In Powell County, Kentucky, a nurse, a preacher, and a physician assistant challenged deep religious beliefs to save their community. In the process they also taught me both the importance of meeting people where they are and the power of public radio.
Following a spring 2015 HIV outbreak involving 200 in Austin, Indiana, population 4,200, legislators in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio scrambled to pass laws allowing the creation of needle exchange programs with a vote of local government support.
Kentucky has eight of the 10 counties in America at highest risk for an HIV infection outbreak due to heroin abuse, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of last fall, not one had a needle exchange program.
Powell, ranking No. 15, did. Why didn’t other counties just do the same? It seemed to be an easy decision.
I was wrong.
Courage and faith made the difference in Powell County. Folks saw the devastation to their home, a place where everybody really knows everybody, and made a difficult choice. Passing out needles was widely seen as enabling, even encouraging drug use. They first questioned their own assumptions and biases about needle exchange programs and then calmly convinced elected officials to do the same. Prayer and faith were key tools.
As the children of the Clay City First Church of God practiced their Christmas pageant, pastor Brad Epperson and I talked for 45 minutes after turning off my recorder. (A radio no-no I will never repeat.) Epperson, also a school bus driver, said one of his kids told him that his parents, both addicts, would be out of prison for Christmas. No child, he said, should live that life. Each measured thought was presented in the soft cadence of a subdued Southern preacher.
Although masked in mountain stoicism, the anguish, passion, and conviction of Epperson, nurse Mandy Watson, and physician assistant Troy Brooks told a richer audio story than printed words ever could. It is the power of people giving voice to their own truth. That’s the power of radio.
At the Ohio Valley ReSource, where I work in radio and multi-media after 30 years as a print reporter, a team of reporters work across seven stations in three states—Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio. We each have an area of concentration, like infrastructure or the environment. Based at WEKU, an Ohio Valley ReSource member station in Richmond, Kentucky, I cover health.
In the transition from print to radio, grappling with the technology has been a challenge, although it helped I had edited and collected video for a number of years. I’ll admit there have been interviews I could barely use and that a recorder left running has captured solo car karaoke that no one should ever hear. Using my own voice in story telling has been a huge leap. It’s a long way from reading aloud in my first Nieman fiction class, so nervous in my first I could barely breathe. I am staggered by the dozens of pieces of audio going a 3.5 minute piece.
And humbled by the patience of those helping to teach me.
The biggest shift and greatest gift is hearing the world in a different way. There are bird singing always in my neighborhood and I never heard them before. On the other hand I always hear the hum or refrigerators and buzz of electric lights. Don’t get me started on air conditioning units.
I see and hear now that well done radio stories are a kind of haiku with intent and nuance in sound and structure that I think has made me a better storyteller. I have a lot to learn and am benefitting from the passion of the other reporters on the team for capturing that precise bit of perfect sound to telegraph a specific meaning. But I am seeing how my overall journalistic experience is transferrable.
The Powell County story was radio story No. 5. I struggled at holding the recorder correctly, to save sound to a file, and wait a beat before engaging so edits could be clean. ReSource managing editor Jeff Young, NF ’12, stitched my raw work into compelling radio. ReSource digital reporter Alexandra Kanik anchored it in stats for the web. And the voices of a nurse, a preacher, and a physician assistant were heard across three states.