Read Gerberding’s Remarkable Speech from the AWM Regional Conference Held in Austin on January 17
I’ve been invited here today to talk about the privilege of membership in the Alliance for Women in Media. I’m not sure if it’s because I was national president from 2000 to 2003 when we were known as American Women in Radio and Television and we enjoyed record membership numbers, or if I’m just old enough to have lots of experience in telling stories about the good old days. Maybe it’s both! Either way, let me get started.
I’m going to give you a little
history about the organization, tell you some stories about my personal
experiences, and, hopefully, inspire you to drive membership in this important organization.
AWRT was formed
in 1951 as a response to the National Association of Broadcasters’ decision to
dissolve its women’s division.
After the dissolution, and fearful that the concerns of women within the
industry would not be given a voice, several female members of the NAB decided
to form their own organization. They
inspired over 280 women to come together to create AWRT and determine its
mission: “to provide a
broadcasting organization for professional women in the radio and television
industries.” Now 280 may not sound like
a lot, but remember, this was in 1951…and there weren’t many women in the work
force, especially in media.
Edythe Meserand was one
of the founders
and served as its first national president. She began her broadcasting career at NBC
Radio in 1926, but she had her greatest influence at New York City’s WOR-Radio,
which she joined in 1935. There she achieved a number of “firsts” in
broadcasting history: she is
acknowledged as the first person, male or female, to found an actual radio
newsroom, she produced the first true radio documentary; and she organized
WOR’s enduring Children’s Christmas Fund Drive.
AWRT continued to grow through the years, adding
several hundred women from across the country to its roster. But still, it was looked upon as “that
women’s group” by most of the industry.
Well, of course, there were only a handful of women executives, there
were no women sales managers, no female account reps, very few female on-air
personnel, and certainly no women holding the positions of engineer, or program
director. In fact, the majority of women
at this time were secretaries and receptionists.
There were a few exceptions. The
first woman to have her own radio show was Kate Smith. You may know
her as the woman in the 1930s and 40s who sang “God Bless America” over the airwaves. From 1937 to 1945 she hosted the “Kate
Smith Hour.” She went on to host her number one daytime news and talk show
Then there was Pegeen Fitzgerald. She was another one of
the first women on-air in radio, also at WOR.
Fitzgerald began her own show broadcasting from her apartment in 1937 and
became known as “First Lady of Radio Chatter”. On her talk show she
covered numerous topics, and in the 1940s her husband joined her on-air. The show was re-branded as “The Ed and Pegeen
Fitzgerald Show”….notice who has top billing! They became one of the most highly paid double
acts in radio, earning about $160,000 a year. In the 1940s. That would be about $2.9 million
a year in today’s dollars!
others: Arlene Francis, Mary Margaret
McBride, Bertha Brainard, and of course, Gracie Allen. And then, came TV. Although it was invented in 1927, television
didn’t really become popular until after World War II.
sitcoms were launched in the early 1950s, female “sidekicks” playing wives or
secretaries or school teachers starred along with the men…and they were some of
the funniest women to ever fill a TV
screen: Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, Gale
Storm, Audrey Meadows, Eve Arden, Ann Southern and Gracie Allen.
But for the
most part, women were barely seen, much less heard in broadcast media. There were no women in the wings directing
shows, writing scripts, selling advertising, managing stations or, God forbid, owning
radio or TV stations.
out to change all that.
In 1960 it became the first
professional broadcasting organization to establish an educational foundation
to give scholarships to up and coming radio and TV women. The Foundation held seminars, leadership
conferences, educational forums and did everything in its power to advance
women in the media business.
In 1975 it began an annual
awards program recognizing broadcast professionals in radio and TV who represented
the changing roles, issues, and concerns of women. In 1997 those awards became
known as The Gracies, named after the media pioneer who embodied the character
of the awards, Gracie Allen.
By the end of the 1990s, AWRT
had several thousand members all over the country. We had chapters in most
states, and we had become a well-known and well-respected organization.
In 2001, the first year into my
national presidency, we celebrated our 50th anniversary at a
star-studded luncheon at New York City’s Tavern on the Green. I’ll never forget that day. For so many reasons.
