The other radio: Gloria McGinley’s refreshingly honest radio exploration

“I woke up today feeling a little bit like the Spice Girls,” NPR writer Gloria McGinley told us, during an interview to accompany NPR’s four-part feminist documentary series Radio Times.

The conversation we had was charming and heartfelt and completely disarming. It was NPR Quiz Show panelist McGinley herself who prompted us to start asking questions. She talked about how “rushed” she feels with a question for the Quiz Show panel. Or about how “overwhelmed” she feels when the crowds grow and voices drown out the panel’s collective voices. Or about how she enjoys those moments when a character on Quiz Show is even dumber than the person she’s commenting on. Or about how she enjoys the whole stagecraft of hosting a show about women. Or about being a woman in an anonymous “masculine” panel environment.

Almost as surprising as our interview with McGinley was that she wasn’t born with radio in her bones. She wasn’t even raised with the radio as a habit. She began her career in radio more as a writer, and eventually became a full-time NPR reporter. She wrote for FRONTLINE, where her commentary was cut into episodes of the newsmagazine and then sold to the networks. When you think of NPR as a “radio network”, it makes sense that her first job would be writing. Radio came to her as a habit, she says, and in working the scenes that tell a radio story, McGinley’s curiosity about the magic of radio allowed her to develop deep insight into a visual medium.

The recipe for this mesmerizing fusion lies in the radio station described in Chapter 5: Music. Though we’ve all heard the famous stories about how to write a radio script: find a voice for your character. Don’t fiddle with words. Sound the alarm when the other characters turn off your key and find their theater. McInley worked at NPR’s radio station. Once she heard a machine call, “January came in like a lion, and February came in like a mouse,” she was hooked. Radio changed how she felt about one’s body, especially about a woman’s body. “I think a woman should never waste another minute in her life using non-standardization of the body as the object of her desire,” she says. “More often than not, doing so has a lopsided and stunted effect on the feminine body, a reduction in quality of life.”

McGinley talks about what it’s like being a woman living in a man’s world: the man’s world to which women are already accustomed, but the “mixed world” that has some major privileges afforded to a white man with an Ivy League education. It’s not every woman, of course, who can easily walk in McGinley’s shoes. But after years of working at a news magazine, working with women in news that is almost always found on the page, or getting to sit next to women on NPR, knowing what McGinley can say about the particular aspects of the privilege women still have in our pop culture is quite a humbling experience.

It’s the civil rights fight that you thought you’d been fighting your whole life, McGinley says: equal rights.

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