Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Ben Gish, January 28, 2016

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Childhood

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Partial Transcript: Rolling.

Segment Synopsis: Gish gives his full name and a brief description of where he was born and the different places he grew up in while living in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Keywords: Birth dates; Birthdays; Downtown; Mountain Eagle (newspaper); Moving; Names

Subjects: Frankfort (Ky.); Whitesburg (Ky.)

00:02:45 - Family history / Grandfather's career

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Partial Transcript: So, um, what's your, what's your family's connection to this region of the state.

Segment Synopsis: Gish gives a family history discussing the families of both his mother and father. He says his mother's family - the Adams - have been in Kentucky since before the Revolutionary War. He explains his father's family are from Western Kentucky and his grandfather moved to Letcher County, Kentucky, first to work on railroads and then in the coal mines. Gish talks about how close he was with his paternal grandfather who would take him into the mines as a boy, and how well he knew his maternal grandparents, too.

Keywords: Adams; Family histories; Grandfathers; Inventions; Kentucky; Revolutionary War; Roof bolting; Western Kentucky; Western coal fields

Subjects: Coal miners; Coal mines and mining; Railroads

00:08:51 - Working as a child at his parents' newspaper

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Partial Transcript: Well, we'll get to, we'll get to college years, but that's real--that's extremely interesting.

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about his parents creating the weekly Letcher County, Kentucky newspaper, "The Mountain Eagle." He says he never realized their controversial role in Whitesburg, Kentucky until their offices were burned down in 1974. He talks about working there as a kid folding newspapers when they came off the printer and mailing the paper. He explains it was a Thursday weekly paper and so his parents were always around on the weekend but rarely during the week.

Keywords: "The Mountain Eagle"; Arson; Fires; Jobs; Parents; Printing; Weekly newspapers; Working

Subjects: Letcher County (Ky.); Newspapers--Kentucky.; Whitesburg (Ky.)

00:12:32 - "The Mountain Eagle" newspaper's offices burn down

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Partial Transcript: Um, well, uh, I--though it's flashing forward a lot I think it's interesting that you hadn't really thought about necessarily their role as a controversial one until 1974--August.

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about his parents' newspaper "The Mountain Eagle's" offices being burned down in 1974, saying there was a lot of controversy at the time about strip mining and a 10PM curfew for all kids in town. His parents disagreed with both and his father wrote editorials about his views and about a certain cop that had been getting into trouble. The policeman hired a few others and they torched the place. Gish had been framed for it with eyewitnesses saying they saw Gish leave the building with a buddy smoking pot and that's what started the fire. The police questioned him and later his mother thinking it was possibly insurance fraud. Later, they figured out it was the cop after one of the hired arsonists talked. There was a conspiracy that strip mining representatives might have hired him, but there was no proof.

Keywords: "The Mountain Eagle"; Arson; Coal; Conspiracies; Curfews; Editorials; Fires; Kids; Laws; Offices; Parents

Subjects: Coal mines and mining; Mountaintop removal mining--Appalachian region; Newspapers--Kentucky.; Police

00:19:53 - Issues surrounding "bridge sitting" / Becoming a journalist

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Partial Transcript: It's interesting that that would--that it had to do with the bridge sitting.

Segment Synopsis: Gish describes "bridge sitting" - a place in a town a lot of kids would come to hang and just sit and listen to music and talk on this bridge. He talks about one time he and some friends were playing Paul McCartney and they were arrested for disorderly conduct. He talks about his parents being so busy with the paper and never missing putting an issue out. He explains he never thought he would be a journalist until he didn't do well in college algebra and ended up doing journalism.

Keywords: Bridge sitting; College; Disorderly conduct; Paul McCartney

Subjects: Journalism; Music; Police; University of Kentucky (Lexington, Ky.)

00:23:47 - Memories of early Appalshop

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Partial Transcript: Well, I wanna press pause and rewind a little bit, uh, and talk about, um, another thing.

