'I did consider walking away from journalism' - Sarah McInerney on life after her Newstalk role
Fierce and fearless, Sarah McInerney became the unlikely national hero RTÉ listeners craved in the midst of the pandemic. As she takes the reins at Drivetime, the broadcaster tells Catherine Fegan about life away from the mic, being a perfectionist and finding herself in unexpected places
By her own admission, Sarah McInerney is at her most confident when she knows what she is talking about. She does her homework before every big interview, swots up on her subject and immerses herself in whatever topic she is about to cover.
"I find that as long as I have my work done, I'm pretty unshakeable," says McInerney, when asked about her insecurities.
Given today's chosen topic - herself - confidence levels should be at record levels. But as RTÉ's rising star of radio settles into the hot seat to talk about her new show, she seems slightly out of her comfort zone.
"I love the job, being in studio and the buzz, but this side is totally new to me," she says.
"I understand it comes with the territory and I would have thought I would have loved it because I have never had any problem being the centre of attention but actually, this bit of it all, not so much."
She's sitting on a plush grey sofa in the Rock Star suite of the Hard Rock Hotel, arms tensely folded. Her arrival, about 20 minutes before, sees her emerge timidly through the door, laden with bags. "I had to do photos for a branding campaign," she says. "It's all a bit mad."
Like every woman racing from one commitment to the next, she's dressed for speed in a pair of white trainers that she quickly slips off in exchange for a pair of Kurt Geiger heels that she's pulled from one of the many bags she walked in with. A photographer is close by, waiting to take pictures, and as McInerney takes off her grey coat to reveal a lipstick-pink suit accented with a black and white shirt, he asks if she wants a few minutes to herself to fix her make-up. She's been wearing a face mask since she legged it over from her last shoot, she explains, and gratefully takes up the offer to step into an adjacent room.
Minutes later she emerges, ready for action.
"That's me," she beams, before dutifully posing and smiling in various locations without complaint. Forty-five minutes have been set aside for pictures, but with low-maintenance McInerney, it's a wrap within 20. "Job done, you were great," the photographer tells her, "good luck."
Sarah McInerney pictured at the Hard Rock Hotel. Photo: Kyle Tunney
McInerney jokingly tells him she needs it. She's anxious about this interview, she says. She's also on edge about her new job fronting Drivetime on RTÉ's Radio One with co-host Cormac Ó hEadhra, which at the time of this interview was due to air for the first time the following week.
"I'm a bit nervous and I'm not normally nervous about going on air," she says. "Something I am normally more aware of is how relaxed I can get on air. I can get too relaxed and almost forget the red light is on. I suppose I'm nervous because its brand new, it's not filling in for someone or taking over from a show with the same format.
"It's two presenters, which is a total change from what Mary Wilson was doing. There is going to be intervention between us, which is different because you don't get that much in RTÉ, so it's trying to find that balance and getting it right. I am very confident we will get it, I just don't know will we get it on day one."
McInerney's nerves are understandable. She has a tough act to follow, and it's not Drivetime's previous host, Mary Wilson.
Given her smash-hit performance as a stand-in on the Today show when RTÉ stalwart Sean O'Rourke announced his retirement in May, McInerney's biggest challenge might well be herself.
The 39-year-old, who had previously worked in a variety of broadcasting gigs at Newstalk, TV3/Virgin Media and RTÉ, filled O'Rourke's shoes to rave reviews over the summer, quickly and deservedly earning her place as one of the most-respected figures on radio. Listeners praised her no-nonsense approach to asking questions, reserving her fiercest grillings for those in positions of power or wealth who appeared to be spoofing. Fierce and fearless, McInerney become the unlikely national hero listeners craved in the midst of a crippling pandemic.
"Look, the feedback was fantastic," she says. "I was delighted with the response. The feedback from the RTÉ bosses was that they were delighted too. I think they showed that in the fact that I am where I am now. It was the biggest vote of confidence they could have given me."
