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Linda McAuley: 'This is a time for us to provide a familiar voice, friendship and some reassurance to listeners when they need it most'

BBC Radio Ulster's consumer champion Linda McAuley tells Claire O'Boyle of her pride in getting an MBE for her work in broadcasting, her dilemma at what to wear when working from home and why she would never go on air without putting on her lipstick

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Linda McAuley

Linda McAuley

Linda with mum Carol, granddaughter Isabella and the baby’s mum Rachel Andrews

Linda with mum Carol, granddaughter Isabella and the baby’s mum Rachel Andrews

Linda McAuley and Isabella

Linda McAuley and Isabella

Linda McAuley in the BBC Studio

Linda McAuley in the BBC Studio

.Linda McAuley is made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the Prince of Wales during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace

.Linda McAuley is made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the Prince of Wales during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace

Linda McAuley in her workstation at home

Linda McAuley in her workstation at home

Linda McAuley

She's got one of the most familiar and reassuring voices on the airwaves. And as the people of Northern Ireland remain gripped by uncertainty amid the coronavirus crisis, broadcasting veteran Linda McAuley is taking her duty to provide support and reassurance to the public seriously.

"It's a huge responsibility," says Linda, who has presented BBC Radio Ulster's consumer rights programme On Your Behalf for almost 25 years.

"It's a very difficult and stressful time for everyone, and, like many people, I really never thought it would get to this point of lockdown, with people isolated in their homes and so many businesses closed down.

"There's so much going on online, with jokes and memes and inspiring messages being shared on social media. But we've got to remember there's a whole generation of people who don't have any involvement with that, and for them as well as so many others, isolation is going to be the most difficult part of all this.

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Linda McAuley in her workstation at home

Linda McAuley in her workstation at home

Linda McAuley in her workstation at home

"That's why radio is so crucial right now. It's an enormous part of people's lives, and it's been the love of my life since I started working at Downtown Radio back in the 1970s.

"People know and trust the voices they hear. They know the voices they hear on Radio Ulster. We have to take what we do seriously, and this is a time for us to provide that familiar voice, friendship and reassurance when people need it most."

Linda made her way onto the airwaves almost accidentally, after joining Downtown Radio in 1976 as a copytaker. After a couple of stand-in appearances, she landed a gig reading the news and presenting a breakfast show at the station.

The Bangor native - who went to the North Down town's Glenlola Collegiate School before a time at The Mount, a Quaker boarding school in York - made her move to the BBC two years later.

And with her perfect diction and wonderfully natural presenting style, the people's champion of the airwaves has gone on to establish herself as one of Northern Ireland's best-loved broadcasters.

After being inducted into the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) Radio Awards Hall of Fame in 2017, the mother-of-three received an MBE the following year for her services to consumers.

"Both of those experiences were incredible," says Linda (65). "The MBE was such an honour and the day itself was fantastic.

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Linda with mum Carol, granddaughter Isabella and the baby’s mum Rachel Andrews

Linda with mum Carol, granddaughter Isabella and the baby’s mum Rachel Andrews

Linda with mum Carol, granddaughter Isabella and the baby’s mum Rachel Andrews

"I was actually quite overwhelmed by the experience, which is something I didn't really expect. It started off very exciting, of course, but as we were queueing in a line to walk into the room with Prince Charles, a few of us got quite emotional.

"There was a little, small lady in front of me who seemed quite nervous and I thought I'd talk to her to calm her, and when she told me she was an Auschwitz survivor who spoke to children in schools, it made me realise just how amazing the people around me were and it was a real 'wow' moment.

"It was very emotional, but of course none of us had any handbags or tissues with us. Thankfully someone got one from somewhere though, and we were able to dab our eyes before we went face to face with Prince Charles."

"He was lovely," adds Linda. "And even though they obviously do these ceremonies with so many people on a regular basis it felt incredibly special and personal.

