The curious thing about Jo Whiley, the veteran DJ whose voice is the soundtrack to millions of lives, is that she herself is a sucker for silence. Whether she’s lacing her trainers to go for a run or digging in her Northamptonshire garden, she doesn’t listen to music or even fire up a podcast. ‘I just like playing things to other people,’ she says.
Whiley uses these quiet times to empty her head. Given the tumultuous year she’s had, it’s proved a vital skill. In May, Whiley became the face of the BBC’s move to modernise Radio 2, the nation’s favourite station. But her new job, as co-host alongside Drivetime star Simon Mayo on a revamped afternoon show, saw her lambasted by critics and trolled by listeners. They accused Whiley of being there just to fulfil BBC diversity targets, destroying a much-loved programme in the process. The mutiny by middle-aged middle England was awful to behold.
Jo Whiley became the face of the BBC’s move to modernise Radio 2, the nation’s favourite station. But her new job, as co-host alongside Drivetime star Simon Mayo on a revamped afternoon show, saw her lambasted by critics and trolled by listeners
‘I have only ever wanted to be judged for my work, not my sex,’ Whiley says, talking about the ordeal for the first time. ‘Aside from family dramas, this is the toughest thing I’ve had to endure. There was this wall of resistance to me from a very vocal bunch of people. It was hurtful, insulting. It made me look at who I am not just as a broadcaster but as a person. It made me reassess everything. It’s too easy to hate these days, to forget there’s someone just doing their thing, on the receiving end of such hostility. And it was relentless, every hour of every day. No matter how tough and resilient you are, that chips away at you.’
Whiley was on holiday in Cornwall when the noise finally became intolerable. She had recently recorded an essay for Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about careers for women in the music industry, thinking about the prospects of the generation that includes her daughters India, 26, and Coco, ten, with whom she was at that moment enjoying breakfast. But the online response was ‘particularly savage’ (her words), with commentators telling her to ‘take a long hard look at yourself’, ‘steaming in to a show that was great’, ‘just because you are a woman, being given that’, ‘using your sex to get your new position’. ‘Invariably the criticism was from women,’ she says. ‘It was the most disappointing thing in the world.’
She’d suffered a three-month campaign of abuse by then. ‘I was tearful quite a lot of the time. Some days it was hard to walk out of my front door, let alone present a radio show. I would go on Twitter to tell listeners about a great interview coming up and be bombarded with people being vicious.’
But there was something about this new onslaught that gave her the backbone to stop accepting the judgment of others and start groping for what was left of her self-confidence.
THREE OF JO’S FAVOURITE SHOWS
Breakfast with Greg James
Greg comes up with genius ideas and is killing it on the show. He’s going to be one of the all-time breakfast-show greats.
Gardeners’ Question Time
I instinctively know when it’s on air and gravitate to the radio or organise a car trip to coincide with it.
Fi Glover & Jane Garvey
The one podcast I listen to. Here are two BBC greats talking with irreverent candour – highly recommended!
‘That week in August was the hardest. I thought, “I have to leave this behind, I have to toughen up and strengthen my resolve. I am going to carry on and fight for my right to broooaaaaadcast…” as the Beastie Boys might possibly have said.’
We both laugh because she’s adapting the lyrics of the Beastie Boys’ 1986 mega hit (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party). There can be few people of her generation – she is 53 – who don’t automatically smile when they think of that song, and Whiley, with her unerring instinct for the right mood music, knows it’ll make her sound more upbeat.
What she’s saying is she’ll talk about what happened to her – but she won’t be seen as a victim.
In the past she’s presented both daytime and evening programmes, but most listeners associate her with the latter. ‘I have a soothing, relaxed voice for evening and I feel I know my audience at that time,’ she says. It made her a bizarre choice for Drivetime, the bustlingly busy get-you-home show. Worse still, it was the fiefdom of Mayo, a man perfectly in tune with an audience he’d kept informed and entertained on his own for the past eight years. This had to be an example of BBC political correctness turned tone deaf, didn’t it?
‘It takes a long time for you to find your voice on the radio. When I first came to Radio 2 from Radio 1 [in 2011] there was a period when I was thinking, That’s Radio 1 Jo speaking, because I don’t know who the Radio 2 Jo is yet,’ says Jo
No, says Whiley (who has to, really). ‘I have my musical expertise, Simon has a broad knowledge and surely they just thought it was a good fit, that we could make a really big, fantastic show together. Maybe I was being naive but I was shocked when people said I was only there because of diversity.’
IT’S A FACT
The first song played on Radio 1 was The Move’s Flowers In The Rain. Radio 2’s was Julie Andrews’ The Sound Of Music. Radio 6 Music’s was Burn Baby Burn by Ash.
She will agree she didn’t make a great debut. ‘It takes a long time for you to find your voice on the radio. When I first came to Radio 2 from Radio 1 [in 2011] there was a period when I was thinking, That’s Radio 1 Jo speaking, because I don’t know who the Radio 2 Jo is yet. You speak ridiculously slowly and in a bit of a posh voice because you think that’s how you are supposed to be on Radio 2. Then you relax and become yourself. On Drivetime I didn’t know who I was for quite a long time, I didn’t know what my Drivetime voice should be. I was thinking, Am I supposed to speak in a fast, upbeat, strange way that is not really me? I was trying to pretend to be a drivetime DJ when I should have just been myself.’
