Jo Whiley: ‘The risks were not known... I thought hearing ringing noises was the mark of a really good gig’
The DJ and mother reveals to Gabrielle Fagan how being diagnosed with tinnitus made her “fear for her sanity”and how she has been able to cope
Jo Whiley is one of the nation’s best-loved DJ and broadcasters, with a career that’s spanned more than two decades. As well as being a regular presenter on Top Of The Pops, she hosted a morning show on BBC Radio One for eight years until 2011, when she moved over to Radio Two.
The mother-of-four regularly fronts the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, but years of visiting festivals and live gigs have taken their toll. She has tinnitus — a condition caused by damage to the cochlear hair cells in the inner ear which causes sufferers to hear a ringing, whistling or buzzing noise.
It is a condition whose seriousness and impact on daily life only those who suffer from it really appreciate. In our interview Jo, 52, reveals her struggle with the affliction, how she’s learned to cope with it and why she’s stronger than most.
She is keen to spell out what living with tinnitus is really like.
She says: “Waking up to a whistling sound that won’t go away makes you fear for your sanity. When I’m stressed it’s worse and can sound as loud as a shrieking kettle on a hob. There were times I thought it was going to drive me mad.
“About three years ago I became very anxious and stressed about it and dreaded going to bed at night because that was when it was worst. You’re so aware of it at times when everything is quiet.
“I used to lie there feeling panic-stricken, claustrophobic and overwhelmed thinking, ‘I’m never going to hear silence again and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ It can become all-consuming.”
She is clear about the cause of her tinnitus.
“Years of bombarding my ears with lots of really loud music has taken its toll on my hearing. Ever since I was a student I’ve gone to some incredibly loud gigs. At 18 I went to see a band called Swans, who were famed for being one of the noisiest band around. I stood right by the speaker.
“Afterwards the ringing lasted for days. When you’re young you think you’re immortal. The risks weren’t known then, and I thought hearing ringing noises was the mark of a really good gig. Three decades later, you wake up and realise you’ve got a problem.”
Having learned that she has tinnitus is there anything she can do to help her cope with it? Jo says: “I’ve learnt to distract myself from it by focusing on other noises. At night I’ll have a radio or TV on low volume, and in the day I’ll key into other noises like birds singing or dogs barking. When I feel that rising panic, I tell myself, ‘It’s OK, calm down, you can deal with this’.
“When I realised I had tinnitus I was terrified I’d damaged my hearing as well [around one in every three people with tinnitus don’t have any obvious problem with their hearing] but the expert at Specsavers, with whom I consulted, told me my hearing is fine.
She adds: “Now I really want to warn young people — and my own kids — to take their hearing seriously and protect their ears with earplugs at loud concerts.”
Her condition also made her reassess her day job as a DJ. She explains: “It made me more cautious. You get used to the volume in your ears being a certain level, but I’ve had to wean myself gradually into having the volume lower. I ensure I turn speakers down. It can be worse when I’ve listened to a lot of loud music.“
Apart from the tinnitus does she have any other health problems and how does she cope with them?
“I run, swim and go to the gym. I’ve got a light scoliosis [curvature of the spine], so I’ve always had a dodgy back. I’m also prone to sore, stiff joints.”
What’s got her through the tough times?
She takes a realistic view of life: “No matter what you’re facing, having perspective and humour are key. The older you get, the more you realise everyone’s had things to deal with.
“My sister’s got learning disabilities, so all my life our family have been in contact with people who’ve had challenges and difficulties. I’ve seen what people can cope with and overcome.”
In a life lived out in public what has been her most embarrassing moment?
She still shudders at the memory: “The most hideous, mortifying moment of my career was when the band The Fray asked me to play tambourine with them on stage at the Radio 1 Big Weekend in 2007.
“It was impossible to refuse but, as I have no rhythm whatsoever and am the least musical person in the world, I just stood there, completely and utterly frozen. I don’t like performing at the best of times. I do a radio show so I can hide behind the microphone in a dark studio.”
How would she like to be remembered?
“As a really nice, kind person. That’s all you could ever want to be. I try to be that on my radio show — a voice for people who are listening at different times in their life. I want them to know there’s a person there who’s a friend through the radio.”
Jo Whiley is supporting Specsavers Audiologists Listen Up! campaign to encourage regular hearing checks. For details or to book a free hearing test, visit specsavers.co.uk/hearing
Belfast Telegraph Digital