END OF AN ERA AS LINDA SIGNS OFF

WHEN Bangor broadcaster Linda McAuley says it will break her heart to leave her BBC Radio Ulster consumer rights show after nearly 30 years, it is clearly no exaggeration.

Linda, who was awarded the MBE, has been at the helm of On Your Behalf since it was launched in 1995 and it has, she says, become a part of her DNA.

Her decision to leave has been a long time coming, not least because she loves what she does, but after much discussion with friends and family over Christmas, she told her listeners at the start of the year that she would be stepping down.

“I do feel this is the right moment to step back, to maybe find some other outlets and find something different,” she says.

The decision was made official following a meeting with station boss Emma Dunseath on January 4 at which Linda broke the news that she would not be renewing her contract when it expires in April.

“She was so kind,” says Linda. “In fact she gave me a huge hug and she had tears in her eyes because it is the end of an era.

“On Your Behalf has been there for me and for listeners of BBC Radio Ulster since 1995 and it’s an institution – I suppose that makes me an institution too!”

Describing her role as, ‘an absolute delight and pleasure’, Linda adds, “The programme has grown and developed and the listeners have become part of my psyche, part of my whole being.

“People know me and I am a friend to them, on the radio in the corner of the room. To give that up is a very difficult thing to do, so it hasn’t been an easy decision.”

Linda admits that age is a factor in her decision, and she is only half joking when she says that she regrets she has had to ‘come clean’ about turning 70 this year, a number that has surprised many.

“I’ve managed to pull the wool over the eyes of quite a few people for quite a long time. I know my colleagues in work are quite gobsmacked by it as I’ve always just been part of a team working as hard as everybody else.

“I don’t think you should be judged by a number, but it’s a factor and I would like to do some different things,” she says.

Another factor in her decision is ‘lifestyle’, by which she means a desire for more freedom than the commitments of her radio role allow.

“It takes up my life, which I love,” she says, “but it’s all consuming. For instance, this is my day off and I’ve spent the last hour setting things up for this Saturday’s programme, it  doesn’t just happen on the days I work.”

Retirement will give Linda the freedom to take what she is calling ‘a gap month’ off to spend travelling, first to attend her nephew Daniel McAuley’s wedding at Venice Beach, California, in July and then on to Australia where her youngest son James has lived for eight years.

“I’ve never been to Australia, James has always come home to visit us and it suddenly struck me that if I go as far as California I could keep on going to Australia and have a proper holiday, for a month, a bit like a gap year.

“That might sound silly at my age but that’s how I’m looking at it,” she says.

At the moment that is as clear as the future looks to her, though Linda is determined that she will find a new role within the world of consumer issues, and also that she will continue to use her broadcasting skills.

“I’d like to be a consumer ambassador, I’d like to be able to do something different for a while and I feel this is the moment,” she explains.

Bangor born and bred, Linda attended Glenlola Collegiate and later studied journalism at the old College of Business Studies in Belfast before taking up roles with Menary Travel and Brian Morton & Co estate agency.

Then, in 1976, Downtown Radio was launched in Newtownards, and hearing that they were looking for newsroom staff Linda applied and was offered a position taking copy and reading the dog and horse racing results.

During her years with the station Linda had her three sons, Neil, Michael and James Andrews, and counts herself lucky to have been a part of a Downtown crew which spawned many household names.

“I’ve been really lucky in my career, I’ve been in the right place at the right time. So many people have come through Downtown Radio, pretty much everybody,” she says.

As with many people who say they got lucky, Linda was good at creating opportunities for luck to come her way, a skill that got her onto the airwaves at Radio Ulster.

She explains that she was living in Ballynahinch in 1989 with three small sons to raise, when she saw an advertisement in the Daily Mail looking for projects for a new television show that was being launched, called Challenge Anneka.

Says Linda: “My friend Joy Silcock and I decided to challenge Anneka to build a playground in Ballynahinch, which was quite a divided and difficult part of Northern Ireland at that time, during the Troubles.

“I rang the number in the paper and the person who answered was Janine Waddell from Holywood of Waddell Productions. She was totally thrilled to hear a Northern Irish accent so we challenged Anneka to come to Ballynahinch and build this playground, which she did.

“I rang my former Downtown colleague Wendy Austin at Radio Ulster and asked if she would like an interview about it.

“We did the interview and it was wonderful for the children and families to have a playground, but for me personally that started my career again because I was then asked to come and fill in for Wendy who was going off for a month to do something with Oxfam.”

Wendy Austin then decided to move on to the newsroom and Linda was asked to stay on at the station, working on the Morning Extra show.

Says Linda: “My whole career has been pretty much serendipity, being in the right place at the right time.

“It was Morning Extra from 1989 to 1995 and then in 1995 On Your Behalf was created and that is the legacy that I’m now leaving, having spent all those years there.”

She credits the success of the show to the small team she works with of a producer and content assistant, as well as the audience and the professionals who give their advice.

“It’s unusual for programmes to have that longevity,” she says, “and I think it’s because it’s about people, for people and it helps people.

“On Your Behalf fulfils that public service ethos to educate, inform and entertain. I think it does all three.”

She continues: “One of the delights for me has been going out to the people. I don’t sit in the studio and people phone in, I go out all over NI, just me and my tape recorder to talk to people, record people, hear their stories.

“That’s been one of the bits I’ve enjoyed most and one of the bits I’ll miss most.

“Things have changed a lot because of the internet, but equally things haven’t changed because it’s still about consumer rights and consumer law, it’s still about scams, it’s still about technology.

“Things have just moved on because the internet has changed everything, but a leopard can’t change its spots, it’s still about taking care on the internet the way you would have taken care on the doorstep.

“It’s still about your consumer rights, knowing what you are entitled to before you sign. It’s still about the small print.

“So things are different yet they still remain very much the same. It’s all about awareness and education.

“In many ways it annoys me that it takes the clout of the BBC to get an answer for a person when a company has ignored them.

“Even when the listener knows they have done the right things and emailed the right people, sometimes it is the glare of publicity makes things happen and if we can do that to help people, that’s what we’re there for.”

Even after all these years at the helm, Linda says she is still learning new things all the time.

“For example, you may decide to fly out of Dublin and not realise your travel insurance didn’t cover you. I learned last week that if you have a second home in Donegal or in Spain you need to make a will in that country.

“It has been a good thing for me to learn so many things from other people’s experiences and a good thing for a very faithful audience,” she says.

She is grateful too, to the experts who have offered their advice to listeners and she names organisations like the Consumer Council, Advice NI, Carers, Employers for Child Care, Experian, the Financial Ombudsman, and Get Safe online.

There has also been welcome advice from the Law Centre and the Law Society, while Jimmy Hughes, a former trading standards expert, has been a key legal advisor to listeners. 

There is no set date yet for Linda’s last show and she admits, “I’m not looking forward to the final day and saying goodbye. It’s going to break my heart to leave, but it’s the right time.”

Outside of future work opportunities Linda is also looking forward to spending more time with her family.

She has been married to second husband Paul Wilson for 25 years and she has two of her sons living close at hand, in Bangor, along with her 91 year-old mum Carol, sister Jan and grandchildren, five year old Isabella and three year old Arthur.

“It’s been a wonderful life and a wonderful career and I’ve loved every minute of it,” she says.