My career in the radio industry ended in April 2010. During my time in radio, I noticed an unspoken yet obvious pattern of gender bias; with the exception of my college radio station at Illinois State, the overwhelming majority of my former co-workers were white males, and the on-air talent was 80 to 90% male. Less then a year after I was replaced I wrote “Pushing Air,” a comedy pilot based loosely on my experiences in the industry. One of the protagonists in my pilot was Rachel, the marketing director of a cluster of stations owned by a media conglomerate in a major Midwestern city. Rachel was the voice of reason, but stifled by an overbearing programming director; she was overworked, underpaid, under-appreciated, and because of a weak economy, stuck in a job that was beneath her tremendous skillset. That is not to say that Rachel was alone or isolated. The men in the office were frat boys with type-A personalities. The handful of women that were in the office were all just as miserable as she was. A culture of sexual harassment was implied but not directly addressed.
I didn’t write these characters to be one-dimensional ciphers, but a circumstantiated representation of how radio treats women. Programming that is marketed toward women are two parts awkward and condescending, and the majority of female on-air talent work in formats that cater to men with expendable incomes. For example, a female personality on a typical classic rock station has to look, sound and dress like an extra from “Coyote Ugly,” whether she really lives the lifestyle or not. (There’s also a culture of ageism toward women, but that’s another rant for another time.) At least one Chicago radio station has used breast augmentation as a contest prize, and another has an annual “rock girl” contest in which the winner and finalists model for a cheesecake wall calendar. The majority of radio executives would read this and argue that finding a role for women in their medium is “tricky,” and somehow defer the blame to the realities of industry consolidation. In reality, however they’re not making an effort. I would have relished the opportunity to do anything that would have changed the “good ol’ boy” aesthetic that permeates to this day.
I thought about “Pushing Air” and my decade-plus in radio when a controversy erupted last week regarding comments made by iO co-founder Charna Halpern. In case you missed it: a few months ago, she had mentioned on Facebook that several female performers had been harassed by a manager at iO West in Los Angeles. They were afraid to say anything to Halpern for fear of being denied opportunities, or worse yet kicked out of the improv venue. She had hired a counselor at iO West, stated her lack of tolerance for sexual harassment, and name-checked iO alum Amy Poehler. Evidently, whatever she put into place was insufficient, as she posted on social media again to address the situation. In this case, the perpetrator was mentioned by name, and she gave him the shadow of a doubt. To Halpern, this accuser was a woman who “(likes) to either cause trouble or get revenge or just want attention so they make up stories… she claims I just put her off and offered her free classes.” Halpern said she would never handle such a situation in such a shallow way, adding “it’s people like this who make it difficult when a woman really has a problem-- we need to take this issue seriously and not spread lies because you didn’t make a team or for whatever reason you are angry.”
Halpern’s comments were perceived as aloof and self-serving, as if her primary objective was to protect her theaters, her employees, and her company, Yes And Productions. The response to these comments was fast-building and outraged, and rightfully so. Julia Weiss, a Chicago-based comedian/playwright and a performer at iO, delivered one of the first rebuttals: “It is unbelievably rare for women to make up stories like this to get ‘attention’ or ‘revenge.’ Perpetuating that narrative is what makes people dismiss women when they voice their experiences with harassment and abuse… while I respect that you’re taking this seriously and putting policies in place to protect women, posting something like this doesn’t foster a sense of comfort in people dealing with these issues.”
The majority of the nearly 200 comments that followed shared Weiss’ sentiments, and eventually Halpern deleted her post. The businesswoman was more concerned with the integrity of her employees, and the overwhelming rebuke was justified. There has always been an undercurrent of sexual harassment and misogyny in the improv community, especially in Chicago. Even if you weren’t directly affected, to say that the abuse has been overplayed or even non-existent is foolish and reprehensible. Halpern’s post begat a dialogue that mushroomed in size and volume on social media throughout the week. Some called for the men of the community to support and defend their female colleagues. Others shared stories of being harassed at Second City, iO, and even out of town improv festivals. One common thread in the conversation was that instructors let male students touch female students inappropriately without ramifications. Until recent years, the steps that Second City and other venues have taken to stop this have been mostly saber-rattling.
At the very least, I hope this worthy and insightful dialogue continues growing. A change in culture is badly needed, and the sooner the better. If I see any inappropriate behavior, I will gladly call it out. If you’re in a bad spot and you want to talk, I will listen. I have no justification for my own inaction, whether it was at a radio station six years ago or at an improv venue now. The number of women that make up stories of harassment and assault are a tiny minority. This is a real problem.
I’ve been a member of the Chicago improv community for going on seven years now. When the radio chapter of my life ended and I struggled to move on to something else, improv became my reason to wake up in the morning. I have always treated my classmates and teammates as equals. There are a number of bad apples within the community, not to mention a long history of misogyny, and my gut instinct was to not exacerbate the problem, but to treat my peers with dignity and respect. It’s one thing to be daring and politically incorrect, but another to disrespect your colleagues and collaborators. Improv used to be a boys’ club, and now the boys need to take accountability for their own actions. We have the power to stop this.