“Do ladybirds milk aphids?!” asks Jo Whiley, who is clearly as bemused as RT as we sit and consider the question. “It turns out that ladybirds eat aphids, but ants milk aphids,” says Simon Mayo, without missing a beat.
The two venerable presenters are wedged next to each other in a cramped office belonging to the head of Radio 2 on the third floor of Wogan House. “It’s one of the weirdest things ever,” Mayo continues. Whiley looks at him, then at Radio Times, then back at Mayo again.
“It was a Homework question on yesterday’s show,” he offers by way of an explanation. “Ladybirds will eat aphids but ants look after them.”
This is precisely the kind of entertaining, useless information that keeps Mayo’s show tripping along for two hours every weekday evening and has helped turn it into the most popular drivetime show on radio, with almost six million listeners. Jo Whiley may not have been among them the day before, but she would have been preparing for her own Radio 2 show, which goes out at 8pm Mondays to Thursdays.
“It was a deal-breaker,” she teases. “If I’ve got to work with him I said we would have to talk about gardening.” The former Radio 1 DJ is now well known for her love of gardening.
“Yes, we’re going to do a long gardening feature,” deadpans Mayo. “Every Thursday is going to be devoted to gardening tips – like Gardeners’ Question Time but for two hours.” He is joking, but as we speak, three weeks before their first show goes on air, the format of the show is still to be confirmed. The pair are in today to work on a pilot and, while they obviously enjoy each other’s company, it’s fair to say this development does not fill either with any appreciable delight.
“We’re being very truculent about it,” says Whiley of the pilot.
“If it was down to me we wouldn’t do any [pilot shows] at all,” says Mayo. “In an ideal world it would just be the digital equivalent of coming into the studio with a pile of records and some guests.”
Similarly, the idea of a co-presenter did not come from Mayo. “Jo and I didn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s do a show together,’ but when the idea was floated to me, Jo was about the only possible presenter I could imagine working with.” They’ve known each other since their days on Radio 1 in the 1990s, and even went on family holidays together when their children were young.
What’s more surprising is that when Whiley sits next to Mayo on 14 May, she’ll be the first female presenter of a mainstream daytime Radio 2 show since Debbie Thrower in 1998. Was there pressure to ensure that May’s co-presenter was female? “It would have been odd if it had been two guys turning up,” says Mayo. “It would have been unusual and not wise, but we never had that conversation because it went as far as working with Jo and that was it.”
In accordance with BBC policy, both will be paid the same amount for the same show. Mayo has no problem with equal pay but is less sure about publishing salaries (last July Mayo was revealed to earn between £350,000 and £400,000 and Whiley £150,000 to £200,000). “My worry is that it will become like a yearly turkey shoot and I think it’s often used as a stick to hit the BBC with… The critics are saying, ‘Look at this, this isn’t right,’ but actually their broader agenda is dismantling the BBC, so that’s one of the reasons why it’s so uncomfortable.”
Whiley sounds more enthusiastic about being transparent. “It’s ludicrous to think two people would be doing the same job and be paid different amounts of money because of their sex; that’s just unfathomable,” she says. “I don’t like talking about money at the best of times, but if it’s necessary to put things right, to correct the balance so that women are treated fairly and are paid fairly for the job that they are doing, then let’s discuss it, bring it on.”
It’s clear that as double acts go, they already have an easy rapport. “If you’re listening to two people who are friends being the presenters of the show, then I think that is an enormous asset,” says Mayo.
“I’ll check my rose bushes tomorrow,” says Whiley as they stand up to leave the office. “I’ve cleared my diary for a day of gardening and that’s all I want to do.” “If you’ve got aphids, get some ladybirds,” counsels Mayo.
Jo Whiley and Simon Mayo is on Monday—Friday at 5pm on Radio 2