Paulette Edwards is a BBC Radio Sheffield presenter and started her new mid-morning show on the station on Monday 5 December.
With a truly remarkable backstory, born to Jamaican parents in Sheffield, Edwards grew up in the city also famous for producing steel and the Olympic Gold winning heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill. In November, for the first time ever, she embarked on a trip to Jamaica to discover more about her family’s roots and cultural background.
Before her career in radio, Edwards worked as a qualified teacher up until she was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. After a career change working as a receptionist at BBC Radio Sheffield, Edwards went from being a receptionist to having her own show!
Now one of BBC Radio Sheffield’s most popular presenters, Edwards is a shining example of how humility, determination and confidence can launch a dream career. With no prior experience, this amazing opportunity was afforded her because of her drive to change her life for the better.
This week we were privileged to speak to the lady herself and here’s the best of the interview…
Paulette, welcome to The British Blacklist. Your story is a powerful one. Could you in your own words, summarise your unique route into radio broadcasting and overcoming illness along the way?
Since a little girl, I had always wanted to teach so I trained to be a teacher. Being a big sister probably had something to do with it; my younger brother, Roger was the only member of my classes because he seemed to like being told what to do. I taught for about ten years working in a variety of educational provisions and schools. In 1996 I decided to go on a teaching exchange to Toronto for a year – I had always wanted to see Canada. When I returned to Sheffield, I developed Benign Intracranial Hypertension – fluid on the brain.
I tried my best to manage the illness and my job at the school, but I needed surgery to save my eyesight because my vision was deteriorating due to the pressure of the fluid on my optic nerve. I was off school with the intention of going back but it took a while to recover and I decided it was only fair to the school to resign; they had been so supportive during my illness. The local BBC websites were starting around about that time and I applied to an advert in the local paper looking for ordinary people to write stories about ordinary things. I wrote about my friend’s school’s production of Kes and interviewed Barry Hines, then a lecturer in Sheffield Hallam University. I had to consult with the editors of the website and when an opportunity to be a receptionist came up I applied for the job with the hope of returning to teaching when I felt better after the surgery.
A combination of nosiness, fun and being at the right place at the right time, with the right editor listening, gave me a chance of becoming a presenter. Although I had never thought of doing it I took the opportunity and with support continued to grow as a presenter. Illness can completely transform your life. It was awful being ill and feeling like my body was letting me down. I’m not sure I overcame illness; I kept putting one foot in front of the other until I got to a place where things were different. My illness transported me to somewhere and something else.
What can listeners expect from your brand new mid-morning radio?
A lot of fun, but some knowledge, wisdom and understanding too. I want to have a good go at challenging myself and listeners with questions we haven’t been brave enough to ask or answer before. I would like a family of listeners who share the experience of life and dare to talk about the bits of themselves that they fear or want to celebrate. There will also be plenty of music to boogie to!
Since your route into radio broadcasting may be considered ‘unconventional’, how do you advise young people who want to follow in your footsteps?
I always wanted to be a teacher and in a way, what I do now, feels like the best bits of teaching. I would say make decisions based on what you like doing. I loved English and French at school and I suppose that was a part of what made me want to teach. We know there are some things we must do at school that we don’t like, but invest in the things that make you smile, and make you want to get up in the morning and that you are naturally good at. Try not to focus too hard on what you want to do… If you have an endgame that you are too stuck on, it can mean you miss out on adventures, fun and things you never considered. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be presenting a radio show! Enjoy the process and ask for what you want, or try things that get you closer to where you want to be. I still can’t believe a job on reception on BBC Radio Sheffield lead to being a presenter. You may not think you can do something but the person who has asked you to do it knows you can. Get out of that comfort zone. But don’t get too hung up on what you think the process to where you want to be should look like!
What’s the best thing about being a radio presenter?
I get to talk and talk and talk – I am from a family of six children and two humorous parents; airtime was scarce in our house. I also like talking to people about their lives. I am humbled and moved by how extraordinary people are; how resilient, clever, funny, strong and passionate they can be. My life is touched by incredible people every day; it reminds me how what a great place this world is!
Do you have other media ambitions you wish to pursue in the future?
I would like to develop myself as a presenter and continue to push myself and get better at what I am doing now. I would like to work on documentaries; I have a few subjects I would love to explore.
What’s the worst/funniest thing that has happened to you on live radio?
Coughing fits are awful! I love it when I get a fit of giggles though. Sometimes I land on an innuendo, and can’t get the picture out of my head. We do a piece called ‘Kids Talk’ where we talk to children from local schools about their lives, and some of their stories are just hilarious.
What is the most powerful lesson you’ve learnt so far in your radio career?
To enjoy it every day, not take anything for granted and not to dwell on anything that doesn’t go the way you think it should.
How much time do you spend fighting with your producer or is it always amicable?
Just like any normal working relationship we have disagreements and debates but the outcome has always been good. We’re two adults who are passionate about what we do and value what we do, but fundamentally we get on really well, and we like to have fun. We have both grown a lot since we started working together.
Do you take any specific measures to look after your voice as it’s integral to your work?
I don’t really look after my voice. I should. Oh, I always have lozenges in my bag.
What skills do you feel are essential to be able to hold down a career in radio presenting?
To be able to listen well and to not be afraid of saying you don’t know. You also need to be able to ask brave questions that seem nosy – you wouldn’t ask them of a person you’d just met under any other circumstance. It also helps to like people and be able to forgive them if they don’t like or get you.
You recently made your first ever trip to Jamaica, what was that experience like?
I ate, slept, warmed the sun (as my mum would say) and just used all my senses to feel this jewel of a place. We met three brothers who were celebrating two of their birthdays and some other great people and it honestly felt like a two-week party. It also made me sad that my parents had to leave this beautiful place. I met my mum on the day we returned and just told her how much I appreciated the monumental change she made for ‘a better life’ for us. Very sad I wasn’t able to talk to my dad about it, I lost him a few years ago. He never went back from leaving when he was in his late 20s. Two weeks there was just a taste though, I would love to go back. I went through every emotion while I was there, it had a strange familiarity. My parents did a great job of painting a picture of what it is like.
Did you take away any learnings from your trip to Jamaica?
I learned about part of who I am with every cheeky comment, loud conversation, humorous exchange and mouthful of food I sank into the cushion of Jamaica. I feel the experience has been the jigsaw pieces I have been missing. Nothing felt alien even though I was seen as English rather than Jamaican, which is fine because that is part of who I am too. I sometimes find myself wondering how my life would have been if I hadn’t been born in Sheffield or hadn’t left it so long to visit Jamaica.
What are you doing once this interview is over?
Baking my world-famous buns (not cupcakes), I put raspberry jam in them and chocolate buttons on top! Then, having a bath (I wonder if I would have been such a fan of baths if I’d been born in Jamaica) and watching an episode of The Good Wife. Peter Florrick has just won the hearing for the appeal and is back home – please don’t tell me what happens next!