Austrian in Portland: Viennese radio pro records PDX oddities.

Foreign press fascination with Portland continues.

Viennese radio producer Alexandra Augustin waits to ambush Portland Soapbox Derby racers on top of Mount Tabor.

Has my Euro-dar recently gotten stronger? Or, conversely, is Europe suddenly more tuned-in to each blip on our city’s cultural Richter scale? Hard to say. But here’s why I wonder…

By happenstance twice this summer, I’ve run into reporters from Europe with a shared mission: snooping around Portland for new discoveries of music, art, and general subculture. First there was Samuel Cuneo, a government filmmaker from France, and now there’s Alexandra Augustin, a radio broadcaster from Austria. What are the odds? I’d say “incalculable”—and I’ll also speculate, “rising.”

My new protocol for the foreign press is to welcome them into to Portland’s barter/back-scratch economy: I interview you, you interview me. Cuneo shared the Parisian perspective last month, and now it’s Augustin’s turn to speak for the Viennese. (This pair makes me hope for a hat trick. Not going to force it, but I’ll keep you apprized.)

Augustin works for FM4, one of three nationwide Austrian stations with worldwide streaming under Österreichischer Rundfunk, or Austrian Broadcasting Company. (Want a parallel? Think OPB, NPR.) I met her at Mississippi Studios after a Destination DIY listener party at which I was performing a jingle, and she agreed to let ArtsWatch pick her brain. I asked her roughly the same questions I asked Cuneo, but of course her medium and her answers are unique.

Why Portland, of all places?

Portland has always been a destination I wanted to go, because some of my favorite bands are from here. The Decemberists of course, as well as The Thermals and The Wipers. I grew up in the ’90s, so punk has always been a big thing for me. And of course all the riot grrl things that are going on in Olympia: Sleater Kinney, K Records.

Do you have a first memory of being exposed to that stuff?

The Thermals, I heard through radio, and it was very impactful—I mean, I’m working there right now. As a teenager, I listened a lot to a college radio station, FM4, which is part of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation. Tapes have also been a huge thing for me; mixtapes when I was on summer holiday at summer camp.

These days you just have to look on blogs, of course. Music from Portland has always been a big thing for our radio station. Fanzines and punk, and, of course, Portland indie rock. I’d say that interest probably began in the ’80s or ’90s…as long as I can remember, bands from America have been a role model for things that are going on in Europe. Especially from the West Coast, I’d say.

How is Portland similar to Vienna, and how’s it different?

Vienna is not very similar to Portland. It’s completely different, the architecture, the way people behave. It’s a very old city, it looks old, it looks like in a fairy tale. Actually Viennese people are grumpy, very grumpy, even in the coffee shops, people get paid to be grumpy; it’s part of their job description.

Vienna has a vivid art and music scene as well; we have many bands. But you would never find someone who has to do three or four jobs at one time. If they’re in a band, they have a side job or are studying. But here, people are working in the supermarket, studying, having their own label on the side and in a band…in Portland there’s much more going on in one life. People smile here more, and they’re not complaining about their life here. Just my impression.

Portland is similar to Vienna in transportation. You don’t need a driving license, which is great, so I never made one. You can go everywhere by bike.

Can you share a few of your favorite discoveries?

I had the chance to talk to Darcelle, which might be kitschy for the people here, but for me it was great to talk to her! Darcelle had the first espresso machine in Portland. She had a beatnik cafe in the ’50s, which I found really fascinating.

And I was at the Gnar Tapes house, maybe the messiest house I’ve ever been to. Like, a really f-cked up place. There was this American flag which was totally destroyed, the windows were broken, somebody was sleeping on the couch who was at the party the day before. They told me they only got up for the interview and it was 2 pm. But at the same time it was a very creative place, and when it comes to work, the boys are pros, they’re really organized. But it was a fun place, yeah. A fun house.

I still wanna see the vegan strip club…so many weird things.

