Catherine Combs

January, 2020


Joan Gerberding, Former AWRT President, on the Impact of AWM

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 until 1958.

    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!

    There were 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. 

    When 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.

    AWRT set 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 the book. 

    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 edit it.”

    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 in time. 

    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, no nothing!

    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 sweat! 

    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 never forget.

    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 new. 

    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 hire me!” 

    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 Monday.”

    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 radio.

    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 Handshake.”

    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 NAB. 

    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 action.

    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 media.

    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.

  • Rule #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.
  • Rule #2:  General experience indicates that husky girls are more even-tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters.
  • Rule #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.

And last:

  • Rule #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.