5:12 p.m., November 26, 1985, a truly historic moment

After an arduous journey, the Appalshop, convinced that its mission to let mountain people speak for themselves should be expanded, brought to the airwaves of central Appalachia an incredible new voice, 88.7 WMMT-FM.

With not as much fanfare as it deserved and scant resources, WMMT began broadcasting a few hours a day. As word got out and listeners discovered the odd duck at 88.7 on their dials, calls from would-be programmers trickled in. The concept has always been to provide an opportunity for our communities to speak up about matters important to them and what better way than consumer friendly, accessible, affordable radio. However, the struggle at first was just to find people to fill time slots.

Another obstacle was the perception of local folks that WMMT wasn’t a “real” radio station. Having been forever fed the lowest common denominator commercial radio, many had doubts because 88.7 certainly didn’t sound like any station they had ever heard before.

The irony, of course, was that not only are we “real people radio,” we are also one of the most powerful stations in the entire region. WMMT’s transmitter, the highest in the state, is atop Mayking Peak on Pine Mountain, the second highest point in Kentucky (next to Black Mountain) and that gives us phenomenal reach. A few year’s back, in large part because of our listeners’ letter writing campaign and financial support, we were successful in replacing our original 1000 watt transmitter with a spiffy new 15,000 watter. That enables us to blanket eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia.

In addition, we installed translators in hard to reach communities to help overcome the very substantial obstacles created by our rugged mountain terrain. In fact, by the very determined and popular request, our newest went on the air May 11, 2000, at Brumley Gap, Virginia, and enhances reception in Abingdon, Tazewell and Lebanon, Virginia, areas.

Being where we are, it’s hard to know exactly how many folks we reach, but a survey conducted in 2007-2008 by  San Francisco State University, in conjunction with the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, found that nearly two-thirds (61.2%) of those surveyed (primarily at locations in Pike County, Letcher County, and Wise County, VA) identified as WMMT listeners.  Another survey conducted in late 2004 by the University of Kentucky indicates that WMMT is in the top 10 among stations most listened to in the tri-state region.  Either way, we reach a potential audience of up to 300,000 here in the mountains, and an infinite potential audience online.

Filling program slots is no longer a problem. After demonstrating its stability, WMMT has become a constant part of thousands of mountain people’s lives. The programming today is created by more then 50 volunteers from throughout the region. WMMT has trained more than 300 people in radio production and more than 50 of the “graduates” have found employment in radio. And many of the young programmers have gone on to study media production in college.

WMMT’s programming is as diverse as its listenership, but we are particularly proud of our commitment to traditional Appalachian music and its descendant, bluegrass music. But we also have killer rock & roll shows, Americana, Kid’s Radio, indie, soul, jazz, blues, gospel, hip-hop, metal, punk, world music, and all genres in between.

But WMMT is not just a great music station.  We are also dedicated to providing a forum for discussions on issues of vital interest to our entire region and the world.  We do this with a diverse offering of public affairs programming, all dedicated to Appalshop’s founding proposition that mountain folks be allowed to speak for themselves and tell their own stories, in their own words.

As a result of WMMT’s work, numerous regional and national publications have done features on the station, including the New York Times, which ran a story on WMMT in 2011.  You can read the whole thing here, but they wrote:

. . .WMMT, which reaches across the mountains, coal fields and hollows of eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia, creates a connective tissue for its far-flung, geographically isolated listeners. It also offers respite from the daily grind. Like the redbud trees that are starting to burst forth in violet patches along the scrubby hillsides here, the sounds from the radio can be, if not essential, at least life-affirming.

as well as

WMMT, at 88.7 on your FM dial or www.wmmt.org on the Internet, is a rural station that dishes up almost all original programming. . . on a recent morning, while the NPR station in Charleston, W. Va., which is three hours away, reported on the federal budget, WMMT offered up Wanda Jackson, who yodeled her way through this lament: “I wish a tornado would blow my blues away.”

You can see a full roundup of press we’ve received on our Press page.  We are a regional resource and have received awards from community groups throughout Central Appalachia, including the 1999 Outstanding Media Award from the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation.

In 1986, WMMT brought live performance radio, a staple of the early days of radio, back to the mountains. Our first live broadcast from the 150-seat Appalshop Theater was that November and marked our first anniversary. The show, Bluegrass Express Live, has now grown to be one of the premiere bluegrass shows in the nation and features the very best groups in contemporary bluegrass, including Blue Highway, Dave Evans, Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks, Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time. We also broadcast live jam sessions and concerts featuring traditional music and storytelling.

The Appalshop’s annual Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival is the crowning jewel of WMMT broadcasts. Seedtime features two or three days of indigenous mountain music, storytelling, Appalshop films and video, readings, theater, reminiscing, crafts, food and fellowship. WMMT broadcasts the music and readings throughout.

Over the years WMMT has continued to grow. We are now on the Internet and are live worldwide. We’ve found a lot of displaced hillbillies out there, as well as many wannabe hillbillies, and we are hearing from them. We are pleased to be able to provide slices of home for them and people across the globe. WMMT is truly the international voice of the mountains. But one thing has remained steady: our unwavering commitment to provide a voice for the folks of our region and to provide access for them to speak for themselves.

At 88.7 (or online), you’ll hear true community radio, one of only a handful of such stations in the whole country. One moment you may hear a great-grandfather playing his favorite bluegrass tune, another day a teen-ager sharing his love of hip hop, a kid talking about his first fish, local musicians being interviewed and played, people talking about chip mills or who knows what else.

We thank you for being a part of the history – and the future – of Listener-Supported, Consumer-Run Mountain Public Radio.

For more WMMT History, visit the WMMT 20 year anniversary web site.

For a photo of Marvin’s Inny, click here.