Why radio star Sonya Mac has quit Northern Ireland for a new broadcasting job in Abu Dhabi
For almost two decades the popular presenter had her own show on local airwaves, but this month she signed off Q Radio for the last time and is now concentrating on building a career overseas. She talks to Stephanie Bell about the highs and lows of a life-changing move
Popular radio presenter Sonya Mac has hung up her headphones in Northern Ireland this month after making a life-changing move to Abu Dhabi. It is the first time in 18 years that Sonya has not been on local radio, although she has continued to take part in roadshows in Northern Ireland during her frequent trips home.
The 'After Dark' presenter on Q Radio, who is also known for her mammoth charity fundraising, has been doing her weekly show remotely from the Persian Gulf for almost a year.
However, a change in structure at the station meant that this was no longer possible, and Sonya signed off with her last show two weeks ago.
Speaking from her new home in the bustling United Arab Emirates capital city, she says: "I'm sad the show has ended as it's the first time since 2000 that I haven't had a regular show in Northern Ireland.
"However, I have been travelling home to host roadshows across the country, some of which were for Q Radio.
"I've also kept bookings that I do every year and will be home to do the Pride Festival again and other bookings whenever I find myself in Northern Ireland."
While we have shivered through one of the coldest winters in years, Sonya has been relaxing in lows of 20 and 21 degrees.
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She surprised herself, not to mention her family and friends, when she applied for a job she saw advertised online for a government radio station in Abu Dhabi, not thinking for one minute she would get it.
As well as leaving everything familiar to her to start a new life in a new country thousands of miles from home, the job itself is also a major change for the presenter.
In addition to doing what she does best - presenting a daily radio show - she is also assistant music director and operations manager for the nationwide radio station which broadcasts across the Emirates.
She says: "I saw the job advertised and thought 'why not?'. I had no idea that I'd actually have any chance of getting the post, though. Indeed, even after a conference call interview and being offered the position unofficially, I still wasn't sure that it was actually real. A bit of a dream maybe.
"I was offered the job in September 2016, but due to red tape and paperwork, the start date was continually postponed.
"Eventually, I was emailed a flight ticket and pictures of the hotel that I was being accommodated in and I knew that this was actually going to happen.
"It was then that the reality set in and I had to really consider the implications of moving so far away from friends and family.
"I organised a meeting with my MD at Q Radio. Robert was amazing, once I explained that I was considering moving to the UAE, he asked me to continue broadcasting nightly on Q Radio remotely.
"Eventually, though, once Q Radio moved to their new studios, they needed a presenter to be in the studio due to the new technology that was being installed and the live camera feed to the website and the app.
"I understood this completely and thanked him for the chance to continue to broadcast home. I was offered one show a week, which I agreed to, but unfortunately, due to budget cuts, that has come to an end now too."
An only child, Sonya found it a huge wrench leaving her mum Rosemary. Sonya and her mum were both devastated when her dad James lost his life to stomach cancer in 2013, aged 65.
Sonya famously took on the challenge of running six marathons in six weeks in the six counties of Northern Ireland, raising £20,000 for Cancer Research UK in her dad's memory.
She became known for her support of many local cancer charities, raising around £80,000 over the past few years.
She says: "Missing friends and, of course, mum is a big issue. I do phone home at least once a day to check in and catch up, to chat to mum about her day like I would do if I was at home.
"Mum has visited a couple of times and I've been back as often as I can. I've been here nearly a year and it has flown past.
"My friend Lynne had a little one the August before I left and I feel that I'm missing out a lot on her growing up, but she sends videos and pictures of every step and milestone that Anna is reaching, all of the new things that she learns to do to try to keep me involved.
"I still run when I can, although during the summer it's virtually impossible due to the high temperatures. Now that the weather is a lot cooler, I've put my trainers on again and am hitting the roads. I ran the Dubai marathon a couple of weeks ago and I have just done the Ras Al Khaimah half marathon."
Despite being away for almost a year, it says everything about how popular a personality Sonya is that she was back home in November to switch on the Christmas tree lights in Antrim.
For her first year she has been focusing on her job working for Radio 2, which is run by the government-owned Abu Dhabi Media.
Her shows are aimed at the large English-speaking community in the city and, she says, are not that different from what she would have been doing here for Q Radio.
She says: "I host a daily show, broadcasting across the Emirates. I also host a pre-recorded weekend show plus organise all promotions, from both sales and marketing.
"I schedule all music for daily playlists, features and competitions too. I guess you could say that every day is a busy day.
"As operations manager anything that goes out on the station is my responsibility. The music and the shows are similar to what I would do at home, although during Ramadan (a month of fasting for Muslims) we did bring it down a bit.
"Also, the President of UAE's mother died recently and there was three days of mourning, and again we had to bring everything down for that, a bit like you would do at home if a Royal died.
"There are some restrictions and we can't mention alcohol on air and we have to be careful not to have any references to religion or being out partying, but the music output is the same."
UAE laws and customs are very different to here, and while alcoholic drinks are served in licensed hotels and clubs, it is a punishable offence to drink, or to be under the influence of alcohol, in public.
For Sonya and her western colleagues, local hotels cater for the weekends with drink served during special brunches.
She explains: "The weekend here is Friday and Saturday and local hotels will hold brunches when they serve food and alcohol and this is really aimed at the ex-pat community.
"Locals know ex-pats like a drink, although alcohol isn't readily available, you won't see pubs on every street corner."
The strict customs also apply to her working life and in respect to Muslim colleagues she has to ensure her knees and shoulders are covered while at work.
Her new job has been her focus for her first year and now that she is starting to feel more settled she plans to get out and about more to enjoy her new surroundings.
"Whenever I was last home to turn on the Christmas lights in Antrim town, a few people commented on my lack of a suntan.
"I've promised myself one day a week in the sun from now on just to enjoy the benefits of living in this climate. I have sold both my cars in Northern Ireland and bought a car here ... a 5-litre Mustang Convertible. I certainly couldn't ever afford to drive a 5-litre car in Northern Ireland, but fuel is cheap here, so an American muscle car was the way to go.
"I certainly don't miss the weather in Northern Ireland. Locals here dance when the rain comes on but I'm not at that point yet.
"I am sitting now looking out through patio doors across a balcony at blue sky and the sea. It's lovely.
"It is about 27 degrees now but the flip side of that is the summer when it is in the high 40s, low 50s and you can't go outside. Everything stops here for the summer.
"Where we go inside to light our fires in the winter, people here go inside in the summer to get air-conditioning."
Sonya adds: "I certainly don't miss the grey skies at home but I do miss the friendliness of the people. You can spend all day here not speaking to anyone, whereas at home, someone always strikes up a conversation, or will just say 'hi' as you pass them in the street.
"I'm not sure what my plan is. I didn't expect to be here this long or enjoy it so much. I will keep coming home for events in Northern Ireland and I will just wait and see what happens ..."