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The shy boy who became a radio star

He's known to thousands of listeners for his on-air banter with Stephen Nolan and has recently won a major award for his own show, but Vinny Hurrell reveals why life in the limelight was the last thing he had planned as a career. By Stephanie Bell

By Stephanie Bell

Since he has worked as a toilet tester flushing loos for a living and also tried to spend a week living in a car with six strangers, one imagines taking on a day job working with Stephen Nolan was wee buns to Vinny Hurrell.

The radio and TV producer didn't always have such a thick skin, though, and today, in a wide-reaching interview, he confesses that while growing up he battled with low self-esteem.

Vinny (34), who has proven to be more than a match for the sharp-tongued Nolan during his years as producer for Radio Ulster's hugely popular Nolan Show, was thrilled to be presented with the Entertainment Programme of the Year gong at the annual Coca-Cola CIPR NI Media Awards recently.

The win comes just over a year since the launch of his own lively, late-night radio chat show, The Vinny Show, which has a strong human interest element. Listeners routinely find Vinny tackling a wide range of real-life problems, dealing with everything from mental health to sex, shopping, manners and careers.

While working on his own radio show, Vinny has continued to produce the "biggest show in the country" for Nolan on weekday mornings as well as working on Nolan's BBC NI TV show. As if that isn't a hefty enough work schedule, he also presents his own quarterly BBC TV show, Community Life, which is due to screen again in the autumn.

Having his finger on the pulse as a producer as well as also taking the hot seat to present is the ideal mix for this driven broadcaster, who thrives on both roles and says it really is a joy to go into work every day, even if it means he has Nolan to contend with!

Nevertheless, his affection for the man who at times has goaded him relentlessly on air seems very genuine.

The banter between the duo is now an integral part of the Nolan Show, with an unsuspecting Vinny always giving as good as he gets when ambushed by Nolan. He laughs as he recalls how it all started: "I try to keep him in check; he is a bit of a free spirit. It began one day when it was my birthday and he had heard that I had a tattoo at the top of my leg. He called me into the studio and told everyone on air that I had a tattoo on my crotch.

"My mum was listening and she had no idea I even had a tattoo; she nearly had palpitations in the car. He started calling me 'tattoo boy' after that. I am used to it now but I suppose at the start it was a bit daunting to have this person who you have listened to on radio and watched on TV and who is such a large personality all of a sudden take the mickey out of you, but it was a bit of craic."

Vinny insists, however, that the banter is all good-natured and evidently both inside and outside of the studio he has great respect for Nolan, who he reveals is really a big softie.

He says: "Stephen is a huge personality and he does keep you on your toes when you are working with him, but one of the great things about him is that what you see is what you get.

"He is a very generous person and a very kind person. He does things he wouldn't want people to know about. Years ago he offered me a loan to buy a car because he knew I couldn't afford one. He made me take it and told me not to tell anyone and he will probably kill me for telling you now.

"Even when I got my own show he mentioned it on his programme and talked about it on air to try and get me new listeners.

"We have our rows - and sometimes we have them on air - but Stephen is the sort of person who likes to get any fights out of the way and then move on. He has really honest relationships - if you have any issues with him he wants you to tell him and deal with it and then it is forgotten about."

Vinny joined the BBC on a training course and was given a month's placement as part of the course with the Nolan show, where he quickly proved to be a natural fit. That was seven years ago and he has been there ever since, first as assistant producer and for the last three years as producer.

He grew up in Randalstown as the middle child of five - he has two older sisters Donna (39) and Emma (37) and two younger brothers Donal (33) and Patrick (24).

His mum Jean (57) works in retail and his dad Donal (61) is an electrician, who also ran the family butcher shop in the town for a number of years.

"I had a fairly standard childhood," Vinny recalls. "In our house I was known as 'the bin' because I never stopped eating and even when dinner was over I would go round checking if there was any leftovers on anyone's plates.

"We lived in the countryside and dad and mum worked very hard. They always wanted us to have a good education and stay on at school as long as we could.

"I remember when I was doing the 11-Plus my mum made me have a study hour every day but instead of studying I would sit and draw and doodle. I failed my 11-Plus.

"While still at school I worked part-time with my dad in the shop and then when I went to uni in England I had a wide variety of jobs."

Ironically, it was working alongside his dad in his late grandad's butcher shop which Vinny believes instilled in him a desire to pursue a career in radio and TV.

He remembers his dad always had Radio Ulster playing in the shop and as a young teen, who was more into music than talk shows, he didn't particularly like his dad's choice of entertainment.

