Mike McDowall, Boat Radio’s founder and gifted host, lives on the idyllic island of Mallorca and has a truly-fascinating backstory. He has agreed to be a guest columnist here on avedelmar.com. I trust you will enjoy his tale as much as I did.
If you never caught his interview of me, you can hear it here:
On the first evening in our new home on the island of Mallorca, I gazed out of the bedroom window at the Mediterranean Sea and at the mountains lit pink by the setting sun and I thought how wonderful it all was. I then looked into a nearby garden and watched open-mouthed as one of my neighbours – an overweight, bandy-legged and particularly hirsute man in late middle age – took a shower under a hose clipped to a washing line. Mercifully he wore a pair of underpants, although they were sodden and sagging and water piddled from the swollen pouch in a constant stream. I called my wife and we watched, mesmerised, as he shampooed his entire body, getting both hands down those underpants. Somewhere a donkey brayed hysterically.
My wife and I moved to Mallorca from London just over a year ago in search of a better life for our daughter, Molly. Island life has always appealed to me although even now, after dreaming of it for years, and after living it since last summer, I cannot quite put my finger on why. What I can say for sure is that there are a great many positive aspects to living on this island. And, of course, one of those is the multitude of boats.
I love boats. I love them as a means of transport but also as objects of sometimes ethereal beauty. I love them too because it is possible, in a relatively small vessel, and without an engine, to circumnavigate the globe in some comfort and at very little cost. I find this reassuring and also remarkable almost to the point of miraculousness.
I have sat for many hours in dockside bars in Piraeus, southwest of Athens – the busiest passenger port in the Mediterranean, actually in the whole of Europe – and watched boats of all types and sizes arrive and depart. I’ve done the same thing in London, New York, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Sydney, Hong Kong, Genova, Monaco, Eivissa, Palma de Mallorca and numerous other places around the world. I can while away entire days watching boats.
As I write this, thunder is reverberating around the Sóller valley. The rain is absolutely torrential and a remarkably large, vivid green praying mantis has sidled in through the open window looking for shelter. After another long, dry summer, this weather is welcome.
Meanwhile in Florida, John Herlig, skipper of this blog, has been forced ashore and is doubtless anxious as Hurricane Matthew threatens to destroy Ave del Mar and, with her, years of passionate toil and craftsmanship. I have renovated a couple of old houses but that’s mostly donkey work: gruelling but not particularly skilled. Restoring an old boat, on the other hand, is more like breathing life into a piece of antique furniture. It requires expertise, dedication and, above all, patience. Plus, when your house renovation is completed, you’re not then required to float the finished project in a churning, swirling, splashing body of corrosive liquid. Boat restoration requires a level of forbearance I’ve never had to find.
One day, perhaps in my home harbour, Port de Sóller, I hope to join John on board Ave del Mar and crack open a bottle or two of the excellent local cava Mallorquín. And I will record that momentous occasion, in both sound and vision, for myself and also for Boat Radio. So I’m a little tense as Matthew approaches Florida; concerned primarily for the people in its path but also for Ave del Mar.
But it wasn’t boats I was dreaming about as I gazed out of the bedroom window on that first night, it was Boat Radio.
I have worked in media for more than twenty years. I started out on hospital radio in Bristol, reading aloud from the newspapers and spinning a few tunes. My core audience consisted of those receiving treatment on a long-term basis – mostly the elderly and the dying. Back then old ladies were still very fond of Frank Sinatra so I received many requests for ‘My Way’. Unfortunately, the opening line – ‘And now the end is near and so I face the final curtain’ – was deemed inappropriate for those in palliative care so it was on our list of banned songs. So were ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ by The Smiths and ‘Drop Down Dead’ by The Housemartins. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ever play anything by The Grateful Dead and even Joe Jackson’s humorous ‘Cancer’ was forbidden. Looking back, I realise I should have subverted those nonsensical rules. I should have played Amii Stewart’s ‘Knock on Wood’ and dedicated it to ‘those planning a casket send-off’; ‘Disco Inferno’ for those headed for the crematorium.
After college, I took a job as a newsreader on a local network called Chiltern Radio, based just north of London. Within eighteen months, I’d moved to LBC – London’s best-loved but doomed talk station. Since then, despite my being a dyed-in-the-wool slacker, I have presented and produced some of the most popular and acclaimed news and current affairs shows in the UK, working for the BBC, CNN, AP, ITN and various other acronyms and abbreviations. Oh, and Reuters. These days, I ignore all of them.
