Talking Across the Divide
By Trey Kay | August 7, 2020
When I was growing up in Charleston, WV, I never thought I’d be a journalist or the host/producer of a radio/podcast program. I studied theatre in college and came to New York City to pursue acting and music. I was in my late 30s, when I got into the kind of audio work that I've been doing now for twenty years.
I cut my teeth on the program Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen . Producing pieces for that show, felt like an extension of the music, theatre and arts stuff that I was interested in. It gave me the opportunity to go out and interview the musicians, playwrights, composers, poets, dancers, novelists and filmmakers I thought were cool. In many cases, I got to talk to some of my heroes and call it work! People like Tom Waits, Meredith Monk, Edward Albee, Sharon Olds, Willie Nelson, Diamanda Galas, Norman Mailer, Bill T. Jones, William Styron, Spalding Gray and Lars Von Trier. I found interesting stories and I’d say that probably for the first two, maybe three years, I didn't even consider what I was doing to be journalism. After a while, I got the idea that I was a journalist and if I wanted to work more in the “public radio universe,” I needed to do things that felt more like journalism. So I started pitching and producing stories for shows like Marketplace , Morning Edition , This American Life and a bunch of other shows that have long gone by the wayside.
Things changed for me around 2008. I’d felt like I’d had some success producing a lot of segments that seemed to get some attention -- I was part of one of Studio 360’s Peabody Award-winning programs -- but I wasn’t making a consistent living. I was spending a great a lot making audio pieces, but didn’t have much to show for it. I wasn’t happy and people in my family were not happy with me mostly because of my paltry contributions to the family expenses. I had a mentor who often talked about the importance of “marrying money with meaning in life.” He thought it important to have a proper balance of income and meaning for the things that one does. At that point in my life, my producing career was replete with meaning, but it wouldn’t let me pay the bills.
I was fed up and just about to quit and find something else to do. I was considering driving a school bus, when I got this idea to do a project that would be my “last hurrah” in public broadcasting. At that point, I’d been living in New York for about 25 years. I missed my family in West Virginia -- my Mom, brother and sister and their young kids and a bunch of other family and friends who still lived in the Mountain State. I wanted to see if there might be a way for me to make an audio journalism project that’d take me back home.
This was around the time of the Barack Obama vs. John McCain presidential race. We’ve become so much more politically polarized since then, but the 2008 Obama/McCain race stirred a lot of vitriol in the electorate. And as this was going on, I was reading a lot of articles placing that presidential race into historical context. There were many articles about the racial antipathy some Americans felt about candidate Obama. One article in particular drew a parallel to an event that I’d lived through in West Virginia as a seventh grader. The piece compared Sarah Palin (John McCain’s running mate and the darling of rural Americans with “traditional values”) with Alice Moore, a preacher’s wife and former Board of Education member. Moore sparked a turbulent controversy over the adoption of “multi-cultural textbooks” in Kanawha County, WV, where I grew up. This violent West Virginia textbook controversy included schools bombed with dynamite and Molotov cocktails and school buses riddled with snipers’ bullets. It made national headlines back in 1974 and was considered “one of the first shots in today’s modern culture wars.” As a 12-year-old, I was intrigued by the fight over textbooks and came to understand that this event had larger significance outside our region. As an adult, I wanted to learn more about this mystery of my youth. I envisioned a potential story idea that’d give me an excuse to go back to West Virginia to spend time with family and friends while researching the textbook controversy.
I applied for and received some grants to make an audio documentary about the textbook controversy -- the biggest one came from the West Virginia Humanities Council. Reporting on this piece was a life changing experience on so many levels. It required that I talk with people who didn’t share my world view. I needed to get access to these people and encourage them to share their heartfelt views with me. I needed them to trust me.
Going into the interviews, I had this scenario in my head as to how things might play out. I’d tell the person that I’d grown up in Kanawha County during the time of the textbook controversy and that I now work as a journalist. I’d ask if they’d talk to me about the textbook controversy. I figured the conversation might go something like this.
Them: “Where did you grow up here in Kanawha?”
Me: “I grew up in Charleston’s South Hills and graduated from George Washington High School.”
