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Arts & Culture

2020: A Tough Year Filled With Fascinating Stories of Resilience

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Cloe, Isabella , Bryson, and Landon just before the first day of school in Athens, West Virginia, during the coronavirus pandemic in fall 2020.

It's been a long and fascinating year for most of us, and that includes our reporting staff. We have sought to shine a fair and focused spotlight on stories of interest in our region. From the statehouse to the courthouse, to the environment and other crucial issues, our work has been dedicated to not only informing but also educating, a part of our broader mission in public media.

As we turn a corner after a difficult 2020, we plan to continue our passionate commitment to showcasing your world with open hearts and fresh eyes — every day. We appreciate your listening, reading and viewing — and we urge you to support the strong journalism at West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Take a glimpse below as our news staff speaks about themselves and their “Best of 2020” stories.

- Andrea Billups, director of news and public affairs.

Bob Murray speaking at an event in October 2019.
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Ohio Valley Resource
Robert E. Murray, the former CEO and president of the now-bankrupt Murray Energy, has filed an application with the U.S. Department of Labor for black lung benefits. For years, Murray and his company fought against federal mine safety regulations aimed at reducing the debilitating disease.

One day while working in my home office in late September, I got a direct message on Twitter from someone I didn’t know. The person said they had something I should take a look at. There were promises of it being a big scoop.

‘Sure,’ I thought to myself. To be honest, I get so many people that tease with comments like that (as I’m sure all reporters do) that I didn’t think much of it. I agreed to answer the phone when they called, though.

The person on the other end of the line said former Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray had applied for the black lung benefits. Along with that, they pointed out, he had fought federal mine-safety regulations aimed to reduce the disease — and, like other coal companies, fought miners’ claims for benefits.

Despite not being much focused on the energy industry, I was rather familiar with him. The musical from "Last Week Tonight" with John Oliver immediately came to mind.
The source of this information sent over screenshots of his claim. In confidence, I showed them to trusted reporter-friends of mine, including retired NPR investigative reporter Howard Berkes (who had done award-winning reporting on black lung disease). At the same time, I took what I had learned to Brittany Patterson, who at the time was on the energy and environment beat for WVPB and the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Given OVR managing editor Jeff Young’s extensive history reporting on the energy industry — and even Murray himself — Brittany and I took the story to him. But we all questioned the authenticity of what we had. We needed to independently verify the claim documents. If the documents were fabricated, it would be an elaborate, laborious hoax. Still yet, we needed to verify what we had. Luckily, we were able to do that quickly by punching in information associated with his claim into a U.S. Department of Labor online portal.

Then it came time to call Murray, who was rumored to not be well (he had often been seen in public with an oxygen tank). My heart sank a bit when I called the first time and his wife answered the phone and told me he was with a hospice worker and I should call back in 10 minutes.

When I did call back, Mr. Murray confirmed he had black lung (which ran counter to what he told NPR a year earlier) and had applied for benefits. But, he refused to go on the record and I didn’t roll tape of the conversation.

 

He threatened to sue me and the outlet I work for. I remember telling him repeatedly that I just wanted to give him an opportunity to speak for himself and discuss his reasons for applying for the benefits and talk about other issues related to black lung.
Murray died in late October. It remains unknown if his wife, as a beneficiary, will receive the black lung benefits.

— Dave Mistich, senior reporter

Fifty years ago, on November 14, 1970, a plane carrying 75 members of the Marshall University football team, boosters and community leaders crashed on approach to Huntington Tri-State airport, killing everyone on board.The crash changed the university as the students and faculty grieved. The accident also changed the city of Huntington, and the relationship between the university and the town as well.

My favorite story of 2020 was the story on the 50th anniversary of the Marshall University plane crash. This story was important to me for a couple reasons. The crash happened 50 years ago, when I was just three years old, but it allowed me the chance to tell a story that has influenced life at the university and in the city of Huntington since Nov. 14, 1970. It is a human story about devastating tragedy and a triumphant return.

The second reason was the story was a cooperative effort between West Virginia Public Broadcasting and GOLDENSEAL Magazine. We were able to tell the story on radio and a longer, more detailed version in the magazine. For me, that speaks to the future of long-form journalism.

