March 14, 2008

Book looks at modern media's role in Appalachia

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — The best stories are sometimes near your doorstep.

While colleagues traveled to locales including Australia, Turkey and Africa to conduct research, Jacob Podber chose a less-traveled route — roughly 30 minutes from his Ohio home — for a unique look at the arrival and impact of radio, television and the Internet on rural Appalachia.

He traveled throughout Appalachia conducting interviews for his book, "The Electronic Front Porch: An Oral History of the Arrival of Modern Media in Rural Appalachia and the Melungeon Community."

Podber, an assistant professor in SIUC's Department of Radio-Television, hopes readers glean "the power of the media in creating community — in helping people feel a part of a community, with an identity and belonging."

And while there are theories that media isolate communities and decrease social skills due to the amount of time that can be spent in front of the television or computer, the book also reflects the media's "great potential for bringing communities together," Podber said.

Podber will discuss his work in a lecture at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, April 3. Novotny Lawrence, an assistant professor also in the radio-television program, will also discuss his book, "Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s: Blackness and Genre." Routledge Press published Lawrence's book in November.

SIUC's Global Media Research Center is sponsoring the lectures. Admission is free; a location is still to be determined. The Global Media Research Center is part of the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts.

Podber began his work while a doctoral student at the University of Ohio in Athens, Ohio, which is in Appalachian Ohio. Podber said he realized he was living in a very underserved and underrepresented area of Appalachia.

The book, released last fall by Mercer University Press, is important because it focuses on how new media impacted Appalachian community members.

The book serves a variety of audiences — including media scholars, Appalachian Studies scholars and genealogy historians — featuring 86 oral histories with recollections dating back to the introduction of battery-operated radios in the 1920s. He started by going to community centers and nursing homes, and found that a conversation with one person resulted in suggestions to talk with more people.

"Without their voices, this book would not have been possible," Podber said.

Many of the interviews deal with radio. Families were initially careful about when to use the radio because battery-operated sets required trips into town to recharge the battery.

Listening habits changed dramatically once electricity became common, he said. One story details how a wet-cell truck battery used to power a radio meant leaving the truck parked on a hill so it could be pushed in case the battery died.

"Initially, they carefully planned what they would listen to because they knew the radio would only be running for a certain amount of time," he said. "But with electricity, they started leaving it on more as a companion."

The radio, and early television, reduced feelings of isolation and provided a community listening post for neighbors to gather and discuss the day's events. It fostered a greater sense of community identity, with people talking with great pride about performers they knew who appeared on shows such as the "Grand Ole Opry." And it also offered a view to other parts of the country and world, and a realization of shared concerns and problems, Podber said.

Even with initial limited broadcast hours, early television had a similar impact on Appalachian communities. Gathering around a television with neighbors, family and friends "became a major social event," Podber said.

Unlike radio, where Appalachian residents could easily find performers with whom to identify, the same was not true with early television, according to Podber. When popular shows such as "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Green Acres," and "Hee Haw," did appear, they often generated a mixture of responses that were ambivalent and contradictory, he said.

"We would sometimes laugh at the characters and the other times, we would feel, we wondered if other people thought we were that bad, if other people thought we were that way," one lady told Podber. "If they did, we felt they were seeing a wrong picture of us, that this was very stereotypical of, not all our families are this way."

In spite of the stereotypes, some people felt a connection with characters such as the Clampetts — viewing the characters and their value systems as similar to their own neighbors rather than "superstars on TV," another woman said.

Podber takes a look at how the Internet plays a pivotal role for the tri-racial Melungeon communities in northeastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. Through the use of Web sites and listservs, the group reconstructed its image and expanded into a virtual community where thousands of people are able to reconnect to their heritage, Podber said. The Internet also proved to be a catalyst for an annual reunion that attracts people from around the region.

While there are critics, the electronic media is empowering, Podber said. That even includes writing, he said.

E-mail messages "are at least getting people to write again," he said. "It's a totally morphed type of writing but, in fact, they are still writing."

Podber earned a doctorate of philosophy in mass communications from Ohio University, a master's degree in film from Columbia University, and a bachelor's degree in theater from the University of Florida. He has been an assistant professor at SIUC since 2002.

For more information on the book, contact Podber at 618/453-6995. Contact the Global Media Research Center at 618/453-6876 or for more information on the April 3 lecture.