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"Near-death experience won't stop me making waves...on the surf or on radio"

Award-winning presenter Mark Patterson tells Una Brankin how he found the strength to get back on his board after breaking his neck in a surfing accident and how Gerry Anderson's advice about connecting with your audience has been the key to his success

Published 06/02/2016

Mark Patterson
Mark Patterson
Mark Patterson took home the Best Speech Broadcaster of the Year award
Mark Patterson
Mark is back surfing the coast of Northern Ireland after his nightmare accident

Anyone who knows Mark Patterson will not have been in the least surprised to find him back in the studio presenting his daily lunchtime radio show just two months after breaking his neck in a horrific surfing accident.

And just a few weeks after returning to work following his traumatic brush with death, Mark was more than a little shell shocked to find himself the toast of the media world in Northern Ireland, after picking up the top gong for 2015 Best Speech Broadcaster of the Year at the CIPR media awards in Belfast.

Now fully recovered after what he describes as "a year of extremes" the popular presenter is also bravely back on his surfboard riding the waves around the coast of Ireland and beyond.

He also continues to make waves in his career with a string of first-rate documentaries for Radio 4, as well as constantly increasing the popularity of his daytime Radio Foyle show - Lunchtime with Mark Patterson.

Still, Mark is no stranger to picking up awards. The man who started his working life as a youth worker was also part of the Radio Foyle Station of the Year team which won the prestigious Sony Gold Awards in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005. And, in 2004, he was co-nominated with Gerry Anderson for a Sony Radio Award for Best Outside Broadcast (One Big Weekend).

Not bad for someone who as a teenager had no aspirations to be on radio. In fact, Mark (47), who was born and grew up in Lurgan, initially did a BA in Semiotics/Sociology from Queen's University in Belfast before going on to study for a post-graduate Diploma in Youth and Community Studies at the University of Lancaster, as well as a Certificate in Management from the Ulster University Business School.

He moved to Londonderry after securing his first job after university as director of the city's YMCA, the largest branch of the Christian youth charity in Ireland. He also administered the Northern Ireland office of the Irish Peace Institute on behalf of the University of Limerick. It's fair to say that he made a huge impact in the city as a youth worker, starting work at a time before the Troubles had ended when there were huge sectarian divisions and a lot of his work focused on building bridges between young people in the communities.

With Derry very much a hot spot for news, Mark - who had become a trusted and respected figure in the community - soon became the go-to man for the media. Journalists would seek him out for sound bites and interviews for radio and TV and he also made regular appearances as a panellist on discussion shows.

Yet although he felt completely at ease in the medium, he still had no aspirations or inclinations to pursue broadcasting as a career.

Looking back on that period of his life now, he says: "I had never been to Derry before. I was 23 and going in as director of the biggest YMCA in Ireland and it was amazing they had that confidence in me.

"Young people in the city were very disaffected and we set up a lot of programmes, many of which are still going.

"I went into all areas. I think because I wasn't from the city I didn't see the lines in the ground. In a way I was coming at it a bit like a tourist and it gave me a real insight into the community. I think because I was an outsider I had a degree of impartiality, which helped."

After six years Mark felt he had achieved all that he could and decided he needed a fresh start. He visited Ana Leddy, the then head of Radio Foyle, where he had been a regular contributor as a community leader, to tell her he was leaving. He was flabbergasted by what happened next.

He says: "I told Ana I was going and she said a presenter had left and she was piloting for a new one and asked me to pilot there and then. Ana was an amazing, radical Sligo woman and a bit of a Goth figure and I would have followed her into battle. She was awesome. She offered me the job on the spot and you could have knocked me down with a feather.

"But I suppose that I always had the sense that I could chair the meeting and while some people just feel fear when they have a microphone pointed at them, I never had that. I loved being among people and while I had no notion of being a media person, Foyle was a real media hub and, of course, we had Gerry. It was a magical time and I just took to it like a duck to water."

That was 1999, a time which Mark describes as "the golden years" in Radio Foyle "because Gerry was there with us".

He started to present a weekday show, which in 2010 became Lunchtime with Mark Patterson. The live chat and debate format covers a wide range of topics including economics and politics. It now has a stronger focus on culture, shaped largely by Derry's year as UK City of Culture in 2013. Live music also features regularly and he often champions local bands and songwriters.

Mark has also established himself as a programme-maker, creating Shore Stories for Radio Ulster, where he met those who have a special relationship with the Ulster coastline.

He also produced Walled City Nights, an exploration of youth culture on Londonderry's historic walls late at night. He contributes regularly to Radio 4. In 2014, his first documentary commission for the station, Cold Water California, is now a permanent feature in the Radio 4 documentary archive.

And last year he created and presented Back Down the River, a documentary commission for BBC Radio Ulster/Foyle. His next Radio 4 commission, The Safety Card Man, is due for broadcast this year.

His show today is very much driven by his listeners and this is directly due to the advice Mark was given by Gerry Anderson.

He says: "Gerry came in every morning and sat beside me and read the paper because he wanted some head's peace. I learnt a lot from him.

"I miss him terribly. Today when we come in every morning we see his portrait on the wall and the little model of Gerry which was made by Flickerpix, who made the On Air series for BBC One NI. They presented Gerry's wee model to Radio Foyle and so we see Gerry every day. He is irreplaceable.

"He had this teapot which made tea for one and he would make his cup of tea and then steal everybody else's grub. He told some raucous stories and he was even funnier and cheekier off-air.

