One of the defining figures in British radio, Jo Whiley is known to millions as the unmistakable voice of weeknights on BBC Radio 2. Since 2011 she has spearheaded the Radio 2 In Session season which has showcased everyone from Ed Sheeran to Elbow. This is just the latest achievement in a thirty year career which has seen Jo rise to the very top of her industry and one of the leading figures in new music. Beginning her career as a researcher on the Radio 4 pop culture series WPFM, Jo was very quick to realise the possibilities and power of radio as she watched the great Terry Christian interact with the specific desires of the youth demographic. When Christian left to anchor Channel Four’s seminal late night music entertainment show The Word, it fell to Jo to inherit the show. This offered her the perfect platform to cultivate her unique on air style which has continued to flourish for the past thirty years.
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Just a year later in 1991 Jo followed Terry Christian to The Word and secured a role as a researcher and music booker. This coincided with the explosion of American Grunge bands on to the music scene, such as Nirvana, who dominated the airwaves. In order for The Word to accurately reflect the music scene of the day, the production crew realised that they would be forced to persuade Nirvana to perform. On the 8th November 1991 Jo managed to defy the odds and arrange for Kurt Cobain and the rest of the band to appear live on the show that evening. Unbeknownst to her, this spawned one of the defining moments of the early nineties when Cobain referred to fellow performer Courtney Love as “the best fuck in the world”. This was the first of many controversial watershed moments for Channel Four in the decade which brought us The Big Breakfast and TFI Friday. Yet The Word set the benchmark for the merging of pop culture with Light Entertainment which came to define a generation and Jo is extremely proud to have been able to contribute to this.
While television was daring to reflect and champion the fashions and fads of nineties youth culture, the once radical Radio 1 was struggling to maintain its affiliation with its 18 – 25 demographic. The likes of Simon Bates and Dave Lee Travis could no longer identify with the projected audience of adolescent music fans who were longing for an outlet to represent them and their hopes and desires. In 1993 a 36 year old law graduate; Matthew Bannister was unveiled as the new station controller, tasked with reclaiming the Radio 1 audience and identity. For this, he drafted in an array of fresh, young broadcasters with a passion for music including; Chris Evans, Zoe Ball, Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley in an ultimately successful attempt to re engage with the youth demographic. This coincided with a brand new era in British music, coined as Britpop, which helped to re-establish Radio 1’s place in celebrating popular culture for the masses.
For the stations’s new look, Radio 1 required a brand new sound. This wasn’t merely a network which just played music, it aimed to create a listening experience which showcased, analysed and frequently created new music. In October 1993 Jo united with the great Steve Lamacq and replaced Mark Goodier for The Evening Session which became cult listening for music obsessed teenagers. Showcasing and celebrating the major players within the emerging Britpop scene formed the spine of the show. Yet as a new broadcaster, Jo never considered the impact and legacy of The Evening Session on the British music landscape. Indeed it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that she realises the huge significance of the show in giving a much needed platform to those artists who went on to define a generation. Blur, Pulp, Oasis and Sleeper all featured on The Evening Session before they became the Britpop icons which they were destined to be.
From The Evening Session, Jo then moved to peak time Radio 1 for The Lunchtime Social. In an era before social media and the interactivity of prime time radio, it was very seldom to hear the public’s involvement in proceedings and even rarer to have the public liaising with a celebrity. For two hours, five days a week, The Lunchtime Social became the perfect accompaniment for the mundanity of the working day and brought a slice of showbiz to many offices throughout the UK. The biggest names in pop frequently dropped by for a very intimate and unique chat which helped to create the foundation for the interactivity of mainstream radio today. This also gave Jo the opportunity to showcase the best in new music, something which soon became her trademark for the next thirty years.
In 1999 Radio 1 stalwarts Mark and Lard welcomed one of the biggest bands of the time Travis on to their afternoon show to play a few of their hits from their multi platinum selling album The Man Who followed by a cover of Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time. At the time it was merely seen as a spur of the moment event but quickly became an inspiration for what would become one of the most popular aspects of Jo Whiley’s Radio 1 tenure. As a result of her journalistic background, Jo was arguably more equipped with the tools in which to conduct an interview with the guest either before or after their performance. Therefore due to popular demand, Radio 1 made this a permanent feature which was named The Live Lounge. This would be the first time that bands would perform a live set on mainstream daytime radio and over the next decade Jo would welcome some of the greatest singer songwriters in the world to perform their biggest hits and a cover of their choice. Such a simple formula would prove successful with the radio audience and has since spawned countless albums and a popular YouTube channel.
Despite a lifelong passion for new and emerging music, Jo has always understood that nothing lasts forever and working for a youth orientated station like Radio 1, this is crucial. After two years of presenting weekend afternoons, in 2011 she said an emotional goodbye to BBC Radio 1 and found her new home presenting a music show for the Radio 2 weeknight schedule. To Jo, this was her natural graduation to a station where she was able to indulge her passion for the whole breadth of popular music. As a broadcaster, she realised that it was the right time to say goodbye to the station which had arguably defined her career. Yet with a growing presence within the live music scene, Radio 2 wanted a platform in which to invite some of the performers who made up the station’s playlist to perform live at the legendary Maida Vale Studios. Jo was the perfect candidate to figurehead such a project and over a decade later, Radio 2 In Concert is still going strong.
Reflecting on her career, radio still means so much to the broadcaster who helped to define a generation presiding over the ever changing fads and fashions of the nineties and post millennium era. Just like the artists she championed and celebrated, Jo Whiley occupies a very significant part in the story of popular culture and the opportunity to interview her about her incredible career was one of the greatest privileges of my life. When the history books are written surrounding pop culture in the 1990’s to the twenties, it would be impossible not to mention the formidable contribution of Jo Whiley. It was an honour to share this podcast with her and irrespective of her future plans, it’s clear that she has left an indelible mark on the course of British broadcasting. For that I salute you!