Opinion

Why is commercial radio the last bastion of middle aged white men?

sunil Badami

Australian radio networks need to start embracing diversity to stay in touch with the changes in society argues Sunil Badami.

When I first started broadcasting on ABC Local Radio a year or two ago, a listener texted in to say ‘how great it is to hear an ethnic face on the radio.’ I joked that I didn’t realise “our” faces made any noise, though I supposed with “our” mouths open, they made as much noise as anyone else’s.

But for someone like me, born and raised in Australia to Indian parents, it hasn’t always been easy to see or hear faces or voices like mine in the media, especially commercial media.

For many non-white presenters, actors and writers, the ABC has traditionally been a haven for having our voices and perspectives heard.

But while high profile former Radio National Drive presenter and Fairfax media commentator Waleed Aly was recently appointed as anchor of Network Ten’s high rating The Project, what “ethnic faces” can you name on commercial radio?

Surfing the radio waves, from FM to AM, you’d be hard pressed to find a single non-Anglo voice, and I can’t remember anyone like me on any commercial station.

Popular wisdom says that audiences, particularly on talk radio, are generally conservative, and don’t like any moves away from the usual middle-aged white blokes you can find on any commercial talk radio station across the country.

Don’t get me wrong – some of my best friends are middle aged white men! But all of us know or love people who aren’t just middle aged white men: how many of us have female or Asian or disabled friends and family? Over a third of us are born overseas. One in five of us has a disability. And more than half of us are women.

So why doesn’t commercial radio reflect the diverse realities of modern Australia?

This month, I was thrilled to join Fairfax Radio’s NewsTalk 4BC on Afternoons and Evenings. I’m happy to be corrected, but while I can’t think of any other non-white presenter on commercial radio, it could be a first.

Liddell

Liddell

That I followed the wonderful Karni Liddell, champion Paralympian, motivational speaker and disability activist, who’s been presenting on 4BC for the last couple of years, only made it a greater thrill. Again, can you think of any other presenter on commercial radio who happens to have disability?

Listeners love Karni: she’s warm, engaging, funny. She’s so many things – model, author, all round cool chick and more – that although her disability has helped make her who she is today, it’s not the only interesting or inspiring thing about her.

Similarly, although I’m proud of my Indian heritage, it’s only part of who I am: a husband, a father, a writer, a quiz show winner – and, I have to admit, a bit of a ratbag who thinks rules, especially on radio, are meant to be broken.

But I can’t and wouldn’t ever claim to be a spokesperson for anyone else but me. While it’s great that 4BC have broken the supposed rules of commercial radio in bringing Karni and me on board, it’s even greater that they did so not because of what we were or what boxes we might tick, but because of who we are and what things we can bring to the conversation with our audiences.

And although my name was a bit of a mouthful for many listeners when I started, it didn’t stop them trying to get their mouths around it and tell me how much they enjoyed hanging out with me on the wireless.

I can’t deny I had my own preconceptions about commercial talk radio audiences, but I was as pleased as surprised to discover how generous, open – and, as I got to grips with the shows I was covering – forgiving they were, and how eager they were for new voices and views.

While people were interested in who I was and what my story was, my ethnicity was never the defining issue, any more than it would have been if we’d met in the street or the pub, and I loved getting to know them as much as they got to know me, as we talked about the issues that connected us and interested us – from what to do with the kids during the holidays to how to use up the last of the summer mangoes, and everything in between.

If anything, this past fortnight has only proven that rules are meant to be broken, and that audiences are hungry to meet new people just like them, with different perspectives and interesting stories to share.

I can’t wait to hang out with 4BC listeners again, and hearing more voices like ours – ordinary Aussies like you and me from all kinds of backgrounds and viewpoints – on commercial radio in the future, as well as inspiring kids like you and Karni and me that their voices can be heard too.

  • Sunil Badami is a radio broadcaster
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