I imagined that would be Strike 1 against me. The people I was talking to were working class people. I assumed that they’d feel suspicious of a guy who grew up in one of the more affluent parts of the county. Most of the wealthier people in South Hills supported the textbooks and laughed and belittled folks who protested against them.
I thought this might come next:
Them: “Where do you live now?”
Me: “I live in New York.”
Surely, that’d be Strike 2.
The next question would be:
Them: “Who are you doing this story for?”,
Me: “Well, I report for programs that live in the NPR universe.” (Whatever that means!)
I assumed that this would be Strike 3 and these people would ask me to get my “liberal, lame stream media” carcass off of their property.
Nothing like that ever happened. Many of the people that I met were incredibly welcoming. They wanted to tell their story. Many of them assumed people like me -- in this case, “Blue State” liberals -- didn’t give a damn what rural people in Appalachia have to say and they really appreciated me listening to what they had to say.
I collected about 60 hours of interviews and another 60 hours of archival audio and video about the textbook controversy. I struggled over how to begin the piece. But then I realized something. What I was studying from West Virginia history and what I was living through in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election, had a lot in common. The cultural fight over textbooks from the 1970s was now playing out as “Tea Party” protesters enraged about the recent passing of Obamacare. There were thousands of people who felt the country was out of control and had lost its moral center.
I called my piece “The Great Textbook War,” and started with this Tea Party/Obamacare protest. It was the latest example of a culture war that's been happening in America for a long time. I hoped the program would air on West Virginia Public Broadcasting and local people would appreciate it. Maybe with some of my national producing credits, I could persuade NPR’s All Things Considered to play a little five to eight minute segment of this piece on their program. And if I could do that, I thought I could declare to funders like the WV Humanities Council, “This project was a success.”
I ended up submitting the piece for awards and to my great surprise, it was honored by three big ones: Peabody Award, Edward R. Murrow and DuPont-Columbia awards.
I really mean it when I say these awards were a surprise. When I finished the documentary, I really didn’t know much about how to distribute it. Most of the work that I’d done at that point was to finish a segment for a program like Studio 360 , turn it over to them, let them clean it up a little and then they’d present it to the world. I knew precious little about how to do what it took to get it heard by a lot of people. Most of what I’d done was just get the thing ready to play in West Virginia. Not to mention that I’d pretty much run through my budget. When I finished the piece, I was running on fumes both financially and emotionally. I mean big reports like this one really take something out of you. The awards meant that many more people heard the report than I’d ever planned.
The feedback I received from the public radio universe told me that no one else was reporting about the culture wars this way. At that time, we weren’t often hearing people sharing strong fundamentalist Christian beliefs without editorializing or judgments. I remember feeling like I’d done a good job of representing the people in my home state. I also remember getting feedback from people in our industry saying that we need to have more people sensitively telling stories from “their patch of the universe.” The feedback was incredibly valuable. I felt like I’d punched through on this experiment in ways that I couldn’t have ever anticipated. And then there was that frightening next obvious question. “Okay, what's your next move?”
This was around 2011 and podcasting really wasn’t a thing, yet. They were something I’d catch up on in a bingeing kind of way while I was doing weekend chores or on a long car trip. But most of that content was originally programmed to air on radio. But this was the beginning of a new storytelling approach that was not intended for the radio. It was designed to be heard first by podcast listeners. It let stories breathe and sound different. It gave them the space they needed that wasn’t dictated by a program format.
This was a real paradigm shift. Up until then, I felt that I, like many other independent public radio journalists, were scrounging for space on tiny little pieces of public broadcasting real estate. How many times could we land a pitch on All Things Considered , This American Life , Marketplace , etc.? And when we worked to conform to the needs of these shows, how were we doing at cultivating our own unique style and vision for audio storytelling?
This was the time that I think of as the “podcast revolution.” And it was happening right around the time I was having success reporting on culture war stories -- kind of making it my brand. I started working with the people at AIR -- the Association of Independents in Radio. They had a mentorship program to help people develop new podcast projects. I worked with the incredible editor/producer Julia Barton to define the initial ideas of my program Us & Them.