—— Eric Douglas, Inside Appalachia producer and reporter

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When the Coronavirus pandemic was declared in March, it created new challenges for single parents deemed essential, especially when day cares shut down. Jessica Lilly spoke with working moms coping with this reality to get a sense of what they’re up against.

The story of these women living in this pandemic inspired me. I could relate to their pain, fears, stress and joy. I think when a story can bring out several emotions, it makes it more human and builds more connections in our communities. The story reminded me that we all feel pain in the same way but there is always something to smile about and be thankful for. Plus, I love getting to know the people in my community and this was a chance to do that.

I love journalism because I believe that storytelling can make a difference.

— Jessica Lilly, Southern West Virginia reporter

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Did West Virginia inspire the John Denver Song “Take Me Home, County Roads?” The song is one of the things people across the globe connect with West Virginia. But there’s a debate about whether the song was really even written about the state. This year marks the 50th anniversary for the song.

When we put a call out on social media earlier this year, asking folks to share their stories about John Denver’s “Country Roads,” we were flooded with messages. This was a story our new co-host for Inside Appalachia, Mason Adams, suggested we look into, after seeing a comment thread on social media discussing whether the song is truly about West Virginia, or Virginia.

In this story, we hear one of the songwriters, Bill Danoff, tell his interpretation in his own words. And people share how the song has touched their lives. This is a song that’s taken on a folklore-type mythology that’s difficult to sum up in one radio feature. But it was certainly fun to try.

—— Roxy Todd, producer, Inside Appalachia

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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Normally Robert Villamagna would be in his art studio in Wheeling, West Virginia, hammering out old metal pieces from children’s toys, chip cans and…

One of my favorite stories of the year was my Q&A with Wheeling artist Robert Villamagna. I met Robert in the summer of 2019 to report a story on his artwork for our Inside Appalachia folkways project. Robert uses found objects (specifically flattened metal from old items like coffee cans or chip cans). I followed him around a flea market in Eastern Ohio for the story – it was a real hoot!

Sadly, Robert contracted COVID-19 this summer and was hospitalized twice. But he was kind enough to speak with me about his experience. I think he so eloquently summed up just how bad and how real this virus is. I can happily report Robert is recovered now and back to creating art.

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Before the pandemic hit, our Inside Appalachia team was planning a reporting trip to Wales as part of our ongoing folkways project, as the country has a…

As part of our folkways project we had been planning a reporting trip to Wales. Obviously, when the pandemic hit, our plans were turned upside down. So I decided to still do some reporting remotely with the contacts I had made.

This story features Peter Stevenson, a Welsh storyteller with West Virginia connections. He wrote a storybook about the Welsh migration to Appalachia hundreds of years ago. Peter actually came to Morgantown in 2019 to host an Appalachian/Welsh art exhibit and we interviewed him back then. This story tells the history of the connection between Wales and Appalachia through story and music. Ailsa Hughes is the featured Welsh musician – in non-COVID times she accompanied Peter in his live storytelling of the Wales and Appalachian folktales.

—— Caitlin Tan, co-host, Inside Appalachia and reporter

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On Monday, two county school boards struck down the state’s first application to establish a public charter school. The proposed program, dubbed West Virginia Academy, would have been located in Morgantown and served Mongonalia and Preston counties, focusing on academic achievement across K-12 classrooms, including an International Baccalaureate curriculum.

I think we can all agree, 2020 has been a gut punch. On a personal level, 2020 started out as a new decade with mountains of opportunity. I had been planning my wedding for May and a honeymoon in Disney World in the fall. Both saw some changes so we could keep our loved ones safe. But in February, just before the world flipped upside down, I celebrated my bridal shower with friends and family, and none of us could’ve guessed how things would change just one month later.

I began the new year working in Charleston on our television program The Legislature Today. We finished it up in March, and I headed back home to the Eastern Panhandle. One week into being home, BOOM, Gov. Jim Justice said all of West Virginia’s K-12 schools would be closed and students would attend school from home.

