- Fighting to Hear and Be Heard:The Founding of West Virginia Mountain Radio
When WVMR first went on the air on July 9, 1981, the fledgling station wasn't quite ready for its broadcast debut. The transmitter had crashed the day before, and an engineer was flown in from Omaha, Nebraska, to fix the problem, so the station could broadcast live from the annual Pioneer Days' celebration in Marlinton, West Virginia.
The broadcast began with the Emily Lou Harris version of "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia," followed by Dunmore postal worker Annabelle Shaffner reading the sign-on announcement. She then introduced a local Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Thomas Henderson, to give the opening invocation. But when she pushed the switch on the control board and nothing happened, Shaffner panicked and played a record instead, not paying attention to the song she selected. Instead of the soothing intonations of Rev. Henderson, listeners heard Jim and Jesse Reynolds plaintively singing, "How many hearts have you broken today?" from their bluegrass classic "Hard Hearted."1
WVMR has come a long way since that initial broadcast nearly thirty years ago. Today it is part of a thriving three-station community radio network, known as "Allegheny Mountain Radio," that straddles the Appalachian highlands of southeastern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. Literally built into the side of a mountain at its Pocahontas County, West Virginia, location, the 5000-watt AM station offers its listeners a distinctly Appalachian mix of community news, weather, traditional music, and locally-produced programs like "Swap Shop," "The (Animal) Shelter Report," and "TGIF Bluegrass."
While thriving today, WVMR faced many challenges in its formative years, and its rocky on-air debut was emblematic of the difficulties that occurred behind the scenes leading up to the launch of the community radio station. The year preceding the first Pioneer Days' broadcast was a time of controversy and contention, as two distinct groups of Pocahontas [End Page 1] County residents vied to control the core identity of the radio station. As a community enterprise, county officials viewed the radio station as being under their purview. They envisioned it as having a professional managerial organizational structure, and, although the station was non-profit, they saw its purpose and programming as apolitical and not unlike commercial radio, a mix of music, information, entertainment, and mainstream popular culture. On the other hand, station organizers and staffers viewed the station as having an egalitarian, volunteer-based organizational structure, and they saw its purpose and programming as explicitly supporting grassroots democratic politics and enthusiastically championing local Appalachian culture—music, art, and storytelling.
At first glance, the power struggle over this tiny radio station in rural Appalachia seems to be an isolated event with little impact beyond the community where it took place. However, it can also be seen as a microcosm of the larger struggle between an entrenched local political establishment and a newly organized grassroots reform movement that had its roots in the War on Poverty during the 1960s and 1970s. Wrapped up in this struggle were notions of empowering citizens to gain control over community politics. As this article will demonstrate, the battle over WVMR was part of a larger and longer process of learning how to mobilize citizens. In Pocahontas County, veterans of the War on Poverty applied lessons learned from earlier missteps to create and gain control of an important institution and use it to foster their own notions of community. At the same time, this struggle also highlights the lingering tensions generated by the War on Poverty, pitting people labeled as "elitist outsiders" against the local political establishment.
The War on Poverty and Its Fallout
The War on Poverty had a tremendous, if ambiguous, impact on Central Appalachia in the 1960s and 1970s. Bolstered by federal funding, poverty workers flooded the region during this period, fostering the rise of political activism in the mountains of Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia. According to historian Ronald Eller, Appalachia was ripe for change, having been dominated for decades by powerful economic interests, in particular the coal mining industry, who pursued profits, often to the detriment of local residents. The mining industry stripped landowners of...