From Dublin to New York to London and the BBC
By Mirela Sula
When I met Nuala not long before Christmas 2016 at the BBC, she had been presenting an uplifting and inspirational programme on BBC, ‘100 Women’. In fact, Nuala is involved in many projects, not only for women but covering different topics and contributing as a senior BBC journalist, travelling all around the world.
What really impressed me while getting to know Nuala in person is not only her knowledge, which is galactic, but especially her authenticity and her attitude towards people and life. She is a very humble and down to earth person who shows respect for others and adds immense value to the lives of those she reaches through her work.
Despite the fact that Nuala is probably is one of the first to be informed and then informs others of the news (most of the time bad news), she has the innate ability to honour her inner peace and at the same time be in this world at a high level of consciousness. This reveals a lot about her, why she is doing what she does and why she became the person Nuala is today. Before interviewing her, my research could not find much about her personal life and I feel privileged that Nuala has chosen to disclose so much about her life story and what she cares about exclusively for Global Woman magazine.
How would you describe 2016 for you and the outcomes? How productive was it for you?
The word that comes to mind for 2016 is, rollercoaster. There were so many stories that had far-reaching consequences for the ordinary man and woman that there was a level of engagement I have rarely seen in 20 years covering the news. I’m privileged with my job to be able to speak to people directly affected by stories we see in the news. As I look back on the year, these include: The African-Americans that made their way to Louisville, Kentucky to attend Muhammad Ali’s funeral to honour and reflect on the ways he changed America; The resilient migrant families in Greece and Germany arriving after treacherous journeys, trying to make a new life in Europe; Three months after the attempted coup in Turkey, in Istanbul, the people that are still trying to understand what is happening in their country;
The passionate battling Democrats and Republicans in Las Vegas before, during and after the last US presidential debate. And I watched the result of that election come in, sitting in a bar in Tijuana, Mexico, with people who would be directly affected should a full wall come into effect between them and the US. Closer to home, there was the run-up to the Brexit referendum where I spoke to politicians in the European Parliament and got to feel the pulse of citizens in Germany, Belgium and the UK as voters went to the polls. And getting to my hometown Dublin, a real highlight for me was presenting the special coverage of the Easter Rising 1916 commemorations for BBC World News and the BBC News channels. My city looked so beautiful and my country’s rich culture and history were featured through the programming. Most recently, there was ‘100 Women’, which we’ll talk about more later but everyone involved is immensely proud of the work. It was another highlight of my year. I was lucky to go to Mexico City to showcase the inspiring women of Latin America through an all-day festival of debate, music and art. And also to be part of the #100WomenWiki where for a day we worked to right the balance of entries on Wikipedia about women and by women all around the globe. This year was a very meaningful year.
Your passion about your job seems to take up most of your time – how did you start your career?
I moved to New York in my early twenties and decided to try and get into radio, it was something I had wanted to do but I thought impossible to do back in my native Ireland. Getting an internship back then was nigh on impossible in the country, there was high unemployment and you needed to have contacts in the business to get a foot in the door.
My first couple of radio stints in New York were unpaid internships. I waitressed and had a job in a law office at the same time to pay the rent. It took a while but finally a job came up at a small commercial Irish radio station in New York. I did everything there and it was a brilliant introduction to the work. I loved it, cycling up through crazy Manhattan midtown traffic to get to the radio studio each day. After gaining some experience, I was hoping to move into the American market and again a previous internship worked to my advantage, as I was aware of a job opening at WNYC Radio and was delighted when I was accepted as an entry-level producer….I ended up staying there for nine years.
Please describe your earlier years before your career started.
