Since June 16, three friends have been traveling down the Mississippi River on board a paddlewheel riverboat recording their weekly podcast, “The River Signal.” The trio started in the Twin Cities (Minn.) and plan to stop in major cities along the way to record muscians for their podcast until they reach their final destination of New Orleans in early September.
“The River Signal” is a serialized, post-apocalyptic story written and recorded aboard the 33-foot Channel Princess and is inspired by the people the crew meets along the way. These river musicians and their personal stories become the plot of each episode, which is aired on Mondays.
“The Mississippi is the last American highway [in the story],” said Brian Benson, a published author who helps write each episode. “It’s a sort of vibrant dystopia. Things just look and sound different when you’re on the river. If you’re telling a story from that perspective, it kind of makes sense to set it in an alternate reality.”
In doing so, Benson said the three friends hope to weave their experiences on the river into a new genre of travel story — something far from traditional journalism that captures how subjective travel stories can be.
Recorded on the bow of the Channel Princess, the group has already written stories inspired by riverboat sessions with Charlie Parr, Kendra Swanson, Guante, Bo and the Locomotive, and William Elliott Whitmore, among others.
“We take their sounds and songs and use that to build up an episode,” said Benson. “Some of our trip itself makes it into the story, though it’s fiction but very based on what is happening to us on the river.”
Recording and broadcasting radio during the long river voyage has been no easy task, particularly when the terrain is unfamiliar and the river is full of barges, breakwaters and other obstacles.
“There’s no shortage of close calls and hijinks on the river,” said Reid Lustig, a musician and custom banjo maker who helps produce the podcast. “And since the plot and sounds of ‘The River Signal’ have been shaped by our trip, the drama is built right in.”
The all-aluminum Channel Princess was built in the late 1970s in South Dakota and, according to Benson, was sunk during a snowstorm in Oregon in 2012. Shortly thereafter, the vessel was sold to Galen Huckins, a music composer and the show’s producer. Before this project was underway, Huckins launched a boat-based radio collective known as the Steam Radio Syndicate onboard a 150-foot, World War II steam warship in 2013. When not working on projects like “The River Signal,” the group broadcasts live shows from the decks of the warship, featuring local musicians, authors and storytellers.
Every episode of “The River Signal” is free and available to listen to on iTunes or at www.riversignal.com.
“I would encourage people to listen, and if they enjoy it, I hope they get in touch with us and share their own stories,” said Benson. “Some of the best parts of the trip are gaining perspective into this river. Everyone has their own experiences, and none of us grew up on the Mississippi River, but we wanted to make it clear that our account isn’t the only account of being on the river.”