An Appalachian Radio Voice Threatened From Afar

Published on
by
The New York Times

An Appalachian Radio Voice Threatened From Afar

by
Katharine Q. Seelye

Jim Webb in the studio at the public radio station WMMT, where he hosts the show “Appalachian Attitude,” which features local and regional musicians. (Scott McIntyre for The New York Times)

WHITESBURG, Ky. — Rich Kirby, a part-time producer for WMMT, the community radio station here, was interviewing two local aid officials the other day about the effect of Washington’s proposed budget cuts on this region, in the heart of Appalachia.

“We’re in one of the poorest if not the poorest districts in the country,” Ricky Baker, of the private Community Action Council, which receives 95 percent of its financing from the federal government, said into the microphone. Without that money, he added, “we’ll have people either freeze to death, starve to death or die of a medical condition because they can’t get appropriate health care.”

Mr. Kirby refrained from chiming in that his own employer, WMMT, is also imperiled by the same budget ax. As lawmakers seek to cut billions of dollars in federal spending, the Republican-controlled House voted in February to end financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 2013. While President Obama wants to continue financing the corporation, the current budget turmoil has left its long-term fate uncertain.

Juxtaposed against other hardships in Appalachia, the beaming of a radio signal might seem a luxury. But WMMT, which reaches across the mountains, coal fields and hollows of eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia, creates a connective tissue for its far-flung, geographically isolated listeners. It also offers respite from the daily grind. Like the redbud trees that are starting to burst forth in violet patches along the scrubby hillsides here, the sounds from the radio can be, if not essential, at least life-affirming.

“Whew, that young ’un has got a set of pipes on her,” Andy Shepherd, a former federal marshal who is now a D.J. at the station, told listeners last week as he wrapped up his show with a tune by Ardetta Meade.

Mr. Shepherd and his wife, Cathy (“the Biscuit Burner”), share a three-hour program that features bluegrass, classic country and their own playful patter. Mrs. Shepherd talks off-air to several listeners, many of whom are homebound, just to buck them up.

Mayor James Wiley Craft, a Democrat, noted in an interview that the station also served vital communications functions. It alerted residents recently to an oil spill affecting their drinking water much more quickly than town officials could have.

“If that station were to be shut down for lack of funding, it would really, really hurt this town,” Mr. Craft said.

Even a competitor has kind words for WMMT.

“They fill a void that commercial stations cannot fill,” said G. C. Kincer, who once owned several such stations in the area but has downsized to one and who is also mayor of nearby Jenkins. Commercial operators are ruled by their advertisers, he said, while WMMT, not being able to afford listener surveys, goes on its hunches of what people want.

“I listen to them all the time,” Mr. Kincer said.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting distributed $420 million last year to 1,300 public television and radio stations across the country. It gave WMMT, which is not affiliated with National Public Radio or a university, $86,000, or one third of the station’s $256,000 budget.

Rural radio stations are far more dependent on federal money than their urban counterparts and more likely to go under if it is cut. Nearly two dozen rural stations, many of them on Indian reservations, rely on corporation financing for at least 50 percent of their revenue. (By contrast, grants from the corporation and other federal agencies supply about 2 percent of NPR’s overall revenues.)

Rural stations face additional challenges. They need multiple transmitters to reach widely scattered areas. And their listeners are often on fixed incomes, with little or no discretionary money to donate, especially in a down economy.

“This is the worst threat we’ve ever had because the economic climate is so bad for everything else,” said Jim Webb, 65, who hosts “Appalachian Attitude,” featuring local and regional musicians.

WMMT is one of the few stations that still provide live, home-grown programs, both music and news, around the clock, except for the wee hours, when it repeats its hosts’ musical playlists. The station has four full-time and three part-time workers and more than 50 volunteers, many of whom host shows and carry in their own recordings.

The local congressman, Representative Harold Rogers, a Republican first elected in 1980, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and in February proposed cutting billions from the budget plus eliminating money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In a statement at the time, he said all of the cuts he proposed were “necessary to show that we are serious about returning our nation to a sustainable financial path.”

Mr. Rogers has been steeped in budget negotiations and was not available for an interview, his spokeswoman said. But in an interview last year with WKMS, an NPR affiliate at Murray State University in western Kentucky, Mr. Rogers said he was proud of the federal money he had long brought to his district, which has relied on federal dollars for decades. It was the destitution of this region that inspired President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s, when the government expanded its role in social welfare programs.

“The second-poorest district in America,” Mr. Rogers told WKMS. “And a district that is terribly needy and has, by and large over the years, been neglected by the state government. So there’s no place else for our people to turn.”

But with the rise of the Tea Party and with anti-earmark, budget-cutting fervor gripping the nation’s capital, little of that sentiment is being expressed today, especially by Republicans. Advocates of ending financing for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting argue that government spending must be reined in and directed only toward essential services like national security.

Although WMMT broadcasts no NPR programming, which some critics say has a liberal bias, Mayor Craft said the station still had to battle a perception that it was “anti-coal,” which is the local equivalent of liberal. He said that perception was wrong.

“Some of the people who are there are associated with other groups” that oppose mountaintop mining, he said, “but those people at the station are intelligent enough to know which side of their bread is buttered. This area depends on coal 100 percent.”

In a fund-raising letter for the annual spring drive, Marcie Crim, the station’s general manager, did not mention the threat of federal cuts. Rather, she focused on the station’s ability to produce its own programming, “instead of airing shows produced in New York City.”

Ms. Crim said that without the federal financing, the station could go dark, though she worries that such assessments could become self-fulfilling and “scare people into thinking we might not make it.” David Fields, the station’s director of development, said that the mention of federal money in fund drives “makes people frown” and prompts some to harass the station for asking for donations when those people already pay taxes.

Random interviews with people in town found a positive response to WMMT “You grow up hearing it and you think just old people are listening to it,” said Neil Perkins, 30, a radiology technician who was having his hair cut the other day. “But then you find yourself stopping on the same station.”

Rebecca Winterhoff, 28, who recently moved from Florida because her husband found a job here, said WMMT was a big selling point.

“It’s so local,” she said. “You get the sense that real people are involved, and it’s a community.”

Ms. Winterhoff said she had never donated to public radio because she lived paycheck to paycheck, but she said she intended to start doing so now. Her new station may need it more than ever.

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