It was a shock to many listeners when Karen Patterson announced she would be leaving BBC NI after 10 years in the hot seat at Good Morning Ulster. After taking up a voluntary redundancy offer, the popular broadcaster departed from the flagship Radio Ulster show on January 31, which of course is also known as Brexit Day.
"I thought that having nursed the Brexit debate for three-and-a-half years at that point, it was a fitting day for me to say goodbye. We say goodbye to Europe, I say goodbye to BBC Northern Ireland - and that was it," she laughs.
More seriously, though, Karen (49) says that the dilemma that confounds so many working parents strongly influenced what was an undeniably tough decision: she loved her career, but she knew that she also wanted to be able to spend more time with her nine-year-old son than the demands of a high-profile job in the media made possible.
"It was a surprise offer from work. Nobody had anticipated it. We were called together and told that the BBC was in a position to make an offer of voluntary redundancy and the offer was made to the staff presenters across television and radio. Genuinely, I just felt it was the right thing to do at the time. So I remember saying to my boss that I was going to take it up, and I think he was surprised.
"It was one of those times where I thought: 'Hang on, you've been doing this job for 10 years, getting up at four o'clock in the morning'. The news cycle is relentless and I was very committed to the role," she says.
"Max was born while I was doing that programme, so having a wee one through those 10 years - it was hard on home life, for sure. To do that role is all-consuming. I'd been there for 10 years and I got to a point where having to get up so early was exhausting.
"I thought maybe I should consider this - I would like to try new things, to have a bit more variety in my working life, spend more time with my family. And you know, Max is nine and at an age where children are great fun. I didn't want to miss that and have any regrets about having worked through. Everyone says when they get to big school their friends become more important, and I just wanted to cherish the time I had with him.
"On top of that, I lost my dad six years ago this month. We have a family farm and I just felt it was a good time to be more involved at home and that was all part of my decision-making."
The plan was to spend more time on the Killinchy farm where she lives with husband Martin, who is director of business development with Eakin Healthcare, and young Max.
"Martin was formerly with Randox and that was his team that developed the Covid test, so he's kind of been busy. We had a big year last year because we both resigned in the same week from our respective roles, so it was a little bit crazy," Karen laughs.
"I just wanted to quieten things down for a bit, relax, enjoy family and pick up work as I continue on. I'd hoped to do some corporate work."
Like everyone else, however, Karen found herself in very changed circumstances due to the pandemic, and though she'd left her post craving more time at home, she freely admits she hadn't anticipated just how much time she would be spending there.
Most of the corporate work she had lined up has now been postponed until later in the year, although happily some of it is starting to pick up again.
But the family have made the most of their unexpected time together.
Karen grew up on a dairy farm near Bangor, and she longed for Max to enjoy the same kind of happy, rural childhood she had. She's loved being at home and being a full-time mum - and has even found the home schooling fun.
"We have a routine, where we get up in the morning, we do a bit of mental maths, and then Max and I head up to the (family) farm in Bangor and we are there most days until about five o'clock. We do a bit of homeschooling work at lunchtime," she says.
"We're lucky to have been outdoors and to enjoy the season, and the change that comes with that. It's busy on the farm in spring; we've had a whole batch of new calves delivered, we got all the silage in, and Max has had frogspawn that hatched into tadpoles which we recently released as froglets into a river. We've been watching wild hares.
"We feed the cows, check the animals. Max has a 'pet' - a bullock who would be the biggest bullock you ever saw in your life. He hurt his leg, and Max and he literally spend hours together.
"Yesterday we were doing a bit of building work. Max spent the day with a rake, pouring cement, putting a floor into a new silo. So, as far as home schooling goes, it's an education of a completely different sort, but to me equally valuable because there's so much more to education than books, and he'll never forget this summer - none of us will."
A veteran of major news stories, including Drumcree, the Good Friday Agreement, the Omagh bomb and the aforementioned Brexit, Karen admits it does feel strange now to be watching from the sidelines as such a huge story unfolds. But she's also relieved not to be immersed in this particular one for hours every day.
"I've had my share of breaking news stories, and this is a massive, massive story and, yes, breaking news will always be in my blood," she says.
"So I'm not saying I don't miss bringing people up to speed with the latest events, but given the nature of the story and, given how devastating it has been, not only for local families but for the economy and the legacy it's going to have, I think it's not a story that I would have relished relaying on a day-to-day basis.