"I remember telling dad that I didn't like what he was listening to on the radio and he said that one day I would appreciate it," he says. "Looking back, I think that's where my initial desire to work on radio came from and as it turned out when I did get into radio, it wasn't ever about the music, it was about talking."

He went to Stroke-on-Trent to study for a degree in journalism and media studies at Staffordshire University and it was while he was there that he worked in a variety of jobs, including the unusual post of toilet tester.

He laughs as he recalls: "I was registered with a student employment agency that sent me to Armitage Shanks for a few days training, which I hated and which proved to be a very short-lived career.

"I had to do a toilet splash test and people think I am lying when I tell them that. If the toilet splashed too much, it failed.

"I swear it's the truth - we had these wee blue plastic poos which we had to flush down the loo and if they didn't go down the first time the toilet failed.

"It was actually quite hard work and I think I stuck it for three days and left. No, it wasn't the most glamorous of careers."

During his university days Vinny also took up a challenge by a local radio station to try and win a car by spending seven days and nights living in a car in a shopping centre with seven strangers.

He says: "That was horrendous. I was the third person to be evicted. I lasted three days. We were all squashed into this car together and it was so claustrophobic, it was torture. I was 20 and had no sense."

After graduating, he backpacked across Australia, again working in a number of jobs before deciding to return home to pursue his career in radio.

He got his break when he applied for a place on a BBC training course in 2008 and started with Nolan on placement in 2009.

Vinny readily admits that he was always keen to try his hand at presenting and stood in for a number of regulars including Nolan over the years before persuading the head of radio to give him his own show. "I pestered him until he said yes," he laughs.

The Vinny Show launched last March and over the past year it has developed into what its presenter proudly describes as "something quite special".

"I love it," he says. "The BBC has been quite good in that it gave me a clean sheet to do what I wanted to do. For example, we have this new slot which I think is great, featuring well-known local people talking about what they wish they had known when they were 25.

"They are talking about things that have happened in their lives and some of them have revealed the most fascinating insights. I remember talking to the veteran Radio Ulster presenter Walter Love and he almost made me cry when he was talking about his wife.

"I also have this slot where we pick a different artist or band each week and play their music. I think the show has taken on a real shape and identity now. I love meeting people and chatting to people, it's really interesting.

"Getting the CIPR award totally surprised me and I'm delighted. There were really good people shortlisted in the category and I didn't think I had a hope of winning so it is really nice to have been chosen."

During the summer Vinny will be standing in for a number of presenters, including John Toal and Stephen Nolan.

He is doing what he always dreamed of and says his career couldn't be better: "When my show launched last year I had to pinch myself and ask 'is this real?'" he admits.

"I really have the best of both worlds - as a producer I get a staff job and I get to be creative and decide what goes where, and then I also get to present my show and be a guest presenter of other people's shows. I always wanted to try both roles and I can honestly say that I don't prefer one job over another.

"I am doing something I really love and which is fun and enjoyable and sometimes I think it is kind of crazy that I am getting paid for this."

Vinny does indeed seem to have it all - and not just in his career. Outside of work things couldn't be better, too.

He recently got engaged and is currently buying a new home in Belfast while planning a summer wedding next year with his partner whom he describes as "quite shy".

In his spare time he loves to travel, especially in Asia, and has visited Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. He has also recently taken up gardening which he says helps him to relax.

Going to the gym is another passion as well as - he reveals - a lifeline. For it is working out that has helped him to overcome issues with low self-esteem which he said overshadowed his life growing up.

It is a surprising revelation as he certainly doesn't come across as someone who struggles with his confidence.

But when I put this to him, Vinny replies: "Sometimes it is the people who shout the loudest who are the quiet ones.

"I didn't have a great time at school. I found it tough. I didn't like sport and I was never going to be head of the football team. I only had a few friends. I was chubby child and very shy.

"I didn't always feel great about myself but I decided to be pro-active and try and counteract that.

"I started going to the gym around the time I joined the Nolan Show - although there is no connection!

"For years I had a spare tyre and never did anything about it but I discovered that going to the gym makes me feel better about myself. Now, I feel bad if I don't go. I think as you get older you realise what is important to you."

Vinny adds: "I am doing what I love and I suppose if there is anything more I would like to do it would be more presenting but I don't know where that will go.

"For the time being I just feel lucky to be getting paid for something that I enjoy."

The Vinny Hurrell Show, Radio Ulster, Monday, 10pm

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