Taking the reins at Good Morning Ulster was always going to be a monumental task. The flagship Radio Ulster news show has kept generations informed through some of the most challenging periods in our history and with the departure of BBC NI stalwarts Noel Thompson and Karen Patterson, Chris Buckler and Sarah Brett have had big old boots to fill.
But with a global pandemic thrown into the mix, as well as some extraordinary disruption to their normal working practices and a stretch of 100 miles between them, it's fair to say the presenters have been playing a blinder.
"I'd say it's been that classic case of the swan," laughs Chris, who has been working from the studio in Belfast since the new line-up launched back in April - while Sarah has been broadcasting direct from the sunroom at her parents' home in Co Donegal.
"There's a lot going on below the water. In normal circumstances we'd be together in the studio but we haven't seen each other at all in person since the programme launched.
"Making it work is a challenge, for sure. In the usual course of things, we'd rely on non-verbal signals to ask should I wrap this up, have you more you want to ask, that sort of thing.
"Now we're firing electronic notes back and forth during joint interviews saying you go next, or I've got something I'd like to say. It's not been the most conventional of starts."
And as well as the huge task of getting the show on the airwaves, getting both presenters onto the same land mass in the first place came with its challenges back in March as the impact of the coronavirus outbreak edged ever closer.
Based for two years in the States as the BBC's Washington Correspondent, Chris got a flight home ahead of taking up his new job just days before Boris Johnson imposed the lockdown on the UK, while Sarah made a hurried move from her home in the Peak District to Donegal along with son Theo (6) and her artist husband Terry Coyle.
"We were due to move at the start of April, but we had to bring everything forward a week," recalls Sarah, who worked for the BBC's 5 Live in Manchester for five years before taking over at the Radio Ulster show.
"My flight had been cancelled and we got on the last boat we could.
"When the removal guy came we were his final job before the lockdown kicked in, so we filled the van and just piled over. The whole thing was surreal, but for some reason I didn't find the actual moving bit stressful. I think because everything with the pandemic was starting to become very serious and we had this huge indication there was going to be a grim few months ahead, it was just a matter of getting back. It was quite unnerving."
And while the plan initially had been for Sarah and her family to move to their own home in Londonderry, the lockdown restrictions mean that they've been living with her parents Margaret and Aubrey in Donegal ever since.
"A major reason I came home, apart from the job, was to spend more time with my mother and father," says Sarah, who moved to Donegal from England when she was a child.
Both Sarah's parents grew up in North London, but have strong ties to Ireland, north and south.
Her mother's family were from Glenties in Donegal and during the war she had been evacuated from London to Donegal and always dreamed of coming back. Her father's mum was from Warrenpoint and his father from Kildare. Her dad started out as a butcher at Smithfield Market in London before going on to run a meat processing plant in England.
"They're in their 80s and we're very close. I'm an only child, and Theo's their only grandchild, so I really wanted to get back.
"The plan was to live in our own place in Derry, to see lots of my parents and to commute to Belfast every morning for work - I like driving. But of course the pandemic changed everything and we've had the most extraordinary start to our new life here."
Setting up a makeshift studio in her parents' sunroom, the broadcaster says progress in technology has made her unconventional lockdown working set-up easier to deal with.
"It's all completely remote but I'm incredibly proud of the fact we've managed to launch in the middle of all this," says Sarah (46).
"It's testament to the technology as much as anything else, but where we are we've got the absolute bog standard, rural broadband so it's a bit of a miracle. The guys in Belfast gave me a few extra bits of tech. Don't ask me what they are in any detail because I don't really have a clue, but it's a few bits to plug in to the back of things, and they seem to be doing the trick.
"I'm working on a card table of my mum and dad's that they've had since the 1940s, a leather card table with fold-away legs, so it could go at any second. And because the sunroom's lovely and warm, very often there's clothes hanging up to dry so it's like walking into a laundry - and I'm not joking."
Meanwhile, across in Co Down, Chris, who covered everything from the mind-boggling tweets of Donald Trump to erupting volcanos and a polar vortex during his time the US, is settling back into the Bangor home he's owned for 20 years.
