George Hook: ‘I’ll retire in despair if I don’t overtake Matt Cooper’
Behind the Right Hook – the cartoon character he inhabits to maximum effect on radio and TV – is an ambitious broadcaster with complex views on ambition, retirement, dementia and the right to die
‘The inscrutability of the living cartoon enables Hook to be, by a considerable distance, the greatest Irish broadcaster since Gaybo, entering into the imaginations of his audience, inviting love and loathing in equal proportions.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
George Hook is Desperate Dan. Or perhaps Fred Flintstone going yabba-dabba-doo on the radio, with “the lovely Ingrid” back home in Bedrock. Or, perhaps Dagwood and Blondie, with a dash of Popeye and Olive Oyl.
Hook is pure cartoon, self-penned, calculated self-caricature, redrafted in his mid-50s to meet the opportunities that suddenly dropped in his path. His backstory helped: a series of careering disasters in the catering trade, involving bankruptcy and petty fraud. His autobiography, the sublimely titled Time Added On, tells of his rise from Corkonian poverty to national iconisation and in between those calamitous 30 years in the wrong job, ducking and diving to dodge the blows and judgments of an unfathomable world. Hook is a man who seems repeatedly to have walked off cliffs, hung momentarily in mid-air, plummeted to the ground and survived to stagger into the next frame.
Reborn as a national broadcasting icon at the point when other men were retiring to play golf, he has played up this cartoon dimension to maximum effect, creating a legend behind which the “true Hook” recedes into oblivion.
When I arrive for our appointment in the lounge of the Westbury Hotel, he is on the phone to one of his researchers, emphatically instructing that they shouldn’t have the same old politicians saying the same predictable things. His vehemence, he explains to me, is linked to the reasons he recently announced his staggered retirement – from television next year and radio the year after. He wanted to choose his moments rather than let others tell him. When the moment arrives, he wants to have reinvented Irish radio for a new age.
“It’s all about me. It’s not about my employer, or helping them,” he elaborates, with that blend of seriousness and irony that renders it impossible to say whether he’s deadly earnest or engaged in some elaborate self-parody.
“Why do we in radio think that, 10 years from now, people are going to be consuming radio the same way as they are now? Why do we assume that people want an interview with Ruairí Quinn at 4.45pm; 5pm interview with Shane Ross? Why do we assume people are waiting for the news at 6pm?”
Newstalk, he says, has had the same format since it opened; RTÉ has been doing it for decades. “This next generation isn’t gonna buy that, because they get their news in a different way. So I’m going to deliver, between now and the day I go, what I believe is the radio of the next generation. I’m a bit like Glenn Miller in pursuit of ‘the sound’. In his head he had this idea of what the band should sound like. I know what the Right Hook’s supposed to sound like, but I haven’t got it yet. And I’ve got a date I must have it by: October 26th, 2016. So every day that goes by, I say, ‘S**t! Another day gone and I haven’t got it’.”
He spends a while every day studying his JNLR listenership figures, and he has discovered that, although his top-line figure remains below those of his direct competitors – Matt Cooper on Today FM and Mary Wilson on RTÉ – his audience among younger listeners is far higher than either.
“I can tell you how many people under a certain age listen to me, what day of the week people listen to me, what county they listen to me in. Matt Cooper is 20,000 or 30,000 ahead of me. Right? At one point he was 200,000 ahead, so I’ve done pretty well. But I’ve more than double his audience in Dublin. I’ll retire in despair if I don’t pass out Matt Cooper.
“Mary Wilson is more than 100,000 ahead of me. Right? If you strip out the over-45s, in fact the over-50s, I’m ahead of her. I don’t have the slightest difficulty with the idea that the entire old-age pensioner population of Ireland listens to Mary Wilson. No problem.”
Even if you’re one of them? “Even if I’m one of them.” The inscrutability of the living cartoon enables Hook to be, by a considerable distance, the greatest Irish broadcaster since Gaybo, entering into the imaginations of his audience, inviting love and loathing in equal proportions, forcing people to break out in reluctant smiles at the absurdity of his verbal adventuring, his brass cheek, his apparent indifference to slings and arrows, which bounce off his hide like hailstones off a rhinoceros. On his Newstalk show, he reads out attacks on himself with the insouciance of a dentist surveying a recalcitrant wisdom tooth.