Goodbye George Hook. You should have stuck to your plan and quit in 2016
Mick Heaney: The attention-loving shock-jock has announced his retirement. It’s overdue
George Hook: helped establish Newstalk first as a local presence, then a national one. Photograph: Eric Luke
George Hook came to radio success at a late age. Once it happened, however, he found it hard to let go. Hook, who has announced his retirement from Newstalk at the age of 77, has been with the station since its launch, but had been flirting with the exit door for the past four years at least.
As he prepares to host the last edition of his show Hook’s Saturday Sit-In next month, it’s hard to escape the feeling that just as the presenter started his broadcasting career late in life, so too his farewell has been overdue.
An outspoken personality who rarely shied from controversy, Hook made his mark on the airwaves through a combination of splenetic opinion and lively interviews. For all that he enjoyed pricking politically correct sensibilities on his shows The Right Hook and High Noon, he was rarely dull, at least until he discovered there were limits that even he shouldn’t transgress.
None of this should detract from Hook’s achievement in helming Newstalk’s primetime early evening slot for 14 years, during which time he steadily drove up listener numbers and helped establish his station first as a local presence, then a national one.
Hook had never hosted a radio show when he was recruited by Newstalk in 2002, but it was a canny move by the fledgling station. Hook was already well-known as a larger-than-life rugby pundit on RTÉ television. The only question was whether his no-holds-barred approach would translate to radio.
Hook took time to find his feet, as indeed did the station he worked for: one regular guest from Newstalk’s early days quipped that you could reach a bigger audience by shouting out a car window.
But Hook, who has often talked about overcoming adversity as a businessman in his pre-broadcasting days, soon proved himself a confident and durable radio presence.
Amid schedule and personnel changes that saw daytime presenters such as David McWilliams, Damian Kiberd, Orla Barry and Tom Dunne come and go, Hook emerged as the station’s most high-profile personality. For many years he got highest ratings on Newstalk.
Meanwhile, perhaps more than any other of the station’s early presenters, his pugnacious style helped define Newstalk’s identity as the unruly, disruptive commercial rebel to RTÉ Radio 1’s staid establishment.
Much of Hook’s appeal rested on his willingness to offend in the name of straight talking. He balked at using the term “childhood obesity”, preferring the term “fat kid”. He was unabashed about his Fine Gael loyalties, referring to himself as a “blueshirt” with mock defiance.
That said, one could never be certain how seriously he took this shtick. He would often chuckle as he read out texts that hurled insults at him while he often leavened more serious discussions with his locker-room humour. “If Margaret Thatcher was at a rugby club disco she would never have got a dance,” was a typical bon mot. At his best, he presided over a show that was part uncomfortable shock-jock iconoclasm, part guilty pleasure.
In later years, however, Hook seemed to become ever more rabidly ensnared in his own politically incorrect bubble. Though he had always played to the caricature of the grumpy old man, his light touch evaporated. As he fulminated with the likes of John Waters and regular American contributor Michael Graham, Hook could sound like a crank venting his resentments.
Sometimes his prejudices were relatively benign. His disdain for cyclists teetered into self-parody, though there was also an element of gleeful trolling to it. Similarly, his invocation of heroes such as Michael Collins and Winston Churchill was a daffy eccentricity that became a tedious trope.
But harder-edged views were aired too too. Hook, who would boast of protesting against apartheid in South Africa in past times, ended up speaking of migrants from Syria and other Muslim nations as a threat to western civilisation. “It’s come to the point where it’s okay to be a homosexual, a lesbian, a black or a Jew, but it’s bad to be a Catholic,” he said in 2012, and increasingly this seemed his fallback position.
Hook enjoyed the limelight, as he made clear in his 2006 autobiography Time Added On: “I make no bones about it: I love the attention, even if people are telling me they thought I was wrong about something.” Certainly, his use of the third person when talking about himself suggested a healthy ego.
But with the arrival of presenters such as Pat Kenny and Ivan Yates his position as Newstalk’s big beast was eroded. Four years ago, he announced that he would retire from the radio in 2016, only to renege. But Hook’s subsequent move from the prized drivetime gig to a lunchtime slot seemed to confirm his career was winding down.
In retrospect, Hook would have been better sticking to his original retirement plan. Though courteous and even flirty with female guests, and unfailing in expressing his love for his wife Ingrid, his often arcane views on gender sank him when he wondered whether a rape victim in the UK wasn’t partly to blame for the crime against her.
Hook subsequently apologised for his “clumsy” remarks, but it was a controversy too far: as sponsors pulled advertising, Hook was suspended.
He returned this year with Hook’s Saturday Sit-In, but although he promised now to talk only about what interested him, the formula was tired. The fact that it was recorded in advance removed the whiff of cordite that undoubtedly contributed to Hook’s original appeal.
But rather than dwell on such lapses, it is better to remember what a compelling broadcaster Hook was when he was on form. In his prime, he was provocative, funny and even reflective. That he hit his peak at an age when others are drawing their pension also makes him an inspiration as the country grows collectively older.
Musing on the indignities of age, Hook once said: “If you’re 75 and have terminal cancer, [the] State will look after you, but if you’re 75 and can’t remember your name, you have to pay for that.”
Lines like that ensure that no-one is going to forget George Hook’s name in a hurry.