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about when Bill Richardson came to town to start Appalshop. He became friends with Gish's parents and later they let Richardson and his new wife, Josephine, honeymoon in their house. Gish mentions hanging out at the Appalshop offices. He remembers Richardson having a Sony video camera that he would teach high school kids to take videos of parades and sports games. He talks about the recorder being stored in "The Mountain Eagle" office while Appalshop was working on finding a permanent space, so on Saturdays Gish and his friends would play videos at the office.

Keywords: "The Mountain Eagle"; Bill Richardson; Grants; High school kids; Home; Honeymoons; Josephine Richardson; Movies; Offices; Pole houses; Programs; Saturdays; Sony cameras; Video recorder

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Newspapers--Kentucky.; Schools

00:27:58 - Community's reaction to Appalshop and its employees

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Partial Transcript: We--do you remember, too, though, uh, peoples' attitudes towards them beyond, like say, like your household was obviously really responsive--

Segment Synopsis: Gish says the younger people in the community didn't think anything about Appalshop and the people starting it. However, he says the older people in the community labeled them as hippies and didn't care for them much. He jokes that Bill and Josephine (the founders of Appalshop) were very nice but they weren't hippies.

Keywords: Attitudes; Bill Richardson; High school kids; Hippies; Josephine Richardson

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.

00:29:36 - His parents' support of Appalshop

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Partial Transcript: Well, um, I'm curious too if you, uh, if you remember hearing your parents talk about Appalshop.

Segment Synopsis: Gish says his parents were big supporters of founder Bill Richardson and Appalshop. They really liked the grant program Appalshop was a part of that worked to rectify the state of the poor roads in the area. He also thinks that Appalshop might have had a harder time of it without "The Mountain Eagle" on their side.

Keywords: "The Mountain Eagle"; Bill Richardson; Grants; Parents; Respect; Roads; Support

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Newspapers--Kentucky.

00:32:02 - Experiences with Appalshop as a child

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Partial Transcript: And, um, I'm wondering if we could--well, there's, there's another question before we get to the issue--or the time when you went to college, but I'm wondering if, if there were any specific programs you were involved in.

Segment Synopsis: Gish explains that he really had no official connection to Appalshop. He and his friends enjoyed hanging out at the offices. He does tell a story about seeing the movie "In Ya Blood" in school screening by an Appalshop employee. The kids didn't necessarily get the message but thought it was cool that a local could film a movie like that.

Keywords: "In Ya Blood"; Films; Herb E. Smith; Kids; Locals; Movies; Offices

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Coal miners; Coal mines and mining; Schools

00:34:25 - His parents' relationship with the Caudill family

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Partial Transcript: Um, another person I'd love to know your perspective on is, is Harry Caudill.

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about his family's relationship with Harry Caudill and his family. He jokes that he can remember his parents going over to the Caudill's home and he thought his parents had incredibly boring conversations with them. He also mentions breaking his arm in the Caudill's yard as a child.

Keywords: Boring; Broken arms; Conversations; Friends; Harry Caudill; Parents

Subjects: Childhood

00:35:29 - Memories and experiences concerning the War on Poverty

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Partial Transcript: Well then, were you, uh, were you aware of the, sort of, War on Poverty act, activities?

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about his experiences with the War on Poverty. He says his social group all ended up being college-educated and none of the families were really involved in the coal industry. He says he was aware of the War on Poverty because of all the government officials, volunteers, and politicians his parents would have over for dinner. He speaks of an experience with VISTA workers where he saw houses with dirt floors and realized how bad it was. He says there weren't a lot of wealthy people period in the area, and people worked for every bit of money they got.

Keywords: College-educated; Dinners; Dirt floors; Government officials; Houses; Poverty; VISTA workers; Volunteers; War on Poverty; Work

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Volunteers in Service to America

00:38:22 - Media reporting the poverty in Appalachia / The difference between poverty now and then

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Partial Transcript: On the one hand, it's my understanding that "Mountain Eagle" didn't run photographs of poor people.

