In tune with her audience – BBC Tees presenter Amy Oakden
If fate had dealt a different hand, Amy might now be fighting crime but, instead, she has a public service role of a different kind. Whether it’s a breaking news story, a funny anecdote about her schooldays or a live interview with the mother of a desperately sick child, Amy has the inimitable knack of involving listeners in the story.
In an age where human contact is so often replaced with technology, the ability to make strangers laugh, cry, stimulate debate or help them not feel so isolated is a privileged one.
The show has closely followed the progress of Finley Ingles, a five-year-old with a rare, inoperable brain tumour who has just flown to America for treatment after raising £200,000 and recently recorded a series on loneliness to raise awareness.
Although like many she spent her youth recording mix-tapes from the Radio 1 Top 40 chart countdown on Sunday nights, as little girl growing up in Middlesbrough Amy wanted to join the police rather than become a DJ.
Saturday nights were spent enjoying picnic teas in front of TJ Hooker and dreaming of being Heather Locklear but she was eventually put off the idea by her mum who was worried she’d get hurt and the mere thought of doing a fitness test. Instead, she went to college to study catering and hospitality but realised her heart wasn’t in it so her mum turned round and said: “Don’t waste your life, what do you really want to do?”
“I was driving home one day when an advert came on the radio for a telephonist for a late-night phone-in on the commercial station TFM, and I got the job.
“Listeners would call in for lots of different reasons – many just wanted to give their opinions, some wanted to share their life experiences and others were politically motivated or just wanted to chat because they were lonely and I ended up calling the police a couple of times when people told me they wanted to end their lives. I was 18 so it was a real eye-opener.”
From there she presented the traffic and travel news and then to the newsroom where she worked as a broadcast journalist for 10 years. Amy spent a year at Century Radio before rejoining TFM after being offered the coveted role of co-host and spent four-and-a-half years entertaining Teesside from behind a microphone.
However, when the announcement was made that TFM was merging with its sister station, Metro, and relocating to Newcastle, Amy suddenly found herself out of work and three months pregnant aged 34.
“I thought that’s it – my time in radio is over so I went to the Jobcentre to sign on, then a former colleague encouraged me to approach BBC Tees and I was asked in to do some freelance shifts. I thought, ‘I can’t work at the BBC, I’m not intelligent enough’ but I went from being on the dole for two months to reading the news at BBC Tees until I went on maternity leave.”
Amy was newsreader on the breakfast show presented by Ali Brownlee and following his death last February, took over as co-presenter with Neil Green.
“You either gel and get on or it’s horrendous, thankfully working with Neil is great. We’re quite similar so there’s no bickering and we haven’t got egos so we’re not fighting each other over airtime.”
Her day begins at 2.50am, she allows herself to hit the snooze button just once before she’s up and out of bed. Showered, hair straightened and make-up on (“I could never leave the house with a face as bare as my bottom”) she arrives at the studio in Middlesbrough town centre around 4.15am.
For two hours before they go on air Amy, Neil, and their early production team prepare for the show and then once it’s all over there is a debrief meeting before the task of putting together the next day’s packed running order begins. Recently, they’ve been working on a series of stories to highlight loneliness – Age UK claims that more than a million older people go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.
When the door of BBC Tees clicks shut behind her at 12.30pm, any hint of glamour does too (she’s enjoyed a thrilling ride in a speedboat and flown a plane) when she goes to pick up daughter Darcey, now three.
With a radio presenter as a mum and a Health & Safety Executive as a dad who’s a drummer in his spare time, Darcey is very much into singing and dancing. “She loves Disney and acting out scenes but somehow I always seem to end up being the Beast,” Amy says.
Who would she love to chat to over the airwaves? Dawn French and Vanessa Feltz. “Vanessa was sitting in for Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 recently and did a great interview with Kriss Akabusi and I was gripped. I was parked up on the drive and listened right until the end, I would love to get some tricks of the trade from her.”
Getting up in middle of the night is worth it as it means she gets to spend as much time as she can with Darcey while doing a job she enjoys so much.
“It’s a privilege to get an insight into people’s lives, especially when you are there at the very best and the very worst of times,” Amy adds. “Radio is powerful, it touches people and is so important to those who are alone or can’t get out of the house. We become their friends.
“Sony Awards are great but if I get a text from someone during a show saying I’ve made them smile then I know I’ve done my job.”