Stephen Nolan: I've found that life really does begin at 40
The broadcasting colossus tells Maureen Coleman how he has finally managed to discover his mellow side
Stephen Nolan is a changed man. Since turning 40 last year, he's undergone something of a transformation and not just in terms of his physical appearance.
His weight loss over the past 12 months has been dramatic, admittedly. He shed a massive eight stone through a strict diet and exercise regime, though a return to bad eating habits has seen him pile on a few pounds of late.
But there have been more subtle changes since he hit the milestone birthday in August 2013. Stephen has calmed down. His priorities have shifted. While he still lives and breathes broadcasting, work is no longer the be-all and end-all that it once was. He still loves his job passionately, enough to work seven day shifts between Belfast and Manchester, combining Radio Ulster and Radio Five Live shifts, but he's also come to realise that there is more to life, such as travel and football.
Finding a place that's been "good for the soul" has been a factor in shaping this less frenetic side to Stephen. The 41-year-old has figured out a healthy work/life balance, which sees him take regular breaks to sunny Santa Monica in California. He's already lined up five trips to the States in 2015 - a total of 15 weeks out of 52. That's over a quarter of a year he plans to spend in California, recharging his batteries. In his 20s and 30s, such luxuries as holidays would have been inconceivable.
"I do still work seven days a week but I'm changing quite radically and fundamentally in terms of how I live now," he explains, as we catch up for a chat to mark his 10th year as a broadcaster for BBC Northern Ireland.
"Up until a few years ago, I would've worked a seven day week and not taken any holidays at all. In fact, about three years ago, the BBC insisted I go on holidays because I wouldn't take time off.
"I hit 40 last year and I know it sounds like a cliche, but I did change. Yes, I'm still working seven days a week but I'm also taking two week breaks quite often during 2015, that will see me go back and forth to Santa Monica. That's how I want to live my life now
"I want to spend quite a lot of time over there. I've been bitten by the travel bug. I don't know if that is something that comes with getting older, but I do really enjoy seeing a bit of the world now, learning more about it. Even as I say that out loud, I'm aware that it sounds cheesy and that my 20-year-old self would say 'wise up' but that's how I feel now."
He doesn't have to try too hard to sell me the charms of Santa Monica, a place he describes as "not particularly classy, but beautiful" and, of course, warm.
He stays in the same hotel each time he visits and the locals have got to know him.
"It's just so calm and still and for me, is one place where I've clicked," he says. "Going there recharges my batteries big time. Every time I come back, I'm bouncing. My soul calms right down.
"There's a street called Third Street, where all these buskers hang out and perform every night. They are so talented, they could easily win The X Factor. I just sit on the pavement for an hour, in the sunshine, listening to them play. Every time I go there, I feel my heart beating slower. It's hard to explain but that's just how I feel."
Given the amount of time he's already spending in California, does he think he'll ever be tempted to move there permanently?
"Not while my mum is still alive," he tells me. "Audrey is very important to me and I know how important I am to her.
"As time goes on I can see myself spending more and more time out there but it's not as if I run a business and could ask someone to step in and look after it while I'm away. I need to be here for my job but I'm stretching it a lot more. But no, I'll absolutely not go while mum is still here."
Just a few weeks ago Stephen brought Audrey and her best friend Wee Betty to the States for a once-in-a-life-time holiday. The trio visited Las Vegas before heading to Santa Monica and the award-winning presenter spent much of the time trailing around after the pair as they sniffed out some bargains. He pretends to be exasperated as he recounts this but anyone who tunes into Stephen's Radio Ulster show knows he is a dutiful son, devoted to Audrey. It's just been the two of them since his father Raymond passed away around 11 years ago, though Wee Betty will be joining them for Christmas dinner this year.
His work ethos comes from his love for the job but also, surprisingly, a deep-seated insecurity and need to prove himself. This uncertainty, he concedes, is at odds with the public's perception of him as a larger-than-life, self-assured personality, grilling government officials and politicians.
"I work the way I do because firstly, I've always wanted to do it and now that I am, I want to do it even more," he says. "And secondly, if I'm honest, there is an insecurity there. I don't actually think I'm this great broadcaster who'll be around forever.
"I feel that I'm still needing to prove myself and I think that's true of many high-profile broadcasters. I feel lucky to be there. I know that's not what the public expects me to say but it's true.
"When the listeners hear me giving politicians a hard time, they possibly perceive me to be this tough guy who is very self-assured. Yes, I'm very self-assured when I'm interviewing politicians because I have to be, that's the job I do.
"But am I self-assured that I'm going to be in broadcasting for the rest of my life? Well, you have to work at that, at keeping the show up there. It's the most listened-to radio show in Northern Ireland, it's the biggest show in the country for the past 11 years. We're number one but I don't want to be the Manchester United of Northern Ireland, I don't want to see us going down the table."
Ah, the old football analogy. Of course, these days Stephen's right at home talking football, though he admits he still can't quite get to grips with the names of the entire Manchester United football team. He holds a season ticket for Old Trafford for the next few years and points out that his passion for the game is another sign that he's embracing a life outside of broadcasting.
"You see, there are other things that I'm adding into my life, so it's not all about work," he points out. "I love going to Old Trafford. I couldn't name you more than a handful of the players but I love the buzz, the atmosphere."
Does he think turning 40 has seen a softening in his interviewing technique as well?
