Stephen Clements: I don’t know why they let Sean Coyle go but things happen for a reason
Stephen Clements was once told by a senior executive that he’d never make it in radio. The revelation comes as he admitted for the first time how challenging it has been taking over from veteran broadcaster Sean Coyle, who was controversially axed by Radio Ulster bosses last month.
He also told the Belfast Telegraph how BBC NI came looking for him several months ago with the offer of a “dream job” at Ormeau Avenue, which began earlier this week.
“You don’t go to the BBC, you can’t go to them and say, ‘Employ me’ … they have to come to you,” Stephen said.
“Fortunately, they came to me. I could hardly believe it. I didn’t know anybody in the BBC — and even now I still don’t really know anybody!”
He added: “My dream has always been to work for the BBC; they could have offered me a cleaning job in here and I’d have taken it.”
The 46-year-old’s first major interview as a fledgling Beeb employee, however, contained a light-hearted confession.
Earlier this week, Radio Ulster’s new mid-morning presenter told listeners he had no idea “the suits” in Broadcasting House had lined up ‘Under Pressure’ as the opening song of his first programme for the corporation.
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Now, though, he has admitted that the David Bowie/Queen hit was actually his choice.
“I wanted it to be funny,” he said.
“The idea was to pretend the big bosses had chosen this particular song to put me under pressure. I can’t believe that joke was lost on so many, but it was me who set the whole thing up. Only three people knew about it — me, a producer and an editor.”
The Carrickfergus man’s army of fans would nonetheless have been surprised at hearing that their favourite DJ would dance to someone else’s tune.
They’ve always loved him being his own person — and his new bosses are hoping his “unique sense of fun” (their words, not his) is a winning formula.
“When the BBC approached me they were adamant that it was me they wanted — and not a BBC version of me,” he revealed.
But the mellow-voiced Stephen, relaxing on a small blue sofa, dressed in trainers, blue jeans and a plain black jumper, insisted: “I don’t think my style is unique at all.
“It’s a reflection of the Northern Irish outlook on life; we don’t take ourselves too seriously, don’t take life too seriously.
“People of my generation who grew up during the worst of times have probably the darkest sense of humour because it was the only way of dealing with the stuff that went on back then.
“The crux of my show is to have people from Northern Ireland coming on and telling us some funny stories about their lives and playing some good music. It’s just a bit of light-hearted banter — I hate that word — and hopefully some laughs…”
The mid-morning Radio Ulster music slot is hallowed ground, occupied as it once was by one of Stephen’s all-time heroes, the late Gerry Anderson. He’s delighted to be following in that legendary broadcaster’s footsteps, and — literally — following another king of the airwaves he admires greatly.
But is he going to attempt to steal Nolan’s thunder?
“Absolutely,” he joked.
“One of the reasons I looked up to Stephen was that I found him to be one of the very few on radio locally who talked the way I talked, and spoke about the things my friends and I talked about.
“He relates to people because he’s the same as us. He talked like us. He didn’t talk about going to the opening of restaurants … in a way, he was almost thumbing his nose at the establishment.”
Not on his shortlist of broadcasting heroes, however, is predecessor Sean Coyle, but Stephen has nothing but praise for the Derry man who was devastated at losing his job after six years — and whose axeing prompted a public outcry which was tempered somewhat when the former Anderson sidekick got a new role in ‘Stroke City’ with Radio Foyle.
“Sean’s a legend,” said Stephen.
“His style was just so easy to listen to, so affable and amiable and friendly. He had a huge audience, and I can see why a lot of people love him.” Coyle also had a lot of middle-aged and elderly listeners, and the mellifluous Stephen said he believes they and him will “meet in the middle” and adjust to each other as time goes on.
“I was cutting the grass on Tuesday night when a neighbour came over and admitted she was very disappointed that Sean had left,” he said.
“But then she told me she’d laughed more during my show in the last few days than she had in years.
“I was very touched by that — and I hope that sort of response is happening around the country.”
Although he said he “doesn’t really know” why Radio Ulster bosses decided to replace Coyle, Stephen said he’s “a great believer in things happening for a reason”.
“Things have happened to me in my radio career in the past,” he admitted.
“I was told I would never get a full-time job in radio … but I always believed that if I got the opportunity, I would be able to do it.”
He declined to name names or the radio station concerned — although a betting man may put his money on a certain Newtownards-based outfit — but when I suggested they must be eating their words now, he replied: “I certainly hope they are!”
Stephen’s early childhood was spent in Whitehead before he moved to Carrickfergus “when I was 10 or 11”, attending Whitehead Primary, Oakfield PS and then Carrickfergus Grammar.
“I was born during the Troubles, so it was normal that the bus stopped at Bridge Street and somebody came on to check underneath your seat. That was just normality back then,” he recalled.
Stephen — who’s married to restaurant manager Natasha with whom he has two children, Poppy (8) and Robbie (5) — ultimately progressed from loading lorries, selling conservatories, bartending and teaching English abroad to what he calls ‘Radioland’ and a long, successful stint with Q.
Leaving Q Radio was “really hard”, he admitted.
“The owner was almost like a father to me. I’d told him previously that the only way I was leaving was if the BBC came for me — or if he sacked me. Luckily, it was the former.”
It was while working as a salesman for Unilever that Stephen accepted a part-time post at City Beat, which ultimately morphed into Q — yet he initially turned down a full-time post which, hitherto, had been his ambition.
“At the end of 2010 I came out with the immortal words, ‘You can’t afford me’,” he said. “Looking back, it sounds like a real diva thing to say, but I actually meant it because I had a good job, a really good salary, a lovely company car, a phone, a laptop — and, on top of that, my wife was seven months pregnant with our first child.
“I just thought it was too big a gamble, plus I was going to have to take a pay cut. We’d only just got a new house…”
So what happened?
“My wife said, ‘Please take this job because your face is tripping you and it’ll work’. I think she was worried, but she knew it was my dream to work full-time in radio.”
The geography graduate has now found the place on the map where he truly wants to be, and is clearly enjoying his new job.
“So far, so good,” he said, emerging from the studio following yesterday’s show.
“I was very nervous before my first show on Monday, much more than I had anticipated being. But yesterday I felt a lot more comfortable, and today I felt almost at home.”
He added: “I do still feel a bit like a competition winner, bumping into people that I’ve previously only seen on TV.”
Stephen said he hopes some of his old Q morning show listeners cross over to Radio Ulster — and when it comes to the secret of his success, the analysis is simple.
“The kind of stuff I do is basically relaying life stories and observations and getting people on to let me know what their version of that is,” he revealed.
“I’ve always essentially been the same person with the same type of show and I’ve done weekend mornings and night times and afternoons and breakfasts and now I’m doing mid-mornings but I don’t think the time of day really matters.”
He’s gone from getting up at 4.30am every day to enjoying a lie-in now until 7.30am “because I like getting the kids ready for school in the morning”.
When asked how he will measure his success at the BBC, Stephen joked that he’d know he’d done well if his contract was renewed.
But then he revealed how touched he’d been by messages from past listeners who got in contact to say he’d helped them when they were going through dark times.
“People have told me I was the only thing that made them laugh when they were going through chemotherapy or a death in the family,” he said.
“For me, to have done that, that’s what really matters most.
“Success is to have made someone laugh at a time when nothing was funny.”