ON FRIDAY, MAY 30, at 8 pm, if all goes according to plan, you'll be able to tune your radio to KBOO 90.7 and listen to a program of performance, storytelling, music, and history, all broadcast live from a WWII steamship anchored just north of the St. Johns Bridge.
There's no guarantee the plan will work. It's ambitious, involving dozens of musicians, writers, historians, and actors—all playing their carefully synchronized parts on the tightrope of live radio.
Fortunately, Galen Huckins has a skillset uniquely suited to the challenge. In 2008, Huckins founded the Filmusik arts collective, which invites musicians and performers to create live, on-the-spot scores, dialogue, and sound effects for classic films. Now Huckins and a team of collaborators have turned their energy toward a new project: The development of an audio recording collective called the Steam Radio Syndicate.
This Friday is the Syndicate's coming-out party. Their Great American Myth project will bring more than 50 artists and performers onboard a 150-foot steam-powered tugboat on the Willamette to record an audio program featuring stories, songs, theatrical performance, and more, all thematically linked to the history and ecology of Oregon's waterways.
A 10-piece orchestra will take over the upper deck. Authors—including Arthur Bradford and a contingent from Astoria's FisherPoets Gathering—will do readings from a meat locker-turned-isolation booth, a closet-like space insulated with egg-crate foam mattress pads. Four stages will host musicians, the likes of Holcombe Waller, Like a Villain, and Amenta Abioto.
The show is closed to the public—it'll be crowded enough with all the performers on board—but KBOO will air a live broadcast, and the performance will be preserved on the Steam Radio Syndicate's website. The program is the first project developed on the boat, which Huckins and his collaborators hope will eventually be a fully functioning audio production and broadcast studio.
At least, that's the plan.
Maybe you've GLIMPSED the stern, slate-gray and black tugboat while driving or biking over the St. Johns Bridge—it's impossible to miss if you're looking. Huckins, who himself lives on a boat—a flat-bottomed 35-footer he describes as a "tiny old riverboat"—first caught sight of it from the water. His curiosity grew, until eventually, he explains, "I just pulled my boat up to the Cathedral Park boat launch and wandered around until I found someone who could tell me what was going on with it."
The ship is based out of Green Anchors, a boat dock just north of Cathedral Park that bills itself as an "eco-industrial business park dedicated to the incubation and support of innovative enterprises." In practice, it's an appealingly ramshackle area dotted with modified shipping containers, and tenants who all seem to be up to something interesting.
Green Anchors is the brainchild of Matt Stein and Mark Fisher, who took over the brownfield site in 2012. "It was a mess," says Fisher. "The property had been scrapped of all pre-existing buildings. We were left with a couple of old piers and shipways, concrete and asphalt, and a beach completely piled with logs and debris. Fences were falling down and there was poor soil and weeds everywhere. It had been a site tweakers and transients had been preying on—there wasn't much of value left."
So they got to work: buying a backhoe, building back up the soil, planting native species, and finding tenants to lease out portions of the space. "It was going to be an experiment," explains Fisher. "We had always been interested or involved in art and music and wanted to support innovative green businesses."
These days the site houses a collection of perfectly Portland businesses: micro-food production, tiny home construction, vintage boat building and repair. In this context, a steamboat-turned-audio-production-center doesn't seem so farfetched.
The tugboat was built in 1946 for use in World War II, and had been sitting unused in Portland waterways since the 1960s, Fisher estimates. It was destined for the scrapyard when he struck a deal to preserve it. "I saw it as an opportunity to save something very rare and unappreciated, and have it be a canvass for self-expression and preservation in a world bent on cheap, thoughtless consumption and waste."
When they were approached by Huckins, says Fisher, "There was a lot of work to be done on the tug and we needed as much help as we could get. It seemed like a win for everyone. I pretty much told him, 'You fix it up, you can use it.' It has been really exciting to see the transformation."
So for the past year, Huckins and his collaborators at the Steam Radio Syndicate have been hard at work transforming the old tugboat into a floating arts collective.
The Steam Radio Syndicate's stated mission is to create "original and compelling radio through a horizontally organized and collectively run syndicate." Or, more pointedly: "We don't sell tote bags. We make radio."
In the short term, that means transforming the battered old space into a studio where people can record oral history projects and podcasts—they've scraped paint, cleared debris, built stages, wired the ship for sound. In the long term, it means working toward the goal of getting a low-power radio license and broadcasting from the boat itself. (Friday's broadcast is courtesy of KBOO.)
"The best analogy for what we're working on is a kind of zine of the audio world, where it's low-cost, easily accessible," explains Huckins. "It takes away the middle producer—what would be a radio network or a producing station. It's an imperfect analogy, but the Steam Radio Syndicate is kind of envisioned as an IPRC [Independent Publishing Resource Center] of sound, where people who are interested in sound can come create things."
There are other plans for the space, too: Building on-site accommodations for visiting artists, maybe even bringing the ship back to life with a retrofit using green technologies. In the meantime, though, it's home to one of the city's most promising arts projects.
"I think a boat is a really cool unit of space—it's an autonomous place, it can go places, it's kind of its own entity," says Huckins. "It symbolizes a kind of self-sufficiency and independence that's really neat."
To learn more about the Steam Radio Syndicate, or to get involved, visit their website: steamradiosyndicate.com. Their Great American Myths program will air on KBOO, Fri May 30, from 8 pm-midnight.