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Exploring Polyphony in Community Radio Stations:
A Case Study of an Appalachian Community Media Arts Center
Chike Anyaegbunam, Ph.D.
College of Communications and Information Studies
University of Kentucky
Paper presented at the 2004 AEJMC Convention
Civic Journalism Interest Group
August 4, 2004,
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School of Journalism and Telecommunications
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Lexington, KY 40506-0042
Exploring Polyphony in Community Radio Stations:
A Case Study of an Appalachian Community Media Arts Center
Proponents of community radio argue that such stations often
practice participatory journalism and can contribute significantly to
strengthening civic engagement and democracy. This paper presents and
analyzes the philosophy and practices of Appalshop, an Appalachian
community media center and radio station, as it strives to provide a forum
for the community to engage in the deliberation of their problems and
solutions, celebrate their strengths and culture, and confront economic
policies, and political practices that constrain self governance and
sustainable development in the region.
Proponents of low- and medium-power radio stations and community
media production centers argue that these non-commercial media systems,
often founded on the principles of participatory communication, have the
potential to build social capital and foster civic and political engagement
that strengthen democracy in the communities they serve. These
non-commercial systems, some with an online component, are better
positioned to give voice to their community members than commercial media
systems, especially in this era of increasing consolidation and
homogenization of the media industry not only in terms of ownership but
also in relation to the ideas, content and style of narratives generated.
This case study documents and analyzes the underlying participatory
communication philosophy and practices of Appalshop, an Appalachian
community media arts center and radio station, as it strives to provide a
public forum for community members to engage in the deliberation of their
problems and possible solutions, celebrate their strengths and culture, and
confront regulations, economic policies, and political practices that
constrain self governance and sustainable development in the region.
This study is framed within a participatory communication paradigm.
For a theoretical framework, it draws from Bakhtin's explications of
dialogism and polyphony, from Foucault's works on discourse and power, and
from Freire's conceptualizations of conscientization and community
empowerment. It also taps into the writings of various leading theorists
and practitioners of public journalism for guidance.
Data for the study was collected in several ways including a
rhetorical analysis of the content of Appalshop's archival documents, media
productions, and radio programs. Information was also collected through
in-depth interviews of center's staff and volunteers, and the analysis of
its Internet radio audience statistics and documented radio listener feedback.
The role of the media in a democracy should not end with
disseminating information that people need to make informed decisions and
choices. The media should also act as a part of the public sphere in which
citizens connect with each other, express their opinions on all subjects,
regardless of whether these opinions are practical or speculative (Mill,
1859/1989). In other words, mass media in a democracy should enable
citizens to freely express themselves and create alternative narratives,
which may be juxtaposed against the mainstream meta-narratives.
The commercial media in the United States have failed to meet the
obligations stated above because, primarily, the rise of the marketplace
philosophy in the regulation and conceptualization of the American mass
media policies has greatly contributed to the gradual erosion of the
popularity of civically minded and responsible media that embrace the
public in mediated discourse. The marketplace philosophy has severely
limited citizens' participation in public discussion and has led to an age
of increasing consolidation of the media industry and the homogenization of
the marketplace of ideas and other creative outputs. In other words,
according to Habermas (1984), the systems world has successfully colonized
For instance, the 1996 Telecommunications Act that eliminated a cap
on nationwide station ownership has increased the number of stations a
corporation can own in a single market. Two corporations, Clear Channel and
Viacom, currently claim 42 percent of listeners and 45 percent of industry
revenues. "Drive across the US, and you'll hear pretty much the same tunes
for 3,000 miles" (Bracey, quoted in Charlé 2003, p. 33).
Community media centers and radio stations operating on low- to
medium-power FM and streaming on the Internet, on the other hand, have a
powerful ability to amplify voices seldom heard. They can contribute
mightily to strengthening democracy. According to Charlé (2003, p. 33),
"These stations—owned by churches, charities, environmental groups, schools
and nongovernmental agencies-are the Davids to corporate media Goliaths
Clear Channel and Viacom."
Voices of the Hillbilly Nation
Appalshop, also known fondly by volunteers and listeners as the
"Voices of the Hillbilly Nation," is an Appalachian community-based media
arts center and radio station that represents a non-commercial media system
that has continued to provide a public sphere for community members.
Founded in 1969, in Whitesburg, a small town in the heart of the
southeastern Appalachian Coalfields of Kentucky, Appalshop started with a
group of young people making documentary films about their own community.
