Further education was never a backup option for Sharon Tobin, journalist and newsreader with RTÉ.
Tobin, the host of Six One news, saw the value of Post-Leaving Cert courses while she was still in school.
“I always had journalism or psychology in mind,” says Tobin. “We had a brilliant English teacher in Coolmine Community School in Blanchardstown. Mr Hainsworth had been a priest in a former life, he spoke many languages and was a real philosopher. English was about reading between the lines and he would encourage you to go anywhere with your ideas.
“We were lucky to have a radio station in our school which was a big part of it, and the teacher that ran that was really forward thinking and always saw the next big thing coming.
“I decided I was still interested in broadcasting and journalism and a teacher advised me to put together my portfolio and demos from my student radio work. I applied to Ballyfermot College of Further Education’s higher national diploma in radio production and journalism.”
But the CAO, then as now, still loomed large in the national discourse, and Tobin saw the value of leaving her options open.
Tobin put journalism as her first choice on the CAO. It was a year where the points for that course soared — a situation familiar to thousands of disappointed students over the past few years — and she didn’t get her first preference.
“I’d only missed out by about five or 10 points,” she says. “No way was I repeating.”
Instead, she was offered a place in UCD, studying arts.
“I had no interest in doing it. I could not see myself in UCD. It just didn’t feel right for me.
“I decided to stay with my first choice.”
- Other opportunities beckon beyond the CAO
- Stem opportunities via another route
- Is an apprenticeship for me?
Ballyfermot College of Further Education has long held a solid reputation as a first-class option for studying journalism, media, animation and other creative arts. But then, as now, there was some snobbery around further education, with many seeing it as a backup or second-class option.
“I do remember some people saying it was not a ‘proper college’,” says Tobin. “I didn’t care. It bothered me more in later years, particularly because journalism is a profession that has a long tradition of apprenticeship and learning on the job, and we had so much hands-on experience in Ballyfermot.”
Only three people in her class had come to college straight out of the Leaving Cert.
“Almost everyone else was already in radio and had a wealth of experience. So we had to hit the ground running and straight away we were looking at presenting and producing.”
Tobin worked at West Dublin Community Radio station, presenting and working on the news.
“This was in the same building as the college, so you’d present the breakfast programme or work in the newsroom and then go to class. All the people around you had real-world experience and your peers were already doing it, so it wasn’t an option to stay out of creating and producing.”
Tobin says there was a great social side to her time at BCFE.
“The people we were in college with worked in events management, TV or radio. Everyone was busy outside college, so if they were running an event, you’d go to it. The whole place was brimming with massive creative energy. I still meet so many people from BCFE and I wonder, how did we all fit in this building? I know that universities and colleges have good alumni connections, so for a college like BCFE to have such a strong network is really special.”
When she was finished in college, Tobin sent her demo tape to every independent radio station in the country, getting a yes from East Coast FM in Bray, Co Wicklow, and later also working for local paper the Liffey Champion.
“You get a lot of opportunities in a smaller place; you need someone to take you on and mentor you, and the mistakes you make are so valuable because without them you don’t learn.”
Tobin later took a job in TV3 (now Virgin Media), working primarily on international news stories. This is a job that normally involves monitoring the feeds from news agencies, selecting the best images and editing them together for the news programme. She also got her first TV anchor experience, hosting the station’s 5.30pm news slot with Alan Cantwell.
“It’s all changed now, and working in the media is a different world. When RTÉ takes on a journalist now, they are a multimedia journalist from the start. Today, it’s not a job you get into for the money or the normal working hours — and this means it can be hard to put boundaries in place between work and private life — but you meet different people and hear about their world and get to hear people’s stories. Social media is now where many people get their news and younger journalists are building profiles there.”
Now, as one of the country’s most recognised journalists, Tobin says that BCFE graduates stand out for her. If they go to RTÉ for work experience, she knows they won’t sit there waiting for instructions but will instead be proactive and imaginative.
“I think attitudes to further education are changing,” she says. “Some of this is down to the animators coming out of the college and getting nominated for Oscars — you can’t buy that kind of PR.”
No fewer than seven graduates of BCFE have been nominated for Oscars.
“Journalism was not always a profession that required high points; what you needed was curiosity, a good level of English and to be a hard worker who was willing to work different hours. As a way to get there, further education works.”
A day in the RTÉ newsroom
Sharon Tobin has been with RTÉ for about 14 years and works as a journalist and news anchor on both the flagship Six One and the One O’Clock news.
When she’s hosting the Six One, what does a typical day look like?
“I’d be up at about 6.00am or 6.30am,” says Tobin. “During the pandemic, and when we worked from home, I’d go back to bed with a coffee, get out the iPad and go through the papers, ideally before 7am.
“Then Morning Ireland is on from 7am-9am and I’d get the kids out to school. At 10am, we have a news conference where we go through what is coming up and talk about where the stories might go and who we might interview. Ideas get tossed out and then there’s another news conference at 2.30 to respond to breaking news.
“When you’re a reporter, you’re in the field, focused on one story, but when you’re presenting the news, you need to be across all the stories during the day, so you’re reading articles and listening to everything. It’s a dream job for a journalist.
“On the Six One, you need live interviews, which are the best part for the viewer. You don’t always know what’s coming at you and you need to be across everything, pulling together all your knowledge and research to make every minute valuable for the viewer. If an interview is just four or five minutes, you have to make every second count. Sometimes you have to interrupt interviewees so that you don’t have four minutes of just one answer.
“With a politician, our job is to find the information around the point they want to make. But then you may have someone with a very personal story — perhaps someone from Ukraine in recent months — and they’re not used to doing this, so you have to be delicate, give them space to talk and reassure them that there is a good reason for them to tell us their story.
“Others come on the news because perhaps they are an expert in their field, and they might get nervous, so it’s your job to assure them that they know a lot about their subject — and that the viewer needs to hear it.
“Covid made that more difficult; when we didn’t have people in the studio you can’t share the body language. But it’s just a different type of challenge.
“Hosting the news is an honour. You have this time to interview and speak to someone and you’re trusted by your editor and your colleagues. People are switching on their TV to hear these interviews, so you owe a lot to many people and can’t let them down.”