“War on Coal” rhetoric is back in the press after President Obama’s climate-change announcement on Tuesday. A community radio station in Central Appalachia finds there’s no such thing as noncombatant status.
As far as I remember, it was a little over two years ago that I first heard the phrase “Obama’s War On Coal,” a catchy way of reviving the familiar narrative that Appalachia’s signature industry was once more under siege.
The coal industry has long claimed the right to tell the story of who we are and what we’re doing here. It’s often a sunny sort of story that underscores the many jobs coal provides and the contributions coal companies make to their communities, like scholarships or a rock band (Halfway to Hazard) or the giant picnics Massey Energy threw for its employees. Communities in turn (or at least community leaders) meet coal with open arms in a sort of public love feast. Norton, Virginia, hosts Coal Appreciation Days; the Black Gold Festival is a yearly event in Hazard, Kentucky, where radio station WKIC once called itself “Where King Is Coal.”
Coal has been prone to see itself as the object of persecution and to respond by rallying the community to its defense. In the Sixties, when strip mine critics pointed to the ugliness of unreclaimed mines, the industry mounted a campaign that said “Coal Puts Bread on Our Tables,” or more poetically “Beauty Is a Biscuit.” The object, I think, was not to influence a national debate but to remind the folks at home which side their biscuits were buttered on.
“Obama’s War on Coal” continued that tradition. It was the catchphrase for a campaign that built up quickly and soon was everywhere. License plates proclaimed “Friend of Coal,” bumperstickers advised “If you don’t like coal, don’t use electricity,” Wendy’s sponsored “Coal for Kids.” At first it seemed simply like an exercise in political persuasion. Then the stakes got higher.
Cheap natural gas combined with a historically warm winter to knock the props from under the coal price and the regional economy. Wave after wave of layoffs brought real pain, and real anger. The community turned tense and polarized, and the whole place felt like a fortress that was indeed besieged by a vast army of shadowy enemies. Public hearings became public theater, as hundreds of coal workers (transportation provided by their employers) swore fealty to coal and vowed vengeance to its enemies. Politicians piled on. At a Kentucky rally in Knott County (attended by Rand Paul among many others), Perry County Clerk Haven King led a thousand people in a chant of “Damn the EPA! Damn the EPA!” You were either “for coal” or “against coal.” One bumpersticker (thankfully retired after a short run) caught the spirit: “Save a coal miner, shoot a tree hugger.”
WMMT was in the middle of all this. Appalshop’s community radio station in Whitesburg, Kentucky, has always counted coal workers and their families among its listeners and programmers, but the industry itself seems always to have taken Appalshop as an enemy. With one small exception, no coal company has ever contributed to the station. While our bluegrass programming is popular among surface mine workers, we have been told more than once that they have sometimes been forbidden to listen on the job, on pain of having their radios confiscated.
WMMT has never been “for” or “against” coal, though we’ve had people express both positions on our air, sometimes vehemently. We tell our volunteer DJs to avoid editorializing (which is an FCC rule) and to remember to be respectful of audience members who may not agree. In the public-affairs programming we produce ourselves, we have covered many coal-related issues, in which we try to be as journalistic as possible. Stories about black lung, environmental damage, or health effects of living near mountaintop removal are not part of coal’s narrative about itself, and when we air them, some people conclude we are “against coal.” The same is true of the “Coal Report,” a weekly 5-minute digest of coal news mostly from the mainstream press, sources scrupulously cited. But we hold to the ideal of being an open space where varied opinions may be heard. Over the years we have enjoyed support from people who are great friends of coal and from people who are decidedly not, so it seems to work for us.
Or did; the open space closed in rapidly in 2010-11. Denise Giardina says there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead possums. In a community of angry, frightened people the middle ground shrinks in a hurry. For us things came to a head one night in September 2010. It was right after “Appalachia Rising,” a national demonstration in Washington, D.C., against mountaintop removal. WMMT was there (our story on it ran on the regional radio program “Inside Appalachia” as well as on our station) and it was too much for one of our DJs. King Daddy, as he called himself, was (is) a surface mine worker and his late-night show had a broad audience among working miners (those mountaintops get great radio reception while they last). As the old saying goes, he quit us and cussed us, in a 40-minute testimonial. A station that would give even a minute of air time to “tree huggers” was an enemy to all working people, their families and their community. He signed off the air urging everyone to remember that WMMT was “against coal.”
That was a rough time. We got a lot of heartfelt messages from people who felt betrayed—“our” station is secretly against us! One of many letters we got was from 25 workers who wrote to say they would no longer support the station: “At this time we just feel our jobs are at stake … every time anyone turns the lights on it has come from someone who has put in a many hour to get coal out of the ground … everyone can’t be behind a desk or have a job that many haven’t had an opportunity to get, so we as hard working coal miners have done all we know to do …” “You are either for me or against me,” wrote another. “You can not ride the fence and attempt to satisfy both sides. Good luck trying to put me out of business. I have been here a long time and I plan to stay for a lot longer.” Besides the letters there were phone calls, anonymous and hateful posts to the Topix website and rumors of worse.