"After he came back from Radio 2 he gave me advice which I have never forgotten. He told me that I should never underestimate the importance of connecting with my audience.

"He said never feel that you need to do more or earn more money, but basically told me just to appreciate what I had.

"I remember one day he walked round the corner and said to me 'are you Mark Patterson?' and he congratulated me on my documentary about young people in the city.

"It was one of those moments when all I could think of was that THE Gerry Anderson had listened to my programme and knew about it. The man was legendary and genuinely ahead of his time. I can't believe how lucky I was working with that man. He was a hero."

Ever mindful of Gerry's advice, Mark allows his audience to influence his daily agenda by connecting with them through social media, especially Facebook. In fact, outside of Newsline no other BBC Facebook page outperforms Mark's.

He says: "When I set up the Facebook page it very quickly went nuts from around 1,000 likes to 10,000. I used to depend on people phoning the programme to give us stories, but now through Facebook and Twitter if someone wants something done they can contact us - today between 20-60% of what we do on the show is directly as a result of private messaging or posting on Facebook.

"People can get to me personally through social media. I do it all myself and some of the stories are reaching hundreds of thousands of people around the world, it's phenomenal."

Away from broadcasting Mark is a keen surfer and has travelled the world in search of the best waves, from France and Spain to Australia and America.

It was after making a documentary on surfing for Radio 4 with his colleague Conor McKay that Mark persuaded Conor to celebrate by hitting the surf in the Basque country for a week's holiday.

He describes the water as perfect when they arrived and busy with around 200 other surfers enjoying the waves.

Mark was straight in there and was exhilarated to get the first wave, which he rode perfectly to the cheers of the other surfers on the beach chanting encouragement: "Go Irish, go Irish."

But it was while riding the second wave that he made a terrible error and disaster struck when he broke his neck diving off the crest of the wave.

He says: "It was like paradise and the first wave was perfect and I was also lucky enough to go back out and get the second wave.

"Again it was perfect and I went to jump off the wave into what should have been a channel, but the water was only a foot deep and I hit it like a javelin.

"An electric storm had hit very suddenly and everyone was running out of the water while I lay there. I remember just thinking 'oh jeepers that's sore' and I knew my left side was paralysed. My hand was floppy and I thought 'goodness me, I'm in difficulty here, this is serious'.

"After about 15 minutes my left hand came back, but I went to stand up and I couldn't move my head.

"I crawled up the beach. Madly, I actually picked up my board because it was a precious board I had for years and I dragged it along under my good arm. "

When Conor spotted his struggling colleague he realised immediately how grave the situation was. He took charge in a way which to this day Mark believes not only saved him from paralysis, but possibly saved his life.

He was taken to Bayonne Hospital and diagnosed with a C6 break on his neck and told he would need surgery.

Liaising with medical professionals back home, Conor was able to advise Mark to refuse surgery and get home to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

Conor made all of the arrangements and Mark flew home and was taken straight to the Royal. Doctors there decided that surgery was not the best option and that his broken bone would heal itself.

Months of intensive rehabilitation following and against the odds Mark was back at work by Christmas 2014.

Having faced potential paralysis at the time, Mark describes the accident as "life-changing in every way imaginable".

He says: "When I eventually got home from France to Derry, everything changed.

"Getting out of bed in a full neck cast was agony, but every day I set myself one task: to walk the length of the street, and then to walk to the Peace Bridge, and then walk over the Peace Bridge, then walk over the Peace Bridge and meet a friend for lunch ... a little more each day.

"When you're in a cast you can't look down, you can't see your feet. You have a fear of falling. Every day now, I look at kerbs and paths differently.

"When paralysis is presented to you as a possibility, you see life through those eyes - wheelchair access and all the rest. One day I was surfing and fit as a fiddle ... the next instant I couldn't stand upright, and was being spoon fed by nurses and neighbours.

"Life becomes simpler, and the dreams you had before are set aside. The more the recovery kicked in, the more precious each little piece of progress felt. Now that I'm back to full health, there's never a day passes that I am not truly grateful for every little blessing in life - be that just a dander in the park or being back in the water with the surfboard."

Even though it nearly cost him his life, he confesses that it did take all his courage to get back on his board.

He says: "I'm probably a bit of an obsessive. If I get my teeth into something I'll keep at it till I drop. Even wee things like DIY. I'm stubborn as a horse.

"As I said, though, life changed after the accident. Suddenly it was no longer a carefree decision to head up to the coast. I was afraid to get back in at first, but I did and it feels great again. Saltwater nearly landed me in a wheelchair, but it's always a healer too - of the mind as much as the body.

"I think at this stage in life I am driven and satisfied by what Heaney called 'the marvellous' - things like the ocean, the light, the elements and things that are possible. I feel lucky to have been born in a time of freedom and incredible discovery."

Mark is also a keen gardener, cook, rock climber and canoeist and says that he feels blessed both in his career and private life.

He beat broadcasting giant Stephen Nolan to get the coveted Speech Broadcaster of the Year gong and coming just a few weeks after his accident, it was a major boost.

He says: "Stephen has a massive presence in the media here - everyone knows that. Even to be nominated alongside him was a real buzz. And then to win it? That was amazing.

"The NI Awards are voted on by influential peers from across the NI media, so that was the most satisfying aspect of it. It has pride of place alongside my granny's vintage crockery on the Irish dresser in my kitchen."

Lunchtime with Mark Patterson, BBC Radio Foyle, weekdays 1-3pm and also available via the BBC Radio iPlayer - bbc.co.uk/radio

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