Carolyn why music is my first love
U105 presenter tells Audrey Watson how her late dad was the inspiration behind her career as a radio star
She's been a friendly voice in the background of Northern Ireland lives for 20 years now and while many presenters regard radio as nothing more than a stepping stone to television, U105's Carolyn Stewart is happy to work in both mediums.
The Belfast woman's easy-going manner would make her an ideal chat show host, but it's music that makes her tick and an effortless ability to connect with listeners that makes her such a hit on the airwaves.
And Carolyn reveals that this mix of music and audience interaction may soon be brought to the small screen.
“There are a few projects in the pipeline, but I honestly can't say anything more at the minute,” she laughs. “I'd love the challenge of taking what I do on U105 on to TV in some form.
“Most people who come into radio today have working in television as their ultimate goal, I never ever felt like that. I wanted to be on the radio because I love playing music for people. Anything else that happened was a bonus.”
However, she's no novice in front of the camera. Carolyn has popped up on TV quite a few times over the years — alongside Patrick Kielty in the 1993 programme, SUS, presenting car series Petrolheads in 2008 and as resident showbiz commentator on the sadly-departed UTV Life — but for the moment, she's having a ball working on U105's daily lunchtime show and Saturday Night Fever, a four-hour marathon of disco classics on Saturdays from 6pm.
Carolyn began presenting on U105 in 2005 after more than 15 years at Cool FM, the station she had joined on its very first day of broadcasting back in 1989. It was a brave move, considering she was then fronting the hugely popular night-time show, Lights Out.
“Yes, it was a tough decision, but I was starting to feel like the oldest kid on the block,” she laughs. “My audience was getting younger and I missed broadcasting to people my own age. I also felt that I had gone as far as I could with Cool and was starting to wonder what would be next for me.
“I wanted to be somewhere that I could interact more with listeners as well as play great records. U105 with its slightly older target audience offered that.”
Born and bred in north Belfast, becoming a radio presenter wasn't something Carolyn ever dreamed of as a pupil at Dominican College, Fortwilliam and it was thanks to the great Jackie Flavelle that she got her first start.
“I'd been a DJ in clubs around Belfast throughout the '80s while working for record distributor Solomon and Peres during the day,” she explains.
“I met Jackie when he came in to buy music for his Downtown show. One day, he heard me listening to tapes I had made of myself DJ-ing and said I sounded really good. He suggested trying radio, so I wrote to Downtown.
“About the same time, I won the Northern Ireland heat of the UK-wide, DJ of the Year competition and was receiving a lot of interest from clubs in Europe. As I hadn't heard anything back from Downtown, I took myself off to Scandinavia to work.
“While there, I got a call from then head of programming, John Rosborough, saying that he had something I might be interested in and it would be worth my while coming back.
“So after six months, I returned and they told me that they were starting a new station called Cool FM and wanted me to be the main presenter along with John Kearns.
“When I was young, I always knew I was going to be involved in music in some way, but I never envisaged myself on the radio, because coming from where I did, you didn't think that you could achieve anything like that.
“I grew up just off the New Lodge Road and there weren't a lot of opportunities or money around for anyone in the area.”
One of the best memories Carolyn has of her childhood is the devotion she and older sister Louise received from their father. Her mum left when she was only eight, leaving her dad, who sadly died in 2004, to bring up the two young girls alone.
“My dad, my sister and I were really, really close,” she says. “I know people who grew up with both parents and they didn't have the bond we had with our father.
“My daddy told me and my sister he loved us every day until he died. We had an abundance of love from one person. As long as the love is there, it doesn't matter if you have only one parent.
“Dad spent his whole life looking after me and my sister. He would always say to us, ‘You're my world'. And he supported us in everything that we did. I had a very happy childhood in that respect.
“One thing he taught me was that you don't harbour grudges because if you do, the only person you hurt is yourself, so I did make contact with my mum in later years.
“I wanted to see her and know her and I did get the chance to meet her again, but unfortunately, she passed away before we could really get to know each other.”
In 1999, Carolyn toyed with the idea of another career and enrolled on a law degree course as a mature student at Queen's University, attending classes during the day while continuing to broadcast her Cool FM show at night.
“I left school when I was in the lower sixth and couldn't wait to get out into the world,” she explains. “At 18, I took myself off to Jersey where I'd heard that they were looking for chambermaids.
“North Belfast had always been my wee world and because of the Troubles, you weren't allowed to go into town much, so heading off and meeting people from other countries was an exciting and amazing experience.
“At school I had a teacher who wasn't very encouraging and said who things to me that weren't particularly nice. I remember thinking that I would be nothing.
“Somewhere in my psyche, I definitely had something to prove to myself and something to prove to her.
“Plus, I wanted to see if there was maybe another career out there for me.”
After gaining her degree, she decided not to take law any further, having realised that her heart would always be in broadcasting.
Not surprisingly, Carolyn is seen as a role model for young people from the north Belfast area and although she now lives in Bangor, often returns to her old stomping ground to give talks and counsel young people with similar backgrounds to herself.
“I work with community and other groups in the area and beyond, because I feel strongly that things like coming from a one-parent family and not going to university as soon as you leave school should not be obstacles to a successful career.
“I love helping young people with career choices or life choices. You shouldn't let your background hold you back.
“You can only go so far blaming everything that goes wrong on your past. There comes a time when you have to take responsibility and say, ‘What am I going to do for me'.”
When she has any spare time, Carolyn indulges in another passion — interior design.
“My number one hobby is doing up houses,” she reveals.
“My daddy was a joiner and I have all of his tools. I'm good at DIY and love painting and decorating and building decks and all that. Give me a day and some power tools and I can make something.”
And she also reveals that one day, she's going to put pen to paper and write her life story.
“I have a history, that I think should be told,” she says. “Not any time soon, though. This girl's got a lot more living to do before she writes that book!”
Carolyn presents U105's lunchtime show on weekdays from noon-3pm and The Original Saturday Night Fever, on Saturdays from 6-10pm. She's also the resident Friday night DJ at Wine & Co, Holywood