In spite of suggestions, or expectations that McInerney would permanently take O'Rourke's slot, the gig went to Claire Byrne. A Twitter storm of sorts followed over the decision from McInerney's vastly widened fan-base, quelled somewhat by a later announcement that she would be getting the Drivetime gig. According to McInerney, she was aware Byrne was going to get the gig "well in advance" and RTÉ bosses promised that "something was coming in her direction" but she wasn't told what.
That something was the Drivetime seat, something she admits will take some adjusting to, given the fact that she will no longer be fronting a show on her own.
"For a long time now I've been working on my own," she says. "Now I will be working with Cormac and I know it will work but the interaction will be key to making it work." There will be no power struggle, she insists, and everything will be 50:50, but she is aware that the critics will be focused on her.
"Yes, there is a bit of pressure, given the success with the Today show," she says. "If there is pressure it's not so much about whether or not I will perform, but whether or not the listeners are happy with what we are doing. I'm not actually concerned about my own performance, really. I am hoping I will still be able to do what everyone seemed to like so much over the last couple of months."
The daughter of two teachers, McInerney grew up in Barna, Co Galway, and hadn't the faintest interest in current affairs. Her early ambitions centred on becoming a fiction writer, a pursuit that led her to signing up for a place in Dublin City University's journalism degree course in 1999. After graduating, she took a work placement with the Sunday Tribune, where she was then offered a job as a social diarist, with her own column, 'Sarah in The City', as well as a jobbing news reporter.
In 2008, as the banks collapsed, she decided to try something different and joined the Sunday Times as a political reporter. Running alongside this trajectory was the publication of her first book, the true-crime story Where No One Can Hear You Scream. She also began a developing television profile that included documentaries for TV3, as well as appearing on Tonight with Vincent Browne.
"I had no interest in politics at the time," she says.
"I just thought it was someone else's beat. I was writing about social issues, education and health, crime a bit, but never politics. In the Tribune, like in most papers, the political reporters stuck to the politics and you don't stray into that patch. The move into politics was a steep learning curve. It was just crazy for two or three years with the bailout and all of that. I had no contacts and I had to start making them really quickly. Then I was asked to join Newstalk."
And so, to Newstalk, a pivot in her career path that, as she candidly recalls, made her consider walking away from journalism altogether.
After giving up the security of staff job in the Sunday Times, she took up an offer to co-anchor Newstalk's Drive show with Chris Donoghue in 2017 before the show was unceremoniously cancelled and she was shifted to weekends. Donoghue handed his notice in and it wasn't long before McInerney followed.
"It feels like a lifetime ago," she remembers. "It almost feels like it happened to another person. I didn't see it coming and I was shocked, but I find it difficult to relate to that person now, actually. I just feel so much has happened since then. Probably from that, I have a knowledge that if things go wrong, I will be okay. It was a huge learning experience for me from that perspective, because my job was gone, and I wasn't expecting it.
"But good things came out of it and then great things, and in hindsight it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I am much happier now than I would have been if I had still been doing that show. I'm doing something now that is closer to what I want to do. I think if the same thing were to happen now, I would react differently."
Surely, at the time, given the public nature of her ousting, it must have hurt? Her confidence, the self-confessed measure of her ability to do a job well, knocked?
"I wouldn't say it hurt, no, and my confidence wasn't knocked, although that's what you would expect," she says.
"I understood the decision because of who was replacing us. Ivan [Yates] was perfect for that slot and he was perfect for the station. The decision made sense to me and even though it looked personal, it didn't feel personal. Maybe in a different scenario it would have. It was Ivan Yates and Ivan had the personality for that show and that was going to work, and it did work. It was more a really good realisation about how the industry works. Nothing is permanent."
The Newstalk episode, perhaps understandably, is something McInerney doesn't want to rake over again.
"It's in the past now," she says, "it's so not part of who I am now."
At the suggestion that it isn't something that bothered her that much, she swoops in to clarify the matter.