But first let me tell you a
quick story. All of us were working
diligently on getting a book ready to be released for the 50th
anniversary. It was called “Making
Waves, the 50 Greatest Women in Radio and Television” and it was due to be
published in time for this luncheon honoring many of the women highlighted in
We had asked all the living
legends who were featured in the book to write their own personal essays. Our Executive Director was overseeing the
project, and one day about a week before the deadline to get this book to the
typesetters, she called me: “we have 49
of the essays in house and ready to go to the typesetters. We’re just missing Lily Tomlin’s”.
Well, it just so happened that
Lily Tomlin was doing her one woman show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent
Life in the Universe” at McCarter Theater at Princeton University. Since my radio company headquarters was in
Princeton, I knew the director of the theater quite well, so I immediately got
on the phone, explained the dilemma, and asked him if he could set up a meeting
with Lily in a day or two.
The day came, I sat down with
Lily and told her that hers was the only missing essay. “We need 1,500 words by the end of this
week”, I said. She said, “no problem.”
I waited and waited and
waited. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and
finally on Thursday I called her. “Lily,”
I said, “I really need those 1,500 words by tomorrow.” She said, “no problem.”
So, Friday afternoon I got an
email from Lily and attached is her essay.
All 5,000 words of it. I
called her up: “Lily, I only need 1,500
words, do you want to cut this down?”
She said, “no problem. You can
Well, I spent all of the next
day, and half the night cutting and pasting, deleting and counting words. By Sunday afternoon, I really was rather
delirious from reading the essay over and over again, and I just started
laughing out loud. “I’m editing Lily
Tomlin!” “I’m editing Lily Tomlin!”
Needless to say, I got over the
giddiness, finished the essay at 1,500 words, Lily approved it, and right on
deadline, the essay was sent to the typesetter and the book was published just
But let me finish my story
about the 50th Anniversary party.
The luncheon was held to honor the women in this book. The women who “made waves” and, in spite of
all the things they had to overcome, became a success. Things like executives (all men) who resisted
giving them a job because women were supposed to be at home taking care of
their houses, their husbands, and having babies.
Bankers who insisted that women
had to get their husband’s signature to co-sign a credit card or loan
application. Those women who were fired
because they were pregnant…bosses who were reluctant to allow women to have
opinions, especially on the air. In fact, those women—many of my generation–overcame
things that women today take for granted or maybe don’t even know about.
So anyway, here we were at
Tavern on the Green, the room is buzzing. It’s filled with celebrities, the press, TV camera
men and women, a few hundred people, mostly women, ready to sit down to lunch
and start the program in a room that had glass walls and yes, a glass
ceiling. It was an extremely hot July
day. New York City was sweltering with
record breaking temperatures. And here
we are, ready to honor some of the world’s most famous female icons…and the air
conditioning stops working. No AC, no fans,
Mary Hart from Entertainment
Tonight was my co-host and the two of us were literally dying from the
heat. As we called the honorees up to
the podium, you could see what a struggle it was for them to keep cool. I mean, we were just dripping with
But, once they received their
plaques, a copy of the book and were given the microphone, WOW!…they were just
as cool as cucumbers! Gracious,
professional, funny, endearing. It was so impressive….Barbara Walters, Katie
Couric, Connie Chung, Mary Tyler Moore, Candace Bergen, Cokie Roberts…It was
breathtaking! And it was a day I’ll
So, time passes on and by 2003,
radio and television were joined by digital media, the internet, cellphones,
tablets, laptops, LED billboards, and so much more. We started the discussion about changing the
name of AWRT to better reflect the changing world of media. Finally, after many fits and starts, in 2010 AWRT
renamed itself the Alliance for Women in Media or AWM. We now better reflected our commitment to all
women in all types of media.
And here we are 10 years later,
2020, and AWM is still flourishing. But
it’s also been sixty-nine years since the founding of this organization. Of incredible media women laying the
foundation for those of you who are here today.
Sixty-nine years of having to
work twice as hard to get half as far, continually having to prove
ourselves. Sixty-nine years of doing the
work, putting in the long hours, hopping the planes, running in heels to get
the story, to meet the deadline, to climb the ladder.