I should probably start with the fact that I worked from a young age at my father’s pub. I loved working there and I think it was probably the basis for my current career. People, stories, the latest news, all there with some wonderful wit and warmth and even when I visit the pub now, some of the same people are still there 40 years later….still telling stories! I went to college in Dublin and also studied for one year in Venice through the Erasmus programme, and I decided to return after my degree to Italy for another three years and that period involved a lot of jobs. Let me see….I worked in an ice-cream shop, sold handbags, I was a cocktail waitress, a very good sandwich maker in an Italian deli, an English teacher…. but I knew none of them were really the right fit for anything long-term. I was reaching my mid-twenties and wanted to find something I was really passionate about, I wanted to be a journalist but it seemed out of my reach at that time to do in a way that could pay the bills. Would you believe that my sister applied to the US government lottery for green cards for her and me and I got lucky. She didn’t, if you were wondering! So with a green card in hand and potential career opportunities in the States, I decided to try my luck there. And as they say in the States, I lucked out.
What brought you to New York’s flagship public radio station, WNYC, as the Executive Producer for The Brian Lehrer Show? Please tell us a little about that experience.
When I got to New York, I was quite methodical. I began by listening to as many radio stations and shows as I could, also sending my CV/resume to all the major broadcasters, radio and TV. I became hooked on one show called The Brian Lehrer Show really early on. It was rooted in the unparalleled diversity that is New York City. It was a show with great guests and callers with deep knowledge of the issues. It was an education on my new city too as I listened. I scoured for jobs at the station, and sent my resume but it took a lot of persistence to get a face to face meeting. I secured an internship on the show which eventually, years later, I became the executive producer. The experience was formative, Brian is a brilliant broadcaster and I was able to be in his orbit for hours every day, learn from him and understand how to critically approach issues, guests, ideas. I also had a small, incredibly bright, creative and hard-working team that taught me that the people around you are at the heart of any success you will have. The adventures in broadcasting at WNYC were varied. I programmed a two hour show, five days a week, and also led election coverage and outside broadcasts, so it was a demanding and fulfilling role. I was blessed with wonderful bosses too so I was sad to leave Brian, WNYC and the show. But if I’m missing them, I can still just tune into the show.
How did you overcome fears and challenges to get to where you wanted to be?
Interesting to think back on this one, I know I was quite driven when I arrived in the States to make a real go of it. I didn’t have the knowledge or the contacts at that point to be a success in broadcasting, so I went about learning as much as I could and beating down some doors. I had the attitude, ‘ah well, nothing to lose’. In New York, I was surrounded by young people who were all ‘following their dreams’ in creative fields with a good dose of optimism and maybe exaggerated expectations but that’s not a bad thing if it keeps you plugging along. One big fear would be not having the rent money but having friends meant $100 kept passing between the three of us who lived together, depending on when in the month salaries would get paid. I should say they were new friends then but they are still friends now 20 years later. I think the love of the job also made me overcome some of the fears and I was often surrounded by very supportive people inside and outside of the workplace.
You also won a George Foster Peabody award for excellence in broadcasting – can you tell us more about what led to the award? How important is it for you to receive an award?
When I ran The Brian Lehrer Show at WNYC it was a very particular time, including, I think the defining moment of modern history. 9/11 happened just a few blocks from our office and it meant we were at the heart of something that defined the city with ramifications for the rest of the world. Our show became a place where for two hours every weekday we picked apart the issues that were raised and heard from New Yorkers of all political stripes of what was taking place in the country. The show remained a forum of intelligent talk and challenging conversations but always respectful. The award was for building a community which was important to us because so much media can divide people and create rancour, where we were looking to find common ground. It’s always lovely to win an award and we celebrated appropriately with the Peabody, I particularly loved that Mad Men also won that year, I was a huge fan but when it comes to awards it’s the work that really matters and the story telling and whether you are making an impact on listeners and viewers.
I think the love of the job also made me overcome some of the fears and I was often surrounded by very supportive people inside and outside of the workplace.
How would you describe your experience of covering and managing major international events for New York Public Radio, including the presidential election coverage in 2004 and 2008?
I love American politics. The diversity of the nation makes it one of the most fascinating places to live and work. The division in the country is real, and at times bitterly sad, but it is also compelling to hear the arguments on both sides from the politicians and the voters during a campaign season. Every election is a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s a culmination of discussion of the issues, the conventions, the debates and then finally election night but it doesn’t always end there as we found out in 2004. Early in the evening, everyone thought Al Gore would become the next president and we all know how that turned out. Weeks of debate over the political process and the ballots before George W. Bush was declared the winner. It was very instructive on the Supreme Court and the Constitution of the United States. And so much debate on the political process and electoral system in the States. In 2008, I was living and breathing the election for months and months.