Over the ensuing thirty-three years Appalshop has grown into a nationally
and internationally recognized media center working in film, video,
recordings, literature, theater, presentation of live performance, radio,
and Internet broadcasting.
Appalshop's radio station, WMMT FM 88.7, made it's first broadcast
on November 24, 1985 as a non-commercial, listener supported radio.
Although partially funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the
station continues to rely on donations to cover a large part of its
operating costs. It also receives grants from several philanthropic
organizations, including the Pfizer Foundation, Sound Partners Organization
of the Benton Foundation, the DeWitt Wallace Foundation, and the John D.
and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to support its community development
The three aspects that this study examines are:
a) Do community media centers and radio stations change the character of
narratives compared to traditional commercial media systems?
b) Do community media and radio stations provide channels for including
diverse and marginalized voices in the narrative?
c) What is the level of participation and inclusiveness in the community
media and radio stations regarding programming and other productions?
The basic theme underlying all these questions is whether Appalshop,
a community media arts center and radio station, is able to create a high
level of civic and political engagement and participation for the community
members it serves. Answers to these questions will contribute to the
development of a blueprint for evaluating community media centers and radio
stations as they strive to serve as means of reconnecting citizens with
each other in their quest for a better life for their communities.
Participatory Communication (PC)
Participatory communication favors decentralization and democracy,
people involvement and dialogue, interpretative and bottom-up perspectives.
It posits an alternative, and to some, a complimentary conceptualization of
communication that does not model the process as a linear, one-way
transmission of information and persuasive messages. PC works on the
premise that ordinary people have the knowledge and ability to reflect on
their situation and change it. It is not based on abstractions but on
reality as lived by the people; not on hypothetical situations but on
grounded reality; not on macro-strategies but on microcosms; not on
"experts" but on commoners; not on validity but on authenticity. In a
nutshell the aim of PC involves inclusion of excluded and marginalized
voices; empowerment and conscientization; self-awareness and
egalitarianism; collective definition, analysis, and action to solve the
problem. (Deetz, 1999).
Freire (1972) emphasizes the primacy of conscientization in the
conceptualization of PC, because unless there is a consciousness there
cannot be participation. In the one-way model of communication that
characterizes the commercial US mass media, existing power structures
prescribe the ways to ameliorate the problems of communities. PC changes
the dynamics by stressing the fact that the people are fully capable of
participating in changing the situation by making them active participants.
PC theorists and practitioners have focused on the processes of
codetermination and negotiation. To them, reality is discursive and is
reached through the process of communication. Habermas (1984) and Foucault
(1972) stress a domination-free dialogue where there can be discussion
about the subject matter rather than on the perspectives of participants.
Emphasis on this aspect of dialogue can lead to mutual understanding even
people come from different standpoints and positions.
Dialogism and Heteroglossia
Dialogism, also referred to as intertexuality, is the term Bakhtin
uses to designate the relation of one discourse to other discourse and the
understanding that comes out of dialogue. In this sense, dialogism is not
mere dialogue but is the context that informs discourse (Ewald, 1993).
"Every word smells of the context and contexts in which it has lived its
intense social life" (Todarov, 1984 as cited in Ewald, 1993, p. 226).
Bakhtin (1981) claims that language is unitary only in grammar books or
traditional linguistic theory. Outside of this abstract realm, language is
a plethora of intersecting social-linguistic points of view or the
languages of heteroglossia emanating from multiple voices (polyphony) in
negation of hegemony (Evans, 2000).
This polyglot or the multiplicity of discourse, the discord,
contested positions and lack of centralization and hierarchization provides
an individual with ideological creativity. It also ensures the existence of
a communicative sphere that serves as the terrain for a ceaseless battle
between the forces of stasis and fixity on one hand, and movement, change,
and diversification on the other (Gardiner, 1992).