"It's definitely been different," says Chris (45). "For weeks, after a long time away, I basically didn't see any family and friends when I got back because the lockdown restrictions were already in place.
"I got back on the Friday morning and went into the BBC for a meeting on the Monday morning. They asked me to stand in that day on Evening Extra, which I did, and that night Boris Johnson announced the lockdown. "It's been crazy, but now things have started to open up a bit I've been able to see my sister Caroline and my little nephew Blake, who turned five earlier this month. That's been great."
And looking back over the incredible 21 years he's had since he first joined the BBC back in 1999, Chris goes a little way to explain his innate fascination with the news after delivering papers as a schoolboy from the Helen's Bay newsagents his late parents, Paddy and Pamela, ran when he was a child.
"My granny and then my dad ran a newsagents' in Helen's Bay so I grew up around papers," says Chris, who grew up in the Co Down village.
"I delivered the Belfast Telegraph every evening, probably from when I was about 10-years-old, so I think I kind of grew up always looking at the headlines and being interested in the news.
"That was back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, so it was still a very big news period in Northern Ireland and every day inevitably there was a Troubles-related story or something big breaking in politics. There were no journalists in the family, but there were plenty of papers."
And as Sarah and Chris settle into their new early-morning roles - with Joel Taggart standing in for Chris on Mondays and Sarah on Fridays, the duo reveal that juicy piece of information so many listeners want to know ... just how excruciatingly early do these bright and breezy broadcasters have to get up to sound on top of their game while the rest of us are still wiping sleep from our eyes?
Sarah, it emerges, gets out of bed at 4.45am but with his commute to the studio to factor in, Chris sets his alarm for 20 minutes earlier - an eye-watering 4.25am.
Admirably, both presenters say they're taking the early starts in their stride.
"It's honestly not that bad," says Chris. "I'm really not finding it as tough as I thought I might.
"When I was doing the Ireland correspondent job before I went to Washington, there were days when I'd be working for Breakfast TV and I'd still be going until after the 10 o'clock news, before another piece for Breakfast the next day.
"That's working from 6am until midnight, and then back at it the next day, so it might sound bizarre for someone getting up for work before half four in the morning, but I honestly feel like I'm in a slightly luxurious position now.
"Knowing when you start and finish is great. It's a game changer. Of course, it's not over when the programme ends at 9am, we have meetings through the day to plan for the following morning, but the hours are more regular.
"There's a real buzz with going on air at that time, too. You get the adrenaline hit which I've always loved from my job. That's what I'd get from working on fast-paced live stories and it's brilliant.
"I think some of my colleagues might think I'm slightly too cheery when I get to the office at 5.30am, but by that stage I've been up for an hour, so I'm grand.
"It's the first five minutes after you wake up that you're paid for. The five minutes before you're in the shower. After that, you're fine."
And after years as a news journalist, and her own late-night show on 5 Live, Sarah says a slightly-before-5am get-up time really isn't a big deal for her either.
“It’s a bit of a change,” she says. “With my last show I’d be getting home around 2am and now I’m getting up not long after that.
“But that suits me and the early mornings are no problem. I’ve worked every possible shift in radio and other jobs so swapping my body clock is no bother. And Chris is amazing. He’s got some serious energy first thing in the morning. I thought I was chipper until I met him.”
And as well as long hours and crazy shifts, Sarah put herself through the wringer big time when she first made the move from Radio Foyle to 5 Live back in 2014, commuting for six months between Londonderry and Manchester until her family was able to join her full-time.
“Theo was born in the June and I was due to start the new job in Manchester in the September, but Terry’s mother got very sick so it was important for him to stay at home which meant the boys weren’t able to be with me permanently,” she says.
“Sadly, she passed away that November, and then my own mother got sick too, so it was a very intense year. I’m very, very lucky to still have my mum and I guess everybody goes through these things a different points in their lives. Things just happen all at the one time and it was a difficult time.
“I couldn’t have done it without Terry though if he hadn’t stepped in to take care of the childcare when I wasn’t there. I was there in my flat in Manchester pumping breast milk to bring back and I’d take it back in bottles through the airport. I’d be stopped and asked where’s the baby, but of course the baby was in Northern Ireland. That was the whole point. It was a massive relief when they finally moved over.