What about Portland has been different from your expectation?

Well, everybody’s talking about this “Portlandia” series, and I’ve seen a couple episodes…I think some parts might be true, but it’s a cliché, I think. Everything here is really slow, which was a bit annoying in the beginning, but now I”m used to it and I enjoy it. It’s a very relaxed lifestyle here, and I didn’t expect it to be that relaxed. People who are used to being this slow should never leave this city; I don’t think it’s gonna work out for them. There must be something in the water here. You can’t copy this city, or the lifestyle.

Explain your job in Austria.

You could say I’m a journalist and broadcaster. I’m a producer and presenter, a sidekick for the morning show, I do radio features, I write for the website, and I present a show about Austrian music once a month which is five hours long. Modern indie/alt Austrian bands. I’m staff, and I get paid as staff, but if I don’t work I don’t get paid. So it’s something in between. That’s the tricky thing about Austrian contracts; I’m somewhere in the middle.

The radio station FM4 is alternative, not mainstream. We have listeners beyond Austria, in Germany and Switzerland and England too; they like to listen to the morning show. The station is bilingual. Half of the program is in English, presented by native speakers. It’s part of the law that 51% of the overall programming has to be in English. FM4 is the combination of two radio stations—one English and one German—that merged: FM4 and Blue Danube. We speak more English in the morning and more German in the evening, but the morning show is in both English and German. An ABC policy called “bildungsauftrag” says we have to prove that our program is not only entertainment, it also has educational value. So we have this double conversation going on in two languages, which is fun, but then we also have a show “Reality Check,” which is heavy political issues, or DJ shows where DJ’s present their favorite tunes.

Explain your project.

Officially I’m on sabbatical, but I get money from the state for that [Euro-envy, anybody?]. I’m also trying to get some more education. I’m studying now online: photography. A side of that of course, one of my main reasons why I’m here, is to meet people and make features about them, and tell the people in Austria what awesome people are here and making art and making music.

But you included other performance stuff, like the Soapbox Derby and Dino Tarot. How do those things fit?

Perfectly, I think, because they’re some of the really great things here going on. I’d never seen such a thing as Dino Tarot before, and it’s a really great idea to do that. You put so much energy in this table and this box and this thing, and I like it when people do this kind of thing and are not only concentrated on money. I like those little things you come across when you’re traveling or when you’re in a city. Sometimes these other things become more interesting than even a “big” band or those “important” people.

Are you planning a next project after this one?

I will travel to other cities on the west coast—San Francisco, LA, and Seattle—as part of a half-year trip, and I’ll profile each city in a series. For each city, there will be a one-hour program, and I like to find new things, go new paths or meet people who have not been featured so much on Austrian radio or newspapers. It’s just more interesting.

San Francisco: I want to find out more about the Cacophony Society and the prankster scene. I’d love to have good burritos, maybe investigate the weed.

Los Angeles: I just got my driving license. In Vienna, you don’t have to have one. I think I would just spend one week in the car, driving around from the morning until the evening, just seeing it. But on the way there, I’d like to visit the rocket mavericks, people who do amateur rocketeering in the desert. One thing I also want to do is profile people who are living in their car. I mean, that’s more serious topic, and also people who are living in these hotels somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Because that’s something that doesn’t exist in Austria or Germany or these rich countries in Europe. Of course there are also people living in really sh-tty houses or in their car more in eastern Europe, we all have issues.

Seattle: Of course I wanna go to all these places which are somehow related to the Nirvana story. I want to find out what’s going on there right now, and if there’s something like the Nirvana Tour where people are trying to get money from visitors, I would do it. I mean it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But it’s a place connected with so much important history, I just wanna see that with my own eyes.

And music, music, music!

What’s it like to let someone else play reporter with you?

Weird! Weird feeling. Aaaaugh. Don’t do this again to me. I hope that was okay? It’s better to be on the other side of the microphone.


A. L. Adams also writes monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury
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