Our newsroom rallied to begin calling school systems all over the state to see what these counties were doing to ensure students were still being fed while brick-and-mortar buildings were closed and how they were still learning. This was the starting point to a long, arduous journey reporting on a pandemic. We tackled it as a team and supported each other when things got scary. And even though we had our own personal challenges, we continued to report how West Virginians were handling this extraordinary time in human history.

I wasn’t in the education beat yet at the start of the pandemic, but from the moment it began, I found myself doing many education-related stories, whether it was about fun ways to learn safely during the pandemic or how the job landscape was evolving for new college grads. It wasn’t too long before Andrea Billups, our news director, tapped me to take on this role. I was honored.

For my Best of 2020 story, I’ve chosen a more recent education story I’ve written. I choose it though, because it required me to do extensive reporting, researching and following of an issue that has garnered heated debate in recent years. My piece on the first attempt at a charter school in West Virginia was a challenging and interesting story, and I’m certain it will be an issue that will come up during the 2021 West Virginia Legislative session.

It’s this kind of dedicated reporting, whether following a contentious issue like charter schools or reporting on the challenges a school counselor is facing as he or she juggles social, emotional support to students, teachers AND parents during a pandemic -- this is what makes journalism so important. We reach out to learn about the issues that matter most to people in our state. We strive to tell a story that breaks down the issues so they’re easy to understand, and we have a mission to communicate both sides so that our listeners and readers can form their own opinions and ideas.

We need journalists, especially now during this deep political divide, to help us sift through what’s what with compassion and thoughtfulness.

—— Liz McCormick, education and Eastern Panhandle reporter

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A global public health crisis in the form of an invisible virus, now officially divides us from each other. We’ve learned to call it ‘social distancing.’ But the coronavirus is creating or reopening many layers between us and them.

At the beginning of 2020, the Us & Them team — the show that tells the stories about the things that divide Americans — had planned to focus on issues crucial to rural West Virginians — health care, education and economic development.

Early in the year, we reported on how West Virginia families had been stressed, fractured and divided over the state’s pernicious substance abuse epidemic: Grandfamilies Of The Opioid Crisis. This was followed with two hopeful stories about economic recovery efforts in the Upper Kanawha Valley — Upriver Battle: Two Mayors Join Forces to Revive Their Rural Small Towns Against All Odds and The Connector.

Then, COVID hit.

Like everyone else in the world, our team’s work was turned upside down. Many of the programs that we had in production didn’t make sense in the age of a global pandemic. We had to take time to reset, find a new way of producing work that reflected the “new normal” and that we could accomplish while maintaining safety for ourselves and the people we interviewed. We embarked on what would become a series of episodes called “Forced Apart,” to investigate new social fault lines from the coronavirus.

The first in our series was Forced Apart: A Virus Creates New Divides, which looked at divisions between essential and remote workers and at the varied government responses. We looked at the history of pandemics to gauge what might lay ahead. We created fresh approaches to gather audio adhering to safety requirements since we were unable to capture live sound or hold face-to-face interviews.

After this episode, we began to see that the pandemic amplified many of the challenges West Virginia faced before COVID-19. Us & Them continued to examine how the pandemic was “forcing West Virginians further apart.”

Forced Apart: Same Pandemic, Unequal Education spotlighted West Virginia’s education system and how the lack of reliable broadband connectivity cut some students off from distance learning.

We produced several “Forced Apart” episodes on new challenges for the Mountain State’s health care system. The ‘Delicate and Crazy Dance’ of American Healthcare explored how the pandemic exposed West Virginia’s vulnerability in caring for rural residents; Shadow Pandemic examined how COVID-19 interrupted West Virginia’s systems for mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment.

The Us & Them team also explored how the pandemic has affected the regional economy with the programs An Ailing Economy: Is Workforce Training the Cure? and How Can The Economy Rebound Without Safe, Reliable Child Care?

With COVID-19 vaccination deliveries, we enter a new chapter. The Us & Them team will continue to explore where the virus creates fresh divides and how we heal them.

— Trey Kay, host and producer, Us & Them


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