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MBE belongs to all in broadcasting team – Bennett

A veteran BBC broadcaster has described his MBE honour as belonging to all in his team.

John Bennett said he was both chuffed and humbled when he was notified of the recognition in the New Year Honours list, describing his career as having been a privilege.

He emphasised that it belonged to all the teams he had worked with over a career spanning folk music, football commentating and current affairs.

With radio and television having particularly played a key role for so many staying at home over the coronavirus lockdowns, Mr Bennett described his Sunday Club on Radio Ulster as being like a family.

That comes with poignant moments, like when he learned a dedication for a listener had made their day, just a few hours before they died.

“I get emails, texts and letters from quite literally all over the world, people tune in from Japan, Australia, United States, and they’re not all ex-pats, just people who picked it up on the internet and like the music, it’s like a family, a communion with a small-c, they write and tell you their problems, it’s nice,” he told the PA news agency.

“I’ve had correspondence that has reduced me to tears, people asking me for details of the signature tune that we use because their mother, or their grandmother, wanted it played at their funeral, and a fortnight ago someone asked for a dedication for a lady because she was very ill, and apparently she heard the programme, was delighted to hear her name mentioned and died that night, just afterwards. They just got in touch to say thanks for playing it, and she so enjoyed the programme, and she was happy in the end.”

From days carrying around his old tape recorder, to the days of texts and emails coming live into the studio as he broadcasts, Mr Bennett described broadcasting as having changed enormously.

He started with the programme which is now the Sunday Club 43 years ago, having been asked to fill in a slot for a month in 1979.

Mr Bennett had been a footballer in his youth, once playing for the Glentoran reserves team, as well as having a passion for music and a career as a primary school teacher.

He said he had not imagined a career in broadcasting, which has led to many “pinch-me moments”, including travelling the world for his With Bennett programme and interviewing people he idolised, such as Spike Milligan, as well as commentating at Wembley.

“I got into broadcasting initially because I was a folk singer in the early 1960s, I did a short series on Ulster Television with a singer called Roger Whittaker who went on to become quite famous, and then in 1965 the producer who did that series moved to the BBC and he remembered me, and asked me to come across and produce a folk series, and that was the start of my career with the BBC,” he said.

“After folk music I went into current affairs, and then after about 10 or 12 years I went into sport because I had done a bit of athletics and football, the football commentator was taken ill three days before the cup final, and they had no commentator, so they asked me if I would do it, so I was sort of thrown into the deep end.”

He said he juggled teaching with broadcasting for a number of years because he had loved teaching so much.

“Eventually, because teaching changed so much, I decided it was time to get out,” he said.

Reflecting on his career, Mr Bennett said it was difficult to choose which area of broadcasting he enjoyed the most, but he did describe sports commentating as “broadcasting at its best, at its rawest”.

“You’re sitting in a stadium around 50-60,000 people, describing the scene, 22 players moving about all the time, days of driving rain when you can hardly see through the glass of the press box, you have to remember all their names and positions, there is no script, talking off the top of your head, you literally have to have everything in your hard drive before you start,” he said.

“But the feeling of achievement is like no other, that’s probably my most memorable area.

“The first one you do always sticks in your head, and mine was at the Oval, I remember at the end of it, my voice had gone, I couldn’t speak. It’s a very emotional thing.”