After Us & Them was a sturdy concept, I pitched it to Scott Finn, who was then West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s executive director. The success I’d had with Textbook War, prompted Scott to want something else from me. I wanted to stick with America’s culture wars. To be more specific, I was interested in the things that divide Americans. What drives them into entrenched camps of opposing belief and values. Why do they not listen to one another? Finn liked the idea and we started planning. I said since I lived in New York, I couldn’t be hemmed into producing stories that are just about West Virginia. We had a tacit hand-shake agreement that I could report about issues anywhere in the world, but that as much as possible, I’d do my best to root stories in West Virginia. WVPB gave me seed money to get things started.
The first season of Us & Them launched in May 2015 and was mostly a collaboration between me and the extraordinarily talented duo of Catherine Winter (APM’s In the Dark and Educate ) and Chris Julin (APM Educate ). The show matured wonderfully in subsequent seasons as a result of my collaboration with Mitch Hanley (The Ground Truth) and has really come into its own in my collaboration with editors Ibby Caputo, Loretta Williams and Kate Smith.
When we launched, the “podcast revolution” was about two years old. When we were about six episodes into our first season, shootings at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC by a white supremacist reignited the debate over the Confederate flag. The question at the time: should the banner fly on the capitol grounds in South Carolina or in any other state? We managed to release a timely program that coincided with that unfolding story. The episode opened with me having a conversation with Alice Moore (former Kanawha County School Board Member, who was at the center of the 1974 textbook controversy) in which she defends the flag as part of the history and tradition of the South. The Timbre newsletter, one of the online publications tracking the podcast industry at the time, lauded this program as one of the “Best in Show,” (along with the now famous interview with President Obama on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast). The Timbre wrote in their review:
Depending on which side of the divide you fall on, you’ll either nod along with [Alice’s] argument or perhaps grow enraged. Kay manages to find a place in between the two, demonstrating exactly why he’s the perfect host for this show. He shares Alice’s ideas with a historian who refutes her version of the halcyon days of slavery, but it never feels like a gotcha. Instead, Kay seems to honestly recognize how fact and folklore can conflict and how difficult it can be to separate the two. He brings the point home with a segment about “Dixie,” a song that has come to serve as an anthem to the region. It’s easy to want to spin the history of the South into a story of rebels and underdogs—ideas that Americans naturally latch on to and celebrate. It’s harder to look at the cold, hard facts. And it’s nearly impossible to realize that one person’s symbol of pride is another’s reminder of oppression.
In those early days of Us & Them , the show was frequently lauded and our download numbers kept going up. We had (and still do) many more downloads in places like California, New York and Texas than we get from West Virginians. People were hungry for podcasts and we got attention. People were rebroadcasting our episodes in Canada. We featured another episode about Confederate monuments, which was cited in the New York Times and APM’s The World .
Then in May 2016, West Virginia had a budget crisis and WVPB faced drastic budget cuts. The organization did not renew our funding, despite showing nice signs of growth, positive reviews, our highest downloads ever and awards. WVPB didn’t completely cut ties with us and agreed to continue to be our fiscal sponsor which allowed us to seek grants. So for half of 2016 we looked for funding sources and planned a reboot. The West Virginia Humanities Council said it had some special funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to do stories about community, race and law enforcement. They said, “This sounds like an Us and Them thing.” We also applied for CPB funding through PRX’s “Catapult” project. This gave us hope that we might be able to continue. But in my opinion, the thing that really kept us alive was Donald Trump’s election.
When we were planning the future of Us & Them , we thought after this bruising, brutal 2016 Presidential Campaign, the nation is going to need healing. We'd already heard from psychologists and psychiatrists they were seeing more patients during the campaign -- that people were experiencing heightened anxiety. But we couldn't put that piece up because we didn't have funding to finish it. We had plans for other episodes after our reboot as soon as the election was over. Our proposed programs assumed that Hillary Clinton would win. I remember watching the returns texting back and forth with then producing partner Mitch Hanley as the results came in. When it became clear that Donald Trump was gonna win, I remember thinking Us & Them was screwed. Everything we had planned -- the stuff we were going to start working on the day after the election -- was now irrelevant. All of our story ideas made no sense with Donald Trump as president.