Objectification and Normalization
Foucault (1972) claims that the modern structures and techniques for
the objectification and individualizing of the person create docile bodies
through the processes of disciplining and normalization, which is
indispensable in the development of capitalism. Foucault analyses the
processes of discourse in the modern society where it is controlled,
organized and redistributed. He explains this process with genealogy and
asserts that effective formation of discourse can be studied only by
considering the non-discursive practices, such as socioeconomic factors,
institutional requirements, etc that provide the environment for the
emergence of the dominant discourse. To Foucault, modern mass media is one
of the major voices of the dominant discourse, which must be responded to
with a multiplicity of localized resistances by generating alternative
Conceptualizations of participatory communication drawn from the
discussion above stress that democracy is incomplete if there is a
discursive closure, which happens when alternative discourse is
suppressed. Normally the stories/voices circulating publicly in a society
are the dominant discourse, representing a discourse that favors some
groups and marginalizes others. Thus, marginalized groups are excluded from
the opportunities to contribute to the mainstream discourse. Community
media centers and radio stations guided by the philosophy of PC provide the
forum for the marginalized to perform and circulate alternative narratives
and create new images for their communities according to the values and
beliefs they venerate (McQuaide, 1998).
Public Journalism and Participatory Communication
Public journalism claims its rationale from the notion that people
become engaged in public life when an issue they care about is at stake.
Studies indicate that people are not apathetic about their communities, but
they often feel left out of the decision-making process by elected
officials, other community leaders or the media. They do not want to be
mere followers, but instead want to be involved in defining community
issues and problems, and in determining the possible solutions and courses
of action. King and Hustedde (2001) argue that the public does not want to
engage in questions that have obvious answers. People, according to the
authors, become engaged with questions that have an impact on their
concerns — questions that do not lead to self-doubt, but stimulate
discussion and build competency. Thus, people who live in communities that
place a high value on traditions are interested in questions such as, "How
can we preserve our values, such as neighborliness and our spiritual roots,
while we grow economically?" Other questions deal with newcomers, or
nagging concerns about class and race divisiveness such as, "How can we
strengthen relationships between ethnic groups, races, classes and age
groups in order to build a stronger community?" These questions are
especially relevant in areas where these divisions have led to hatred or
violence. Others are drawn to quality-of-life questions such as, "How can
we improve the quality or availability of housing for the elderly, the
poor, young families or newcomers?"
Indeed, public journalism returns communication to its original two-way
dialogic roots and casts doubts on the continued efficacy of the
conceptualization of the mass media based on a linear transmission model of
communication. Operating in the one-way transmission mode, media
practitioners have historically defined the individuals in the community as
receivers, readers, and audiences, and placed them at the "passive" end of
the scale. As passive recipients, individuals are not supposed to know
enough to make the correct decisions about the world in which they live.
Hence the duty, nay, the mission of the media practitioners is to merely
disseminate information and instruct the individuals. Once presented with
the unbiased and correct information about the desirable directions,
individuals will arrive at the right decision and engage in the desired
behavior. Media practices informed by this logic suffers from the overuse
of information and leaves the individuals in the untenable position of
being atomized and helpless but ultimately responsible for making the right
decision to improve the social health of the community. When individuals
fail to live up to this expectation, the commercial media system often
adopts a blame-the-victim stance. This attitude lingers in the
institutional memory of commercial media systems and journalism schools,
reemerging in various anti-public journalism arguments that extol such
journalistic ethos as objectivity, detachment, and public education
reminiscent of Walter Lippmann (1922). Public journalism, according to its
proponents, does not discountenance the information dissemination role of
the mass media but argues for the expansion of this role to include more
active and interactive forms of mutual learning. This expanded role
recognizes individuals in communities as the people who wear the shoe and
know where it pinches in line with the thinking of John Dewey (1927) and
more recently, Paolo Freire (1972). Communities are more receptive to
information that helps them gain power in dealing with public issues. This
role advocated by public journalism requires the mass media to provide
communities with the platform for engaging in horizontal discussions that
lead to definition and prioritization of not only obstacles to their
socio-political and economic emancipation but also to engage in
appreciative inquiry into community assets and strengths. The new role also
urges the mass media to act as vertical conduits for community-defined
issues to become serious agendas in political and economic discussions
among the leaders and in their quest for office. When this becomes a
reality in the mass media, journalism would have accomplished its community
empowerment and social emancipation functions.
In summary, public journalism seeks to bridge the dangerous detachment of
community that has become the norm in too many news media. It encourages
mass media practitioners to discover how their work can be improved by
first acknowledging the detachment, then reaching out to citizens as
sources and resources, thus once more, bringing the public's voices, ideas,
problems, concerns and suggestions to the foreground of American public
sphere (Schaffer, 1995). Public journalism exponents argue that the
accomplishment of this task does not only benefit the community but also
serves the self-interest of media organizations in that it seeks to make
the participating media more valuable to consumers by connecting them to
their communities (Denton and Thorson, 1995).