The controller of Radio 2, Lewis Carnie, suggested the new double-handed Drivetime needed six months to bed in. Instead that proved to be its entire lifespan and it gasped its last shortly before Christmas. Mayo quit the corporation after 31 years of hosting a national daily programme on one of its stations – though he’ll continue to present a weekly film review show on Radio 5 Live – and tomorrow Whiley starts a new Monday-Thursday, 7pm-9pm slot.
Mayo was protective of Whiley, describing her as ‘exceptional’. After his departure was announced he tweeted: ‘When the show was “reconfigured” she was my first and only choice. Some of the abuse she has had has been appalling. Support for a show is one thing, assaulting the dignity of a warm-hearted and loyal friend is another.’
‘In all walks of life it is important to hold people up and give them opportunities, but fundamentally you have to be able to do your job,’ Jo says
‘That was much appreciated,’ says Whiley. But neither broadcaster had been able to disguise their lack of chemistry or the sense that they’d been paired to address Radio 2’s gender inequality rather than for creative reasons.
Change had to come to Radio 2, whose presenters were described by Radio 4’s Jane Garvey as ‘extraordinarily male, entirely pale, with big salaries’. Whiley’s partnership with Mayo was the first time in 20 years that a female DJ had presented a Radio 2 daytime show. That’s hardly representative of either the talent available or the 14.6 million listeners who tune in to the station every week.
In fact, it’s a throwback to the years Whiley was a Brighton Poly student cooking lentil curry and listening to Annie Nightingale on Radio 1, wondering where all the rest of the women were. ‘This is not before time,’ she says. ‘Radio 2 is always a decade behind, and now it’s playing catch-up.’ For the record, she does support positive discrimination. ‘In all walks of life it is important to hold people up and give them opportunities, but fundamentally you have to be able to do your job.’
As well as Whiley’s return to an evening show, this year will also see Sara Cox moving to the Drivetime slot and Zoë Ball taking over Chris Evans’ breakfast show. Ball is not going to be paid as much as Evans. She has said: ‘I’m not expecting the same as him, but I have discussed fees and I’m very, very happy with what the BBC is paying.’
Similarly, Whiley doesn’t view this as a gender pay gap in operation, more a reflection of the reality that the corporation’s biggest stars are paid according to their brand. Under changes to the BBC Charter, her own salary will once again be made public. Does she mind that? ‘I don’t enjoy it. Everyone should know my salary? Fair enough, bit weird.’
(Last year, according to the wage reveal she was paid between £170,000 and £179,000 for her work across the BBC, while Mayo was paid between £350,000 and £400,000 for presenting on Drivetime and his 5 Live film show.)
On her much acclaimed fashion sense: ‘I think women in mid-life have to make themselves feel tough and strong and invincible, they have to fortify themselves’
Whiley’s new programme is likely to be as popular as the evening show she was happily doing this time last year (I ask if she’d like a co-host: ‘Er, no.’) It will curate Whiley’s magpie interests in music and accessible arts such as TV, theatre and film. There’ll be a book club discussing both new and classic books and she’s also launching a ‘Jo recommends’ slot, ‘to point people to fabulous box sets and TV shows and podcasts and exhibitions’.
There is also a new one for Whiley: fashion. She has long been nicknamed radio’s Queen of Cool, and today she’s wearing a loose-cut, silky dress by a Danish label she has just discovered and some on-trend trainers. At her neck there’s a delicate rose gold bee necklace made by jeweller Alex Monroe, a nod to her great passion for gardening.
‘I feel like I have been on a fashion journey and finally I know what I want to wear and how I want to represent myself,’ she says. ‘I am more comfortable with my style and in my own skin than I was when I was younger – I have had time to make all my mistakes. Right now I think I wear what’s right for a woman of my age who’s grown up with rock ’n’ roll, who’s always been a bit left of centre.
‘I am also setting myself new physical challenges, like doing a triathlon this year. I think women in mid-life have to make themselves feel tough and strong and invincible, they have to fortify themselves. Clothes do that and taking care of your body does that too. It gives you a real sense of self and that’s like putting on a suit of armour.’
Last year that was something she needed. Her other great defence against all the criticism and the trolling was her husband and their home life. ‘My family bore the brunt of it. I have a much deeper love and appreciation for my husband this year. He’s fought for me, he’s been a warrior.’
Jo Whiley’s new programme is likely to be as popular as the evening show she was happily doing this time last year
Whiley’s husband is music industry executive Steve Morton, with whom she has four children, aged 26, 20, 17 and ten. The family lives in Whiley’s native Northamptonshire, close to her parents and sister Frances, who is in residential care having been born with a rare genetic disorder, cri du chat syndrome. Whiley is a long-time campaigner and fundraiser for disabled people.
She broke into broadcasting by dabbling in local radio while at polytechnic, and became a researcher on Channel 4’s youth show The Word, before joining the BBC. By her own admission she’s had a ‘blessed’ career until these past, tumultuous few months. The worst thing she can remember happening before the Drivetime audience revolt was the day she said the C-word on air – twice. ‘I was talking about West Kent Football Club and I said it entirely differently. I was thinking, did I really say that? Then I stammered through a second go and said it again.’
We’ve been speaking in a BBC studio. With its grey carpet, tangle of cables and microphones, it’s hardly glamorous – but Whiley is in her element here. It’s on the airwaves that she comes alive. I don’t think the keyboard armies who turned a backlash against a programme into a personal crusade against one person have any idea how much it hurt her to be lambasted just for clocking on.
Is there room for more diversity and further change? ‘I think,’ Whiley says carefully, ‘that this is good – for now.’
Jo’s new show is on Radio 2, Mon-Thurs, 7pm