As far back as Kelli Haywood can remember, Appalshop has been a part of her life.
The storied arts, media, and education center was founded in 1969 in her hometown of Whitesburg, a small county seat in the coalfield of eastern Kentucky. The first play Haywood ever performed in was led by Appalshop’s traveling theater troupe. The nonprofit brought traditional mountain musicians into her school classrooms. And when she was a teenager, she would hang around Appalshop’s black-box theater and its radio station, where many of her friends’ parents worked.
Now, at age 37, Haywood herself is working in the distinctive slanted-wood building in downtown Whitesburg. She’s the public affairs director at WMMT/88.7 FM, Appalshop’s 15,000-watt noncommercial radio station, where Haywood and her colleagues are working to deepen the news programming, and broaden its reach.
“One of the reasons I really wanted this job is because I really felt [this region] is so misrepresented in the media,” says Haywood, who has been in the position for about eight months. “Even when a reporter means well, there’s often so many misunderstandings, so I’m really interested in us being able to tell our own stories, and have it hold the same sort of weight that others media sources have.”
This isn’t your ordinary public radio station. WMMT takes its tagline—“Real People, Real Radio”—seriously. The station, which doesn’t air any NPR programming, is largely powered by 50 volunteer DJs who play and say whatever they wish, barring a scarce few rules about what’s allowed on air.
Anybody can come in, go through training and a few supervised on-air segments, and get a regular time slot. The result is an unusually eclectic sound: community elders and 20-somethings, people who prefer to play bluegrass music and people who talk, and people who span the political and religious spectrums.
The one common thread is deep roots in the community.
“It serves to be a unifying influence for that region,” says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “The counties in the central Appalachian coalfield have always been somewhat isolated from each other because of geography—the mountains. It helps to have media outlets look at things regionally and tell people in eastern Kentucky, northeast Tennessee, southern Virginia, and southwest West Virginia that they have some things in common…”