RTE’s Sean O’Rourke took a longer break this summer because, he says, “I was starting to question my enthusiasm for the job”.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent ahead of his return to the national airwaves tomorrow, the radio presenter said he began to question if he still wanted to be on air “in the best chair in Irish radio”.
He added: “I don’t like admitting this, but I was starting to question my enthusiasm for the job. There’s a simple test I’ve applied over the years and that’s to ask myself where I want to be when that [signature] tune fires and the red light goes on in studio and always the answer would be ‘sitting right here in the best chair in Irish radio’.
But, he said, “after almost five years there were mornings when I had doubts, and that bothered me. As I was signing off in July I felt it was time to recharge the batteries”.
The broadcaster took two months to enjoy his summer away from the relentless cycle of news and current affairs and – in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol – he says he is glad he had the courage to make the right decision.
“What’s been remarkable over the summer was the number of people, including some senior public figures, who told me I was dead right to take a long break. Some people stopped me in the street to ask if I was OK. The answer was yes. Last week, a bus driver in Dun Laoghaire waved a small radio out of his window and asked when I’d be back, and we had a right bit of banter.”
Describing how he spent his downtime, he said: “My wife [Caroline] and I went to Germany cycling for a week, which was one of the best holidays we have ever had – not least because we didn’t meet a single Irish person, cycling along the river Moselle, from Trier to Koblenz.”
The presenter also treated himself to an electric bicycle and a new mindful project. “I am getting my garden redesigned and I am treating myself to a greenhouse,” he says, in addition to plenty of lunches with old friends, reading books such as Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and Robert Harris’s Munich, swimming at the Forty Foot, and “playing bad golf on good courses”.
And while former Nike chief executive Erik Hagerman made headlines this year when he decided to cut himself off completely from the news, O’Rourke said he still dipped in and out: “I nearly completely switched off. I only watched one news bulletin a week, I listened to a small bit of radio, but not a whole lot, and bought a newspaper every other day. But I kept myself fairly well-informed in a fairly quiet summer.
“I learned that you need to have certain times where you just switch off. You’re not going to like this bit but I think I spent too much time with the Sunday papers,” he laughs. “I need to spend time and I will be spending time doing things that are totally un-work related in a much more structured way. I will be more organised to make sure I get time in my garden or just get out and exercise.”
O’Rourke says he felt he could take the extended break because he has proven himself in the slot. “The pressure is nothing compared to this weekend five years ago when I took over [the show from Pat Kenny] for the first time. All sorts of predictions were being made about a huge loss of audience for Radio 1. To adapt soccer manager Mick McCarthy’s phrase, ‘I was the guy with his backside in the bacon slicer’.”
But after taking the listenership to a record high last year at 354,000, only dropping slightly this year, he says he’s proven his mettle: “One of the things I have learned is that I can do the job and I can do it well. And just meeting people when I have been home during the summer has shown there is huge goodwill towards the programme. It’s nice to feel that as well.
“There is a song I came across, Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, and there is a line in it that says ‘Me, myself I got nothing to prove’,” he said, adding that “one of the things I am really proud of is that in the five years I don’t think we ever did a bad show since the change.”
But he stressed the success is all down to a team effort: “It’s not my show, it’s RTE’s show and with Miriam [O’Callaghan] there I caught it maybe once a week and, as ever, it was brilliant – between herself and the crew, they nailed it.”
He credits his crew by name: “Tara Campbell, Cora Ennis, Mary O’Hagan, Deirdre Ni Fhloinn and Alistair McConnell – it’s a great team of people and it’s great to be going back to them.”
He said now his appetite has been fully replenished, he is more eager than ever to get back: “Even if it was offered to me I wouldn’t want to be off any longer. I caught the start of the show last Tuesday and felt a real tingle of excitement and anticipation when the sig tune played. I was certain then that I was ready for the fray again.
“I am really looking forward to the Presidential election and whatever comes from Brexit and [finding out] will there be an election or not? It’s going to get all fired up very quickly.”
But perhaps most poignantly, he echoed the words of legendary broadcaster Gay Byrne who lamented this summer that he should have spent more time with his family.
O’Rourke explained: “I did a calculation and at this stage I have probably done maybe 120,000 interviews [over 45 years in journalism] and I’d say I could remember about five of them, you know?
“One of the highlights of the summer was going to my daughter Maeve’s conferring [as a Doctor in Human Rights law]. These are the days that matter. Those days matter and are more satisfying than doing a big interview with a minister. No programme compares to a day like that.”
Sean will be back in the chair at ‘Today with Sean O’Rourke’ on RTE Radio 1 tomorrow morning at 10am.