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The Voice of the Mountains

by Carl Hoffman

In 1990 the CBS news magazine 48 Hours visited the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. "The show dredged up all the old Appalachian stereotypes," says Tim Marema, development director of Appalshop, the venerable arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Which is why, on this Wednesday morning in June, 12 high school students from the area profiled on 48 Hours are tearing the show apart and quite literally putting it back together. Participants in Appalshop's annual five-and-a-half-week Appalachian Media Institute (AMI), the interns are learning the craft of video production—and much more. "We get used to the seamless flow of images on television and forget that there are people behind those images making decisions about what to show," says Marema. "We try to teach [the interns] how to use images to say something about the place they live."

Appalshop's AMI is just one gear in a multidisciplinary engine dedicated not just to preserving Appalachian culture, but also to allowing it to grow and flourish in a way that Appalachians themselves define. Since its founding as a War on Poverty media training project in 1969, Appalshop has become a center that produces consistently award-winning films and videos, maintains a professional traveling theater company, publishes musical recordings, operates a community radio station, and presents a heady variety of workshops, festivals, and cultural celebrations dedicated to challenging the Region's traditional negative stereotypes.

The lights in Appalshop's 100-seat theater go dark. A 48 Hours segment appears on the television screen: shots of miners descending to work, while a high and lonesome voice in the background sings of hardship and tragedy. Blackened faces and bent bodies shuffle through 27-inch-high coal shafts as a disembodied, northern-accented narration warns of the work's incessant danger and the vagaries of the coal economy. Here and there, in short scenes that seem afterthoughts, the miners themselves talk about their families and their jobs. "It's a hard job, but it's a good job," a miner says. "It's what I know how to do."

The segment ends, the television set goes fuzzy, and a new segment begins. It has the same basic scenes, but it's different. Gone is the high and lonesome singing. Gone is the northern-accented narration. The scenes in which the miners speak for themselves are first and foremost. The feeling is altogether different. "We wanted to let them talk for themselves about what they were doing, and how they were doing it for their families," a student explains when the lights go back on.

"The music at first, especially," says another student, "tells you just what you are supposed to think."

A lively discussion ensues, on topics ranging from cultural stereotypes of both Appalachians and city dwellers to the effect of narration in film and video production (a hallmark of Appalshop productions is an almost total lack of narration; film subjects speak for themselves) to the portrayal of crime on local news broadcasts. Moderating the discussion are AMI program director David Sturgill and two trainers: Seth Ferguson, a senior at Johnson Central High School, and Shannon Collins, a junior at Morehead State University. All three are former AMI interns, and all exemplify the very point of AMI: they have learned the art and craft of video production and are passing those skills back to their high schools and communities. Interns, who are paid $175 a week, are nominated by their teachers and actually produce a video or film by the time the session is over. "The idea is that these kids become leaders," says Marema. "They can use cameras and hook up wires, but even more important, the goal is to help them create some critical thinking skills so they can contribute to the whole Region."

Taking a Closer Look

Sturgill, a Whitesburg native and the son of a coal miner, is a perfect example. He came to Appalshop in 1988 at the age of 15 as one of the first AMI interns. He and his peers turned their equipment on the local Pittston Coal Company strike. "I think it was the first time I really started to examine my community and culture," he says. "I had always thought that other places were better, had more opportunities and smarter people. But I realized then that I could be a leader in my own community. And after that first year I knew that after college I wanted to come back to it."

Shannon Collins came to Appalshop as a student at Whitesburg's Letcher High School. By the time her five and a half weeks were over, she and three others had made A Dying Tradition, a film about the mountain rituals and traditions associated with death. This spring the film was shown, along with six others created by AMI interns, as part of the Kentucky Educational Television network's Mountain Media series. "Before AMI I was embarrassed of my Appalachian heritage, I guess. After making the film I realized it is something to be proud of," she says.

It was 27 years ago this summer that Bill Richardson arrived in Whitesburg trailing a U-Haul filled with cameras and editing equipment. Richardson, a Yale architecture graduate, had been hired through a grant from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to set up the Community Film Workshop Council of Appalachia, one of ten community film workshops established nationally. A Whitesburg high school teacher invited Richardson to speak to his students, and soon a cadre of young filmmakers turned their cameras on their own communities. Before the OEO money ran out the students created the Appalachian Film Workshop, later shortened to Appalshop. In 1971 they received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and finished seven films.