WMMT has apparently weathered the storm. A few volunteer DJs quit but most did not, and we’ve recruited some new ones. Listener support during the on-air fund drives has held steady, as has listenership as far as we can tell. Community surveys over the past couple of years don’t turn up any reservoir of hostility—though we still sometimes find people who refuse to talk to us. As the election cycle progressed, WMMT itself ceased to be the issue and the public discourse centered on the bigger picture of “Obama’s War on Coal.”
So what happened here? It seems to me that WMMT was caught up in a skillful, well-executed propaganda campaign. “Obama’s War On Coal”—four words that tell a story, appear to explain what we’ve seen and heard, justify our fears, give us someone to hate—and give us something to do: vote Republican. For of course the whole campaign blended seamlessly into the presidential drama. Slogans and bumperstickers transformed into billboards (“America or Obama—You Can’t Have Both”) and TV ads. It was all very effective. The campaign painted a compelling picture because it had such a palette of vivid colors to work with. Thousands of coal jobs really have disappeared and most of them likely won’t come back. The economic damage is rippling through the region and will spread for quite some time to come, I fear. The “war on coal” narrative will likely last a long time as well.
But the coalfield community has not been well served by this campaign conducted in its name and supposedly on its behalf. Central Appalachia went all in for coal, and coal went all in for Romney and came up empty. Appalachian mining communities voted heavily Republican but could not swing Virginia or Ohio. The Obama administration owes Appalachia nothing. Life will continue to get harder for Appalachian coal. Coal companies in turn will look elsewhere if they can, the Illinois Basin or Wyoming or (Peabody) Australia. Latest figures from the state show Letcher County, Kentucky, unemployment at 17%. People seem angry, bewildered and hurt, and why not? King Coal seems to be headed for greener pastures, leaving his people to fend for themselves. The morning after the election our volunteer DJ came in, a warm-hearted woman who has often expressed her support for coal miners. She said nothing about the election but played a long set of gut-wrenching bluegrass gospel songs, the sort of music you’d turn to for comfort after a death in the family.
I find it interesting—not to say ironic—that the current crisis has mountain people asking Florence Reese’s classic question “Which Side Are You On?” Slogans and demagoguery have reduced a complex question to two simple “sides,” but in reality this situation has been a long time building. Central Appalachian coal production peaked in 1990 and has been generally declining ever since; as the saying goes, “the easy coal is gone.” Latest figures show 4,500 western Kentucky miners producing more coal than 9,500 of their east Kentucky counterparts. Even in the midst of the “War On Coal” rhetoric, coal executives quietly acknowledged that cheap natural gas was the real reason Appalachian coal nosedived. Current predictions say mountain coal production will keep declining till at least 2020.
So this would be a good time to ask the question, where do we go from here? If we could begin by agreeing that there really is a question. It seems to me that our community is in deep denial over this and hoping against all odds that coal will recover. I believe you could get a pretty solid majority among our local leadership to agree that there is no climate change, no resource depletion (“we’ve got 200 years still in the ground”), and no long-term challenge to King Coal. Haven King, who led the “Damn the EPA” chant in 2010, was just on television again blaming the crisis on the EPA. Mitch McConnell did the same thing on a bit more sophisticated level with his “Coal Jobs Protection Act.” Wayne Rutherford, County Judge-Executive of Pike County (who once reportedly assured his Fiscal Court that if coal is mixed with switchgrass it can be burned without releasing any carbon dioxide) says “the long term outlook for Eastern Kentucky coal [is] rather bright.” The magic words “clean coal” conjure up the vision of a prosperous future we could enjoy today except that “they” are keeping it from us. Why? Well, because Obama hates us …
If there’s a moral here, it’s about the power of a narrative and the need for a new one. One of the big problems with “Obama’s War On Coal” is that it casts us here in the mountains as passive victims waiting for someone to come rescue us. But we’re entitled to ask, why would a “rescue” be any better than the previous hundred years that have left us so disadvantaged? The “opposing” narrative, of impending climate doom, casts us as pawns to be sacrificed for the greater good. Save the planet, yes, by all means — but we’re entitled to ask, why should we do this on the backs of Appalachian coal communities? What does anybody owe us for all that we have already given to the larger society?
There are today the makings of a narrative that we would construct ourselves. The recent conference on “Appalachia’s Bright Future” in Harlan was full of examples; Appalshop’s “Making Connections” project is documenting many more. I suggest that this is where to put as much energy and imagination as we can muster. I think and hope that WMMT will be a part of the effort.
Rich Kirby is retiring this year from WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he has worked for 22 years. This article is adapted from a presentation he made at the 2013 Appalachian Studies Conference. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author.