Emma Barnett loves talking about what most people wouldn’t dream of mentioning at a dinner party. Severe period pain, masturbation and childlessness are just a few of the topics the 31-year-old presenter will discuss in her new radio show on Radio 5 Live, where every Friday she wants to smash taboos. “Lots of people when they mention these kinds of subjects have a peg on their nose, and I have yet to find a subject that makes me want to put a peg on my nose,” she says.
Of course, you don’t get to be the youngest ever presenter on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, the founder of The Daily Telegraph’s online women’s section and, from this week, one of three woman on 5 Live to have a solo show, by being overly polite and British about things – and now she’ll be talking about the menstrual cycle on the station dubbed “Radio Bloke” by some. During her three morning slots a week, Barnett will cover Prime Minister’s Questions, interview high-profile MPs and chase breaking news. So far, so agenda-following. But, on Fridays, part of her show will be dedicated to mentioning the unmentionable.
Isn’t she worried there will be lorry pile-ups on Britain’s motorways when male drivers hear listeners describing their agonising period pains? “If you want equality and you want things to change in the world, you can’t just talk to women about them. And I think we underestimate men at our peril all the time. And even men who go, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to talk about that’, they are intrigued. How many men do you know who, if they got a women’s mag, would look at the stuff that’s not meant ‘for them’?”
Unsurprisingly, Barnett insists that 5 Live is far from Radio Bloke, as the station was dubbed in the media after the departure of Victoria Derbyshire and Shelagh Fogarty in 2014, because of a lack of female solo presenters.
“You could say it’s quite sexist to think that it’s blokeish, because that’s a lot of people thinking sports is a blokeish thing. Check out the Olympics – all my female friends were addicted. And there are a lot of great women on 5 Live, whether it’s Eleanor Oldroyd or Rachel Burden.”
Eleanor Oldroyd receives the Broadcast Sports Presenter Award from David Walker during the SJA British Sports Journalism Awards 2015
Whether the perception of 5 Live as blokeish is fair or not – 71.9 per cent of listeners in 2015 were male – Barnett will be talking about issues usually confined to Woman’s Hour with around six million, possibly blushing, listeners. So what other subjects don’t Brits talk about? Barnett wants to hear about sexism dished out by women bosses who won’t hire anyone pregnant. She’s also keen to discuss how childless women are treated, especially since the issue came up in relation to Theresa May’s fitness to be prime minister: “Even the fact that ‘childless’ is a word that gets used is fascinating.”
There are plenty more topics she wants to air, Barnett says, but she won’t reveal the biggest ones: “I don’t want them to get nicked, quite frankly.” She does mention that ambition is on the agenda – something that self-deprecating Britain struggles to talk about.
Manchester-born Barnett is happy to break that taboo – she’s openly ambitious and unabashedly proud of her success. At 17, she did work experience for Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray and ten years later she was guest-presenting the programme. And Barnett’s journalistic instinct led her to tackle a skeleton in her own cupboard, revealing that her father was jailed for running brothels in a piece she wrote for The Mail on Sunday in June this year. “I also feel ready to be completely honest with my radio listeners,” she wrote, adding that the trauma had made her more determined to do well.
“I’ve worked six days a week for the last six years so I’ve definitely put the hours in,” she says. “I was advised early on to get my radio air miles up, so I very rarely turn down an opportunity. I don’t say yes to everything, but if there’s a great interview, even if I’ve just had it sprung on me, I will go and do it.”
Barnett’s first topic will be endometriosis, a chronic condition she has recently had surgery for, where cells from the womb grow elsewhere, causing painful periods and sometimes infertility and depression. “It often takes more than a decade for women to be diagnosed,” she says. Hilary Mantel has written about living with the condition, as has Lena Dunham, creator of the partly autobiographical US TV hit, Girls. “There’s a lot more to be considered about the discomfort and the logistics of having your period and continuing as normal,” says Barnett. “It’s about looking at the world we live in and thinking, ‘If it had been designed when women had an equal voice and were in the workplace, what would be different?’”
For Barnett, radio, rather than TV, is the perfect place to have these tricky, even subversive conversations. “Radio is a very special place, it’s like a conversation on steroids – as the presenter it’s a joy because you can shut people off if they’re giving you a line or if it’s waffle.
“The greatest gift I can give people is the gift of talk radio. My husband, before he met me, had never listened to speech radio. Now he listens to it all the time in our house and asks, ‘How did I not grow up with this?’
“You let people listen in on conversations that they normally don’t get to hear. A lot of the time it’s something they’ve experienced but would never dare speak about.”