"I think, if we're honest, we all change as we grow up," he says. "I talk differently in real life now that I'm 41 and not in my 20s and I'd like to think that's reflected in how I come across on the show. So yeah, I think I'm slightly calmer on air."
Stephen hesitates before continuing.
"Here's the thing," he says. "For the first few years that the radio show was trying to establish itself, it was 10 years ago and there were already established massive programmes on Radio Ulster like Good Morning Ulster and Talkback.
"For me to come in and have any impact, I had to hold my own with programmes that were established for years. I couldn't come in quietly. I was coming in, surrounded by these colossal programmes. Now that I'm the biggest show in the country, I'm not under as much pressure to shout from the rooftops. But with that influence comes responsibility and the knowledge that I have to get it right."
Over the 10 years he's been playing a starring role within BBC NI, he has won numerous awards, including the Nick Clarke award 2014 for his interview this year with Pastor James McConnell following his controversial comments on Muslims and their faith. His Radio Ulster morning show and his television programme, Nolan Live, are hugely popular and he's successfully crossed over to Radio Five Live, presenting a hard-hitting network show. He has also presented documentaries for television and the recent Story of a Lifetime series, meeting people who have undergone remarkable journeys. And he'll be back on our screens next Tuesday, December 23, hosting a new festive game show, Five Gold Rings, on BBC One.
But ask him what he's most proud of during those years and there's no hesitation.
"It's when that one, lone voice contacts us and is up against the huge brick wall that is bureaucracy or a government department and we are able to empower that one voice," he says.
A case in point was that of Jean Faulkner, a 92-year-old woman who was being forced out of her residential care home. A relative contacted the Nolan Show and outlined the situation. Stephen travelled to the home and interviewed Jean, making her story public and shaming the relevant authorities into reversing their decision. Jean got to stay.
"How could I not be proud of that?" asks Stephen. "We gave her a voice. But there are the little stories too, the ones that don't make the headlines, like Kathleen, who'd been listening to the show for years and called up one day to tell us she hadn't been able to visit her husband's grave.
"It turned out the council had taken off the bus route without any consultation and she hadn't been able to go and see the grave for a few years. She rang the show and we got involved. We had listeners ringing up, offering to give her a lift. And what happened? The council reinstated the bus route. Those are the wee things that give me a reality check, knowing that people rely on that programme.
"I've no doubt that the expectation is there that our show will deliver and we often hear that people have been advised to come to us rather than go through the courts. We have to make sure we look at things properly, and then get results.
"I'm not the First Minister or an elected representative, it's not up to me to decide how the country is run. What the Nolan Show is about is giving that individual a voice so they can shout through me at the government or the politicians."
Stephen says he gets genuinely frustrated when he hears people dismiss politics as boring or criticise the politicians for not doing their jobs properly. Despite his on-air banter and rigorous questioning technique, he says he has the utmost respect for the majority of Northern Irish political representatives, whom he describes as "decent, honourable people".
"A lot of them are very intelligent, experienced people and it annoys me when we get callers calling them useless," he says. "That's just not true. They're not useless and some of them have a very detailed grasp of the issues that are of interest to people here."
He is reluctant to describe himself as a "workaholic", saying it's a term that should be used for hard-working people like taxi drivers, who do 10 to 12 hour shifts, every day of the week. His shifts may be shorter but he still works a seven day week too, commuting between his native city and Manchester, from where he presents his Radio Five Live slots.
His heart belongs to both places, he says, and he'd be hard-pushed to choose one job over another.
"I absolutely love Five Live," he says. "They've thrown a lot of great opportunities at me, foreign gigs like going to Ground Zero in New York, reporting from Greece during the economic crisis and next year, I'll be playing a role for them in the General Election.
"Then I love the local politics of Northern Ireland, there is an edge and aggression to it, which I adore too. If I had to give one up, it would be a 50/50 call. I don't think I could right now, but as I get older, that will have to change too."
This new slimmed-down, mellower version of Stephen Nolan no longer strives for the "big adrenaline strikes" he would have chased in his 20s. He says that now he's 41 he doesn't want drama or ups and downs. He much prefers to live "on a constant".
So with 10 years behind him and a new year around the corner, what are his hopes and dreams now?
"I want to continue to grow as a person," he says. "I'm still finding my place in terms of who I want to be and what I want to do for the rest of my life.
"When I hit 40, I suddenly became aware that there is not a whole life-time ahead of me now. So what do I want to do with it? I want to travel a lot and get better at my job. And I want to continue to look after my mum.
"That's the kind of simple life I want right now, nothing more complicated than that."
- Five Gold Rings airs on BBC One NI on Tuesday, December 23 at 9pm
Nolan's night of Christmas craic
Stephen Nolan will be joining in the Christmas spirit this year when he hosts a new one-off television show featuring seasonal games, special guests and festive fun.
Five Gold Rings will see five different games, played by members of the audience. Those lucky enough to win a place in a Gold Ring could win a prize to add some sparkle to their Christmas festivities.
All the family can play along as Stephen tests the knowledge of his audience of golden ticket holders when it comes to Christmas past and present. Whoever wins a spot in one of the Five Gold Rings will play for a prize to help cover the cost of their Christmas.
The hour long show will also feature special guests, festive music, comedy moments and plenty of surprises with help from Stephen's little helpers.
Stephen says: "What better way to say a big thank you to my amazing audience at the end of a momentous year than to invite them all in for a bit of fun and games and Christmas craic. And better yet, some lucky punter may be better off at the end of it. I'm looking forward to a great night's fun."