There’s something magnetic about BBC Radio Ulster star Wendy Austin. Her iconic voice, warmth and charisma are captivating beyond words.
For over four decades Wendy, 64, has been a household name across Northern Ireland and it comes as no surprise that it’s pretty hard to find an adult in this country who hasn’t heard of her.
Starting off as a trainee in the East Antrim Times in 1972 Wendy was determined to make her mark in Northern Ireland media.
Entering a male dominated industry at a time when things were so bad during the Troubles that Westminster had suspended the Northern Ireland parliament and imposed direct rule, Wendy rose to the challenge.
In her first year of journalism tragedies such as Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday and the Claudy bombing happened whilst the Shankill Butchers began their killing spree.
In fact, 1972 goes down on record as being the worst year of The Troubles, with 497 people killed (including 130 British soldiers) and 4,876 injured.
But looking back Wendy was completely unfazed by the mammoth task ahead of her. Not only was she to begin reporting at a time when killing, maiming and bombings were commonplace but she had the extra challenge of being a woman in what many would describe as a misogynistic world.
“I was very forceful at school,” said Wendy, laughing.
“I suppose I wasn’t a shrinking violet ever, let’s put it like that.”
From the East Antrim Times Wendy moved to the Belfast Telegraph (74-76) where she “hit the streets” covering some of the hardest stories of her career.
She has quite literally done her time in the trenches, so to speak.
“I was ‘the girl’ in the East Antrim Times.
‘‘I had followed Gillian Chambers who had been the previous ‘girl’ and she had in turn followed Diane Harron who was ‘the girl’ before her and Rosemary Hamilton, ‘the girl’ after me.
“When I went to the Belfast Telegraph Gillian was still there, but I think there was only the two of us.
‘‘ Then for a while I was the only woman in the team.
“It has gradually changed over the years but you just had to fight your corner and I’m not bad at putting my foot down you know.
“It was hard to get the stories the boys were doing but equally and being fairish the boys had probably been there longer than. You were scrapping to get to do things.”
Speaking to Wendy you get a real sense of just how strong-willed and formidable she can be.
Refusing to be side-lined into ‘softer’ stories she fought for her place at the frontline of Northern Ireland’s political and crime journalism.
She said: “When I first started at the Telegraph we parked at Millfield a short distance from where the Shankill Butchers were and you would have to walk up there to get your car on a winter’s evening.
“Anytime after 4pm it’s dark and not a very nice place at the best of times, if you heard a black taxi engine you would have had clammy hands. You know that was quite scary.
“I went out on a lot of stories where lots of horrible things were happening and that’s not a pleasant situation to be in.
“I remember I think it was the first murder I covered for the Telegraph it was a Saturday, which is why I was sent. It was two young teenagers who had been murdered at a petrol station at the top of the Crumlin Road or Cliftonville Rd I think, they were just doing a normal Friday night job and I found all that hard to cope with.
“There were people being killed who were the same ages as we were.
‘‘We were nipping into McGlades for a drink after work and these poor kids were lying dead.
‘‘We spent our days writing about them, sometimes two or three pages long, and there was nothing good in it.
“I think we were pretty stressed but never really realised.
‘‘You just kept going. think the fact that you can go home and there’s a full stop on that day it makes it slightly easier to deal with.
‘‘But there are things that I suspect my colleagues and I know we won’t ever forget.”
It’s clear Wendy has stories that would give even the most resilient goosebumps but still to this day she says there’s much that should never be spoken about.
“Northern Ireland is too small a place,” she said.
And she’s right. Half way through her recollections of some of the stories she covered I began to get chills myself.
‘‘I knew as she begun her sentence that Wendy was about to recall a story I had a personal connection with.
Turns out she was one of the first reporters on the scene of the death of my good friend Jayne Olorunda’s father Max who was killed by an IRA incendiary bomb which detonated prematurely in Dunmurry aboard a train from Ballymena to Belfast in January 1980.
“A bomb had gone off in the carriage of a train. I was sent down and we had to film the carriage and it was horrible – really not nice.
“There are things that stick in your mind.
‘‘We all covered multiple funerals and I found that very hard to do, I was known as the weeping reporter, I found them very hard to cope with.
“However, I wouldn’t have said ‘no’ I don’t want to do that because that would have meant that somebody else would have had to do it. That’s not fair on them either. So you just had to kinda do your bit you know.
“You just had to deal with it and write in the best way that you can.”
It’s Wendy’s empathic nature and affable personality that makes her stand out from the crowd.
Despite a newspaper start in the industry it’s her broadcasting career that resonates with most people.
Having joined Downtown Radio in 1976, it was 1977 that would be the turning point in Wendy’s career as she secured her first BBC NI position. Later this year she will celebrate 40 years on the airwaves.
Wendy’s BBC career has been wide and varied having moved seamlessly between radio and TV in London and Belfast as well as across genres.
However, despite being well-known Wendy is realistic and modest about her level of “fame”.
“People say it must be awful that people come up to me in public. But you can’t have it both ways.
“I would rather people came up and said ‘hello’.
“I go to some events but not very many.
