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Roadmaps to New Power: WMMT Radio Brings Together Coal Miners and Tree Huggers on the Airways

Appalshop's WMMT-FM, from Pine Mountain in eastern Kentucky, is the voice of the central Appalachian coalfields, offering views on coal mining and politics, and the growing recognition for a just transition toward sustainable energy development in the region.
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"Roadmaps to New Power" is a series of interviews with activists, residents, entrepreneurs and industry analysts about current plans and visions for a just transition to clean energy and sustainable economic development in coalfield communities around the nation.

Marking its 25th anniversary last month, Appalshop's WMMT-FM radio transmits from Pine Mountain in eastern Kentucky as the voice of the central Appalachian coalfields.

As one of the most unique community radio stations in the nation, WMMT's "voice" is neither bound by its regional border or limited to a singular view. From traditional Appalachian music and its bluegrass offspring to Americana, Celtic, Kid's Radio, jazz, blues, big band, gospel, hip-hop, ska, punk, zydeco, and rock, Whitesburg, KY-based WMMT also serves as a rare forum for often differing views on coal mining and politics, and the growing recognition for a just transition toward sustainable energy development in the region.

Instead of faltering to the neat'n'tidy cultural divide by the outside media that pits coal miners against environmentalists, WMMT listeners and volunteer programmers are shaping one of the most important discussions in the coalfields and across on the nation for new power trends by celebrating their shared love for Appalachian music, culture and heritage -- and the land -- and their common fate in the region.

Just check out the programming last week, which featured a special story on the Battle of Evarts coal mining war for workplace rights, followed by a program on home-scale solar and wind energy initiatives for rural areas. The weekly "Coal Report" is one of the only radio shows in the nation to explore the impact of global coal mining on the communities of local listeners.

These voices have gone beyond Appalachia. As part of their mission, according to filmmaker Tom Hansell, "WMMT has trained more than 300 people in radio production and more than 50 of the "graduates" have found employment in radio and contributed to the region's economy."

Marcie Crim, the general manager for WMMT, answered a few questions on the radio station's nationally acclaimed role on the airways.

JB: How does WMMT bring coal miners and environmentalists together?

MC: WMMT brings coal miners and enviros together is by putting them on the same radio station. We have over 40 volunteer on-air programmers, some of them are former miners, current wives or father's of miners, and some of them assisted in planning Appalachia Rising, or got arrested in front of the white house. We often have a programmer deeply embedded in the coal industry sit with a known "tree-hugger" and together make good radio.

JB: What sort of challenges do you encounter, in your attempts to reach all types of listeners?

MC: WMMT prides itself on being true community radio by inviting all members of our community to be on the air. We regularly air an announcement asking for "Coal Commentary." In this announcement we acknowledge how divisive the issue of coal is here in Central Appalachia and welcome listeners to call in (or come in) and record a statement of their feelings and opinions on all types of coal mining. We have a good variety of these recorded statements by people expressing their fears and sadness over the loss of our mountains and people expressing the same emotions over the loss of jobs. A couple of listeners are very passionate about their dislike of "tree-huggers" and their love of the flat land MTR mining gives us. One woman recorded a statement expressing her sadness over the changing landscape of her home, but said she guesses, " malls might be better for everybody."

Our volunteer programmers are just as varied as our listeners. Former strip-miners and current rock truck drivers,underground miners, grandmother's who worry about their grandchildren starving if jobs are lost and very outspoken atheists, environmental activists, hell-raisers and everyone kind in-between.

JB: Earlier this fall, WMMT had a bit of controversy over a piece on "Appalachia Rising," the protest in Washington, DC against mountaintop removal. How did your station deal with the differing views?

: In addition to producing a news feature on Appalachia Rising, WMMT also produced a companion piece about the pro-coal rally in DC on September 15th and included in that piece audio from "Coal Appreciation Day" in Knott County, Kentucky. We produce these pieces because we believe it is important for our listeners in the coalfields to be aware of what is being said about their land and their livelihoods. For far too long people in this region have felt taken advantage of by industry and the press, we respect our listeners enough to tell them the truth, no matter how much it might hurt to hear it.

JB: How do you view of the future of the region coming together to discuss such hot-button issues like coal mining and clean energy?

MC: An enduring love of WMMT and a passion for music brings these people together on a daily basis in a way that doesn't happen anywhere else. We have an on-air programmer, Big Willard, who told listeners, "Anyone against coal is stupid". He co-hosts our live concert series, "Bluegrass Express Live" with an infamous, in these parts, "tree-hugger", Jim Webb. Big Willard calls Jim a hippie live on the air and Jim laughs and gives a little jab right back to Big Willard.

It's really a thing of beauty.

To support WMMT and unique programming, please visit its website.

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