"The details are often so graphic that I find myself listening to the radio a bit less because with children back home from school, you just can't have it on all the time. The detail is too much for children, and there's a degree of shielding Max from the horror of it.
"I used to listen to the radio in the car all the time, but now I listen to podcasts more and I catch up with most of my news online.
"I find this particular news story harrowing, and credit to the teams that are covering it now because it must take its toll."
Some people know from early childhood what job they want to do when they grow up but Karen wasn't among them. As a teenager on her dad's farm in Bangor she never had a clear ambition about what kind of career she would like. Around the time she was choosing her A-levels her mum Katharine pointed out that she loved English, debating and story writing and suggested work experience at the Co Down Spectator newspaper. But part of her subsequent career path she also credits to her late father Aubrey.
"My father was a great storyteller, very well-known in the farming community for telling stories and jokes - he used to be on the stage as a young man as well - and I suppose I always enjoyed his stories," Karen says.
"You can be a bit shy in a farm kitchen, and he would have said, no matter who comes into the house or is sitting at the table, you must come over and talk to everyone, because no matter who it is, everyone has a story and something to say, if you just show interest in them and talk to them. I guess that stuck with me all these years."
As it turned out Karen loved her work experience at the Spectator and went on to work there for five years. She describes it as the "best possible introduction to journalism", working alongside then deputy editor Colin Bateman before he found fame as a bestselling author and screenwriter.
Her time there also gave her an insight into the invaluable work of the local Press and she is worried about the pressures many titles are currently under due to Covid-19. "I really would have concern about the future of local newspapers and I think the public really needs to embrace them and support them as a voice for scrutiny of what goes on," she says. "So many of them are struggling, particularly with Covid-19, to maintain their circulation, let alone build it."
In 1996 Karen won her first award, lifting the accolade of Provincial Journalist of the Year, an occasion that proved memorable for several reasons... "The night that I got the award in the Europa Hotel was also the night of the Canary Wharf bombing - and just before my name was called out the place emptied. I remember it very well!" she says wryly.
Soon afterwards she started as a newsreader at Downtown Radio, just when everyone else was off for the July holidays.
"That was the year of Drumcree and I was the only person there. The editor at the time sent me with my recording equipment to the Garvaghy Road in Portadown and I was there for a week. That was the start of my live broadcasting career. It was a massive learning curve," she says.
"It was a long time ago, but the tensions were so high and the scenes were so incredible that there was real fear that this could tip Northern Ireland over. Thankfully over a period of time the situation calmed, but in hindsight, it was all part of what led to the Good Friday Agreement, because people realised how fragile relations were.
"I think, 20 odd years on, we've kind of forgotten how dire things were, how many lives were lost and what an achievement the Agreement was."
Only a matter of months later she found herself covering the Omagh bomb for Downtown. Like many journalists that Saturday afternoon she set out for the town not knowing what she would find when she got there.
"It was only when I got to Tyrone that I could hear calls by the emergency services for blood donations on the radio. That prepared me that things were bad, but nothing could have prepared me for the scenes when they got there and the carnage that was to follow," she says.
"I had to go to the leisure centre where many of the injured were taken... people were arriving covered in mortar and dust, there were scenes of terrible distress. It was the fear in people's eyes as lists were posted of the names of the dead that had been identified, and others seeking loved ones and fearing that they would recognise a name on it, and as time went on, realising it was increasingly likely.
"It was the horror of it all, the number of young people who lost their lives or were injured. I remember it being a gorgeous sunny day... and after the elation of the Agreement, thinking this couldn't, shouldn't ever have happened.
"My mum phoned me with the news and it was just an overwhelmingly tearful week - it was really hard but the strength of those families and what they have had to carry is something I’ll never get over.”
Her role at Downtown, Karen says, was her dream job and she had no intention of leaving — until she was approached by then BBC NI political editor Stephen Grimason who encouraged her to apply for the job of political correspondent. While Martina Purdy got the job, Karen reached the final four and was offered a presenting role, doing lunchtime and teatime news bulletins for the next 10 years. She continued reading the news on radio alongside the television work and was eventually offered the role of solo presenter on the radio show Evening Extra.
“I had a really encouraging head of radio news at the time, Kathleen Carragher, and she was very clear about what she wanted. That support and encouragement really, really helped when you’re putting yourself out there — it’s a really vulnerable place to be sometimes. She wanted me to make the programme my own,” Karen says.
