Cowan, (Robert) Barry (1948–2004), journalist and broadcaster, was born 1 February 1948 in Coleraine, Co. Londonderry, one of two sons of Fred Cowan, a manager in the Ulster Transport Authority, and his wife Myrtle (née Gilliland Patterson). Barry was brought up a presbyterian. The family moved to Ballymena, Co. Antrim, where Barry attended Ballymena Academy, before studying physics at QUB in the late 1960s. There he took part in a student satirical production, 'Watch it', and was attracted by the world of television and theatre; in 1969 he was acting in small parts with the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and in films made at the Ardmore Studios, near Bray, Co. Wicklow. He joined the BBC in Northern Ireland as a trainee studio manager, and then spent a short time in Bush House, London, the headquarters of the BBC World Service. He auditioned for a job as a radio presenter in Belfast, and by 1972 was appearing in radio plays produced in Belfast, including Thomas Kilroy's 'The death and resurrection of Mr Roche', which went out on BBC Radio 4.
At the start of his career in broadcasting, Cowan provided relatively anodyne news items for insertion into news bulletins emanating from London. When the tense political situation of the early 1970s in Northern Ireland rapidly degenerated into escalating violence, Cowan, who had grown up in one kind of life in Northern Ireland, had to adapt quickly to a life of instability, inconvenience and horrors; soon after his start with the BBC, he reported on the events of 'Bloody Friday', 21 July 1972, when twenty-two IRA bombs exploded in Belfast city centre, killing nine people and injuring hundreds. The output of news material produced and broadcast directly from Northern Ireland increased dramatically over the next few years, and a number of young journalists who later became household names got their first experience of reporting from conflict situations in Belfast and around the North.
In 1974, aged only 26, Cowan stepped in to fill a vacancy caused by the serious illness and eventual death of Larry McCoubrey, who had been the usual presenter on the BBC NI evening television news programme Scene around six. McCoubrey had a unique style and a light touch, and was very popular, but Cowan soon made Scene around six his own. Politicians learned to respect his interviewing ability, as he relentlessly followed up their evasions; his even-handedness was widely acknowledged, in a society where even-handedness was not universally acknowledged as a desirable quality in a commentator. Journalists had a fine line to walk between extremists, and he was often threatened, though on one occasion when he was in a very perilous situation, he was not the intended victim. In January 1980, he was with a group of friends visiting an equitation centre in Glaslough, Co. Monaghan, when one of the group was abducted by masked gunmen, but escaped unhurt.
As events threatened to send public and private life in Northern Ireland spinning into chaos, people felt that Cowan could be trusted to tell the truth about what was happening; his face and presence were familiar and reassuring. The most shocking news or the most rabid interviewee seemed unable to ruffle his calm self-control. Cowan's professionalism and skills as a live broadcaster were based on a quick intellect and a deep understanding of politics; thanks to the complexity of his personality and varied competences, he was able on occasion to get away with wit and even sarcasm, and to carry off contrasting roles in other public appearances. In 1973 he appeared as the 'straight man' in comedy programmes featuring Jimmy Young (qv), where Cowan played the part of an enthusiastic but baffled reporter interviewing Young's comic characters.
In October 1980, Cowan became the first presenter of Today tonight, a new current affairs programme on RTÉ television, which quickly became an important vehicle for political discussion, and won a Jacobs Award in its first year (April 1981). He continued to host a radio programme on BBC Radio Ulster. His two years dealing with politics in the Republic of Ireland (and in RTÉ) deepened his understanding of Ireland and of broadcasting (and the constraints within which broadcasters had to operate), but he was glad when the opportunity arose to return to Belfast.
He became editor of BBC NI's Spotlight programme in August 1982, and thereafter contributed to many television productions, but particularly concentrated on radio. He worked on Good morning Ulster and on Evening extra, and presented the pioneering radio show Talkback, which started in 1986. With the producer Martin Dillon, Cowan established a live on-air current affairs forum in which listeners could phone in to communicate directly with politicians. For almost the first time in local broadcasting politicians and ordinary people could voice opinions and even more significantly had to listen to other people's opinions. In the political vacuum of the 1980s and early 1990s, the programme operated as an important escape valve for community tensions, and even prefigured some of the ways in which the peace process was to operate some years later. He left Talkback in 1990.
He was a founder member of Co-Operation North's student journalism programme from 1979, and was a guest lecturer in politics in the Queen's University of Belfast. He gave invited talks in other institutions in several countries. In June 1990 he chaired a live ninety-minute debate on RTÉ on the future of Irish broadcasting. In 1995 he travelled on a fact-finding mission to Ethiopia with the charity Concern.
Around 1985, Cowan set up Bridge Television Productions, an independent television production company, and made programmes including A view from the Castle (1988), in which he conducted interviews with former secretaries of state for Northern Ireland. Another series of programmes, Cowan in conference, made in 1989, presented a series of in-depth interviews with, among others, Chaim Herzog (qv) and the duke of Edinburgh. He was Sony radio reporter of the year in 1987, received the Sony award for best radio interview of the year in 1997, for an interview on the long-running programme Seven days, and won an award for a programme on the victims of the Troubles. In March 2000, he finally cut his ties with the BBC, planning to concentrate on freelance work and media consultancy. He died in hospital in Belfast on 17 June 2004, after several months of serious illness. He married Susan Hanson in 1981; she and their son and daughter survived him.