Segment Synopsis: Gish discusses the media aspect of fighting poverty. "The Mountain Eagle" never printed images of poor people. He mentions his parents befriending journalist Charles Kuralt who did use such explicit images. He says his parents were conflicted about whether or not to photograph the poverty and the people who are forced to live it. He explains there were no mining jobs or food stamps to be found then, so the emotional plea was sent out and the government responded. He says people will say they lost the war on poverty, but he contradicts that saying that things have vastly improved.

Keywords: "The Mountain Eagle"; Charles Kuralt; Images; Jobs; John F. Kennedy; Photographs; Poverty; Unemployment

Subjects: Appalachian Region; Appalachian Region--Economic conditions; Coal miners; Food; Mass media and technology.; Newspapers--Kentucky.

00:41:20 - Moving to Lexington, Kentucky for college

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Partial Transcript: I'm curious to know now talking about, uh, going to UK. Did moving to Lexington change your perspective on, on the East Kentucky.

Segment Synopsis: Gish discusses his move to Lexington, Kentucky for college at the University of Kentucky. He says there wasn't a lot of newness to the move since his mother's family is from central Kentucky. Although the University of Kentucky was his third choice for college, he ended up having plenty of friends and having a good time there.

Keywords: College decisions; Extended family; Friends; New Mexico State University; Summer trips

Subjects: Eastern Kentucky University; Lexington (Ky.).; University of Kentucky (Lexington, Ky.)

00:43:51 - Summer job as an underground coal miner

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Partial Transcript: Well, uh--uh, and you also, it sounds like, touched back every summer.

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about his summer job mining underground. He says you could make at least $7,000 a summer and since each semester of college only cost about $200 you had plenty of money. He didn't have to work during the semester and mentions that he doesn't understand how kids make it these days with how expensive college is. He also talks about how much he enjoyed his work as a miner even if it was hard work, and he says he has great respect for people who worked their whole life as a miner.

Keywords: Money; Respect; Semesters; Summer jobs; Tuition; Work

Subjects: Coal miners; Coal mines and mining; University of Kentucky (Lexington, Ky.)

00:47:41 - Finding work immediately after college

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Partial Transcript: Well, when you graduate then, I mean you must have had quite a choice on your hands cause you enjoyed the underground mining, but you had your, your parents running a really successful newspaper.

Segment Synopsis: Gish describes his life just after graduating college in 1980. He explains there wasn't much of a decision between working in coal or as a reporter for "The Mountain Eagle." He states that the coal industry was crumbling, and some of the reporters from his parents' paper had just left so he took the job there.

Keywords: "The Mountain Eagle"; Coal industry; Colleges; Graduations; Jobs; Marriage

Subjects: Coal mines and mining; Journalism; Newspapers--Kentucky.

00:48:46 - Circumstances surrounding the beginning of his own radio program at WMMT

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Partial Transcript: Well, I guess by then, Appalshop was really changing quite a bit.

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about the evolution of Appalshop up until the 1980s. He says he ran in similar social circles of the Appalshop employees occasionally, but was not specifically involved. His little brother was a radio DJ on WMMT, Appalshop's radio station, when it first started and the organization eventually convinced Gish to do a program as well. He says he was petrified when he first started in 1986, that it was several weeks where he didn't talk on the radio and just played music.

Keywords: Brothers; Disc jockeys; Punk rock; Radio DJs; Silent; Social circles; Stage fright; WMMT radio station

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Music; Radio; Radio programs.

00:52:53 - Communication between the radio show and the community / Backlash against not playing bluegrass or country music

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Partial Transcript: So, 1986 you, you were, uh, about 30 years old?

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about his experience running a radio show on WMMT. He talks about the letters he got from listeners. He thinks listening to WMMT might have been the only way to consistently listen to rock in Eastern Kentucky. He discusses his stalkers and the people who would call in to request music and comment on the show. He says some people were occasionally mad at the show not playing bluegrass or country and would try to make requests for it.