The next big leap was when she was asked to take up the reins at Good Morning Ulster with Mark Carruthers. “It was a huge privilege to be asked,” she says. “I was very flattered.”
Among many major news moments over the next decade, she recalls the rapport between the ‘Chuckle Brothers’, First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
“I think as more time passes, it only becomes more jaw-dropping to reflect on how events unfolded and how two such strong personalities could make this place work and could bring their respective communities with them — and how their respective communities could adapt and could respect what they were trying to achieve,” she says.
“And, oh my goodness, to be in Fermanagh for the G7, to have the world leaders there, to have President Obama there, to have Putin swimming in the Fermanagh lakes. I remember Kevin Magee, who was the reporter assigned with me down to Fermanagh, catching Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, on a boat crossing a lake to the Manor House Hotel at Killadeas. Just special times.”
She recalls the shock of walking into the studio after Donald Trump was elected US President, the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire and the unexpected result of the Brexit referendum after exit polls indicated it would go the opposite way.
“I went to bed shortly after the exit poll, thinking I’ll get up that little bit earlier just in case. I remember at 2.30am watching as the Remain parties wrapped up and Nigel Farage claiming victory, walking into the Good Morning Ulster newsroom where we prepare, turning the lights on and thinking the world has just changed — it was a heck of a morning for breaking news.”
Another story that left a lasting impression was the Primark fire, which Good Morning Ulster covered live from Belfast city centre.
“It was one where the affection for the building and the sense of loss to the traders, and to the heart of the city, was most keenly felt,” Karen says.
Karen won the 2019 News Broadcaster of the Year award at the IMRO Radio Awards just days before her departure was made public.
Listeners’ reaction to her decision — an outpouring of affection, as well as dismay at losing someone they regarded as a friend from the airwaves — touched her deeply.
“The public response was the toughest bit — it was so overwhelming. People were really surprised and shocked,” she says.
“That was the bit I found most difficult. I knew in my head it was the right thing to do.”
On an emotional final day, colleagues poured into the studio for the last couple of minutes as a montage was aired of her key moments.
“And then the next thing in my ear, the producer said, with maybe two or three minutes left on the programme, ‘Karen, the First Minister Arlene Foster wants a word’. I can’t really repeat what I said to the producer, and I thought he was joking. But she really was on the phone — she came on and kindly wished me well,” she says.
“And it was just... even now I struggle to find words. There were a few tears as we went to the pips, but it was a great way to say goodbye.”
In what turned out to be sweeping changes at the BBC, Karen’s Good Morning Ulster co-presenter Noel Thompson also stepped down alongside two other veteran household names, Seamus McKee, of Evening Extra, and Wendy Austin, host of Inside Business.
The months of lockdown that followed Karen’s departure haven’t just been homeschooling and dairy farming — she has combined home and broadcasting, recording a miniseries of podcasts for agrifood company ABP this week.
“They recognised that in the absence of all the summer agricultural shows this year that a lot of communities were feeling isolated, particularly the farming community, and they wanted to put together podcasts that would help people feel connected again,” she explains.
“I literally have converted a spare room into a studio — people at the BBC will laugh because I was never the most technical — but all of a sudden, I can work through Microsoft Teams and we are doing video podcasting. It’s a great way to make the wheels turn again.”
The podcast is called Now We’re Talking Farming, and the first three episodes focus on Farmer Safety, Farmer Health & Wellbeing and Education & Employment in Agri-Food post-Covid.
“I just think, from an innovation perspective and for companies across Northern Ireland, it’s a great way to get your message out,” Karen says.
“So I’ll be back up in front of a screen, doing what I enjoy most, and doing it from home, and it’s something that I think companies are becoming more and more aware of. People like me are having to adapt to a new working world and there’s something about podcasting that’s so fresh and so immediate, that you can tap into your customer base in a very direct and fresh way.”
What she doesn’t miss, she says, is covering Brexit and charting its impact on Northern Ireland’s economy — which is why she’s happy to watch the intensive Covid-19 coverage from afar.
“To go into another news cycle about health and the economy...” Karen pauses momentarily, before adding: “I have every sympathy for the people telling that story, they’re only human and it’s frightening. I don’t envy them. It was a big transition to leave the BBC but I’m so much more myself and happy. No regrets,” she says.
ABP’s ‘Now We’re Talking Farming’ podcasts with Karen Patterson will launch no later than July 10, and will be available free to listen to on the ABP website and the usual podcast directories – Spotify and iTunes