Thank you for the music
While many female DJs must stoop to flashing cleavage on the covers of men's magazines, Jo Whiley has carved her own niche with sincerity, encyclopaedic knowledge - and a passion for pop
Sunday 11 January 1998
Such coyness from the Radio 1 DJ who, in your average week, interviews more pop "celebs"on her lunchtime show than Noel necks cups of tea; Tuesday was Radiohead, the day after, Rick Mayall, and Friday, Ian Brown. Until some time last summer, Whiley's husky tones were better known to the NME brigade for co-presenting The Evening Session with Steve Lamacq. Now, though, she reaches a much wider audience with her lunchtime slot, and the world of television has suddenly woken up to her potential.
Despite Chris Evans's blokish quip at the the Brit Awards two years ago that Whiley was the woman at Radio 1 most likely to give you the horn, she seems to have been able to rise above such stereotyping. Last year, she was schlepping through mud with John Peel for the BBC's coverage of Glastonbury. Now a regular presenter on Top Of The Pops, she's swiftly rising as Brit Pop's equivalent to Muriel Gray; a sort of Annie Nightingale for a Nineties pop-literati suffering from bouncy-blonde-presenter fatigue. Her partnering with Peel continues at the end of January with Music Of The Millennium - The Final Countdown on Channel Four, letting the public vote on their favourite albums. If she had her way, it would be Massive Attack's Blue Lines, but as it is, she's crossing her fingers that die- hard trad rock fans won't dominate. "It still seems to be the fans of Led Zeppelin that vote. I live in dread that Zep and Pink Floyd are going to come up again and again."
There's also a new pop programme in the pipeline for Channel 4, still at pilot stage, which, if successful, Whiley will present some time in spring. "I think there's a real need for an intelligent music programme, talking about the issues in music with people you're interested in hearing, whether it's Jarvis or Skunk Anansie."
Whiley's sincerity about pop music, her indie-sensibility and down-to- earth presenting style seem like a perfect antidote to zanier pop formulas. While the Denise van Outens and Zoe Balls of this world have been swiftly "babefied" for the male magazine market - exposing cleavage and legs on countless glossy covers - it's hard to imagine Whiley, 32, packaged in such a way. As an old mate of Ball's, she does find it somewhat irksome that women in her industry are so quickly pigeon-holed. "Zoe came round just before Christmas and we were doing a pop trivia game. She just wiped the floor with everyone - Radio 1 producers and people from the music industry. Her knowledge of music is incredible. I just thought, 'God, that's a side that really doesn't get through'."
With Whiley, though, it most definitely does get through. After five minutes in her company, it's easy to see why. There's no flirting, frills or fancy stuff to distract you. She's plain-spoken without being a motor- mouth. Pop stars clearly warm to her, because she doesn't try to upstage them or get girlie in their company, and she isn't impressed by the nature of their celebrity - or, increasingly, her own. It's certainly not something she's ever courted. "I wasn't one of those people who used to listen to John Peel under the bedclothes and think, 'One day I'll be there'."
Yet she grew up, in Northampton, surrounded by music. Her mother runs a post office, her father is an electrician, and they would constantly listen to Elvis and the Rolling Stones. Even now, says Whiley, her father will phone up and say, "John Peel played this really good reggae record the other night."
Whiley doesn't come across as hugely ambitious or driven. But like many people, it seems, who make a living out of a personal passion, she's risen rather effortlessly. While studying languages at Brighton Polytechnic, she started working on a local radio station and then came to London to study radio journalism. She worked in television on a couple of obscure programmes, before landing two series on The Word, booking bands. Then Radio 1 tried her out on the Session slot and she started with Steve Lamacq in 1994. Despite her rise and rise in the television pop world, you won't find her ligging at pop and PR bashes. Home is in North London where she lives, "like a gang" with her husband Steve, who works in music promotion, and her five-year-old daughter, India.
As a music fan, though, she can still be overawed by the people she has to mix with. "Some are more scary than others," she says. "I was terrified of David Bowie. I just used to think he was God's gift. He came to the studio half an hour early and I was sitting, with no make-up on, still writing my notes out. His head popped round the door and he said, 'Hello. Shall I come in?' I said, 'I haven't got any make-up on,' to which he replied, No, neither have I. Never mind.'"
What saves her from descending into luvviness when she relates such chummy escapades with the pop world's A-list is a focused passion for the music, far more than the hype and image that surrounds it. Whiley seems more relaxed talking about her love of radio, or the first time she saw The Clash in Birmingham when she was ten. She's just as enthusiastic about new music - Cornershop and Belle & Sebastian are among her current favourites - and since her move to the lunchtime slot, a priority is breaking new bands to a larger audience. "That's what makes it worthwhile. If all I could play was M-People or The Lighthouse Family all the time, I would go absolutely insane," she says. "If I know I'm going to play a new DJ Shadow record and interview Ian Brown, then it's a good day."
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