This case study is based on information collected from an analysis
of Appalshop's archival materials, media productions, and radio programs,
from observations, meetings and interviews, and from presentations by the
center's staff. Archival documents reviewed are related to Appalshop's
history, mission statement and philosophy. Files examined include newspaper
and magazine clippings, project proposals, websites, and reports. The
authors also analyzed selected videos, films, and radio programs produced
by Appalshop since inception. These productions deal with politics, the
Appalachian economy, American media, health, women, miners, coal truck
drivers, the environment, grassroots organizers, musicians, and singers.
Examples of reviewed productions include the film documentary, "Coal Bucket
Outlaw," and two radio/music projects, "From the Holler to the Hood," and
"Living with a Killer. These productions aptly reflect Appalshop's
commitment to give voice to the voiceless and to enable the people of
Appalachia identify and solve their own problems, and tell their own
stories in their own voices. The authors also obtained information for the
case study from Appalshop's FM radio listeners' feedback and through the
analysis of statistics generated through the monitoring of the center's
History and philosophy of Appalshop
Interviews and a review of archival documents reveal that Appalshop
was founded in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in 1969 under the directorship of a
Yale trained architect, Bill Richardson, with funding from the US Office of
Economic Opportunity as part of the federal war on poverty program.
Although the effort was designed to train disadvantaged Appalachian young
people for jobs in the urban film and television industries, it took a
different route when Mr. Richardson turned it into a community development
project. Based on his experience in emergent architectural design, in which
clients had a say in how their buildings are designed, Richardson turned
the cameras over to the young people and advised them to document and tell
the stories of their communities and their lives in their own way. Rather
than leave their rural homeland at the end of the training, the trainees
incorporated as Appalshop, a not-for-profit center dedicated to creating
opportunities for regional self-expression. Thus the participatory
community film workshop idea became a sustainable success and has remained
the core of Appalshop's philosophy to this day.
Appalshop has since then grown into a multi-disciplinary arts and
education center producing original films, video, theater, music and
spoken-word recordings, radio, photography, multimedia, and books in the
heart of Appalachia. Appalshop's education and training programs support
communities' efforts to solve their own problems in a just and equitable
way. Each year, Appalshop productions and services reach several million
people nationally and internationally. Appalshop is dedicated to the
proposition that the world is immeasurably enriched when local cultures
garner the resources, including new technologies, to tell their own stories
and to listen to the unique stories of others. The creative acts of
listening and telling are Appalshop's core competency.
Appalshop's purpose is to work with mountain communities as they
create solutions to their own problems, use media and performing arts as a
means to create positive social change, explore diversity and cultural
respect through local identity, and participate in regional, national and
global dialogue toward these ends. Appalshop is based on the principle that
local people can control their images and that media-based cultural and
political expression can empower communities to fight for social and
In accordance with Appalshop's philosophy, the first words heard on
its radio when it began broadcasting in 1985 were those of Nimrod Workman,
a retired coalminer who was the subject of documentary work undertaken by
Appalshop some years earlier. The choice reflects the radio station's
mission: "…to be a 24 hour voice of mountain people's music, culture, and
social issues; to provide broadcast space for creative expression and
community involvement in making radio; and to be an active participant in
discussions of public policy that will benefit our coalfield communities
and the Appalachian region as a whole" (Interview with station manager
Cheryl Marshall, Summer 2003).
Appalshop's productions and projects
The subject matter of work produced in Appalshop ranges from
documenting traditional arts to exploring history to dealing with the
socio-political, economic, and environmental issues that affect the region
today. The underlying philosophy has always been that Appalachian people
must tell their own stories and solve their own problems. Appalshop's
production techniques put the community's own voices and images at the
center of the story.
Appalshop media productions have addressed such community health
concerns as drug abuse and the oxycontin epidemic, AIDS in Appalachia,
environmental toxins, domestic violence, and the special problems of
providing health care in rural communities.
Community members interact with Appalshop radio on several
levels--as music listeners, as people involved in the public issues the
radio station airs, and as producers of programs broadcast by the station.
About eighty community volunteers from ten counties in Kentucky, Virginia,
& West Virginia ranging in age from 18 to 80 years old produce most of the
station's programming (some 50 people go on the air each week) (Interview
with station manager Cheryl Marshall, Summer 2003).
