Eye Candy: The Absence of the Female Voice in Sports Talk Radio

If masculinity is alive and well [on sports talk radio], femininity exists on talk radio as absence, lack, and difference. — John Reffue

Radio al atardecer by Flickr user Dany Rivera

Tune in to any random sports talk radio show and listen carefully to the voices coming from the radio. Listen to the cadence in their voices, to the passionate tone about the sporting events of the day, to the witty banter with the hosts. Listen to them and see if something stands out to you.

Most of the people talking on these shows are men.

Now, go to any sports talk radio website. If you scroll down, you will notice on the webpage a scantily-clad woman. Amidst all of the sports logos, and the pictures of the men who carry the voices on the radio station, you will find eye candy for the listeners who navigate to the page. The websites offer these pictures of women-as-sexual-objects, which stand in opposition to the absence of female voices on the air. This “absence” that communications strategist Dr. John Reffue speaks of, the absence of female callers as participants, goes hand in hand with how females are portrayed in sports media more widely: as visual objects. This undermines any authority they might have in the sonic realm and relegates them figuratively to the sidelines. Women are deemed “eye candy” and not “ear candy.”

What does the (female) sports fan sound like?

According to a 2002 Arbitron report, the core demographic of sports radio is male, 25-54, “nonethnic.” (Researchers like Dr. David Nylund have pointed out that sports talk radio’s listeners are overwhelmingly white.) Even though Arbitron has not studied women’s listening habits when it comes to sports talk radio, it would be silly to ignore this demographic for the mere fact that there are female sports fans. Although there are women who listen to sports talk radio and who, on occasion call in, their invisibility in this medium is echoed by how the ratings completely ignore them. (Arbitron has several free studies and reports on their site for women, but none of them talk about women and sports talk radio, let alone talk radio in general. Interestingly enough, they have a study aptly titled “What Women Want: Factors Driving Tune-In and Tune-Out” where they briefly point out that there is a segment of female listeners they call “sports fans” but they only mention what kinds of music they will tune into.)

However, this is not the only example of how female sports fans are not heard. Dale Pontz from the blog Dames on Games makes an interesting point about women and sports talk radio when she says,

my gender is another impediment to my sports talk radio participation. I have learned through many years of watching sports at bars that men don’t mind when I sit quietly and watch (although they are known to incorrectly assume I want to flirt), but once I make a valid sports argument, that bemused interest usually becomes veiled hostility.

In this case, expressing ideas and arguments about the game becomes a turn-off, not what the man was expecting. As someone who enjoys the nuances of the game and who writes about sports, she understands that being seen as a sexual object will prevent men from actually taking what she says seriously. Although she is conflating the visual with the aural in the above, she makes the connection between women and sexuality. Pontz’s comment, as well as the responses from several female journalists to the question “Why Do Women Dislike Talk Radio?, beg the question: are women just not listening to sports talk radio?

Steve Duemig, sports talk radio host interviewed by John Reffue for his dissertation, mentions that he does have female callers, and that oftentimes their commentary is more nuanced and thought-out than that of their male counterparts. Reffue mentions, “He [Duemig] indicated that while he believes women are intimidated by the prospect of calling a show, their calls end up being better, smarter calls because…’Men spout shit and women come with facts'” (128). I too have noticed women calling into sports talk radio shows here in the Kansas City area, so the idea that women do not listen to sports talk radio falls flat. However, it is precisely the rare female voice which draws attention to the absence.

It’s A Man’s World

Sports talk radio is, evidently, the realm for heterosexual men to come to talk about sports, even though they are not the only ones to do so. Nylund explains in his article “When in Rome: Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Sports Talk Radio” that “at this historical moment when hegemonic masculinity has been partially destabilized by global economic changes and by gay liberation and feminist movements, the sports media industry seemingly provides a stable and specific view of masculinity grounded in heterosexuality, aggression, individuality, and the objectification of women.” Sports talk radio becomes the place where men can participate in this “stable view,” and talking and listening become a way of participating.

But it is John Reffue who focuses on the idea of community that the fans create as they participate in the shows. He mentions on page 9 the “broadcast format as a discursive space – a place where many come to make sense of how sports fit into their lives. I believe that in this space, sports fans are afforded a singular and unique venue to cultivate not only a deeper understanding of the sports they love, but to perform community and establish identity(ies), while knowingly or unknowingly contributing to the larger public discourse on race, gender, sexuality and class and politics. (community, identity, understand sport, contribute to public discourse on race, gender, sex, and class)” Reffue argues that sports talk radio is constructed as a male space through rhetoric and performance. Calling in and engaging the host and the listeners becomes a way of belonging to the community. I will take his argument further and argue that women are not just excluded from the sonic realm of radio by virtue of being women, but that this construction strips their voices of any authority. The divestment of the authority of women’s voices reflects tendencies in sports more generally, where women are truly and figuratively relegated to the sidelines.

