Linda McAuley: 'It's just so gratifying that people trust us'
As Radio Ulster show On Your Behalf celebrates its birthday today, the presenter reflects on 20 years of solving listeners' problems. By Una Brankin
Pictures don't do Linda McAuley justice - the ones online at least, which fail to highlight her fine bone structure and slightly exotic dark eyes. On a drizzly afternoon in Belfast's Clayton Hotel, I hardly recognise the Radio Ulster presenter in the flesh.
"There isn't the same recognition with radio as there is if you're on television, but many, many times, in the back seat of taxis, recently in a car park, and often at the check-out, people have recognised my voice, because they know me and the programme so well," she explains in that confident, direct manner, which has attracted up to 100,000 listeners to her popular Saturday morning consumer affairs show, On Your Behalf.
Willowy and olive-skinned, Ms McAuley is brisk and business-like until a wide smile lifts her high-boned cheeks and the corners of those lovely eyes - not all celebrities' grins reach their peepers when they're on the publicity trail. She's here to promote 20 years of the award-winning On Your Behalf, which airs a special anniversary edition this morning, including contributions from listeners and programme regulars down the years. (Catch it on bbc.co.uk/oyb if you miss its live transmission from 9.45am.)
A blend of consumer advice and information, with robust investigation and confrontation of unfair trading, the programme has helped thousands of listeners across Northern Ireland with their issues, big and small - whether it's the couple who missed their honeymoon because of a delay and were turned down by their travel insurance company, or a woman in her 90s who had almost given up hope of the Housing Executive ever replacing her old windows with double glazing.
"Computers were still relatively new when we started back in 1995 - everything was done on paper and via fax, and, as regards consumers, there were more cold calls from sales reps at the door and on the phone," Linda recalls over tea in the hotel lounge. "It was a different environment but the issues were probably the same - insurance problems, debt, mis-sold products, flights, scams. Electronic scams are the latest medium. Now, the scammer can use perfectly legal equipment to masquerade as a bank on the phone.
"Some of the scams are very nasty. You see the phone number coming up and think it's your bank. The over-55s fall for these scams more - because young people never answer the landline. Older people are more polite and willing to listen. Three weeks ago, I got 66 calls in the space of an hour and half - some intrusive machine. Terrible if you're in the house on your own."
At her suggestion - "you don't look comfortable" - we move from an oddly shaped couch to chairs around a coffee table. A youthful 61, Linda looks strong and sophisticated in a leather and faux suede ensemble in tan and black, with high patent heels and ethnic-style jewellery. She says nothing when I compliment her on it; she'd much rather talk about her show, but does concede that she got her fashion sense and prowess for bargain-hunting from her lookalike mother, Carole (82), a former model and fashion agent.
Her father, Tom, was a structural engineer, and the family - Linda and her younger brother and sister - was raised in a modest house in Bangor, which had a field next door for the children to play in and climb trees.
After her primary education at Glenlola Collegiate School in Bangor, Linda's parents sent her to The Mount, a Quaker boarding school in York, as a way of broadening her horizons, away from the Troubles. Her co-pupils there included broadcaster Rose Neill and her sister Maxine.
"It wasn't all Enid Blyton adventures and midnight feasts but I had a great time at school," she reflects. "I was homesick to begin with - you couldn't get cheap flights back then, so you were away from September to Christmas in the first term. Ten of us came over from here all at once. Getting away from Northern Ireland gave me a better perspective."
"It was a very multicultural school - all creeds and accents. Mine didn't stand out at all."
No elocution lessons, then?
"No, it comes naturally," she says, referring to those clear tones.
While the Quaker school gave the pretty young Linda a good education, it left her "without a clue" for a career path. She worked in Menary Travel and for Brian Morton and Company Estate Agents, before joining Downtown Radio in 1976 as a copytaker and "dogsbody" in the newsroom. With her good diction and a diploma in journalism from the Belfast Institute of Higher Education under her belt, that led to presenting the breakfast show and news-reading.
"The dog and horseracing results were broadcast each evening at 6.30pm - no one seemed to want to read them, so I volunteered. I wasn't sure how to pronounce some of the names, but a veteran presenter, Brian McSherry, gave me a great piece of advice: 'Say it clearly and firmly and never correct yourself. Everyone will assume you're right.'
"So, I presented a morning show with Michael 'Hendi' Henderson and read the news. My worst moment came when I announced that a new prison was to be built at Mega-berry. I still haven't lived that one down."
Despite the odd blooper, the late Dan Gilbert, a BBC producer, heard Linda on Downtown and was impressed, offering her a job presenting an evening drive-time programme, Change Gear, in 1978.
But her broadcasting career was interrupted in the Eighties when she switched to freelance print journalism, while living in the Ballynahinch area and raising her three sons, Neil, Michael and James, from her first marriage.
Divorced in 1992, Linda found herself as a single mother for six years before she married her second husband, insurance broker Paul Wilson - "my soul mate" - in 1998. The couple recently celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary and Linda's birthday, on the following day.
She describes her life with Paul as "very happy", and their walks along the Bangor to Groomsport coastline, as one of her favourite activities, along with golf, which she plays at Helen's Bay with Paul. A bit of a daredevil, she has abseiled for Children In Need and once walked the Grand Canyon, from the top to the bottom to the top again.
"I love walking but I don't like gyms - I've never been to one," she days with distaste. "I'm also a reader; I've an eclectic taste in books. I'm reading the latest Anne Tyler on Kindle and I'm planning to get the sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird next. Oh, and my son James recommended The Life of Pi and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. The Goldfinch needed someone to put a blue pen through a lot of it."