How great is this?!
Now, much of the history I just
spoke about can be researched online. But
what can’t be found via Google, is the power, and the magic, and the friendship
within AWM; the generosity and collective knowledge of its members, old and
Membership in this vital and
vibrant organization should be one of the first items on the “To Do” list once
a woman accepts a position in media.
I mentioned before about some
of the obstacles the founders and subsequent members had to go through way back
when. Well, let me tell you about some
of the obstacles I had to face alone before I joined AWRT.
From 1969 until 1973, I held
several positions in advertising and media: the marketing department of a major insurance
company in New York City, an ad agency in Hartford, Connecticut, doing PR for The
American Heart Association. Finally, in
1974, I decided to move to Cape Cod. I was 25 years old.
It being the 70s, like many other women in
this decade, I was a vocal supporter of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Being female and having to put up with a
great deal of harassment as one of the few women in the advertising world at
that time, it was a no brainer to support Women’s Lib, subscribe to Gloria
Steinem’s Ms. Magazine, and march for equal rights. And I did all of that.
So, after buying an antique sea captain’s
house on Cape Cod in 1974, and then taking a year off to restore it, I decided
I needed to get back to my career. I started
perusing the Cape Cod Times and lo and behold, there was an ad for Account
Executive at WCOD-FM in Hyannis, just 15 minutes away.
I interviewed for the job in March of 1975. And really, I nailed it! I mean you know when you nail an interview. I
had this job! After an hour of
conversation, the sales manager (a man) said this to me: “I think you’re highly qualified for the job, but
I don’t hire women because they’re too much trouble.”
I could feel the heat rise from my
toes. Being a lily white, freckled
redhead, blushing was in my bones.
Anger, fear, shock, embarrassment, any of those emotions could turn me
beet red in less than a 30-second commercial.
So red-faced, I said to him:
“Well, you’re going to
Over the next two weeks,
I called him twice a day: once in the morning, once in the afternoon. I left messages since he wouldn’t take the
call “This is Joan Gerberding, I’m anxious to start bringing in advertising
sales for you.” “I may have missed your call.
I’m looking forward to working for you.”
“When can I start?” You get the
idea. I was relentless.
On the Friday of the
second week of my daily messaging, at 4:30PM, he took my call. He said this: “I just spent the last two weeks
interviewing men for this AE position, they were all assholes. You can start
Thus, began my radio
career. Oh, and by the way. Within the first 6 months, I outsold him and every
other AE on staff; 6 months after that, he was fired, and I got his job as GSM! So, maybe I was “too much trouble” after all!
When I finally discovered
AWRT in the late 70s, I felt that I had died and gone to heaven. I mean here
was a group of professional women who actually wanted to raise me up,
not put me down. Here were women who
were going through exactly the same things I was going through. Dealing with the same issues. I had never had a female mentor before, but
now I had hundreds of them, all over the country. But on Cape Cod, I was the only woman in
So, in 1980, I accepted
the position of Sales Development Manager at Nassau Broadcasting in Princeton,
New Jersey. There were hardly any more
women there than on Cape Cod, but I felt that sitting between New York and
Philadelphia, the number 1 and number 4 markets, I could grow my career and
really make a difference. And maybe, I
could even bring more women into the business.
I started hiring them. As AEs, PDs, news anchors, DJs, copywriters. I became involved with the New Jersey
Broadcaster’s Association, later becoming its Chair.
The first time I spoke at
a NJBA conference workshop in 1980, I was the only woman there. I had prepared a presentation on selling but
seeing that I was the only woman in a room of over 50 men of all ages, I
ad-libbed the first 15 minutes by actually demonstrating to them how to shake a
woman’s hand! You know, what I mean…when men shake your fingers or barely grab
your hand for fear of breaking you in half?
I made every man in that room shake my hand the right way that day. To
this day a wonderful guy who was there at that workshop and who later came to
work for me, tells me I should write a book and title it: “It All Began with a
And still I kept coming
back to AWRT. I initiated Leadership
Training seminars for women at the RAB. I became involved with the NAB. And I brought some of what I learned in these
organizations to the AWRT table.