"The night before the investiture we were lucky enough to have dinner with Lady Sylvia Hermon and we took a tour of the House of Commons and the House of Lords."

As well as the great sense of occasion that came with her honour, says Linda, of huge importance was the mark of approval it gave to prove all her hard work had been worth it.

"For me it really encapsulated how much On Your Behalf meant and contributed to people's lives," she says, "because that's what it's about.

"It was wonderful to feel people had noticed the work we'd been doing and that it was valued. It's a huge responsibility to do what we do for people and I feel very lucky to have been given the chance to have such a fabulous career on radio."

And as she approaches 25 years at the helm, Linda, who was there when the flagship consumer show was launched in the autumn of 1995, admits she felt nervous presenting the programme for the first time from her home a fortnight ago.

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Linda McAuley in the BBC Studio

Linda McAuley in the BBC Studio

Linda McAuley in the BBC Studio

"I presented the show from home two weeks ago for the first time ever," she says. "It was very strange. I haven't been nervous going into a studio in a very long time, but I was completely hyper before we went on air.

"It's a live programme and I usually have my producer with me, a studio manager, as well as most of the contributors and experts there in the studio.

"But that first time we were all over the place. We had our travel expert Simon Calder feeding in from London. We had our tax expert on a secure line from home, our legal expert on Facetime from her house and our consumer expert coming in on the phone.

"That's not even to mention the producer and studio manager, who were in separate studios in Belfast.

"I really missed the security of us all being in the studio, the comfort of having more than one screen to look at and getting a nod through the glass from my producer. It felt a bit isolated, but that's us now for the foreseeable future.

"We're all getting used to different ways of working - and we'll just have to get on with it."

And, says Linda, the programme, a mix of consumer advice and information as well as in-depth investigations, is providing a crucial service for people now more than ever.

"We have people now facing into the benefits system and Universal Credit where they never needed to before," she says.

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.Linda McAuley is made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the Prince of Wales during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace

.Linda McAuley is made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the Prince of Wales during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace

.Linda McAuley is made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the Prince of Wales during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace

"There is so much for people to get their heads around.

"There's the job retention scheme for people to get their heads around, and self-employed people trying to figure out what, if anything, they're entitled to by way of government backing.

"We've had supply teachers trying to figure out whether or not they can be furloughed - a word most people hadn't even heard of a week or two ago. There is a lot going on that we need to pick our way through, which is why a consumer advice programme is so important right now."

With a tip-top knowledge of such crucial information, do people often presume Linda has the answers to all their questions when they meet her?

"They do," she laughs. "And I don't. Because, like everyone else, I turn to experts on issues like these. I suppose what I have is a little knowledge about a lot.

"By this stage I know where the pitfalls might be, so I know what to look out for. There are things I know to be careful about, and I see people walking into difficulties.

"You'll get many holidaymakers who won't take out travel insurance right until just before they go away, and of course I understand their thinking.

"However, if you go to get cover at this stage with everything that's going on, your policy will be very different to how it might have been a month or two ago when you originally booked your holiday.

"The good thing about my job is that I have access to a wonderful panel of experts - but that means the listeners do too. That's what we're all here for, and as well as providing the answers, very often we act mostly as a signpost to another expert or organisation who can give all the answers you need."

Shockingly, says Linda, scammers are taking advantage of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

"These people are out there and they're jumping on the bandwagon," she says. "It's very disappointing to think it's happening, but one of the very important things I can do in my job is to spread the word and to make people think twice before they get caught out.

"We'll be talking about scams and debt in the programmes coming up, because we don't know what's going to be left or what the knock-on effect will be when we come out of this.

"Our shops, trading, our schools, universities, they've all taken a huge hit and we don't know what life is going to be like when it's over, so we need to keep things as steady as we can while the situation carries on."

And as she settles in to life in lockdown, working from home along with husband Paul Wilson, an insurance broker, Linda admits she's having to make some big adjustments of her own.