Today Appalshop has an annual budget of $2.2 million and a full-time staff of 35, occupies a 13,000-square-foot renovated warehouse (designed by Bill Richardson), and has produced over 75 films. Along the way, the Appalachian Regional Commission has been a stalwart supporter, its nearly three decades of grants totaling over $700,000. Appalshop's works have appeared nationally on the Public Broadcasting Service and have won prestigious national awards like the Alfred I. DuPont—Columbia University Award for journalism. In 1996 an eight-part series of Appalshop's Headwaters Television documentaries—from Fast Food Women, a portrayal of women who work in the Region's fast-food industry and the economic issues behind the industry, to Sunny Side of Life, a look at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia—was broadcast on 23 television stations in 14 states. Its Roadside Theater company performed original productions based on life in the mountains to some 20,000 people throughout the country. Its June Appal Recordings record label preserves traditional mountain music. Its Seedtime on the Cumberland performances provide a stage for local Appalachian musicians.

And its 15,000-watt WMMT-FM radio station, staffed by 50 community volunteers who produce their own radio programs, reaches some 250,000 listeners in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and parts of West Virginia, Tennessee, and Ohio.

The Important Experiences

"From the beginning, Appalshop has had a real sense that what goes on in Appalachia is important and that the experiences of local people are important," says Appalshop executive producer Dee Davis, explaining Appalshop's success. "We have created a venue for local people to speak for themselves."

Perhaps no place is that venue more readily apparent than on the airwaves of WMMT-FM, "Mountain Radio." For many people in the station's listening area, WMMT's public-affairs shows are a primary source of local information. Besides regular local news broadcasts, WMMT produces a weekly news magazine featuring a roundup of local news stories, an in-depth look at selected local issues, a coal report, a calendar of events, human interest stories, and a commentary. Tuesday evenings the station broadcasts Mountain Talk, a call-in forum with local hosts and guests. And twice a week its Access to Technology show explores the impact of the Internet and the World Wide Web on the Region.

Still, music remains the heart of radio and the place at Appalshop where local people define themselves each and every day. Every Wednesday afternoon at 1:30, for example, Nora Honeycutt, a.k.a. "Granny Goodwitch," sits before a complex array of turntables, compact disc players, cassette tape recorders, microphones, amplifiers, and monitors, playing her eclectic favorites, telling odd jokes and riddles, and regaling her listeners with just about anything else that comes to mind. "They don't tell me what to play," says the 83-year-old mother of nine, grandmother of 19, and great-grandmother of seven. "I just play my own music; it's always full of surprises."

Like most of WMMT's volunteers, Honeycutt had never been behind the microphone of a radio station in her life. "I wrote them a check for $300 one time and program director Jim Webb called and said, 'How about being a DJ?' I said, 'I don't know anything about radio,' and he said, 'No one else does either.' "

Honeycutt is hardly unique. Listeners on Saturday nights are treated to Starvin' Marvin, who is retired after 32 years at the local dry cleaner and plays rock and roll "not less than 30 years old," he says. Verlin Sanders plays old-time bluegrass; before the recent upgrade to 15,000 watts, listeners were known to drive to the tops of hills and then take in his show sitting in their cars. And The Biscuits Show plays an eclectic mix ranging from Lyle Lovett to Bruce Cockburn to Portuguese folk ballads.

If that seems, well, not too traditional and hardly fertilizer for good old Appalachian culture, think again. Appalshop, after all, is about letting people speak for themselves, about letting Appalachian people define what is Appalachian. "We use the radio as a training project for whatever people feel they want to do," says WMMT's cultural affairs director, Buck Maggard. "There is a lot of diversity here," adds development director Marema, who grew up in Kentucky and graduated from Berea College. "To focus strictly on folk art would be to ignore the much larger picture, which includes the economy, politics, the environment, and religion. To focus merely on what could be called traditional culture would be to lock the Region in one time."

Nora Honeycutt couldn't agree more. As Percy Faith winds down, she spins a dial with the practiced flick of a wrist, says "This one's for you, Homer," into the microphone, and sends the King's "Blue Suede Shoes" rocking and rolling over the hills of Appalachia.

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.