After her stint in print, Linda returned to broadcasting in 1989, when her youngest started school, to present Radio Ulster's Morning Extra, the end of which she has described as a low point in her career. She's also been a stand-in presenter on the Stephen Nolan Show on Radio Ulster and presnted the series Real Estates, in which she investigated what goes on behind the gates of some of Northern Ireland's most stately homes. But she's best known for helping listeners sort out countless consumer problems every Saturday morning in On Your Behalf.
"Some people think you just roll up on a Saturday morning; it's not like that all," she asserts. "Like Dolly Parton says, 'It costs a lot to look this cheap' - it takes a lot to make one programme.There's one or two weeks' research behind each show and our expert Eileen Evason follows up on all the cases, whether they're aired or not.
"Debt is a huge issue. We had a woman whose ex husband had, to her horror, taken a loan that affected her credit rating badly. That took a lot of work and follow-up but we got it sorted out in the end.
"There are some quirky cases, too," she adds. "We had a man who had been collecting stamps for more than 35 years and when he switched banks, he missed a direct debit to pay two instalments towards it, and lost two stamps he needed to keep it going. He didn't want money; just the stamps and we got them. There's nothing too small for us to handle."
On Your Behalf has evolved from a magazine based format to a more consumer affairs focused slot since its inception in 1995.
"It was very different then - the brief from the producer was: if it's of concern, then do it'," Linda explains. "We had a paper review, Eileen on benefits and Nuala McKeever doing a skit on a consumer issue experienced by her 'ma'.
"We also had Jan de Vries - everybody loved him. It was very sad when he died. A little while before, when I heard that he was ill and wouldn't be coming back, I wrote to him and told him how important he was to Radio Ulster and to Northern Ireland. It was nice to be able to do that while he was still alive."
She can come across as quite formidable, raising her eyebrow at what she would deem an irrelevant question.
Was she always a problem solver?
"I don't know… I am a good organiser; I'm an efficient, organised person. I remember when my son James was small, he asked me could I come and help with some artwork for a cubs' concert. I said, 'I'm not very artistic James' and he said 'No, but you're very good at finding the end of the Sellotape'. Which is true!
"I do like to go out and meet people for the programme and make their issue my priority. But it's a team effort, it really is. We've had a lot of success - £11,000 back for a man who paid twice for flights; a £13,000 rate bill sorted for an over-valued house; insurance sorted for woman with critical illness, unable to work.
"We do know people who have the answers. The BBC has got the clout to talk to people at the top dogs, and after 20 years, people know and trust us. I don't want to sound pompous but it's very gratifying to me for people to feel that way. My mother's very proud of what I've achieved."
While she could never have been accused for only having a face for radio, Linda has never been tempted by television.
"No. Radio is a friend; more intimate. It's with you all the time - in the kitchen, in the bathroom or wherever. And most pictures are better on radio. I know it's called the 'senior service' but radio plays an important place in peoples' lives in Northern Ireland. People grew up trusting Radio Ulster, me included.
"It's a vital lifeline to many - everyone turns on in times of crisis. And we have a very good slot on Saturday mornings. It's a good listening time. People can organise their day around it - listen while you're ironing."
The fall in numbers of the under-35s who own a radio does not alarm the seasoned broadcaster.
"Yes, but they have them on their phone," she counters. "They can listen to podcasts. I listen to them on the train."
The reach of the internet has created a whole new batch of issues for On Your Behalf to solve, but Linda has embraced social media for her job.
"It's either get with it, or get left behind," she says drily. "What I always tell people is to remember your passwords online. We had a man who booked flights to the US online, then had trouble with his PC and had the settings wiped in the repair shop to restore it. He couldn't get back onto the server to confirm his booking. You have to get safe online."
Before she heads back across the road to her office in those big high heels, I have my own personal query for Linda - and one she must hear all the time. I have a Debenhams gift card for £25 that's five months out of date. Will the store honour it?
"Simple answer: it's all in the terms and conditions, which may be on the back of the card, or online," she says. "People usually don't read them until it's too late, and recently we've heard of gift cards that automatically take an admin fee every year, so your money disappears!
"The bottom line is that a business doesn't have to honour a gift card after its expiry date, though many will do so."
I wonder if she gets fed up with repetitive issues. And with her sons all grown up with wives and degrees apiece, has Linda any plans to retire and enjoy being a glamourous granny?
"NO!," she laughs. "There are no grandchildren yet, anyway, and I don't look at On Your Behalf as a job, I meet people and help them. It's an absolute privilege and we get all these thank-you letters. I have a wonderful career; I still enjoy every day of it.
"And you know what? I just love working for the BBC."
- The On Your Behalf team celebrate 20 years of the show on Radio Ulster today, 9.45am
Two decades of award-winning consumer problem-solving
Presenter Linda McAuley and her expert contributors are celebrating 20 years of championing local people's rights today on BBC Radio Ulster's On Your Behalf, as they look back at two decades of the station's flagship consumer programme.
The On Your Behalf 20th anniversary special is live from 9.45am and available online, featuring contributions from programme regulars down the years - Professor Eileen Evason; Financial Ombudsman David Cresswell; ABTA spokesperson Doreen McKenzie; Joan Whiteside; Hazel Scott and Jimmy Hughes.
Linda will also hear from some of the many listeners who have made all the difference over the years and continue to be at the heart of the long-running multi-award winning series.
The programme is renowned for its dogged determination to cut through red tape, get answers to listeners' questions and ensure a fair solution to their problems.
In 2006 the Trading Standards Institute named On Your Behalf as the Best Consumer Television or Radio Programme, while presenter Linda was awarded National Consumer Journalist of the Year for Northern Ireland, and in 2014 won the TSI for the significant contribution she made to consumer protection in Northern Ireland through the On Your Behalf show.