Belfast Telegraph

Lindy McDowell: A whiff of ageism in the air as proud era for local broadcasting is ended

Noel Thompson, Wendy Austin, Seamus McKee and Karen Patterson
Noel Thompson, Wendy Austin, Seamus McKee and Karen Patterson

By Lindy McDowell

As Oscar might have put it, to lose one of your "extremely talented broadcasters" may be regarded as misfortune. To lose four at one time looks a bit like... what?

Ageism, perhaps?

BBC NI has announced that four of its top presenters, Wendy Austin, Seamus McKee, Karen Patterson and Noel Thompson - a quartet who between them have been the very voice and soul of the institution in Northern Ireland - are leaving next year.

As Peter Johnston, director of BBC NI, puts it: "This really feels like the end of an era. But what an era it has been."

All four broadcasters have down the years accrued a shedload of awards and well-deserved recognition for the quality of their work.

These were the calm, assured voices of reasoned debate and major news-breaking (often, truly horrific news-breaking) down the darkest years of the Troubles and beyond.

In his tribute, Adam Smyth, head of news at BBC News NI, has described them as "consummate professionals who live and breathe news" who have "brought versatility, personality and warmth to their broadcasting roles, making them a trusted friend and guide to listeners".

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For decades they've been trusted friends indeed to hundreds of thousands of those listeners.

More than that, they've represented the evolution of broadcasting itself from the years when radio came from just the radio to an era where technology and social media have transformed how we interact with broadcast organisations, presenters and the shows they host.

It goes without saying that all four are outstanding and highly respected journalists.

The great Wendy Austin (67) began her career with the Belfast Telegraph back in the early Seventies at a time when female reporters who did "hard news" were torchbearers in a changing industry.

To those of us who came after (not that long after), Wendy was the gold standard. Gutsy and fun, able to hold her own in any quarter, she was and is every bit as down-to-earth and irrepressibly cheery as she comes across on air. Her broadcasting career began in Downtown Radio in 1976 before she was snapped up by the Beeb. She's presented a slew of programmes on both television and radio, but has said herself that her heart is more in radio.

Her current billet is on Inside Business but she's also hosted Good Morning Ulster, Inside Ulster, Seven Days and, back in its heyday, Talkback, which she took over from the late David Dunseith.

She spent some years, too, in London with Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4. A stalwart campaigner for equality for women in the media, she's led by example.

Karen Patterson, presenter of Radio Ulster's flagship Good Morning Ulster, has also enjoyed a long and illustrious history with the Beeb - again raking in a number of awards.

Karen, who is in her 40s, won the prestigious News Broadcaster of the Year gong at the recent IMRO awards.

For the BBC to lose two such lauded female presenters at a time when the station overall is facing questions about equality will doubtless be a major blow.

Seamus McKee (Seamus has been around so long, his was the voice reading the news in one of the Billy television plays) will be a loss too as the authoritative voice of Evening Extra.

At 71, Seamus has certainly served his time. But along with that other veteran Noel Thompson (62), whose impressive CV includes stints with Newsnight, Newsround and Nationwide not to mention all those local television and radio shows right up to his current role with Good Morning Ulster, both have brought a wealth of experience and utter professionalism to their respective roles.

No doubt there will be debate over whether it is evidence of ageism that the BBC haven't done more to hang on to them.

Just as there will doubtless be talk about whether the BBC can really afford to lose two top female presenters at this time - never mind four such popular stalwarts of the airwaves vacating the premises all at once.

Times change. And it's right and necessary, of course, that people move on and new, young, different talent is given a chance.

But Noel, Seamus, Karen and Wendy will be sorely missed by listeners.

The end of an era, indeed. A long and proud era for local broadcasting.

Belfast Telegraph

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