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‘We need more good women on air’ ~ Keelin Shanley, RTÉ Broadcaster

On 19 June, Radisson Blu at Golden Lane played host to the latest Women on Air event.  It was an entertaining, informative and, overall, enjoyable evening.  And I know that I definitely left with some really useful, practical tips and plenty to think about.  If I took only one piece of advice away from the event, it’s that you should always say ‘yes’ if you get that phone call.  Below is some of the other fantastic advice we received from WOA member Claire O’Connell and RTÉ’s Keelin Shanley, and some thoughts on how these connect to my own experiences of contributing to the media.  

Claire O’Connell recently had the fantastic opportunity to attend the Women on Air / RTÉ training day.  Recounting the experience in a wonderfully entertaining and very engaging manner,  she emphasised that no one expects you to be a star performer on your first try – like everything, improvement comes with practice.  During their training day, the participants received advice on how to dress for television.  This isn’t about vanity (although I’m sure there’s an element of it!), but rather ensuring that you don’t distract from what you’re saying.  This was echoed by Keelin Shanley, presenter of RTÉ’s Morning Edition.  As she pointed out, people are visual creatures and can be easily distracted.  And as for people commenting on your clothes or appearance: you don’t challenge it, you just ignore it, was Keelin’s advice.       

Keelin Shanley (credit - Linda Kelly)
Credit: Linda Kelly

What really struck me about Keelin Shanley was how humble she was: on several occasions, she commented that she wasn’t sure we’d want to listen to her talk about herself (!).  She spoke of how she was once shy, but had grown more confident over time.  That she is comfortable delivering news and current affairs reports – because they aren’t about her – but she found that standing in front of a room like ours was more difficult.  Even though she is an award winning journalist and broadcaster, there was something about her that I think women in the audience could identify with or relate to.  

Keelin spoke of the importance of making yourself visible: of letting producers know who you are, that you are available and that you are willing to contribute. This really struck a note with me.  I’ve attended several ‘women in politics’ meetings, organised by groups such as 50:50, and there is a common theme that emerges: a lot of women are shy and, in terms of politics, often need to be invited to stand for election.  But in media, it’s rare that producers will seek you out.  I filled in for the researcher on RTÉ’s Questions & Answers for several months a few years ago, and I vividly remember a CV coming in from a man flagging himself as a potential panelist.  At the time – and being the shy person that I was then – I remember marvelling at and, truthfully, being somewhat shocked by his confidence.  I’ve since got much better at shamefully promoting myself, where necessary.  And I’ve come to realise that producers and editors don’t consider it arrogant or pushy when pitches pop into their email accounts or land on their desks (unless they’re outrageous, of course!).  They need to fill slots.  They need people who can speak with confidence on their area.  When asked from the floor about other ways that people can get themselves noticed, Keelin referred to twitter and the fact that producers do take notice of conversations going on there: ensure that your bio lists your credentials and area of expertise, she recommended.

Keelin Shanley (Credit - Karen Devine)
Credit: Karen Devine

And that was another point that came up repeatedly: women can be very quick to say no and recommend someone else in their place, feeling that they’re not an absolute expert on the subject in question.  The evening’s best piece of advice?  Say yes, worry later.  The story was told of a male contributor who agreed to participate before hearing the topic and then subsequently inquired about which side of the debate on which he should speak!  Keelin also pointed out that women can sometimes take refuge in facts and statistics: one of the biggest challenges to female contributors, she observed, is to move beyond imparting facts to giving analysis.  Often the show’s researchers will already have supplied the facts and statistics!

Once you’ve agreed to participate: ask the producer / researcher what’s coming up – a point made by both our evening’s speakers and contributors from the floor.  It was noted that women are often afraid of going into the ‘bear pit’, so to speak, and of being caught off-guard with a topic about which they know nothing.  Don’t be afraid to ask beforehand so that you’re not walking into a panel discussion blind, was the agreed advice.  Furthermore, Keelin suggested that discussions are starting to change somewhat.  Many producers now recognise that viewers / listeners don’t necessarily want heated, combative arguments, but rather more reflective discussions.

I am neither a member of the Women on Air organising committee nor do I speak on behalf of the group.  I have, however, been to several of the events and have undoubtedly benefited from the support that Women on Air members provide to one another.  If the idea of contributing to the media interests you at all (even if shyness is currently standing in your way), I’d highly recommend getting involved and coming along to one of the events – the next one is in September – to see what it’s all about: you never know, it might just give you that confidence boost you need!  And despite the name of the group and although women are definitely in the majority, men attend, too.  As explained last night, Women on Air is not about banning men from the air-waves, but rather about giving us all a fair shot!

Thanks to the organising committee for all their hard work.  Bring on September’s event!

For more about Women on Air, visit the website, follow on twitter or Facebook, or check out the conversation on the #womenonairie hashtag.  And if you were at last night’s event, feel free to share your thoughts or add to the advice by commenting below.

Thanks to Linda Kelly and Karen Devine for permission to use their photos from the evening, and to Margaret E Ward for permission to use the WOA logo.

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