It was hurtful, InsultIng, relentless. I crIed for three months
he 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.
‘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.
‘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