Maria Williams is an award-winning Executive Producer with 20 years experience in radio. At BBC Radio 4 she was Deputy Editor of ‘Woman’s Hour’, before launching ‘Saturday Live’, winning a Sony Gold. Working independently, she is currently running Comic Relief 2015 for BBC Radio, and is the founder of Sound Women – an organisation set up to develop women in radio. We at Those London Chicks had the opportunity to catch up with Maria to talk about her amazing career in Radio.
Maria, we are inspired by the variety of your career in Radio. Was this something you always knew you wanted to do, or had you other ambitions as a child?
No, never. I grew up in the wilds of the West Country and as a child wanted to be a vet! But I always listened to the radio. A lot. Janice Long, John Walters, John Peel… Radio was my way of feeling connected to the rest of the world.
You went to The University of Birmingham studying English Language and Literature. Tell us a bit about your journey after graduating?
While I was at Uni I joined Guild TV, which was a slightly shonky student tv station. I’m still not sure anyone watched it. But I met some brilliant people, and we all got to interview loads of bands for free, so that’s where I got the media bug. When I finished college I decided to try a bit of radio and bagged myself some work experience at Radio WM. They kept me waiting in reception on my first day for TWO HOURS! I still haven’t quite forgiven them. But in retrospect it was one of the best things that could have happened, because I sat in reception watching all these normal-looking people go in and out. And I decided that if they could get jobs there, then so could I. It took me a year of work experiences and dodgy shifts to do it – but I did.
When you started out 20 years ago, Radio was a very male dominated field, was it difficult working in that environment?
Yes, at times. I think I’d be a lot bolder about tackling some of that bad behaviour now. But at the time I just put my head down and got on with it. And there were some very creative, generous people along the way – male and female – who kept me going and gave me opportunities.
Where there any hurdles along the way, if so what were they and how did you overcome them?
There are always hurdles. Getting a proper paid job in the beginning seemed almost impossible at times. But the more I did radio, the more I realised it was the ONLY thing I wanted to do. And that made me very determined and resilient. So when other people panicked and gave up and went off to get a sensible job, I kept on temping, and working for free, and then doing some more temping, and more working for free. I was lucky in that I could live quite cheaply in Birmingham. You could never do it now in London – you’ve starve in a month! And that’s something I feel quite angry about today, because the media ‘intern’ culture means that lots of the people who find a route in now are people with wealthy parents, who can fund the work experience their kids need to do. And that means equally talented but less well off people, especially anyone starting off outside London, is going to find it almost impossible to get in. And that’s not fair.
Who inspires you to succeed?
I’m constantly inspired by people. I would secretly like to be best friends with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. I LOVE how they challenge outdated attitudes in such a smart, funny way. Just check out their Golden Globes speeches: “Boyhood proves there are still great roles for women over 40, as long as you get hired when you are under 40.” People laugh so hard with them. But they are properly calling the Hollywood industry out on its attitude to women, and they’ve done it so successfully they’ve helped create a space where it’s OK for other women to speak out too. I’m also continually inspired by my fellow Sound Women, like Radio 4 presenter Fi Glover (my own personal Tina Fey), BBC Chief Chris Burns, the legendary Annie Nightingale – so many talented and generous women who’ve given me so much of their time. And finally I’m loving Viv Albertine from The Slit’s autobiography. I grew up with Siouxsie Sioux on my wall, and that spirit of punk – the ‘you can do it’, slightly fearless approach to life is something that’s really shaped me. I’m not always as bold as them. But I’d like to be.
Executive Producer of Sports Relief 2014 where you oversaw all BBC Radio content covering the event, big undertaking, what did that involve?
Yes I put Radio 2’s Jo Whiley and Radio 1’s Nick Grimshaw, and a host of celebs in a glass box outside BBC Broadcasting House for a week to raise money for Sport Relief. Jo Whiley was on a treadmill for 26 hours – imagine that. She could hardly walk afterwards. In fact she should be up there on a list of people who inspire me too. Coldplay phoned up while she was on air and sponsored her £10,000 for every hour she was in the box. That added up to £260,000 right there! It was cold, but a lot of fun.
You share the same ethos as Those London Chicks and founded ‘Sound Women’ which celebrates Women’s achievements in Radio. What made you decide to start this organisation and how has it developed?
I was at an awards ceremony in 2011 – it was like the radio Oscars – and there were lots of women on the stage, but we were all PRESENTING the awards in beautiful dresses, and being told we looked gorgeous and told to “give us a twirl”. No women seemed to be actually RECEIVING any awards. Worse still, when I looked at the nominations, there were hardly any women even in the running! The next day Miranda Sawyer dubbed it “the Year of the Lad” in the Guardian, so I knew I wasn’t alone. I didn’t know her, but I called her up and got her and around 12 women from all corners of the radio industry in a room. We talked about our own experiences and what we thought needed to change. After 2 hours we came out with a name – Sound Women – and some clear ideas about what we wanted to achieve. Now, three years down the line we’ve had some incredible successes. BBC Local radio have worked with us to get more women into presenting roles. We’ve run mentoring schemes, festivals, training events and socials. We are proud to have Annie Nightingale, Angie Greaves and Jane Garvey as our patrons. We’ve been to the House of Commons, and persuaded our industry to take this issue seriously. Because if you don’t have female presenters, and producers, and contributors, and programme controllers, then women’s voices and experiences aren’t being heard. And that is no good for anyone.
Sound Women is going from strength to strength in just 3 years. With the support of some amazingly accomplished women in Radio. What are some of your ultimate goals for the organisation?
I’d like to be so successful we put ourselves out of business. When women are paid as much as their male colleagues, and have access to the most prestigious slots (breakfast and drivetime); when you are as likely to hear two women presenting a radio show as two men, that’s when we will hang up our Sound Women headphones and go back to our day jobs.
Maria you have recently been awarded with a fellowship from The Radio Academy for your outstanding contribution to the industry. Congratulations! Can you share with us a bit about this… was it a shock?
Thank you! It was very exciting but a total shock as I was producing the awards ceremony on the night and had a different name on my running order – so I was looking around for the person I thought was going to accept the award, panicking slightly that I couldn’t see them, and then I heard my name. So I gave the worst speech of my life. I suppose at least I didn’t say anything awful. I just didn’t say ANYTHING. Didn’t thank anyone… And the list of people I should have thanked is a long one. It still keeps me awake at night.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to pursue a career in Radio whether it be presenting or behind the scenes?
It’s a fabulous medium. The thing that’s really exciting about it is that you have so much power – great for a control freak like me. One person can have an idea for a show, then go out and make it themselves. In tv there’s always a crew and a host of people involved. That happens in radio too – but I remember when I started out, and I made my first documentary, and it sounded just as I’d envisaged, it was a great feeling… And you can be really creative. There’s a great story about Charlie Chilton, who was a really inventive producer in the 1950s. He made a show called ‘Journey Into Space’, and was always arguing with the new tv kids on the block who thought radio was old and dead and that they were the future. One week they challenged him. “Do one thing on radio we can’t do better on television” they said. So he set the next episode of ‘Journey into Space’ in total darkness. And that is why radio people ROCK!
The launch video for Sound Women featuring a host of fabulous female Radio Presenters who are members and supporters of the organisation.
Thank you Maria x