Newsline presenter Karen Patterson tells Audrey Watson why she has given up her job in front of the cameras to get behind the mic
Television viewers in Northern Ireland will soon be seeing a lot less of Karen Patterson. The popular Co Down woman and regular BBC NI Newsline presenter will disappear from our screens at the end of the month when she takes over from Wendy Austin as the female anchor on Radio Ulster’s flagship breakfast programme, Good Morning Ulster.
Not that Karen is a stranger to the airwaves — she currently presents weekday drive-time news programme, Evening Extra — but after nine years at the BBC, working between television and radio, she’s delighted to be putting down some permanent roots.
“I’m really looking forward to it and am very, very flattered to have got the job,” she says. “It’s such a quality programme and it ticks every box for a journalist.
“I’d be fibbing if I said I wasn’t nervous though, as it’s a huge challenge. And I’m not looking forward to the early starts (up at 3.30am), but I’ve always worked haphazard shift patterns, it’s par for the course in the business, so it will be nice to have set hours.
“It’s funny because in my first job at the Bangor Spectator, I wasn’t very good at getting in on time and my colleagues would fake disciplinary letters and leave them on my keyboard.
“Thankfully, I’ve become a lot more punctual,” she laughs. “But that’s a real fear about presenting Good Morning Ulster — what if the alarm doesn’t go off?”
Karen began her career at the Spectator in 1990 under then deputy editor, now best-selling novelist Colin Bateman, who she describes as great fun.
“No one could ever have envisaged the great success Colin would achieve,” she says. “His story is a real Northern Ireland fairytale — going home from the day job and churning out these fantastic novels. But he was a great, great journalist and a great boss — very relaxed and tremendous fun.”
After six years, Karen moved to Downtown/Cool FM where as well as presenting, she honed her reporting skills covering major events including the violent, early days of the Drumcree protest.
She remained at the station for four years before moving to the BBC in 2000 to present Newsline. In 2006, her role was extended to include Evening Extra.
The versatile professional has also fronted Bikes! for BBC NI Sport, presented the channel’s coverage of the Balmoral Show and also worked as a reporter on consumer affairs programme Fair Play. Not bad for a girl once described by her teacher as “too sensitive to make it as a journalist”.
“Ah, Miss Kelso — I remember her well,” laughs Karen. “She felt I was a sensitive child... and she was right. That trait has never left me, but I’ve learned to cope with knocks like we all have to.
“I think sensitivity is a very good thing for a journalist. Yes, there are times when you get very affected, but the worst thing that could happen is you become numb and immune to the stories you report and the people connected to them.”
The eldest of three girls growing up on her parents’ farm near Bangor, Karen always knew she wanted to work in the media, but never had a set plan, always just taking the opportunities when they came along.
“I’ve always been really chatty,” she reveals. “As a little girl, I remember walking round a field with dad and him saying to me, ‘Would you ever stop asking questions’, so I guess I’ve turned my childhood nosiness into a career. I’m just naturally curious about everybody.
“Growing up on a working farm, there were always people calling at the house and myself and younger sisters, Susan and Clare, would be brought in to say ‘hello’ to visitors. We might have been watching TV or playing and wouldn’t want to, but dad always told us, ‘It’s manners to welcome someone to your home and whoever it is, they’ll have a story to tell and you should make time for people’. I guess that all filtered through.
“I enjoyed a wonderful, idyllic childhood, roaming about the countryside with ponies and pets. It was a busy farm and the house was like Piccadilly Circus — the door was never closed.
“The kitchen was always a hub of activity and it was hard for mum to keep everything running smoothly, so we kids were encouraged to spend a lot of time outdoors,” she laughs.
“I remember special times such as harvest and silage cutting when all the neighbours would arrive. And the big breakfasts — quite often it was dad who had the pan on. It was a very welcoming home.
“My parents still run the farm. Dad wouldn’t dream of doing anything else or giving it up, so I think it will be there for a while yet, despite there being no future farmers in the family — we’re relying on Susan or Clare to marry one,” she laughs.
One thing Karen didn’t like though was school. After Kilmaine Primary in Bangor, she became a boarder at Princess Gardens Grammar in Belfast (now Hunterhouse College).
“It wasn’t the highlight of my life,” she laughs. “I was pretty unhappy. It was a shock to an 11-year-old to be posted off to school. I missed the ponies, the farm. But to be fair, on reflection it was a good thing. It taught me to be very independent and to work hard.
“My mum jokes that I was sent there because she didn’t want me turning into a farmer and I was spending too much time in the yard with the workers. I could swear like a trooper by the time I was six!
“Mum is a great believer in education and there was so much going on at home at that time, she felt it was the best thing. But I was by no means sent off to Siberia — it was only Monday to Friday and I was home every weekend. It was just a case of mum and dad wanting to do the best by their kids.
“I was a dreadful tomboy though and even now I’m in my 30s, I still am,” she admits. “I love fast cars and go-karts and anything that gives an adrenaline rush.
“The irony is that of the three girls, Susan, Clare and myself, because I’m on TV, I’m the one who has to worry about their appearance.
“I wasn’t into anything like that as a child. It was jodhpurs and an old jumper all the time — my biggest fear was non-uniform day at school,” she laughs.
“These days, I enjoy it very much although I’m not the best shopper in the world and when I’m not working, it’s jeans, unruly hair and not a lot of make up.
“Being on TV does require a lot of grooming. It’s just one of those things. Sometimes at the end of a show, you think, ‘Oh, that went well’ and then one of the family might say, ‘You could do with a haircut’.
“Now that I’ll be heard and not seen, I’ll be able to relax a little bit on that front.”
After years living in Belfast, Karen ‘s love of the countryside has brought her back to Co Down, where she now lives with husband Martin, a molecular biologist and scientific officer. The pair met at a mutual friend’s barbecue and have been married for more than two years.
“Martin is brilliant,” says Karen. “He’s a real antidote to the media world. He has a high pressure job as well, but knows me inside out and can instantly tell when I’m stressed and need to wind down and go for a walk. Living in the country is great at helping you cope with pressure.
“One thing I’m really looking forward to about working on Good Morning Ulster is that now instead of being all over the place, I’ll be working regular hours, so there’s the opportunity to have a horse, or a dog, or both. I’ve really missed having animals and pets.
“And sure, there’s nothing like wide open spaces, fresh air and country folk to keep you sane and happy.”
Karen Patterson joins Good Morning Ulster on August 31. The programme broadcasts on BBC Radio Ulster, Monday to Friday, 6.30am-9am