"I had just lost my job, "she says. "It was very public, as you said, but it didn't destroy me. I considered leaving the industry because I didn't want to go back to print and I didn't necessarily see any opportunities in broadcasting, but it wasn't like, 'Oh I've been shattered and crushed, I am going to leave.' It was more, 'the door is firmly shut, and I want to work in broadcasting and there is no obvious place to go'. It didn't last that long though because TV3 rang within two or three weeks and offered me a TV job. There was only a couple of days when I was like, 'Okay, what do I do now?' and I did consider walking away from journalism. Like I said though, I couldn't."
At the time, after sitting down to discuss her options with her husband, Thomas, McInerney realised she loved the thrill of news too much to give up on it.
"I kept coming back to the same thing," she says. "It was always journalism."
Over the years, there have been offers to cross over to the "dark side" and become a political advisor, but she never took them up. "It's just not something I could do," she says.
The commitment to sticking at what she loves, and what she is clearly good at, has paid off. Three years ago, she was named News Broadcaster of the Year at the IMRO National Radio Awards and now she is at the helm of one of RTÉ's primetime radio slots. Surely the Newstalk bosses must regret losing her?
"I don't know about that," she says, coyly. "I don't know was I right for Newstalk. You have to give your opinion an awful lot in Newstalk. They are very open about that. It's about forming opinions through opinion-makers on air and it never really fully sat right with me.
"I have strong opinions, but I don't have strong opinions on everything, every day. Some days I would be fine, and I would have strong opinions on the big news of the day, but other days I would find myself reaching a bit. Whereas I don't think Ivan ever had that problem.
"I'm very much a journalist at heart and I think Chris was the same. It sort of grates a bit then when you are giving opinions on everything because that's obviously not what we do. I'm not sure they feel sorry about it at all because I'm not sure we were ever the right fit.
"I'm very happy with how things worked out. I'm very thankful to Newstalk for giving me the opportunity because they plucked me out of print with really no broadcasting experience at all and put me on air. It didn't end the way I would have hoped, but there is nothing I regret about it."
A serious journalist, McInerney is a hack at heart. She admits that her days as a roving political reporter saw her schmooze with politicians on a daily basis, often in the Dáil canteen. "I wouldn't call them friends," she says, "but you would be friendly." Now those same faces are sitting across from her in a radio studio, about to be subjected to an incisive interrogation technique that has become her trademark. When it comes to the story, and getting to the truth, the gloves are off.
"It's nothing personal and they know that," she says. "You would have a minister in studio, and they might be sitting there five minutes before the red light goes on and I would talk to them like a normal person. Then when the red light goes on, as far as I am concerned that's the job and they should understand it. I think they do. They know that when the red light goes on, we are in a role and my job is to ask the questions. It doesn't matter if we like each other off-air or if we get on off-air or we have just been chatting about your wife's haircut. That doesn't matter because right now I'm asking the questions."
Married with two sons, McInerney often presents a stern, even forbidding face as a journalist. Those who know her say she is funny, easy-going and "up for a laugh", a complete contrast to her on-air persona. She says it was her mentor and friend Vincent Browne who first noticed that she became a different character on screen.
"I'm a fairly affable person in real life," she says, laughing,
"Vincent commented on the fact that I didn't smile a lot on TV and he said it was really unusual because I smile a lot in real life. He said, 'You are a very affable person, but you don't come across like that on TV'. I think as soon as the red light goes on, I become someone else. I think you have to be. I couldn't be the person I am in real life on air… nobody would like me."
For McInerney, a self-confessed perfectionist, being good at her job ranks above being liked.
"I'm not easy on myself at all,"she says. "I am by far my own worst critic. I really berate myself if something goes wrong. But on air, if something goes wrong or I have asked a question that hasn't landed right, or there has been some mistake, I have to really quickly move on and not dwell on it, otherwise the rest of the show goes under. Normally if something goes wrong, I like to ruminate on it for a couple of hours. It's really unhelpful."
It's an affliction that has extended into home life, where she is mum to five-year-old Ben and Caelen, who is about to turn two.
"My problem is I want to be the best at everything and it's very debilitating," she says. "It really is. I worry about the show next week, not seeing my family enough, not seeing the kids enough, not doing enough work. I am constantly worrying, 'am I doing enough of everything?'"
