Growing up during The Troubles in Belfast, music and sport fanatic Colin Murray’s hyperactive nature got him into difficulties at school. He always fancied himself as a journalist, but it was the print variety that got his juices flowing, and at 16 he began a trainee programme at a local paper and he set off on the path he believed he was destined to follow.
However, after joining BBC Radio 1 he became a regular fixture on the airwaves and then television, with a hefty CV that includes Fighting Talk, Match of the Day 2 and, more recently, Countdown.
In his Letter To My Younger Self, he recalls the experiences that have shaped his career, including a spell working with Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.
I sometimes look back and think if I’d been born 30 years later my teenage years would have been different because whatever I am would have been understood and help would have been given, rather than just “You’re a clown”. I was just too hyperactive for school; my attention was continually swayed and I got bored incredibly quickly. I had energy to burn. I went from having bad tantrums to going into a shell for days. So I was kicked out of classes, suspended or moved on, and at 16 I had left school and left home.
I started a government Youth Training Scheme when I left school, and I was accepted as a trainee journalist at the Ulster News Letter. I’ve no idea why they accepted me. I remember my very first day at the News Letter. I was wearing my school trousers and a white shirt and my school shoes, and the soles were hanging off my shoes. My main goal for the first few weeks was to make sure none of the senior staff saw that my sole was hanging off, flopping every time I walked. I spent most of my time hiding my shoe under the table.
I was also working four or five nights a week at McDonald’s, for £2.16 an hour. That’s etched into my memory. I had to do that job; the YTS gave me £29.50 a week. Not enough to keep me fed and housed. After a shift at McDonald’s, we all changed out of our crew uniforms and went straight into town with our fake IDs to clubs – from dance to hard rock. More of my money went on drink than food. It scares me looking back – there was no safety net, no plan and I had no qualifications. But I did have a work ethic. And a lot of energy.
I wish I could have been the naive 16-year-old who didn’t know about the birds and the bees, who didn’t know what alcohol tasted like, or how it felt when nicotine flows through your lungs. But for my generation and above, growing up in a working-class area in Northern Ireland during The Troubles brushed us all, and it certainly took away parts of our childhood. You had to grow up quickly. Both personally and professionally, I was an adult too soon. I wasn’t totally unhappy but wouldn’t say my younger self was a happy person. It was just all too soon.
I’ve covered a lot of sport in my broadcasting career, but music was my first and always my biggest love. I can still remember the album covers of my mum and my stepfather’s record collection that I saw when I was three years old – Bruce Springsteen, Lindisfarne, Neil Young. Then I was a teenager and getting into Pulp, Oasis, Rage Against the Machine. The first actual scene I remember was rave, so I was a real underage raver too. I was never cool, I never listened to The Cure. I still have my Kylie Minogue bomber jacket. I love it. It’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen. I took a picture of Bros when I went to the barber for a haircut and, what’s worse, I pointed to the fucking bass player.
I was from an area of Belfast with little diversity. Then when I was 18, I went to Canada on a cross community exchange-style scheme, just before the ceasefire. The government paid for people who were from single-parent or low-income backgrounds to go on a trip to Toronto. A whole crowd of us, all 18, Protestant, Catholic, all from different parts of Ireland, were sent on this scheme. Most of us hadn’t seen any kind of diversity – and boom, our apartments were in the gay district. In 18 hours, I saw more kinds of diversity than I’d seen in 18 years. It blew the world wide open. It was the most important day of my teenage life. It was like that bit in The Wizard of Oz when everything goes from black-and-white to colour. It kicked every bit of small-mindedness out of me. I dread to think what would have happened if I hadn’t gone. If I had the power to redirect a few million pounds I’d take about 400,000 kids a year away for three, four weeks to areas where they’d get to see the kaleidoscopic reality of the world. Every kid should have that perspective.
I remember when I was very young saying I wanted to write for newspapers – probably before I knew the word journalism. I don’t know why. I had a paper round when I was at school, I don’t know if that made me think of newspapers. I used to sell the Belfast Telegraph at the Dundonald Ice Bowl. I made fuck all from it; these days you wouldn’t be allowed to do that, it was child labour. But I honestly don’t know why I wanted to be a journalist from such a young age. And I still have no idea why the News Letter selected me as a trainee.
I was still in my teens when I started DJing in a club in Belfast called the Limelight and running small clubs doing live music with unsigned bands. Some, like Snow Patrol, got quite big, though that had nothing to do with me. Then when I was in my late teens, I started a music magazine called Blank with Paul McNamee, now editor of the Big Issue. Ahh, we’ve both achieved so little since. That was a lovely time because it was against all the odds. We hadn’t had the Good Friday Agreement yet, so not many bands travelled to Northern Ireland. It was a whirlwind. It was chaotic and archaic, and it was beautiful while it lasted.
I never, ever wanted to be on the radio. I only ended up going for an audition to present the Radio 1 Evening Session in Northern Ireland because they asked me to try out so many times. The music scene in Northern Ireland is a very small pool. I was running live music clubs, looking after some local bands – there weren’t many of us to choose from. How many people can you possibly audition in Northern Ireland who are in the music scene and who can talk, talk, talk?
Before the audition, I was up all night watching England playing Brazil in the World Cup in South Korea and Japan. I went down to the BBC at 10 in the morning and basically talked shit for 15 minutes. Then afterwards they called me up and said, “you’ve got the job”. I remember going to London, standing outside Radio 1 and thinking, what the hell am I doing here? It took me a long time to feel like I fitted in. But gradually radio became like an addiction for me. It still is. My unhappiest times have been when I’ve had less radio in my diary and more TV. When I presented Match of the Day 2 – those were three of the most miserable years of my life. I was fairly depressed for most of that. It wasn’t for me, way too much too soon. But I just love the connection radio brings. It’s not like anything else.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my grandfather, JC. He had the traveller’s bug, borne out of a lifetime in the armed services, where, to the best of my knowledge, he was doing some form of MI6 work. He would pop up every now and then when I was a kid, and he was a real guide to me. He challenged me and talked to me and educated me and loved me the way I needed to be loved. He was so engaged and informed and hyper-intelligent, he could just hold my attention all day. I loved going to stay with him. He used to pay me 20p to pick the hard skin off his feet. He is definitely the most important moral guide in my life. I think about him all the time. If I could be with him one more time I would just go and sit and shut up while he talked. That would genuinely be the best thing ever.
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