“I suppose when my marriage broke up and the kids were quite small I realised that they had a right to their privacy and my ex-husband as well. I took a bit of a decision at that stage that you’re either everywhere or you aren’t. You can’t use the media and so I didn’t.”
Wendy’s decision not to ‘do the circuit’ is probably a contributory factor to her stellar reputation as a serious news broadcaster.
I get the impression Wendy is a workaholic - they say it takes one to know one - when I ask her she simply replies “probably” with a knowing look.
In saying that it’s evident Wendy’s penchant for hard work wasn’t necessarily born out of an excessive need for success or notoriety. She chose to return to Northern Ireland permanently after a stint at BBC London as it was in the interest of her children Niell, Kerry and Claire.
While Wendy admits that juggling motherhood and a career was often challenging she took very little time away from her career commitments during pregnancy and after her births.
“The longest I had off for any of their births was a month, there was no maternity pay. If you didn’t work and you’re not paid, you just gotta get on with it.
“If I’m being honest when I look back now I probably paid too much attention to the demanding industry to the detriment of family life. But it’s a different story now, I only do two mornings a week and I’ve got better at saying ‘no’.”
As a result of Wendy’s job her children became used to the changing nature of the business.
“I used to take Niell with me to the newsroom in a Moses basket when I was doing bullets for Breakfast TV.
“When I would go downstairs he would be asleep and by the time I got back someone would be walking him around the newsroom.
“I can remember one morning - my marriage had broken up by this stage - the kids and I were living in Stranmillis.
“I didn’t have to do Good Morning Ulster the following day so I was with them on my own.
“I got a call at five in the morning and was told someone was ill and that they were really stuck.
“I told them I couldn’t leave the house because the kids were with me and I had to get them up for school.
“There was a lot of muttering on the other end of the phone and one of the producers offered to look after the kids. So, my kids woke up and there was this woman they had never clapped eyes on before, she said ‘Hi, I work with your mum, my name is Rachael let’s get you out to school’ and they just said ‘ok’ and away they went.
“My marriage breakup put enormous pressure on us all but you have to deal with these things and get on with it.”
Despite the demands of her family and career life Wendy found love again with businessman Frank Hewitt who she has been with for 20 years and married for 13, true to her pledge to keep her family life separate from her public life she said little about him but was quick to acknowledge his career achievements including his current position as chairman of Translink.
Family is important to Wendy, she oozes pride when talking about her children and their achievements.
This month she’s looking forward to a forthcoming family holiday that includes her grandchildren Austin (2) and Ellis (one month) who she described as “good fun” with a huge smile.
Although Wendy is slowly edging towards retirement, she doesn’t believe she will ever lose her thirst for a story.
“It was a massive shock to the system when I changed to work to two days, it’s a huge change but you have to make it at some point” she explained, adding: “there is that earworm thing for a news story when you hear it and you have to get it out somehow. I have thought about writing a book but I’ve never done it. I think maybe I should write some of these things down while I can still remember them reasonably accurately.
“There are some things that I should write down and some I really shouldn’t publish.”
“I’d like to interview Obama”
With a four decade career behind her in the BBC Wendy has been at the frontline of the biggest stories across the country.
And talking about them seems to ignite her continued passion and enthusiasm for the industry.
She said: “There are a few things where I think ‘wow, I cant believe I did that’, when I think back I’ve been enormously lucky to have attended major events like Pope John Paul the Second’s visit to Dublin and Galway and the three Clinton visits.
“When I was on Woman’s Hour I interviewed Athony Hopkins, before we went live I was prattling away and he lent across and gave me that kind of Hannibal Lector look and said ‘somewhere between Belfast and Derry’ talking about my accent, to which I said ‘yeah, my dad comes from Derry and my mum comes from Belfast.
“I also interviewed Meryl Streep and I just walked away from her feeling really star struck, she was great fun.”
But there are still people on Wendy’s bucket list.
Most notably the American president.
She said: “I would like to talk to Barak Obama about his presidency.
“It would be interesting to to know how he really feels about his eight year presidency because he must feel very disappointed about lots of it.”
Currently Wendy is a presenter on the Radio Ulster programme Business Insight, an idea she’d been campaigning for many years for.
“I actually found a copy of the programme proposal John Simpson and I put in for a business programme in 1996 so I got there in the end.
“I like the variety, I like having the time to talk to people. It’s quite nice getting to see a different layer of people and a different aspect.”
Sharing dad’s passion for cars
If you see Wendy out and about there’s a high chance she’ll be in a Jaguar.
Having inherited a love of cars from her father she’s currently running a 15 year old model.
She explained: “I was always a bit of a petrol head. I have a Jag, an ancient XK8, it’s 15 years old with 96,000 miles on it. I’ve only had it for about six months.
“Luckily I don’t do a big mileage. I’ve always loved cars and my dad loved cars.
“He was a journeyman amateur rally diver and he done the Circuit of Ireland rally with his friend every year in the days when it wasn’t a professional thing and I’ve always had a bit of an interest, I would have done a bit of commentating at Kirkistown many years ago.
“I don’t know whether I was a tomboy or not by my brother wasn’t into cars and my dad was and so I was and that was it really.”