Appalshop has its roots in America’s War on Poverty and community media movements of the 1960’s. It was established in 1969 as a project of the Community Film Workshop Council (CFWC), a nation-wide jobs training program created by the American Film Institute and Office of Economic Opportunity to teach film and video skills to disadvantaged youths. This era also saw the rise of a community media movement led by social issue filmmakers such as George Stoney (1916-2012), who advocated for teaching people how to use the tools of media production to tell their own stories and address problems in their communities. It was in this climate that the New York-based Community Film Workshop Council hired Bill Richardson, a Yale architecture school graduate, to establish a film workshop in the coalfield town of Whitesburg, Kentucky (pop. 1,200).
Whitesburg was the home of influential newspaper The Mountain Eagle and the law offices of Harry Caudill. Caudill was the author of 1963’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, which brought attention to poverty in Appalachia and is credited with making the area a focus of the government’s War on Poverty.
In Fall of 1969, Bill and his wife Josephine relocated from Connecticut to Whitesburg, Kentucky. They set up a workshop in a storefront on Main Street, complete with 16mm film cameras, video Portapaks, audio recorders, and film editing equipment, and waited for interest to spark. Bill formed a friendship with local high school teacher Carl Banks and was invited to give a presentation to Banks’ journalism class, which included Herb E. Smith and Marty Newell. Smith and Newell were friends who often played chess during class after finishing their assignments early, and they were among the first teenagers to pay the workshop a visit. Interest began to grow, and more and more young people stopped in to learn how to make films in downtown Whitesburg.
Whereas most CFWC workshops were set in urban areas and had some proximity to jobs in film and television, the Whitesburg, Kentucky site was in a coal industry-dominated region of the country where jobs in media production were almost non-existent. Meanwhile, the historic lack of media self-representation in Appalachia, coupled with prevailing stereotypes about mountain culture, had contributed to distorted popular perceptions about life in the region. Through their work in the program, the initial trainees became acutely aware of the power of documentary filmmaking to counter stereotypes and represent the rich world of stories, conflicts, traditions and cultural changes that surrounded them.
Rather than leave their homes to seek jobs in the media industry, a core group with their newly acquired skills formed a non-profit production and distribution organization focusing its work on Appalachian art, culture, and social issues. When CFWC funding ended in 1971 they incorporated as the Appalachian Film Workshop (which was soon shortened to “Appalshop”), formed a unique self-management and governance structure, and set a mission to give voice to the stories of mountain people. A grant from the NEH led to a surge of productivity and as the organization’s reputation grew, it attracted young media activists and youth from around the region, many of whom were influenced by the growing field of Appalachian Studies led by scholars such as Dr. Helen Lewis. By 1974-75, Appalshop began to diversify, creating the Mountain Photography Workshop, the quarterly journal Mountain Review, June Appal Recordings to record and distribute the music of regional musicians, and Roadside Theater, which adapted the storytelling traditions of mountain culture to the stage. In the next decade, Headwaters Television was launched and more Appalshop divisions were created, including the community radio station WMMT-FM and the Appalachian Media Institute, a youth media program which established an on-going documentary summer workshop for local youth.
Appalshop now stands as one of the longest-enduring community media arts and education centers in the country and its Archive is an invaluable repository of media documenting Appalachian life and culture.