Strolling across Belfast’s Fountain Street towards me, Q Radio breakfast presenter Stephen Clements takes long strides, his head tucked into the collar of his dark coat against the November chill, trademark spikey hair the only giveaway of his identity.
He’s just finished yet another instalment of his popular morning show - which is rapidly becoming one of the most listened to in the country these mornings - and has agreed to meet me for a coffee before heading home to look after his two kids, like any regular dad after a shift in the office.
The 44-year-old’s voice is arguably one of the most familiar in the Province; workers battling the daily commute to the office, parents on the school run, students heading to class - lots of them are tuning in to allow his witty banter and chemistry with co-host Cate Conway ease them into another day, similar to the soothing cup of coffee he himself lingers over now, tucked away in the quietest corner of the restaurant.
He’s not a man who likes the limelight. “I’m not a very social person, and I’m quite shy,” says Stephen, who lives in Carrickfergus with wife Natasha and their children, Poppy, six, and Robbie, three.
“Say you were in a house with a lot of people. There’s always someone really loud, telling jokes. I’m not that person. It’s in me to want to do that, but I just don’t have the courage to, so I get to be an exaggerated version of the person I would like to be on the radio, and then when we finish I just go back to being me again.”
It sounds like a winning role all round for Stephen, who grew up on a housing estate in Whitehead before moving to Carrick with his parents and younger brother Gavin.
He describes his childhood as “pretty standard” and “fun”, staunchly working class, and peppered with the usual trips to Portrush and Newcastle, and new toys and clothes just a couple of times a year for special occasions like birthdays and Christmas.
His dad worked for Henderson group loading lorries, and his mum was employed in a number of part-time jobs, but stayed at home taking care of the family the majority of the time.
Stephen inherited their work ethic from a young age. After graduating with a Geography degree from the Ulster University at Coleraine, and working in an office for a while, he got a job in sales for the company Bass Ireland, as it was back then, “talking rubbish for a living”, which he enjoyed.
Ironically, he wasn’t much of a drinker - and barely indulges in alcohol even now. So perhaps it was inevitable that it wasn’t entirely a match made in heaven.
“People always did used to say to me, ‘you should do TV or radio’, but back then, there was no internet really, and just a massive gulf between where I lived and where I thought the world of radio and media was.”
Yet the fascination with the likes of Terry Wogan and Chris Evans - broadcasting stalwarts whom he grew up listening to - remained, as well as a love for the whole concept of working in radio.
“I was just always a bit of a slabber, really, making fun of everything,” he admits, adding that as a youngster, he just felt that local broadcasters to some degree didn’t really reflect the personalities of their Ulster listeners.
“I’m not having a go or anything, but to me, none of my friends spoke like that or talked about those things. I thought that if I were on the radio, I wouldn’t be anything like what they sounded like.”
He clearly recalls the moment he decided to put his money where his mouth was.
“I was in a sales meeting in Dublin; Bass Ireland had just bought Stella Artois as a brand, and there was an English guy there who was saying how we needed to get young people drinking this drink earlier, and make it trendier. I remember sitting there thinking, I really don’t like the idea of telling young people to drink earlier.
“So I came out of the meeting and phoned a local station and asked them how I could get a job on the radio.”
Stephen was told to send in a demo tape, which he did with the help of a friend, expertly put together in the back bedroom of a house in Whitehead. The expected “Dear John” letter was received, and then, a phone call - asking him to come down to the station (Cool FM) and meet the powers that be there in the studio.
And from there, it all took off. Stephen juggled weekend shifts at Cool FM with his ‘everyday’ job, and when then programme controller JP Ballantine moved to the old City Beat station in Belfast (now Q Radio), Stephen went with him.
He was soon offered a full time job, but at that stage, wife Natasha was seven months pregnant with their first child, and he had to think about finances.
“I came out with the whole ‘you can’t afford me’ line, but what I meant was, I literally couldn’t afford to go them, as I was going to have to buy things like a car and a phone and a computer, plus the money was less. Then one day Natasha said to me, ‘just take the job, because I would rather we had less money and be happy, than you having a good job and your face tripping you.’
And so it was a gamble, and that gamble was going to be a year, and if it didn’t work out, I knew I had life experience. Even now if it all ended today, I could go and apply for a sales job and work.”