After 20 years of eye-wateringly early starts, TV’s Jo Scott is something of a specialist when it comes to sleep. The mum-of-two, who’s gearing up for the latest series of rural affairs show Home Ground to hit our screens on Monday, spent years getting up with the lark to present BBC NI’s early morning Newsline – and the experience has left its mark.
There is nothing as important as sleep,” says newsreader Jo. “For probably 20 years of my life it was early mornings, 4.30am starts for my news shifts, so when I’m out filming with Home Ground now I can really empathise with the farmers and what they go through.
“I present in the evenings now which suits me better I think, because sleep is absolutely key. It impacts on everything, absolutely everything, and after such a long time of early starts it’s something I’m really fussy about.”
And not only does Jo opt for an early bedtime, but she has a strong routine for the build-up, which she says is just as important in making sure the sleep she gets is worth it.
“I try to get seven or eight hours a night,” says Jo. “I don’t have coffee after 4pm, I have a walk in the evening and I wouldn’t eat after 7pm because that impacts on your sleep.
“Bedtime, if I can, is usually 9.30pm, maybe 10pm, and I’m careful about my day and evening routine. I was sleep deprived for years so it’s a priority. I’m cranky when I don’t get enough.”
And proving she’s not the only one to take her zzzs seriously, the presenter chatted to one farmer through the making of the latest series of Home Ground who’s used some serious innovation in order to squeeze in some extra shut-eye.
“It’s such a big thing,” she says. “And it really impacts on people’s lives if they don’t get enough, so people take it seriously.
“We were out with a farmer during the series and he was amazing. He’s embraced technology brilliantly to improve efficiency on his beef farm during calving.
“He’s got this gadget which he attaches to the cows’ tails and when they’re about to calve their tail starts to move really rapidly.
“The gadget sets off a sensor which sends a text to his phone so he knows he needs to get to the cow. It means he doesn’t have to spend half the night standing in a field. In fact, he told me he’s able to stick the whole thing on snooze and he sometimes only needs to move when it goes off for a second time. Every minute counts!”
And of course filming for this series – Home Ground’s ninth – was something of a different experience for Jo and co-presenters Gavin Andrews, Ruth Sanderson and new recruit, wildlife expert Conor McKinney.
“It’s been a great series,” says 48-year-old Jo. “But it’s been slightly different obviously with all we’ve had to consider with social distancing throughout filming, but by the same token having been in lockdown all that time it was lovely to be out again.
“It’s been great to be back out across Northern Ireland exploring rural life, seeing the resilience of the farming community as they adapted to life with coronavirus and meeting people with a passion for rural life and the great outdoors.
“Everyone went through it in such different ways so it’s been fascinating to see how people have dealt with it, and how the farming industry has dealt with it.
“I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve had some pretty juicy stories to work with and met some really interesting people. I did a lovely story with a girl who has embraced social farming, which is essentially using her farm to help adults who perhaps have learning difficulties or who have been through a really difficult time.
“I also met a really brilliant woman who has used social media to connect women in farming because sometimes the significance of their role can be forgotten – can you imagine such a thing?
“She used social media and launched Agriwoman24, because if you can imagine all those female farmers, they’re doing long hours in a difficult job which can be incredibly lonely and they don’t get to connect or chat with other women in the same way you can in other industries. She was fascinating, with a great point to make.”
The key thing she’s taken from this series though, says Jo, is the incredible job farmers and local producers have done so far through the course of the pandemic to keep us all fed.
“What a fabulous job they’ve done,” she says. “They were facing all sorts of challenges but they were focused on supplying all of us with lovely produce as many restrictions were put in place through all of this. Increasingly I’m opting for local produce myself, and I think more people are embracing it. I hope so.”
And while getting back out for Home Ground was a big step towards normality for journalist Jo, in fact she’d carried on working throughout the lockdown, presenting the evening news on BBC NI.
“I worked most of the way through, albeit on a skeleton basis,” she recalls. “I was busy, and of course the newsroom never sleeps.
“As it turned out our audience figures were higher than ever because of course everyone was fascinated by what was going on.
“People can rely on the BBC, particularly at unprecedented times like these, so they were tuning in to find out what was happening in the midst of all of it.”
But as well as the facts and figures and the latest government guidelines, it was the many personal stories she encountered that hit a nerve.
“For me, you can’t work in an environment like that and not be aware of the very serious stress and heartache some families are going through,” says Jo. “You’re covering these stories day in, day out so it’s never far from your mind.
“What that did was make me feel very blessed for the relatively calm and peaceful time I had with my family.”
Living in Belfast with husband Gerry McAleenan and sons James (12), and nine-year-old Ollie, Jo’s usual routine of heading regularly to the gym was sidelined during lockdown – so she managed to pick up a new hobby.
“Yoga,” she says. “It’s become my new passion. I’d always done little bits here and there, but a good friend I used to go to the gym with, well she trained as a yoga teacher and she did the classes from home. Zoom yoga. I absolutely loved it.
“It’s so tough, but she’s very gentle and is just perfect for the job. It’s such a de-stresser, and a lovely way to start the day.