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Linda McAuley and Isabella

Linda McAuley and Isabella

Linda McAuley and Isabella

Famously fashion-savvy, having inherited a love of clothes from her mum, former model Carol McAuley (87), Linda is dressing down at home — although she continues to be meticulous about her appearance.

“Well, I have to have my lipstick on to broadcast,” she laughs. “Even if I’m at home. But I have had to go out and get more casual clothes.

“I’m usually in office clothes and boots, and I don’t really know what people wear to work from home, so I’m learning on the job.

“But it helps to keep busy at home. My husband and I are here together, so we’re doing our best to give each other some space and work around each other.

“As well as working, I’m keeping up with a daily walk which is great, and I’m listening to some excellent radio and podcasts.

“I suppose, taken positively, it’s a time for a lot of people to do things they wouldn’t normally have time to do. The media show podcast on Radio 4 is great, and I really enjoyed the first episode of Vinny Hurrell’s property show, My First Home..

“I’d say that one is worth catching up on because it really plays in to the inner nosiness we’ve all got. There’s a great interiors design chap involved, Ian Thompson, who takes some very high-end inspiration and really fabulous ideas and explains how they could work in people’s homes. It’s fun, and I suppose that’s what many of us need a bit more of right now.”

And like so many of us, Linda, grandmother to 18-month-old Isabella, says she’s at risk of not fitting back into her old clothes once she has to go back to the office.

“I’m eating more than I have ever I think,” says Linda. “I’m afraid I won’t fit back into my old clothes. I’m cooking an awful lot, soup and casseroles, things like that. I’m not really a baker but I’m eating a bit of chocolate.

“I’m very lucky to have inherited good genes, and I’ve always had a keen interest in fashion because of my mum. As well as being a model, she went on to own a clothes shop in Newtownards, so that’s always been an important part of my life — she was always telling me to stand up straight and think about my deportment, even as a teenager.”

And keeping her spirits up, as well as her fitness, Linda, who spent six years as a single mother to sons Neil, Michael and James, is taking daily walks by the coast in her hometown of Bangor — and getting regular updates from her family.

“Walking is a fantastic way to clear your head,” says Linda, who has also presented the Stephen Nolan Show in the presenter’s absence. “As well as that, I’m in touch a lot with my sons and we’re getting updates on Facetime.

“It’s an absolute revelation and I’m finding myself singing I’m a Little Teapot and Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes into the iPad with my granddaughter.

“She calls me Yia Yia, which is the Greek for grandmother, and it’s such fun. It makes me look back and think it’s so fantastic because my children didn’t have anything like this.

“Our contact is all through electronic means at the minute, which is so helpful when all other contact is off limits. We’re getting lots of little video clips and they’re a lot of fun.”

And while she has a remarkable list of achievements in her working life to be proud of — another highlight being a gong from the Trading Standards Institute — at a time when things closer to home are more important than ever, Linda is clear about what matters most to her. “Professionally, I am most proud of the awards and acknowledgements of my career,” she says. “But personally, having been a single mother for six years, I am most proud of bringing up my three sons to be healthy, happy adults with their own families and careers.”

And with a tough road stretching ahead, does Linda have any words of advice on making our way through this unprecedented time?

“We’re facing a lot of challenges I’d never have predicted,” she says. “For one, and this is purely a professional one, it’s so difficult to switch off when you’re working at home.

“Going into the office, I would look at my emails there and leave it at that. Now I’m at home they’re on the phone and the temptation is there to look at them all the time.

“And while it might feel like things won’t ever go back to what they were, we will adjust back to life, because that’s what people do.

“We just need to get through this, and if people are feeling isolated and in need of company, put the radio on because those voices you know are there for friendship, company and advice if you need it.

“There will be life when this is over, no matter how strange and difficult it all seems for now, and we must remember that this too will pass.”

Linda McAuley presents On Your Behalf on Saturdays on BBC Radio Ulster/Foyle from 9.30am. The programme is also available on BBC Sounds

Belfast Telegraph