Keywords: Backlashes; Bluegrass music; Comments; Communities; Eastern Kentucky; Letters; Phones calls; Requests; Rock music; Stalkers; Suggestions; WMMT radio station

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Country music; Music; Radio; Radio programs.

00:55:07 - Keeping politics and news out of the radio program

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Partial Transcript: Did your worlds ever collide?

Segment Synopsis: Gish says he doesn't think he's ever talked about news or politics on his radio show. He says it's all about the music, and it's an escape for him. He jokes he might complain about the Cincinnati Reds losing a baseball game or University of Kentucky basketball. He explains that he thinks the position he had as a radio host was interesting but he has never seen himself as having any influence. He still doesn't like to talk, just play good music.

Keywords: Fridays; News; Rock music; Talk radio; Talking; WMMT radio station

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Kentucky--Politics and government; Music; Radio; Radio programs.; Sports

00:57:19 - Evolution of WMMT and its radio shows through the years

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Partial Transcript: Well, 30 years is a long time to be, uh--to have kept at it, and you're almost to your thirty--thirtieth year, right?

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about how WMMT has changed through the years. He feels it hasn't changed much -- just different faces. He does say he feels the music genres they play have grown less diverse. He explains that his show on Friday night has pretty consistently been rock music, but it depends on his mood since he doesn't pre-plan his shows.

Keywords: Changes; Diversity; Rock music; Shows; WMMT radio station; Younger people

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Music; Radio; Radio programs.

00:59:08 - Controversy with War on Coal and WMMT

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Partial Transcript: Well, in terms of, uh--over those--over thi, this time period, too, did you, did you s--notice changing attitudes towards Appalshop because of the radio station?

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about how Appalshop became more accepted because of WMMT, but with the War on Coal in recent years there has been some controversy. The news programs will report on the bad side of the coal industry. He talks about the controversy of mountain-top removal mining five years ago, and since WMMT did a report on an anti-mountain top removal rally people assumed Appalshop and WMMT were anti-coal. Gish denies this saying they simply wanted the coal companies to behave ethically. He also explains that about 15 years ago there was less public support from businesses with the change in politics as well.

Keywords: Anti-coal; Anti-mountaintop removal rally; Boycotting; Boycotts; Businesses; Fundraising; News; Public support; Reporting; WMMT radio station; War on coal

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Mountaintop removal mining

01:05:30 - Parents' views on Appalshop over the years

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Partial Transcript: Um, another thing I'm curious about is the, the changing perceptions, if, if they were changing, of, of your, your parents over the years towards Appalshop.

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about his parents' feelings towards Appalshop. He says they never had enough chance to take a strong stance one way or the other for Appalshop. He does mention one instance years ago where Appalshop insulted Harry Caudill when, he thinks, they portrayed Caudill in an aloof and removed manner in a performance. He says that eventually cleared itself up and if other people wanted to disparage Appalshop to his parents they needed to have a good reason otherwise his parents were going to defend Appalshop. He says his parents had a lot of respect for the people who worked at Appalshop.

Keywords: Critiques; Defense:Parents; Harry Caudill; Insults; Respect; Stances

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.

01:08:44 - Appalshop's effect on Letcher County, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: As someone who's kept their, you know--you've kept your finger on the pulse of Letcher County and known this place really well for your whole life, um, what local legacies of Appalshop do you see?

Segment Synopsis: Gish talks about the effect Appalshop has had on Letcher County, Kentucky. He says Letcher County has an openness and "live and let live" mentality which probably allowed Appalshop to grow. He talks about how Appalshop exposed people to a lot of cultures and people other than their own. He says they are even more open, having voted to become a wet county a few years ago, because of Appalshop. He says overall Appalshop was pretty well welcomed by the community having brought in jobs, provided programming for kids, and brought others to the county.

Keywords: Cultures; Jobs; Kids; Legacies; Liberals; Openness; Programs; Wet counties

Subjects: Appalshop, Inc.; Letcher County (Ky.)