Mountain Community Radio, WMMT, which broadcasts from Whitesburg, Ky., has developed an engagement project focused on giving people in Appalachia a voice in the conversation about unemployment and healthcare resources, issues that are among the most pressing problems in the region.
To do that, they’ve organized a series of interactive booths at local festivals, art showcases, storytelling events, musical performances and dances. These community engagement events have become a venue for local artists — and they also allow WMMT to connect with local residents who want to be part of an ongoing conversation about regional issues. The conversation, in turn, helps inform WMMT’s public affairs programming.
Sam Neace, WMMT’s community engagement director, answered a few of our questions about this project.
1. What is your role in this reporting project?
As community engagement director for WMMT, I am responsible for organizing our community events, which includes finding the venue, booking whatever artists, speakers, or entertainers we need, and leading the event.
I am the host, so I introduce all activities. I also lead conversations at the events. I talk with attendees about issues, gather their responses and schedule guests for the radio program, “Mountain Talk,” that WMMT has established to broadcast community issues.
Finally, I either host the radio program or schedule a member of our staff to host it.
2. Where did the idea for this topic come from?
Our area of emphasis for this project is economic transition in central Appalachia. The collapse of the coal industry is causing major economic downfall in an area that was already economically depressed.
Basically, the idea was natural since we are surrounded by this issue every day. By engaging the community, we hear from the families who are struggling.
By taking part in journalism efforts, we see the inside story about what the future holds for coal and economics in the mountains.
By forming relationships with local groups, such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and MACED (Mountain Association for Community Economic Development), that have missions devoted to finding economic transition, we are able to take an active role in promoting alternative methods of economic endurance.
More than anything, the idea comes from us simply living here as part of the culture and feeling the ever-tightening strains along with our families and friends.
3. What communities or groups are you focused on engaging with? Why?
Our listening area includes the majority of coal-producing counties in central Appalachia. WMMT covers eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, northeastern Tennessee and southwestern West Virginia.
These are the communities we are focusing on because they feel the direct effects of coal industry collapse. These areas are already highly impoverished, and yet there is no other source of industry for them to fall back on after coal is completely gone.
Also, these communities are not directly served by a major media outlet, and the media attention that is granted by other entities usually does not even begin to scratch the surface of what is needed to help promote economic transition.
To put it bluntly, the coal industry controls a lot of media in this area. Transition away from coal, and the true reasons for the decline of coal, is not always a focus of media reports — and therefore the community is kind of left in limbo, instead of preparing for the inevitable.
However, we also want to promote and celebrate our Appalachian culture. It is an enchanting area, with beautiful landscapes, intelligent young people who are making great academic strides despite living in economically depressed conditions, and brilliant artists in all forms of expression.
There is a lot of promising potential here, and we hope to be able to share some of that with the world, along with discussing the issues that have a negative impact on our region. So we discuss the negative but also promote the positive. That is our plan.
4. How are you planning to engage with your audience around this topic? What do you think they will find compelling about these stories?
Interestingly, we have found that the communities are beginning to open up more and more to the discussion of economic transition as we open the door.
We have already held one community event in Hazard, Ky. It had great participation, and we have aired one hourlong public affairs program on economic transition.
During the on-air program, we heard from experts representing various groups that are organizing efforts to improve Appalachia’s economy. We even had a former coal miner join us on the air to share an insider’s view of the mining industry. The miner also voiced support for our need to start the transition process.
WMMT is going out into as many communities as possible to host or attend events and generate the conversation. We are already scheduled for events in five communities throughout the listening area. We plan to do many more.
5. What are you hoping the impact of this project will be?
WMMT hopes to get the conversation started and to keep it going.
Ultimately, it will take community leadership, devoted organizations and the citizens themselves to get the initiative going full-steam. However, the first obstacle we must overcome is getting all sides together in a conversation that is devoted to brainstorming ideas, sharing information and organizing efforts.
We want to provide a voice to people who are otherwise not given one, and be an outlet for people to inform and be informed.
We are very excited about the fact that the first conversation has occurred and was met not with resistance, but rather with acceptance and a desire to know more.
We must keep the conversation going and take an active role in doing what is necessary to avoid what could be a crippling blow to our community, one from which we might not recover, but one which can be avoided if we unify and act now.
The Public Insight Network awarded engagement funding to 17 public media newsrooms across the country. We’ll continue to track the work of those newsrooms and others in this Partner Notes blog series.