The ultimate example is the dearth of female broadcasters, on radio and on television. Nationally there isn’t a female sports radio broadcaster that has as much visibility as, say Jim Rome. Men lead the sports talk radio shows. The one nationally syndicated female sports radio talk show host, Nancy Donellan (otherwise known as The Fabulous Sports Babe) went off the air in the late 1990s. This reflects what happens in sports coverage in general: men are the voices of authority when it comes to talking about sports. Although there are female color commentators and play-by-play announcers, they are in the minority. An example is Beth Mowins, who recently became ESPN2’s play-by-play announcer for college football games. Men, on the other hand, remain the voice and the face of sports coverage. Even when it comes to covering sports on tv, women are often relegated to the sidelines. It makes even more striking the comment by sound media scholars like Kaja Silverman, Amy Lawrence, and Michele Hilmes that discourses around women’s voices cast them as a “problem.”

Who Runs This Town?

I am not advocating for a change in radio formats or for sports talk radio to be more “girly.” That’s the kind of attitude that got us here in the first place, the attitude that women and men enjoy different kinds of radio formats. However, women’s voices literally and metaphorically must be a part of the sonic landscape of sports talk radio, and sports media in general. Women must be heard over the radio in order for other women to feel like they can be a part of the conversation. If men are deemed competent enough to talk about women’s sports, women should be deemed confident enough to talk about men’s sports. Women need to make themselves visible, and one way of doing that is by literally making themselves heard. Maybe this way we can get sports radio to listen to women.

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13 responses to “Eye Candy: The Absence of the Female Voice in Sports Talk Radio”

  1. Sonic Fields says :

    An interesting subject from the audio point of view. For what it’s worth, as an audio field recordist, I have always been put-off by what I can only describe as the ‘squawking’ voices of female outside reporters on regional TV news channels. Can anyone explain why the majority of female outside reporters will tend to ‘squawk’ at ever increasing volumes whilst performing outside broadcasts, irrespective of whether or not there is any interfering background noise to overcome?
    I can therefore understand the lack of female reporters at sports events, possibly due to this fact mentioned and the knowledge that the presence of a background stadium crowd and excitement instilled by them in the reporter, would make matters worse, rendering the audio content completely unlistenable.


  2. j. stoever-ackerman says :

    I really think there is a dialogue to be had between this piece and AT’s post on the use of the female voice in Portal, especially the idea that a female voice appearing in a space that is represented as predominately male is somehow jarring or “special.” Based on some quick presearch (http://www.personalizemedia.com/15-great-myth-busting-women-vs-men-stat-articles-about-games/) I think gaming is similar to sports in that heavy female participation goes unnoticed–or that it is shunted toward particular avenues that are marginalized. Why there are so few female voices like GLaDOS (or why some folks hear GLaDOS as unisex or “just a computer” (read: male) may have something to do with some of the issues you bring up here, Liana. I am curious as to what you and AT think about that.


  3. Lori Schmidt says :

    I think another big issue is the willingness of companies to think outside the box. Let’s face it, almost every sports station in the country is “The Team,” “The Ticket” or “The Score.” They all have an afternoon program called, “The Big Show” with two white hosts, one of whom is a former athlete. One major reason there aren’t more women featured in sports radio is that there is no model for it. And because there’s no model on how to promote a female sports personality, women are discouraged from entering the profession. Obviously, smart, ambitious women aren’t going to go into sports radio if they’re going to see their careers stall at “sexy traffic reporter.”


  4. Daniel J. Henderson says :

    I already have someone tracking down the data. Perhaps I can turn it into a paper.


    • LMS says :

      Are you also doing research on the topic? That’s great! Please keep us posted if you turn it into a paper. I’m curious about the stats.


  5. Cassandra Neace (@CassandraNeace) says :

    There always seems to be sports radio playing in the background if I spend a day with my boyfriend. I’m starting to listen more, and it wasn’t until they had one of the few female sports bloggers from the Houston Chronicle on that I realized how rarely I hear a woman’s voice on those stations. The other instance that I remember is a feature they have called Sexy Traffic. This is odd to me, because I’ve always been surrounded by more women than men who were into sports. My two best female friends are former college athletes. They could have intelligent conversations on the radio. One of them would, but the other might default to her upbringing, which says that no woman should ever reveal that she is smarter than a man. That is such a shame. Because I think I would listen more if there were more women on the air.


    • LMS says :

      I think what you bring up is an important point, Cassandra: the male voices seem “normal” to us, but when a woman’s voice comes on, it sounds out of place. It’s the same reason why I decided to write this post in the first place. Another dimension to the piece would be “why do women avoid sports talk radio?” The perception that it is a men’s venue is definitely part of it, but like you point out there are women who listen. That’s something I’d like to know more about.


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