“And I know you’re not supposed to say it, but Theo’s beautiful. It’s true that you actually fall physically in love, or at least that’s how it happened for me. I’m not going to say it’s been plain sailing all the way, because these things never are, but he really is the best of both of us.”
Reflecting on that time, Sarah says: “Looking back it seems like madness, but we did it. I used to get a flight from Manchester to Belfast at 7pm on a Thursday and be at the house in Derry by 10pm. I’d be on the red-eye come Monday morning to get back to work.
“When the two of them moved over it was a huge relief and we moved to the countryside almost immediately to a village which we fell completely in love with. “We missed Donegal and the rural aspect of Derry so much and we wanted to be in the country. I think I Googled something like ‘cute villages within commuting distance to Manchester’ and we found this gorgeous place in the Peak District.
“We rented a car and drove out and the barman in the local pub was brilliant and told us of a place we could rent. We lived in the village until we moved home, and we loved it.”
She loved her time at 5 Live too.
“My time there was absolutely extraordinary,” says Sarah. “I learned more in those five years than I ever thought possible as a broadcaster because it wasn’t just news and politics. I had my own show based on conversations and talking points — and I did some celebrity stuff too, which I’d never really done before
“I interviewed quite a few well-known people. The first was Stephen Fry, who I had to interview on my own after Dan Walker got stuck in traffic, but probably the most famous person I interviewed was Russell Crowe.
“If he walks into a room, you notice. He’s a big guy, very warm and friendly, but I was really nervous. I made him a coffee and I actually kept the teaspoon — is that ridiculous? I’ve no idea where it is now, to be fair. I think it probably got lost in the move.”
And with such a huge range of experience between them, from Sarah’s impressive roster of A-list interviewees to Chris’s second-to-none breaking-news credentials, the formidable pair have high hopes for the future of Good Morning Ulster.
“Good radio to me is always a conversation,” says Sarah. “I think no-one really likes being talked at, and my hope is to have a really strong conversational relationship with the listeners. And I have to stress that I’m extremely cognitive of the amazing and award-winning job Karen and Noel did, I presented the programme with both of them and I know we have these huge shoes to fill.
“But it’s an exciting time for us too. From my own personal experience, and particularly over the years at 5 Live where I did such a huge range of stuff, I’ve learned it’s real people who make the best radio. They’re the heart of every story.”
And with his own boots-on-the-ground background, Chris hopes to get back out on the road for a bit of reporting in the future.
“Fundamentally Good Morning Ulster is what it should be, which is a news programme,” he says. “That’s the reason it’s successful and gets a very good audience. People tune in to find out what’s going on, and that’s a format you don’t want to totally tinker with, so while it might sound cheesy, it’s much more of an evolution than a revolution.
“There are things we’re doing differently already, and we’ll continue to do differently. There’s a deliberate attempt to do things a bit more in-depth, we’re interviewing politicians a bit longer or slowing things down to get into stories perhaps that little bit more.
“Podcasts are changing the way a lot of people are listening to things and there’s more and more room to be conversational and to get into things in-depth.
“I have a real desire to get the programme out and about a bit more, because I really enjoy reporting. I want to do some of that, but of course that’s impossible at the moment.”
And with the pandemic as the natural backdrop to almost everything for now, the presenters are acutely aware of the significance of their roles.
“This is the most important story any of us have ever done,” says Sarah. “And you just have to remember that everyone is having a really different experience through this. We’re all facing our own challenges.
“I struggle with the fact I’ve had quite a fortunate few months. I’m home with my parents, who we wouldn’t have been able to see at all if I hadn’t had this job to come home to just at the right time. In a way we’re all going through the same thing, but some people’s experiences have been brutal.
“Some of the people I’ve spoken to in the past three months have been devastated from grief or loneliness and it’s vital that we get their stories out there, while also giving people the facts and information they need and reassuring them. It’s a hard time, but I know we’re in a very privileged position to be doing the jobs we do.
“I’m totally aware this is probably the best job in broadcasting in Northern Ireland and it comes with a huge amount of responsibility, which is something I take very, very seriously.”
Good Morning Ulster is on BBC Radio Ulster from 6.30am to 9am on weekdays mornings