Radio Ulster's Wendy Austin gets MBE

Wendy and family Wendy at Buckingham Palace with her family

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Talkback presenter Wendy Austin says a letter explaining she'd been selected for an MBE looked like 'a really important parking ticket' from the Cabinet Office.

The broadcaster, who joined the BBC in 1976, found out she had been nominated for the honour only hours before she was due to throw a party for friends. 'We had a very good dinner party that night. I swore everyone to secrecy on the basis that if they told anyone I would have to kill them,' she jokes.

One of Radio Ulster's most familiar voices, Austin picked up her MBE for services to broadcasting in December. Prince Charles presented her with the honour on a freezing-cold day at Buckingham Palace.

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There were periods where, really, you couldn't see as a society how we were going to come out the other end of it”

End Quote Wendy Austin Talkback Presenter

The radio host - who dressed in royal blue with a fascinator hat - made a swish weekend of it in London and celebrated her achievement with lunch at the Hilton in Park Lane with her family. 'We were looking straight back down at the garden of Buckingham Palace which we had just left. It was lovely.

'As my friend Edith used to say, you never forget your extravagances, only your economies.'

'Politically charged'

The MBE is a highlight in a long career that has focused on journalism and reporting for programmes such as Good Morning Ulster, Breakfast, Radio 4's PM and Pick of the Week. In Northern Ireland, much of her reporting has been dominated by political turmoil and violence.

Talkback, a radio phone-in programme that's been on air for more than 20 years, has recently been debating the controversy surrounding the flying of the Union flag in Belfast. 'That's a fairly hot topic at the moment,' says Austin.

She's seen it all before. 'To be honest with you,' she tells Ariel, 'most of the time, in Northern Ireland, that kind of politically charged news is not that far beneath the surface. All you need is a bit of ding-dong on the radio and the phones light up.'

Despite reporting on some 'shocking things', Austin does not regret her 40-year career, which started with a reporting job on the East Antrim Times in 1972. She says she particularly likes talking and listening to people.

Wendy and Prince Charles Wendy receives MBE from Prince Charles

She also finds it satisfying when she is able to coax a good story out of listeners who call in. 'They might be a bit reticent and you calm them down a bit and you manage to get them to talk to you and they tell you a really gripping story. That's just terrific.'

'Tragic days'

Gregarious and open, Austin's voice drops when she discusses the Troubles. She suddenly sounds very sombre.

'The Omagh bombing, I think, none of us would ever forget. There were many, many shocking things and very tragic days.

'There were periods where, really, you couldn't see as a society how we were going to come out the other end of it.'

She talks about being at the scene of the Le Mon restaurant bombing that killed a dozen people in 1978 and reduced a portion of the hotel to ash; the hunger strikers in 1981; and the Milltown Cemetery attack.

Asked if this was hard to report on, she says, 'You have to be inhuman not to find some situations a real struggle to deal with, but you just have to get on with it, you know.'

She explains that there has been' a different emphasis' since 1998, which has been enjoyable. Although Talkback is a news programme, the presenter - who has anchored the show for just over three years - also gets to work on lighter stories that have more of an uplifting side to them. 'Sometimes you get to the end of the programme,' she reflects, 'and you feel the world's not so bad after all.'

On Twitter

Austin has also fully embraced social media and has a respectable Twitter profile with just over 7000 followers. She believes the emerging digital platforms make it easier to find people who might not want to call the programme directly - 'Sometimes listeners will start off maybe texting or now tweeting but then you get them on the line and that's really great.'

She exercises caution, however, when she uses Twitter for personal messages. 'It's publishing something, so I just work on the basis that I wouldn't say anything on Twitter that I wouldn't say on air.'

If she feels bombarded by modern technology, she pushes the off button on her phone. She also admits to sometimes walking through her door on Friday afternoon and keeping it closed all weekend. With her time off, she walks her dog Sam, travels to Donegal with her husband and enjoys eating and drinking.

A mother to three grown children, the journalist says that none of them has followed in her footsteps, but they were 'thrilled' with her recent achievement. Her two daughters, she adds, spent a great deal of time picking out dresses for the special occasion.

Had her children wanted to be journalists, her advice would be to stick at it. 'The ones who succeed seem to be the ones who keep their shoulders to the door. I suppose if you are going to be a journalist, persistence is a pretty good quality to have. Knocking on the right door helps too.'

And if Buckingham Palace comes knocking for you, that's proof you've made it.

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