I managed to procure interviews with John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for our show. The conversations of African-American women who were Democrats is still really vivid in my memory, as they had to choose between a white woman or an African-American man. It really was another time that history was in the making. In the run-up I was struck by the numbers that turned out when then-Senator Barack Obama held a rally. Elderly and infirm African-American women waited for hours just for a glimpse of him. And the main memory from election night were the wild celebrations taking place in Brooklyn when the election was called. We opened the phone lines and the sounds of the streets reverberated through the airwaves. My last duty at WNYC was the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009 and I’m now getting ready to present for the BBC World Service on January 20th for the inauguration of Donald Trump.
Who was your support network during your time in New York?
Early on it was my flat-mates, the new friends that quickly became very close, possibly because very few had family around. Then I met my husband and we became a tight little family with a large circle of friends. My parents had lived in New York for a number of years in the late fifties/early sixties, and their Irish friends were, and are still there, they were so welcoming to me too. And I had my lovely aunt Maureen who lived in the Bronx, so a little bit of home was never too far away.
How did you meet your husband? Can we know something about your relationship and private life?
I met him for a few fleeting minutes in a bar called CBGBs. It was a few months later before we were face to face again at a friends birthday party but that night I knew I’d like him to stick around and he did. That was nineteen years ago! His name is Tristan, he did very well to get me down the aisle, as marriage was never something I aspired to and was very happy living with him without that step. But Tristan did want it and I relented, after seven years together…..and yes it turned out to be great – sometimes I take a while to come around. The best thing about our marriage is the closeness we have. Most of the time it’s just the two of us together and there has always been a freedom and independence in the union and I think that was very important in keeping us together, particularly in our twenties and thirties. For example, I wanted to travel around South America but he couldn’t with his new job commitments, so we did our separate things for a couple of months. I did miss him though. We are social people but very fond of having days, weekends, sometimes weeks, just to ourselves.
You are both involved in very different professions – what do you share in common and what are the topics that you discuss mostly together?
We definitely share a very silly sense of humour, love our families and friends and have a shared history now as we have been so long together. We talk about how our day is going, who said what, where and when and then what happened next….that could be about the show, his studies, friends, current affairs etc. We make plans, nice stuff we want to do and how to fit it all in – so lots of chin-wagging as all couples do, I would imagine. ….they do, right? 🙂 We are fond of our food and talk a lot about what we’re going to eat next….he is a very good cook, thank God, because I am not. We also constantly talk about getting a dog, but it’s not going to happen because we live in a flat and don’t have a regular schedule so it would be unfair to the poor dog.
Can you tell us about your family in Ireland? Do they follow your programmes and what do they think of what you do?
First off, there are a lot of them and they are all great fun. I have my wonderful Mam and Dad, two brothers, and two sisters. Yes I’m the middle child! My brothers and sisters are all married, for a long time. My sister-in-laws and brother-in-laws are all very dear to me too. But then you need to factor in the 14 nieces and nephews that are growing at a rate of knots, so it was rather crowded and very loud at Christmas. We are used to loud and crowded though as my father’s pub, The Goblet in Dublin, was a huge part of our lives growing up. My two brothers now run it and it’s always a delight to spend an evening there. The clan don’t follow my radio programmes but every now and then, they’ll catch me on TV or we’ll chat about what I’m up to or where I’m going next. They know I’m happy and love doing what I do. I am the only one who works for someone else as they all have had their own businesses so my career differs in that way. I think my father still holds out hope that I’ll give up broadcasting and go to law school. Everyone says never say never….but I think it’s probably never going to happen now.
What motivated you to come to London and to start working for the BBC?