On the surface, despite the worry, she seems to have it all sewn up. She runs and lifts weights to stay in shape and help clear her head. She's part of the banana-bread brigade who used lockdown to cultivate cooking skills and crafts with the kids. All this while skewering politicisms live on air as part of the day job.
"It's hard - it's really, really hard," she says.
"I think the danger is that you suffer because you are just trying to keep all the plates up and spinning. The mum guilt, which is constantly present and trying to balance that and not being too hard on yourself. It's a constant battle. I haven't got it right yet."
She's had experience of being a stay-at-home mum during lockdown and while on maternity leave and although she "could do it" if she had to, she says she wouldn't choose to.
"I'm miserable when I'm not working," she says.
"I'm no fun to be around, I'm not fulfilled. I'm listening to the radio, I'm bored out of my brain. That's not a good place for me to be, for the family, for the kids, my husband, myself."
As she embarks on her new job, the challenge of balancing the scales between family and career is one she is aware of. In the past, freelance roles have allowed her to spend more time with her young sons, but all of that is about to change. Sacrifices, personal ones, will have to be made.
"I will be gone a bit more than I would have expected but we are going to work on it," she says.
"Ben is in senior infants and he finishes at 1.30pm and he is the guy that I will miss the most. I will have the baby in the morning, but Ben I will miss quite a bit. I'm already planning me-and-him time. We will go on days off together just me and him ad I will be laser-focused on him. I find that can fill you up and keep you going until the next time and keep him going too and keep that bond there."
She is also trying to find the balance when it comes to how much of her own life she'll share as a radio personality. The public desire to know more about her, what she's like away from the job, is not lost on McInerney, who plied her trade digging into the lives of people like herself. She knows she can't be some sort of secret entity but is trying not to become the story.
"I love my anonymity and my privacy," she says. "One of the reasons I loved moving to Dublin was because I could walk around, and nobody knew me. Giving that up, even a little bit, and it's only a little bit because I'm on radio, will be hard.
"Someone came up to me in the playground yesterday and said they saw me on the front of the RTÉ Guide and I was like, 'Oh God, the state of me'. I was there in my tracksuit top and jeans and I hadn't brushed my hair. I was thinking, 'I'm not going to be able to go to the playground like this anymore.'"
Her husband Thomas, who works as an actuary, is fully supportive of her career and her rising profile. Together, they are focused on keeping their children private.
"We are on the same page, in that we don't mind talking about their names and their ages and school and stuff," she says. "Beyond that is their lives and they have not asked for me to have this life. My plan and intention is that their lives remain absolutely private as much as I can control. I have always been like that. I don't put the kids' pictures up on Facebook; they can decide if they want their images out there, I'm not going to make that decision for them. There is no judgment here, this is just how I feel."
By the end of the interview, McInerney seems more at ease. Her animated gesticulations come in contrast to her trademark measured tones. She's warm, funny, honest.
Her face lights up as she talks about the electricity of live radio, the thrill of getting a good story and she deflates when talking about the low of missing out on a scoop.
Above all else, it's clear that she loves what she does. None of this has been handed to her and successes have been hard won, things that make her appreciate the position she currently finds herself in. She suggested herself as the stand-in for the Today show and (up until now, she notes) has done all her negotiating on deals herself.
"Broadcasting, for me, has been about knocking on a lot of doors and meeting people," she says.
"Just saying, 'Look, I'm interested in this, I would like to do this.' A lot of the time I have been told, 'Sorry there are just no vacancies, we will keep you in mind.' I do however think those conversations help. It's networking, really. It's about putting your hand up and saying, 'If you are ever thinking about this, keep me in mind.'
"But it's not just about asking, you have to be good about what you do. You have to have a passion for it. It would have been very easy to walk away after Newstalk and I considered it, but I didn't. I keep finding myself in places I don't expect to find myself and it has always been for the best. I am very happy to be in RTÉ now and I hope it stays that way."
Photography by Kyle Tunney, assisted by Krystian Lesiak