But Mitch saw something I didn’t. He said, “With a Trump victory, I think our stock might’ve risen.” He went on to say, “I bet people are about as stunned and confused about this as we are. Our show is designed to help people understand.” And in short order, we started work on three episodes that processed the shock of the election results and Trump’s inauguration into office. We found that these episodes really connected with listeners across the country.
Speaking of connecting with listeners? A lot of people ask me which are you, ‘us’ or ‘them?’ Or, are you the neutral journalist trying to be like a referee calling balls and strikes? I don’t play a role - I am myself, complete with a set of opinions that I don’t try to hide. To be clear, I'm basically a liberal progressive American. I am pretty upfront about that, but I’m quick to remind people that I come from a family and a state full of conservative Republicans -- and Trump Republicans. They are all people that I love. The thing is, I don't always understand them and I dearly want to. So I ask to talk with people across all the things that divide us and I really listen. A lot of Us & Them takes on political issues, but we also delve into race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender, drugs, immigration, etc. I'm often trying to speak with somebody who I just don't understand. I might like them or might not like them, but at the bottom of it, I want to understand somebody who doesn’t see the world my way.
One listener, who really connected with these episodes, was a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He became really interested in podcast programs that were coming from a rural perspective. He invited me to speak at a symposium with two other rural oriented podcasters: Tina Antolini (then producing for Southern Foodways Alliance’s podcast Gravy ) and one of my heroes, Scott Carrier (author, NPR legend and host of the Home of the Brave podcast.) That symposium and a subsequent meeting with the staff of LA’s KCRW helped me understand that people in America’s large metropolitan areas were still feeling the shock of Trump's victory. Many wanted to better understand why he resonated with so many in rural Red State America.
Us & Them and KCRW collaborated on a ten-part series that aired during the 2018 midterm elections. The “Red State/Blue State” pieces were a conversation between two very different regions to help break down the stereotypes of life in “Trump Country” and in “The Blue Bubble” of the West Coast. Also that fall, MSNBC called on me to be a part of a segment. There was a competitive U.S. Senate race in West Virginia and President Trump was frequently visiting the state hoping to turn a blue seat to red. Around this time, Us & Them was also featured in Current , the news magazine for public media, as an example of the work public media ought to be doing. In the story “How can public media heal a divided nation?” NPR Senior editor Neva Grant said, “If solutions are going to happen, if people are going to come together, it’s going to happen in smaller settings…. Local stations can be a place to invite people in, not just broadcast out.” Us & Them was recognized outside West Virginia, often as a positive voice for West Virginians.
We were getting a message from USC, KCRW, MSNBC and Current that we were a voice for rural America. As we’ve moved into our most recent work, we are embracing the rural aspects of our connection with West Virginia and are working hard to give an account of the culture war divisions in our little part of Appalachia. In this last year, we won a PMJA award for our episode about Abortion in WV. We’ve also looked at the issues that have bedeviled West Virginia for years: economic recovery (the state continues to lose more jobs as the coal industry collapses than it creates), health care (the state has the nation’s highest concentration of elderly and some of the country’s most pernicious opioid epidemic problems) and education (West Virginia’s education system is struggling to adequately school participants for America’s future workforce.) This past year, we’ve produced shows about the challenges grandparents face raising the children of their opioid addicted children and communities working to recover after coal and petrochemical jobs have left from their region.
We’ve also had to adjust our reporting to accommodate the “new normal” of COVID 19 and its impact on everything. We’ve produced shows about how the coronavirus has affected education, health care and specifically, mental health.
There are plenty of things that divide us from each other. Our job is to shine a light on topics that resonate in West Virginia and mid-Appalachia. The coronavirus has taken over so much of our life in the past few months, that required a particular kind of adjustment. Moving ahead, my team needs to determine episodes for our next season. That’s always a big test. How do we determine our priorities?
We research. We read. We talk with people and we listen. Then we determine topics that let me use a unique approach and my voice. We continue to look for stories and topics for Us & Them that are underreported and then, I talk with people who see the world differently. That’s how I learn, by listening. And that can be magical.