Wendy is our Morning Star
Radio Ulster’s Wendy Austin tells why she chose motherhood over a career on the national airwaves.
We've all woken up with Wendy Austin at some point in our lives. Along with co-hosts Seamus McKee and Conor Bradford, the Good Morning Ulster presenter eases Radio Ulster listeners into the day with all the latest news and analysis from home and abroad.
Wendy has been at the helm of the flagship programme for more than 16 years and despite hugely successful stints at BBC Radio 4 fronting Woman's Hour, The Exchange, Pick of the Week and afternoon current affairs programme, PM, she has few regrets about not taking up the many offers of a full-time career on the national airwaves.
“I was very, very tempted,” she says of the opportunities that came her way. “I worked on PM for four years in the early ’90s, commuting to and from London. At the time it suited really well because you did three days one week and two the next, which was manageable.
“I was there for some momentous events such as the release of Brian Keenan and John McCarthy and also when Margaret Thatcher was ousted. But then it changed to a five-day week, which I did for a few months, but with young children it didn't work, so I came home.
“It's always tricky balancing a career and motherhood. When my eldest Niall was born, I was doing breakfast television on the BBC here in Northern Ireland and was able to get home quite early. On days when he was restless, I used to just bring him to work with me in a Moses basket. He was a very good baby.
“My mum was always great as well and when I was doing PM and Woman's Hour and had to spend a few days in England every week, I had a variety of wonderful people who helped out.
“Do I have regrets about not moving to London permanently? Yes and no. The grass is always greener on the other side, isn't it? And while it was nice to be working on a programme where the Foreign Secretary would ring up halfway through and say, ‘I'd like to come on,' what we do in Northern Ireland is just as important and has just as high a standard of journalism, so from that point of view, I've no regrets at all.”
Throughout her 36-year media career, as well as presenting Good Morning Ulster, mum-of-three Wendy has worked as a newspaper reporter and has also been a familiar face on television screens, fronting numerous news and current affairs programmes as well as household favourites including the DIY Show, Children in Need and Open House.
In 2007, she presented the TV programme Hillsborough Revisited, a fascinating look at the history of and the famous residents associated with a venue which has been the setting for some of the most important political events in Northern Ireland over the last few decades.
Respected for her fair but no-nonsense approach to interviewees, Wendy reveals that she quite enjoys giving our elected representatives a hard time.
“Oh yes,” she laughs. “I'm sure there are times when politicians could see me far enough, but it's my responsibility to put them under scrutiny in the same way as anybody else who either transgresses or needs to explain something.
“On the other hand, often you are giving them the opportunity to talk about something that's very important to them or their constituents.”
She also presents Radio Ulster's Seven Days programme on Sundays from 11am till noon, chairing a discussion on the week's events with an invited panel, but is coy when quizzed about rumours she may soon take over the Talk Back hot seat from David Dunseith.
“There are changes afoot, but I'm not in a position to talk about them at the moment,” she says. “But nothing stays the same. I've done Good Morning Ulster for 16 years now and I really do love it despite the early starts, but if there are new challenges coming up, great. I'll grasp them with both hands.”
Wendy, who was born and bred in south Belfast, didn't initially intend to pursue a career in journalism. After attending Victoria College, she embarked on a law degree at Queen's University, but dropped out during her second year to become a trainee reporter on the East Antrim Times in Larne.
“I was at university during the early 1970s and there were quite a lot of other things happening then, needless to say,” she explains. “I was meeting a lot of journalists and liked the idea of what they were doing rather than law.
“During my second year, I left Queen's and became a school leaver trainee at the East Antrim Times. The natural progression after that was to get a job at the Belfast Telegraph and I moved there in 1974 for two years.”
While at the Tele, Wendy scored a bit of a coup by becoming the first woman to write a column for the legendary sports paper, Ireland's Saturday Night.
“I've always been into sport and I loved it,” she recalls. “Julie Welch had just started writing about football for the Observer and then sports editor Malcolm Brodie announced that it was about time the paper had a woman writer, so I started a weekly column.”
In 1976, Wendy left the Tele and began working for the province's new radio station, Downtown, but nine months later was poached by the BBC, where she has stayed ever since.
And she reveals that although her Spitfire pilot dad Cecil Austin, who sadly died last year, was disappointed that she didn't finish her law degree, he was very proud when she was awarded a University of Ulster honorary Doctorate in Letters for services to broadcasting, in 2005.
“He said that while I may not have actually studied law for it, I had studied at the school of getting up early, so I deserved it,” she laughs.
Wendy goes on: “Dad fought in the Battle of Britain and was a huge influence on me.
“As was my mum, Irene, who was a librarian for the Red Cross. She was and still is a voracious reader. When I was a young girl, there were all kinds of interesting things about the house, such as dad's leather flying jacket and his helmet and goggles.
“After leaving the RAF, he worked as a dentist and had his surgery at our house in Mount Charles.
“There were always servicemen and ex-servicemen coming to have their teeth fixed. His death hit me very hard and I miss him very much.
“I know he was quite proud of me although he and mum were a bit taken aback when I stopped doing law, but they always trusted my decision — especially once I got a decent job,” she laughs.
The eldest of two children, Wendy had endured an earlier family tragedy when her beloved younger brother David died 14 years ago, aged only 40.
“Although David lived in London, we were very close,” she says sadly. “I always remember him as a lovely little blond-haired boy. He had been ill with cancer for some time and I found it very hard when he died. We all did.”
These days, Wendy lives near Dromore with husband Frank Hewitt and their dog Sam. Her three children from her first marriage are all grown up and pursuing their own careers — Niall (24) lives in London and works in marketing and design, Kerry (24) is a business and marketing development manager and Clare (21) is a medical student.
As well as a passion for broadcasting, another of Wendy's great loves is the arts and she is currently chair of the NI Arts and Business advisory committee and is a director and charity trustee of the University of Ulster Foundation. “There's no such thing as a free degree!” she jokes.
One of the few female voices on our airwaves, she is philosophical about the sometimes precarious position of women in the broadcasting media.
She adds: “You do wonder sometimes. Women seem to disappear earlier than the men do.
“But I haven't found that so far and I would like to think that if you have a talent and experience, everyone is considered in the same way.
“Plus it helps to have a good face for radio!”
Good Morning Ulster, Radio Ulster, Monday to Friday, 6.30-9am. Seven Days, Radio Ulster, Sunday 11am-12 noon