“Exercise is a big thing for me but one of the benefits I found from lockdown was the realisation you don’t need to be in a gym to get the best from it.
“Nature provides, and there’s nothing nicer than a big family walk, or a nice, leave the kids, get the headphones in and go for a run.
“That’s a good de-stresser too, and I think like a lot of people I found it all a bit of a time for reflection. It made me realise nature is every bit as important in the process as the gym.
“It ticks a lot of boxes, particularly being out as a family. I’m sure I’m not the only parent who’s had moments of struggling to get children off gadgets. That afternoon walk in our local park was so important for us.
“Gerry runs his own business so he was at home through the lockdown too and we were able to split the home-schooling. Our youngest was just finishing P5, so I took the lead there and Gerry did the Year 8 work with James.
“Occasionally I ventured into that stuff, so I got a bit of a refresher on photosynthesis! I know we were lucky though, because it was such a tougher struggle to balance things for some families.
“I have a lot of friends who work for the NHS and I know it was a different experience for them, juggling things at work and at home. They showed incredible dedication.”
And with such a solid career herself, having moved into broadcasting at BBC NI after a stint at Downtown Radio, Jo followed an interesting path into a life working in news. After studying in Edinburgh, the presenter spent time in London working as a food buyer for Marks & Spencer — a period in her life she says she loved.
“I did different stints there, a few years altogether, and I loved it,” she recalls. “It depends what stage you’re at, and back then I was single, I had money in my pocket, I embraced it and loved it.”
But it was spending time with the retailer’s magazine department that reignited in Jo an ambition she’d had to get into journalism — something she pursued with a postgraduate course back in her native Belfast.
“I think in life there’s a bit of a plan and a path and if you make decisions and deviate off the path, something will put you back on it,” she says. “I feel it was very much right place, right time for me. I started out at Downtown, and then there was an opportunity at Radio Ulster.
“I’ve always felt really lucky, and especially now when I see how difficult it can be for young people to get their careers off the ground.
“I think Belfast has been a great place for me, and it has so much going on. I loved my time in London but now I’m very content to be here, close to family and relations, to the schools we have and to bring my children up surrounded by love and family.”
The youngest of four siblings, Jo grew up in Jordanstown with mum Jo, who worked for the Department of Agriculture, and her late dad Alan, an engineer.
“We’re a really close family,” says the presenter. “My dad passed away almost six years ago and my mum is my rock. We have an exceptionally close relationship. I couldn’t imagine ever living away from her now. She’s wonderful with the kids.
“Through the lockdown, like so many other families, we didn’t see each other for weeks and that was really difficult. We relied on the phone because mum wouldn’t be fully versed in technology so FaceTime and Skype weren’t really an option.
“But my mum is incredibly resilient and upbeat. She’s so positive and I knew if anyone could handle lockdown, she could. She actually embraced the whole thing and grew her own potatoes, lettuce, strawberries, all sorts. The place was like the Chelsea Flower Show. She walked laps of the house and the garden to keep fit, and we got to see her in the garden when the restrictions eased off, which was great.”
And, says Jo, her mum’s support and encouragement growing up led her toward the career she loves.
“Mum was ahead of her time,” she says. “Back in the day you gave up work when you married, but she carried on. As children she encouraged us to take part in public speech and drama, all that kind of thing.
“I suppose without realising it, she’s the reason I do what I do today because she gave me all those tools, and I’m really grateful to her for that.”
And while her choice of career has come with challenges — the very many early mornings for a start — Jo says she wouldn’t have chosen to do anything else.
“It’s a really demanding job,” she says. “But it’s a job I love. I love the structure of news, the fact it’s live and that no two days are the same.
“Journalism is what I wanted to do, and that was always the goal. One of the really important things you need to have as a newsreader is the ability to detach yourself from really heartbreaking stories.
“Through those awful few months, the notion you would have to wave a loved one off in an ambulance and never see them again, not give them a proper funeral, well that is beyond heartbreaking.
“I have to present those stories to people but I have to stay a little bit detached from them too, otherwise it would be really difficult to do the job. I’ve covered so many stories over the years, and my take away is that some people get more than their fair share of heartache.
“But a real positive through everything that’s happened over the last few months was the clap every week for the NHS workers. That definitely brought a lump to my throat out of sheer gratitude and respect for everything they did.”
And with the challenges of live news to deal with on one hand, the joy Jo gets from her involvement with Home Ground on the other, is clear.
“Home Ground is the complete contrast,” she says. “I get to meet all sorts of people and belly laugh my way through work with an amazing team, and a hilarious co-presenter in Gavin.
“It’s amazing that we’re in our ninth series, and we’re all delighted about it. It’s a lovely, easy watch and now as we’re heading into the autumn after such a hard few months, that’s what people need. A bit of comfort, something to settle into on a Monday night when they’ve had their dinner and want to relax.
“It’s about farming, but it’s really not just for farmers, it’s for everyone who loves the country. I’m a townie myself, but the people of the countryside in Northern Ireland couldn’t be more welcoming, and their stories are wonderful.”
Home Ground returns for a new four-part series on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday, 7.35pm