Boat Radio began as an idea for a weekly show on a local station. But Radio One Mallorca was not the place for what I had in mind and I could drum up no interest at all among other media outlets so, in the end, the only option was to start my own radio station. Or so I thought.
Boat Radio burst into life on July 1st, about an hour later than advertised and about two weeks after the birth of my second daughter, Martha. The first manifestation was as an audio stream. Visitors to the Boat Radio website immediately heard the day’s programmes as though they’d switched on a wireless set. I sat in my garden, sweating buckets in the scorching summer heat, editing and uploading radio programmes with maniacal fervour. Alongside me sat the mighty James Finlayson – another former BBC radio man, who came to stay in the casita at the end of our garden and who was pivotal to the launch of Boat Radio.
Even before lift-off, we were plagued with technical problems. If the audio streaming service was interrupted for a software update, which it was, frequently, the schedule would suddenly and irremediably fall out of kilter and it would take me hours to rewrite it. Add to that the pressure of feeding the voraciously hungry beast that is talk radio and things soon started to unravel. Even with James working away for 12 or 15 hours at a time at the other end of our garden table, and dedicated presenters and producers delivering fresh reports from all over the world, I was unable to keep up with the sheer quantity of material required.
Help came from an unexpected quarter – the listeners. They rode to the rescue by making it abundantly clear that what they wanted was not radio in the traditional, scheduled sense. Instead they wanted a library of shows available to stream or download whenever they felt the inclination. And so the current manifestation of Boat Radio emerged.
I use the word ‘current,’ but in fact it changes all the time. Soon we’ll start adding video to the website: interviews, documentaries, vlogs and other material of interest to our listeners. We will also be covering some live events, including Sarah O’Kelly’s upcoming shark dive. There will be feature articles and photo essays too, and I hope to revive the original plan to have a decent weather programme. I hope also to begin a series about boats and sailors in popular culture, fictional or otherwise. Michael John made a terrific show about Joseph Conrad’s yacht, The Nellie. I would like to hear similar programmes about the African Queen, The Bounty, Alexander Selkirk, Donald Crowhurst, Thor Heyerdahl, F/V Andrea Gail, and many more. Plus, Zaca, of course – Errol Flynn’s old schooner, which was berthed here in Mallorca for many years and which later rotted for three decades before undergoing a complete restoration. Yes, Boat Radio must somehow find a way to get on board Zaca.
James Finlayson will soon be launching a show about inland waterways – Slow Boat, will look at the UK’s magnificent canal and river network and the many different types of vessel which plough those waters. Sailing royalty Lin Pardey will be joining us with regular programmes from her home in New Zealand. We’ll be podcasting some of the very best interviews from Andy Schell, who many of you will know as the face and voice of 59° North. Plus, Dan Mattson of Hooked on Wooden Boats will be providing us some of his excellent material, recorded in the Pacific Northwest.
Boat Radio isn’t about boats, it’s about the people who sail or drive them; the people who live and work on them. It’s about great yarns and inspiring life stories. It’s a labour of love but it’s also a real contender in the world of podcasting. Our programmes – 145 of them to date – have already been streamed or downloaded 50,000 times. Last week, 1,000 people per day listened to our programmes. This week, I expect that number to be around 1,100. It’s clear there is a demand. Pretty soon there’ll be commercials but we’ll keep them as unobtrusive as possible, preferring to opt for programme sponsorship rather than ad breaks. And I plan to use Boat Radio’s growing popularity to promote good causes like our chosen charity StreetInvest.org I hope as well to persuade John Herlig to document his voyages aboard Ave del Mar – irregular postcards from an irregular life, if you will.
Please take a look at the website – www.boatradio.tv – and let me know what you think of it all. If there’s anything you think we’re missing, let me know. We may already have a solution in the pipeline, we may not. Either way, it would be great to hear from you.
Incidentally, our neighbour, who works in a bank, has not indulged in any more al fresco bathing. Well, none that I’ve witnessed. That first night must have been a special occasion.
PS. I know, I know – Eddie Floyd’s original ‘Knock on Wood’, on the Stax label, is doubtless much preferred by aficionados, but I was a disco-era kid.