Thursday, 21 May 2020

Why was the Radio Paradijs vessel called Magda Maria ?

When the Paradijs vessel was being fitted out in Cuxhaven in 1980 the ship was called Lieve, after the then girlfriend of Danny Vuylsteke. Shortly afterwards the owners sacked Vuylsteke for a number of reasons. But the name of the ship was not changed at that time. Because Vuylsteke had been so proud -but very loose-tongued- about the new venture, German and Dutch police were soon aware that a further offshore station was being prepared in the North German port. German police, being very efficient, started to make a note of the number plates of all the cars that parked in the neighbourhood of the Lieve. All these people were later interrogated by the authorities. ‘Die Polizei’ never managed to write down my number plate because I, probably being overly careful, always parked my car about half a mile away from the ship. It kept me in shape.. I got involved in the venture when the owners asked me to check the rather muddled accounts.

With the police and later Interpol sniffing around we were aware that we really had to high-tail it out of Germany. I went to look for a safe port. Ireland and Portugal were pretty safe bets. Both countries had not ratified the Council of Europe Strasbourg treaty which was put in place to prevent or at least hinder offshore broadcasting. From our (secret) office in Cadzand-Bad I started my search in Ireland. The first port on my radar was Bantry because it was probably an easy to reach harbour after rounding Cornwall, and not too much in the limelight. So I rang the harbour master in Bantry. As soon as he picked up the phone I knew that Bantry was off the list, a no go area. From the accented English of the harbour master I could tell that he was Dutch and hence would know all about offshore stations. It was too great a risk. So I made up an excuse and put the phone down. A few days later I was on my way to Ireland to find a suitable port for our vessel. To begin with I had quite a long talk with a very helpful harbour master in Dublin. He provided me with all sorts of information and documentation.

In the meantime the Lieve had left Cuxhaven but ran into severe weather in the Channel. In the end the ship had to be rescued and towed to Southampton. There was quite a bit of damage. At that time I stayed at Brian McKenzie’s. Brian and his wife always made me very welcome. As there is no rest for the wicked I was soon on my way to Southampton to talk to Ben Bode who was responsible for the project. He agreed to take the ship to Dublin and moor along the Liffey. He was especially pleased to learn that reading through the rules and regulations it proved that a vessel entering the port of Dublin for repairs as a result of storm damage sustained was exempt from paying harbour dues.

Days later the vessel limped into Dublin and moored on the Liffey along the North Wall Quay. Slowly but surely over time the ship was turned into an offshore radio station. Early in 1981 studios were installed disguised as presentation rooms in case there was an inspection by the Customs. The rumour we launched was that the ship was going to tour the Middle East to familiarise the Arab countries and Israel with the newest technology: IBM computers. To make it believable I photocopied photos of that company’s computers together with text cut from Hebrew and Arab newspapers and turned them into brochures. The text used had absolutely nothing to do with IBM, not even with computers. I didn’t have a clue what the content was about, but it did look quite convincing for the time. To prepare for a possible inspection of the vessel we even had the Israeli, Turkish and Egyptian flags on board… Later when the equipment was delivered and the press became interested in the ship we had to invent some different fake-news. So to keep the real purpose of the vessel a secret as long as possible Ben explained to the people of the press that the Magda Maria was being turned into a research vessel.

On April 4th 1981 the 26th Eurovision Song contest was to be held in Dublin. Somehow we were tipped off that beforehand television crews were going to film along the Liffey. High time to remove the ship’s name from the vessel. Good thing we did as the ship was clearly visible in one of the trailers that were broadcast. Some people in Belgium and the police in The Netherlands would definitely have recognised the name. In the event the United Kingdom won the contest with “Making your mind up” performed by Bucks Fizz. For weeks afterwards our vessel sat along the North quay without a name. More pressing things were at hand. Later in April I had to go to the States to organize the transport of the transmitters and antenna equipment to Europe.

Upon my return I really had to make haste and make my mind up about a new name for the ship. In order to register the new name I made an appointment with the Panamanian consul in Antwerp. A name change is quite a lucrative business for the so called flag-states. So the consul, who told me to call him Alejandro, took me for a Chinese meal near the Boerentoren (now KBC-tower), Europe’s first attempt at skyscraper. I had given the new name quite a bit of thought. Since our venture was all about ‘free’ radio, I believed that the name of one of Latin America’s most famous freedom fighters would be most apt. I told Alejandro that our favourite new name for the ship was ‘Simón Bolivar’, the leader who led Panama, Venezuela, and other Latin countries to independence from the Spanish Empire. To my surprise, Alejandro was not amused, not at all. In fact he was furious over my suggestion. Freedom was not really their thing in Panama. As the meal progressed I found out that Alejandro had been head of the Panamanian secret police. When he fell out of favour he was ‘promoted’ out of harm’s way by his powerful military friend Manuel Noriega, the later dictator. That’s how he came to be in Antwerp. During desert the consul pressed me to come up with a less controversial name for our ship. In the end, looking for a Belgian connection, I suggested “Magda-Maria” the name of Swedish Radio Nord’s former vessel, as she spent some time in Ostend in the early sixties. 

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