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Riding the waves with Boat Radio

The Boat Project – 27 Days to Launch from Lone Twin on Vimeo.

If you know me well you’ll know I applaud almost any creative use of radio and find it extremely hard to be critical of genuine efforts to try new things but here’s a project that could have been so much better executed with a bit of thought and some understanding of the basics of radio.

Right now, a amazing yacht is sailing around the coast of Southern England, its voyage accompanied by Digital Radio transmissions of commissioned audio art.

The vessel has been made from wood crowdsourced from individuals – everything from pencils to piano parts, according to the project team – all combined by modern shipbuidling  techniques to form a seaworthy archive of stories and memories. Have a look at the video and you’ll see its unique construction. The boat is named Collective Spirit and, if you haven’t guessed by now, it’s part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

She’s a beautiful boat, an inspiring project and one clearly delivered with the passion and commitment that gives anybody who’s donated to it a genuine sense of ownership. So far, so good.

Radio enters the project thanks to The Folkestone Fringe. This arts network has invited creative artists to submit their own original sound works to be broadcast shore-to-ship via Digital Radio as Collective Spirit makes its maiden voyage.

If you live in the service area of the relevant DAB signals in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset then you can tune in and sample the audio as a pop-up digital station. I do, so I did.

Once I’d confirmed that the peculiar whistling noise was coming from the radio and wasn’t a fault with the coffee percolator I tried to enjoy the station. The sound may well have been a piece of that commissioned audio art. Equally, it might have been a test signal. It was hard to tell. There were no clues on the scrolling text, no audio to explain the project or what I was listening to.

If you didn’t have the advantage of knowing the background to this station you wouldn’t give it a second chance.  The project website offers no specific information on the programme schedule, only a loose ambition for the station:

Boat Radio will cross the space between and engage the crew in conversation. While the ship’s log ­– singer/songwriter Johny Lamb aka Thirty Pounds of Bone – will write, perform and transmit a song for each leg of the voyage, Folkestone Fringe commissioned artists will make and transmit six Ship-to-Shore sound works to the boat.

Sailors understand the importance of navigational aids but this project offers none to the potential audience. It’s hard to understand why you would invest in content if you have no plan to tell people what it is, why they might like to listen and how to find it.

The Folkestone Fringe organisers say the purpose of this radio venture is “to engage artists in the exploration of the tradition, technology and politics of radio”. Clearly worthy enough to secure funding from the Arts Council of England and the National Lottery but, from my sampling of the audio, of no benefit to listeners without at least some context and explanation.

The project organisers further reveal their naïvety with a bizarre claim on their website that “Digital Radio is about to be re-launched globally to become Digital Radio Mudial (DRM).” As you and I know very well, 1. it’s not, 2. they probably mean Mondiale and 3. DRM is irrelevant to this project.

Sailing and radio are two of the greatest joys in my life and I hoped for so much more than this hamfisted way to combine them, especially when it is using precious public money to do so. The Boat Project itself is amazing and very well documented but I hope if The Arts Council funds another radio venture they insist that the organisers take some experienced advice that enables them to exploit the strengths of radio that have been so wasted this time.

They could do worse than knock on the doors of Resonance FM  in London or Soundart Radio 102.5FM in Totnes. Both do a far better job of sharing artistic expression in sound in my view.

Meanwhile, if you want an excellent radio sailing programme try BBC Radio Solent’s H20 podcast with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and if you can get to Littlehampton, West Sussex tomorrow (Monday) you can see the Collective Spirit itself.


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