In the early 90s, I was
presented with the AWRT Star Award for women’s leadership in radio. I was named one of the “Top Six Sales
Managers in the United States” by Radio Ink Magazine.
And I kept getting
invited to speak all over the country, not only to AWRT chapters, but also to
women’s business groups and state broadcasting associations, at the RAB and the
In 1992, a groundbreaking
book called “Megatrends for Women” was published. The authors said this: “the description of the characteristics of a manager
of the future uncannily match those of female leadership.” In fact, “every item on the experts’ list of
leadership qualities—openness, trust, empowerment, compassion and understanding
balanced with objectivity—describe the female leadership style.”
I took those words to
heart as I stepped up to higher and higher executive positions at Nassau
Broadcasting. And I put those words into
I hired and promoted more
and more deserving, talented women. I made
sure that they all had the core belief that when you work in an environment
that promotes a positive atmosphere, it raises the standards for everyone. And I paid for their memberships in AWRT as
part of their employment packages. It
was the right thing to do.
The members and directors
of AWRT, and now, the Alliance for Women in Media have spent 69 years promoting
and encouraging opportunities for women in media. They’ve paved the way for women to bring a
positive approach to leading our companies, our organizations, our colleagues,
our peers…to success.
The shared experience of
being a member of AWM elevates us all. Vision, direction, autonomy,
trust, belonging, having a voice, being represented, and joyful camaraderie: these are the attributes that not only offer
both women and men success, they are truly assets that allow all media companies
to grow and flourish. And these
attributes are what AWM embodies in the very core of its organizational DNA.
This is our message. This is what inspires
us to Make A Difference. And as we each attain our individual goals it is our duty
to turn around and reach our hands out to the next woman down the line…and the
next one and the next one. To raise each
other up. We need to celebrate our diversity, our strengths, and our ability to
keep our energies focused on the things that make a difference for women in
We must recruit new members from each
upcoming generation of broadcasters. Mentoring
these women, inspiring them, opening doors for them…and finding opportunities
to help them and us create success for all women in media.
We need to continue to develop and refine
programs that provide education, leadership training, outreach programs. To advance the mission of AWM by increasing
its visibility, its credibility, and, as a professional organization, by
contributing to the advancement of the broadcasting and digital media industries
as a whole.
In 2002, just after I was named “The Number
One Most Influential Woman in Radio” by Radio Ink Magazine, I was invited to Capitol
Hill to speak to the FCC. I started that
speech by saying these words: “Mr.
Chairman, Commissioners. First, I’d like
to say that I find it amazing that we’re sitting here today, in the year 2002,
still having to discuss the issues of women’s equality in the broadcasting
industry. The same conversation I’ve
been having since the 1970s.”
Have we advanced since then? Yes.
But we still have a long way to go.
Let me end today by reading from a company
handbook written around the same year that AWRT first came into existence in
1951. This chapter was entitled: “The
Guide for Hiring Women” and there were 10 rules. I’ll just read you a few.
#1: Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of
responsibility then their unmarried sisters, they’re less likely to be
flirtatious and they still have the pep and interest in working hard.
#2: General experience indicates that
husky girls are more even-tempered and efficient than their underweight
#3: Give the female employee a definite
day-long schedule of duties so that they’ll keep busy without bothering
management for instructions every few minutes.
Women lack initiative in finding work for themselves.
#4: Give a girl an adequate number of
rest periods during the day. A girl has
more confidence and is more efficient if she can take some time to keep her
hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick and wash her hands several times a day.
Today, in 2020, I say to you. Let’s move our respective industries into the
future. Let’s demonstrate the power of
women when we come together to strengthen, support and promote one
another. Let’s empower the entire media
industry so that it truly reflects and honors the communities we serve.
Being a member of AWM changed me. It made me
a better broadcaster, a better leader.
And it made me a better human being.
So now you have a little organizational
history, some of my personal stories and, hopefully, I’ve inspired you just a
bit. As I said at the beginning,
membership in AWM is a privilege…and I ask you to accept the challenge of
bringing in new members.
As we grow AWM membership, we grow our media
industries and ourselves. We grow the pool of talented, ambitious and
outstanding women who can lead companies forward. We have work to do. YOU have work to do.