Magazine article The Spectator

Radio the Sex Test

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio the Sex Test

Article excerpt

'We hear women's voices differently from men's, ' concluded Anne Karpf at the end of her search back through the radio archives to seek out the first women newsreaders on the airwaves. In Spoken Like a Woman (Radio 4, Saturday night), she decided this was the reason why it took so long for women to make it up through the plummyvoiced ranks to the heady heights of the newsroom.

In 1922 when radio broadcasting began from 2LO on the Strand, there were plenty of female executives (such as Hilda Matheson, Olive Shapley and Mary Somerville) organising schedules, booking talent, coming up with ideas for programmes. Yet very few of them were allowed behind the mike for that all-important job, reading the news. The female timbre was not thought of as having enough professional authority. Their voices, it was said, were too high and screechy to be convincing, or too low and breathy, i. e. , sexy. Unless, of course, they were 'Miss V.

Sackville-West', who was given a slot to talk about the journey she had just undertaken from Syria into Persia. She passed the sex text and was allowed to comment on things other than hearth rugs and marmalade because her voice was as crisp as a man's, if not as low.

The following night on Radio 3, her friend and contemporary Virginia Woolf could be heard in a clip from a talk she gave about 'words', her ghost-like voice coming back to us eerily from the past. 'Words seem to like people to think before they use them and to feel before they use them, ' we heard her say, as if from outer space, in Will Self's intriguingly obtuse feature, Modernism Redux.

Self (Radio 4's newly appointed writer-inresidence) played around with the idea of an 'archive' of sound by suggesting that in the basement of New Broadcasting House there has been discovered a curious machine from the first days of radio, the RP-1 Ethermatic Remitter. This dust-clad collection of coils and wires and circuit boards, Self claimed, could retrieve, or 'remit', signals out of the ether from the entire history of broadcasting and from all corners of the earth. Instead of transmitting 'live' broadcasts, with the aid of this machine you can begin remitting everything and anything that has once been said on air.

To activate the remitter a new very 21stcentury laptop has been latched on to the ancient machine to give it an interair search engine. Type in 'modernism', imagines Self, and cue a series of strange whirrs and beeps and clicking noises as a zoo-like cacophony of voices and snatches of music is unleashed on the listener. …

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