts, WXPN

I was really happy to see that it was a part of this NonCOMM experience, that it was a central panel, that it wasn’t an offshoot or a group that got together afterwards, that it was really accessible for the entire population that was attending — not only for XPN staff but also all of our visitors. I was glad to see how well-attended it was. I was hoping that would be the case, just because I think it is so needed. And it’s such a great avenue for people to come and listen from outside of their own space. Sometimes that breeds a greater opportunity to hear something different if you’re not in your own space. I also liked that they were asking “What can we immediately do when we get back?” so it wasn’t just a discussion in the air, it was actually tangible steps that people could reasonably take. As someone that’s new to the field, and knowing that there is a sort of gap, in the artists that are heard, but also in the leadership as well, that there are people thinking about it, there are people doing something about it, and how to participate in that beyond discussions. I think that’s the first step, to see who your allies are and see who you can start talking to about it.

Sachi Kobayashi

Director of Individual Gifts, WXPN

Very well done and also very overdue. They brought up a number of excellent points, and they did it in a way that was accessible for people, so I appreciate that. And I get why some people might have some more criticisms, over them not being more direct and more blunt. But it’s a very emotional subject, and we’ve all lived it, we’ve all dealt with that and it’s all impacted our careers. There is a time and a place for catharsis, and maybe we also need to have a meeting that’s just for women, that’s a little more cathartic and a little more aggressive in tackling some really serious things, but that’s not what the point of this panel was. The point of this panel was to be accessible for everyone and offer some really concrete tools for things that people can do immediately to start to address this issue. Most people are on board with this on some level. Hopefully. A lot of people are on board with this on some level, but they don’t know what to do. I thought they offered a lot of really good constructive advice. The only thing I would say I thought was kind of funny — I thought it was really interesting that after a panel like that, the last commenter would be someone who hijacked the conversation to mansplain. We were so close. And he literally got up and said, “I don’t think anyone has said this yet,” and everything he said had already been said. But I think it was really encouraging and I hope we can have other panels like that at other industry conferences. I don’t think that’s necessarily something that’s happening regularly.

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