Meet the media

How did you get into journalism?

When I was about 15 I read an article in a newspaper magazine about the civil war in Sri Lanka. I’d never heard of the conflict before and I couldn’t understand how so many people had died and been victims of atrocities, yet it wasn’t front page news. It was that article that really inspired me to think of journalism as a career.

It was while I was studying for a degree in English Literature that I applied for work experience with Downtown and Cool FM. They were a bit short-staffed for the summer months and needed a newsreader – I volunteered my services and my broadcasting career began the day before my 20th birthday. I continued working at the station while doing my degree – sometimes doing breakfast news from 7-9am and then heading to university. Or going to class in the morning and then working until 1am. It was hectic, but I was young and enthusiastic.

After finishing my English Lit degree I headed over to London for a Post Grad Diploma in Broadcast Journalism. I still worked for Downtown and Cool in the holidays and then came back full time in the summer of 2003. Not long after a job opportunity came up in BBC Radio Ulster and I worked there for two years on the radio news desk.

 I then took a long break from Journalism – I lived in Australia for four years and had a baby. When I moved back to Northern Ireland there had been so many staff cut backs I didn’t think I would get a job in the media. But I heard through an old colleague that Downtown and Cool needed a freelancer. Once again I volunteered my services and I’ve been back on the radio full-time since April 2012.

Who do you most admire within your profession and why?

I’ve always admired the foreign and war correspondents – people like John Simpson, Kate Adie, Sam Kiley and Alex Crawford. They do such a hard job, thousands of miles from home and often put their lives on the line to cover stories of international importance. When I was a teenager and first dreamt of being a journalist that was what I wanted to do. As I got older I realised the immense sacrifices they made for their careers and decided sitting in a nice dry, (mostly) warm studio was a much better option! 

What have been your most significant stories and why? 

I was one of the first newsreaders in the UK to break the 9/11 plane attacks. I’ll never forget watching Sky News as the first reports filtered in of a small aircraft hitting one of the twin towers. By the time I went on air at 2pm it had become clear it was a passenger jet. As I came back into the newsroom there was footage of a plane hitting the tower. It was only as the camera panned back that we realised we had just watched live as the second plane hit. Then we truly started to understand the scope of what was happening. I went straight back into the newsbooth and there were people running up and down the corridor with updated scripts as I was on air.

There was such an eerie atmosphere that day as the rest of the events unfolded. The adrenaline was pumping and we were working so hard, but there was none of the usual chatter and noise you get in a newsroom.

I’ll never forget the 1pm bulletin the next day. We opened with a voicemail recording of one of the passengers on board the plane that crashed in the Pennsylvania field. He was saying goodbye to his wife. I had to listen to it about 10 times before I went on air so I wouldn’t cry. 

Obviously over my 15 years broadcasting in Northern Ireland I’ve covered a lot of the big breaking political stories – I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve used the words ‘Stormont’, ‘crisis’ and ‘breaking point’ in scripts! The visit of the Queen to Northern Ireland and the death of the Rev Dr Ian Paisley are two of the more recent ‘big news days’ that stick out. They both marked huge moments in the history of Northern Ireland and are two of the stories that have won us numerous awards in the past few years. 

I also love a good ‘and finally’. One of my favourites was when we were on ‘Monkey Watch’ after 6 lion-tailed macaques escaped from the zoo. Oh and the dog that accidentally drove the tractor onto the motorway in Scotland is still one of my favourite stories ever. 

Describe a typical day in the Downtown Radio/Cool FM newsroom.

Well I arrive at work at 5.30am, so the first thing that gets switched on after the computer is the kettle! I will have read the emailed handover from the previous shift before I got out of bed, so I know what stories I’m coming in to. I then check the news wires for any stories that have broken overnight and put together my 6 o’clock bulletin while ingesting as much coffee as is humanly possible. The next 4 hours fly by in a flurry of bulletins and half hour headlines and before I know it it’s 10am. My boss Nigel is usually in just before 7am, and one of the reporters will be about. We are a very tight team of 5 and although we work hard we have a lot of fun doing it. On a quiet day there might be 4 of us in the newsroom working on up-coming projects. On a busy day it can be just me, writing scripts, editing audio, putting together packages and doing the bulletins. 

The best thing about working in a newsroom is that no two days are ever the same – to be honest, no two hours are ever the same!

My last bulletin of the day is at 1pm and it’s one of our longer ones. There can sometimes be up to seven minutes of news so it gives me a great opportunity to go into stories in more detail and be creative with the audio. After that it’s time to deliver the handover to the PM bulletin editor, have a quick lunch and either do the school pick-up, or go for a nap.

In your view what makes a good radio package?

Regardless of content it has to hold the listener’s attention from the get-go, so a good opening line or piece of audio is essential. A package gives you more space to get across your story, but I still think it should be kept as tight as possible. When you have more time it’s tempting to leave in longer pieces of audio, or not edit your script as much as you normally would and I think that’s a mistake. In radio you should always be challenging yourself to tell the story comprehensively but in as little time as possible. I love editing scripts – finding one word to replace three gives me great joy. And as the boys who work alongside me know, I’m a stickler for grammar…..

What advice would you offer someone looking to get into journalism? 

Don’t do it for the hours or the money….. Seriously though it can be such a rewarding job. And that’s why so many of us stick at it, despite the lousy hours and pecuniary woes. 

If you are committed to being a journalist then an accredited course is a must these days. There are plenty out there, choose the one which will suit you the best. Work experience in a newsroom is also vital. Courses are great, but they don’t ever come close to the reality of a work environment. Ask questions, bring story ideas, volunteer yourself for things, and most importantly listen and learn.

Oh and be prepared to develop a dark sense of humour. Sometimes you need it when you are dealing with the worst of humanity on a daily basis. 

You were recently recognised by the Northern Ireland Media awards as one of the country’s best news/current affairs presenters, how did it feel to be recognised in this way? 

It really has been such a fantastic year for me and the rest of the team. I’ve been recognised by two major bodies. In March at the Independent Radio News awards in London I was runner up for Newsreader of the Year, and then another Silver Award at the CIPR event here in Belfast in June. I also won News, Sport or Entertainment presenter of the year at the Bauer Media Awards. It was all very unexpected and very exciting. I’ve been so proud of the work we’ve been doing as a team over the last few years, so when other people agree with you, it’s the best feeling. Now I just need to work on beating Stephen Nolan in the CIPRs next year…. 

Your love of books will be well known to your listeners, what are you currently reading and how else do you like to relax outside work?

Books are definitely my biggest vice – the Kindle was the best thing that ever happened to my bank account.

At the moment I’m re-reading The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson. His books are just sublime – he writes about not-so-ordinary people who get caught up in extraordinary events. Think Forest Gump, only with a Swedish slant.

Relaxing outside of work usually means supporting the Prosecco industry in a bar in Belfast! I’m lucky that a lot of my work colleagues are also my friends so we go out pretty regularly. And my boyfriend Pete is the best person in the world to watch Netflix with. 

My 6 year-old-son Theo also keeps me busy, but he’s a big fan of a lazy day cuddled up on the sofa wearing pyjamas and watching Pokemon, and that suits me just fine.

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