Award-winning BBC broadcaster John Toal is still 'curious'

Broadcaster John Toal is a presenter who breaks down barriers with his interviewees and audience. He tells Joanne Sweeney how he's just a man who likes to ask questions

John Toal has been presenting Classical Connections and his eponymous Saturday morning show on BBC Radio Ulster for nearly two years. Picture by Hugh Russell
Joanne Sweeney

TO THOUSANDS of Radio Ulster listeners, he's the man who plays soothing music every Sunday afternoon on Classical Connections.

To many others, he's the guy who literally drops into their homes and makes them stars for a day.

South Armagh man John Toal (not to be confused with the former Shamrock Rovers' footballer of the same name) has been presenting both Classical Connections and his eponymous Saturday morning show on BBC Radio Ulster for nearly two years following a long, successful career working for the BBC in regional and national radio.

Toal's gentle, fun broadcasting style and his natural curiosity about people earned him two major awards last year – his first 'gongs' in 26 years as a broadcaster.

"The John Toal Show won gold in the magazine category at the 2015 Phonographic Performance Ireland (PPI) Radio Awards last November," he tells me of the recent win at what he refers to as "basically our Oscars for broadcasting".

"It also won gold in the magazine category of the 2016 Celtic Media Festival in April.

"It's the first show with my name on it. That was probably was a big thing, looking back on it now. Some people said to me, 'you've got your name over the shop now', you've made it.

"It didn't feel like that at the time but I suppose it does make you feel that the show is more part of you."

The latter accolade completed an awards hattrick for Toal, with Classical Connections having also won silver at the PPIs.

"I dunno what happened this year," he chuckles.

"I must have got a rabbit's paw somewhere or avoided walking under a ladder."

As far as Toal is concerned, he's just a man who goes around talking to people for a living.

He's prone to say that his job "is not rocket science", belying his obvious skill at getting people to open up and relate to him.

While his Saturday show is mostly done in a conversational style from its Ormeau Road studio, he tries to get out and about at least once a month.

"I just go around talking to people and the thing that I love doing the most is getting into the car and heading up somewhere with no plan, just see who you see, see who you find," he says.

"People tell you so much more when you come to them and they are in the own place.

"We forget how intimidating it can be for people to come into the Broadcasting House for an interview, it's like going to the dentist.

"I just like to talk to people and know all about them. I can't stop myself. I'm just always curious about people and have been talkative."

Toal's laid-back approach seems to work. His show at Ailish Doyle's home in Draperstown won the PPI for him, while his visit to the McHenry farm in Stranocum gained the award for best magazine at the Celtic Media Festival.

He tells me: "I had a great time with the McHenry's as it was around lambing time. We were lucky to see two lambs being born.

"That was amazing experience to me. I'm not a country boy, even though I'm from Newry (actually Camlough).

"You're standing there and this wee thing's coming out. Its wee legs were like pipe cleaners, and it's all mucky – but great too," he enthuses.

And he raves about how he happened upon an social history gem while broadcasting from Armagh Men's Shed.

"I got talking to a barber called Arthur and he mentioned the song Raglan Road. You know the line 'Her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue'?

"Well, he cut the hair of the woman in Raglan Road and her name was Hilda Moriarty.

"The hair was standing on the back of my neck."

Perhaps it's like asking a parent to choose their favourite child but when it comes to asking John which of his programmes he prefers, he's usually stumped for an answer.

"I really don't know," he says.

"With the classical show, there's this big idea of classical music being scary and you need to know your composers, etc, But you don't really.

"Most composers lived very ordinary lives like us. I love the idea of breaking down barriers for my listeners."

Toal got an unbelievable break at Radio Ulster when he began working as a classical music presenter in 1989 while studying for a music degree at Queen's University.

He still plays music, mainly the piano, and is an avid fan of all genres, which is reflected in his radio work.

In 1990, armed with a mobile phone the size of a brick, he travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland as a roving reporter for Linda McAuley’s show, Morning Extra.

Toal has been presenting live Ulster Orchestra concerts on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio 3 for over 20 years and has also helmed Your Place and Mine, Arts Extra and The Saturday Magazine.

In fact, the only programme he hasn’t presented on Radio Ulster at some stage is the news.

His TV documentary about legendary folk singer Tommy Makem, filmed just before his death in 2007, was one of the most watched programmes of that year.

Toal lives with his wife Catriona and children Dáire (17), Lorcán (15) and Meábh (12) in Saintfield, but the whole family are Francophiles.

And, just as he believes everyone has a story to tell, Toal says he has one to write.

Perhaps it will include one of his other claims to fame – that, at the age of 10, he sang for Pope John Paul II as a member of Newry Cathedral Choir.

"On my bucket list would be writing a book, recording an album and captaining Down in a Senior All-Ireland final," he adds.

And if that doesn't work out for him, his dream would be to retire to France, driving around in an old Citroen DS, and always, always, asking questions.

:: John Toal presents The John Toal Show, Saturdays from 11am to 12pm and Classical Connections with John Toal on Sunday afternoons from 3pm to 5pm, both on BBC Radio Ulster.

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