A recent health literacy project implemented by Appalshop is a fine
example of the center's commitment to giving voice to the community. The
radio series produced for the project features the voices of diabetics
discussing their ailment and ways they've managed it. Known as "Living with
a Killer," the series is based on materials collected from story circles
held by ordinary men and women who know what it means to live with diabetes
(Interview with Pam Shingler, Appalshop Community Development Officer,
"Coal Bucket Outlaw," an Appalshop film, is built around a day in
the life of a Kentucky coal truck driver. The digital documentary gives
Americans a direct look at where the energy they use daily comes from, and
reveals the human and environmental price Appalachians pay for the nation's
addiction to fossil fuels.
According to Tom Hansell, the film producer, the narrative line
follows two Kentucky coal truck drivers as they chase their version of the
American dream. Viewers learn how the economics of the coal business demand
that both drivers break the law every day.
The documentary examines the connection between coal haulers and the
larger system that produces America's electricity. "If outlaws deliver half
of our nations energy, are consumers and policymakers completely innocent?"
asks Mr. Hansell. The film is used to generate discussions at public forums
around Appalachia. A radio program broadcasts these discussions and in turn
generates further discussions on the issue.
"From the Holler to the Hood" is another multi media project implemented
by Appalshop. As a part of this project the center has started the
Appalachian Prison Poetry Collective, an endeavor that works in response to
the rising number of prisons being built in Central Appalachia, and the
growing number of urban people transferred into this rural area. Through a
weekly hip-hop radio show, the annual holiday call-in shows, letter
writing, and poetry slams, the collective has developed a core group of
artists who regularly contribute poems, raps, and drawings. Prisoners in
the collective bring a range of styles and approaches representing
different urban cultures and eras. Their work is being assembled in a
database-driven website. Every December, WMMT hosts a three hour live
call-in program which gives family members of prisoners incarcerated in
central Appalachia the opportunity to broadcast holiday messages to their
loved ones over the radio. Hundreds of people call in from all over the
country to speak directly to their family members and loved ones. This is
broadcast live on the Internet and e-mailed messages from listeners are
incorporated into the program.
Appalshop is also experimenting with what it calls
community-directed television. Center producers create partnerships with
people who are working on an issue and then together they work on the
television piece. Often the community decides on the core content of the
documentary or television series. Under the Community Media Initiative: A
media advocacy program dedicated to assist grassroots and local community
groups in developing effective media strategies, Appalshop works with high
school students and teachers to produce videos that explore the culture,
history and social issues of their communities. Video series and film
documentaries produced by Appalshop are often shown on the Public
Broadcasting Service television.
Listeners' feedback and Internet radio audience statistics
Appalshop's radio broadcasts to a large portion of five states,
including Eastern and Central Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, Southwestern
West Virginia, Eastern Tennessee and Northwestern North Carolina. About 38%
of adults in this area listen to the station. According to data from
Multicast Media Networks, an Internet radio provider, listeners from 47
states in the USA regularly tune in to Appalshop's Internet radio. The
Internet broadcasts have also been accessed globally from more than a dozen
Documented feedback from several listeners of the Appalshop radio and
other productions shows that, among other things, the center's activities
have galvanized communities to action. Programs from the center have
inspired community members to organize themselves into activist grassroots
group to fight for justice and to act as spokespersons against
environmental pollution and political marginalization.
A review of the research questions and the theoretical framework
that guided this study shows that Appalshop is truly a community media arts
center and radio station that strives to challenge the meta-narrative
promulgated by the commercial media. In line with the philosophy of
participatory communication and public journalism, Appalshop provides
channels for including diverse and marginalized voices in the narrative it
helps community members create. The Appalachian media system continues to
maintain a very high level of public participation and inclusiveness in its
programming and other productions.
In conclusion, this case study has tried to present the story of a
community media center and radio station that uses various communication
channels, including the Internet to enhance the capacity of communities to
generate satisfying narratives of cultural and political meaning in the
face of the meta-narrative spawn by the commercial media systems in the US.
The study, thus, provides a yardstick for evaluating community media
centers and radio stations as they strive to serve as means of reconnecting
citizens with each other in their quest for a better life for their
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Exploring Polyphony in Community Radio Stations
Exploring Polyphony in Community Radio Stations