It was a number of factors…..the economic crash hit New York pretty hard at the end of 2008. At least one person out of every couple we knew was laid off. My husband had an offer of a transfer to London. He was keen, I wasn’t. I was deeply rooted in New York but it would mean being closer to family. The downside was that I had spent a lot of time building up a career in the States and didn’t know what the future might hold in terms of a job. I do remember waking up during the night thinking about whether to move and then one night I got fed up with my indecision and thought let’s go for it, what’s the worst that can happen? The job that I finally landed was exactly what I wanted and needed without actually knowing it in advance. It was time to change and time to take on a different role.
I speak directly to the people involved in the story, that also means travelling to find those people and their stories, which has been an enriching and educational experience.
What is different about what you do now in comparison to New York?
The journalism is exactly the same. You need to listen, question, and tell the stories in a way that the listener or viewer will be engaged and understand, and you want to make your show the best it can be. In New York, I was managing a team, managing their creativity, creating the environment to make the show happen, and I was responsible for staffing, budgets, and meetings. The practical and logistical parts of running the show I do not do now. But I do know how much work it takes to get it right and I’m grateful to my team at the BBC for the work that they do every day. In my current role, I think more about which part of the story might resonate with the listener or viewer, what might be the best way to present that to them. I speak directly to the people involved in the story, that also means travelling to find those people and their stories, which has been an enriching and educational experience. I consider it my job to create the atmosphere where people are comfortable speaking about their thoughts and opinions.
I am constantly surprised by the generosity of guests, often who have gone through a traumatic experience, to speak openly, honestly and share their story so as to increase others’ understanding of an issue. For example, a Syrian migrant family that lost loved ones crossing the Mediterranean, or the mother in Chicago who lost four children to gun violence. Can you imagine how difficult it must be to speak to a stranger about the things that have brought deep sadness to your life?
You have been involved in the ‘100 Women’ programme which is across the BBC and is a great project. Can you tell us more about it?
100 Women was founded in 2013, led by the BBC’s inimitable Fiona Crack. The story that was the catalyst for the project was the rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi in the months before. It prompted Fiona to think about how to cover stories of sexual violence and other issues that affect women. From that first year it has grown and flourished, becoming ever more ambitious and ever more successful. It creates space for women’s voices and issues across the BBC, on TV, on radio and online. You hear and see stories you will not find anywhere else. There are 100 women chosen every year and we celebrate the achievements of these inspiring women. At the BBC we have 29 language services so there is a richness and diversity of ideas and stories from women all around the world. By 2020, the BBC will have expanded to 40 languages. How exciting is that for the 100 Women season? Can you imagine how many more amazing women we have yet to meet?
In your view, what do women need to do in order to achieve what they deserve?
A belief in themselves, work on growing confidence, and for everyone that will come in different ways. For me, it came through experience and having good people around me that boosted my confidence. You need to have mentors, people that will build you up and also point out where you need to develop and grow. You need to be able to take constructive criticism and constantly strive to improve. You need to think about where you want to go instead of others deciding for you. I also think, not to compare yourself to other women in your profession but compare yourself with whoever is top of their game, female or male.
You are a very busy woman, involved in many projects and programmes – how do you balance your personal and professional life?
Some might say badly as I do love and give a lot of time to my work but it works wonderfully for my husband and me. I schedule time every day for exercise and walking. Reading fiction also helps me switch off, as I escape to another world and it also turns on my creative thinking. I like watching and hearing great work, which could be a cracking podcast, a Netflix box-set or a one-act play down at the local pub. I travel to Ireland a lot where it’s very easy to immerse yourself in nature with nothing better than a blustery day walking on the beach. I am lucky that I only work on programmes and projects that I am passionate about. I think the fact my husband and I don’t have kids does mean we have a lot of time with each other, and for each other, and a flexibility that others may not have particularly with young children. I am busy at times with travel, work, seeing family and friends but it’s because I have chosen to live my life in that way. If I didn’t like it, I would change it.
What would be the message that you would like to share with many women around the world for their aspirations for 2017?
You are ready for that huge challenge you’ve been thinking about, you don’t need to wait any longer or prepare any more, this is the year!
Nuala presents Outside Source on the BBC World Service at 11am every weekday