Historical Society exhibit turns dial to KBOO radio
The inside of KBOO radio station already looks like a museum: yellowing posters, brown sound insulation, yards of LPs, dusty shelves of digital audotapes piled on other tapes piled on books and binders.
So how do you put radio in a museum? It's a tricky job, and the Oregon Historical Society has assigned one room to the celebratory exhibit called "50 Years of KBOO." It's mainly posterboard collages, plus four glass cabinets. The collages chronicle key moments of the station that has been a Johnny Appleseed (preferred pronouns they/them) of community radio for an impressive half-century. The glass cabinets contain vintage sound equipment and ephemera such as printed program guides, T-shirts and coffee mugs.
Spirited text and graphics, written by KBOO contributors, tell the tale of the station that has survived infighting and near-elimination to remain not just a left-wing voice but a left-field one in the mediasphere.
The station began as a replacement for Portland's classical music station but found its alternative voice (think The Grateful Dead and Noam Chomsky) in the 1970s. KBOO signed onto the air on Halloween 1968, but that was the cover. Berkeley Boo was the founders' favorite strain of weed. (Another alternate set of call letters was KRUD.)
For a long time, it re-broadcast Seattle's zany KRAB programming. Later it went on to develop its own tapestry of shows. KBOO was early in the online streaming game, is adept at outside broadcasts and strong in volunteer-produced news. It's that station you turn to when OPB seems a little too predictable, and everything else (including silence) is driving you mad.
What the museum exhibit doesn't do is let us hear the sounds of KBOO. "A Different Nature" is an experimental music show, (friendly to the likes of Michael Nyman, sample here at https://archive.org/details/ADifferentNature 20683SideOne)
Once its founding host Richard Francis conducted a live 101-hour Dadaist avant-garde performance, from live poetry to electronica to complete noise.
Walk into the halls of KBOO and you'll still encounter plenty of living oral history. Former AM News and Public Affairs Director Kathleen Stephenson retired in 2017 after nearly 30 years with the station. She helped rally some of the old-timers to reminisce.
What does she think makes people KBOO lifers?
"I think they just love what they do here. Some of them say they stay out of the politics. Wade Hockett quit twice on the air but missed it so much, he said it was like a breakup. His solution was just to stay away from the controversies. But my impression is people really like what they do. It's an art form, planning a show. And just the aspect of community: it becomes a community for people."
Chief engineer Tom Hood has been with KBOO for 45 years. "The first KBOO license was signed in my dad's living room, Ernie Hood." Tom stresses the fact that there were no commercials as being essential to KBOO from the start. He leads the remote broadcasts, helps with live music and "keeps us on the air in three cities."
"When you hear things like 'A Different Nature' in the middle of the night, that's what KBOO is," Hood says. "That's still true to the original vision. ... .weaving sonic beds together, total collage."
He points out it was largely a music station, with ample public affairs programming, for the first couple of decades, before news came in to make it more activist.
Hood had shows called "The Audio Frenzy" and "The Wiggle Room."
"They were a suspension of disbelief. You forget you're listening to the radio; you're more in an environment. I'm into the sonics of it. I have five years of 'The Wiggle Room' at home. I think I'm going to bring it in and dump it on the (shared) drive somewhere."
Hood's natural habitat is a gadget and cable-crammed room, where equipment comes to be fixed, "and we just push it back out again."
KBOO was on Real Audio, an early audio streaming technology, in the 1990s and today shows are automatically archived.
KBOO is working on a second online stream for the exhibit, making archival audio accessible.
Ani Haines coordinates not just KBOO's approximately 400 volunteers, but the many hundreds more who come through the doors seeking some way to fit in. KBOO has trained thousands — for free — in how to make radio, and prides itself on remaining welcoming.
"I was interested in the idea of visually representing the station, and how it has grown," Haines says. "We had a lot more ephemera than we gave to the archivist, Robert Cross. Photo albums and dead hardware like the Turkey Mark 3," Haines adds, referring to the air board Haines learned on in the 1990s.
Priority items were archived to get them up for the 50th birthday. "The goal is to digitize everything we have, but it takes time and money," she says.
"I can't generalize about the volunteers, except to say, people who come to KBOO are super passionate about something, but what they are passionate about is very diverse. It could be music or politics, they just have to share."
There's no way to measure how many people take the free training, then never come back. Haines adds: "People will disappear but then a few years later they come back: 'I've had the baby, now where do I volunteer?' There's something about KBOO that draws them."
Joseph Gallivan is co-host of "Art Focus" on KBOO at 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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