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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, October 7, 2003. Interview O-0037. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Failed attempt to establish a radio station in Wautauga County

Barnes describes his failed effort to establish a radio station, owned and operated by the people, in Wautauga County, North Carolina, as part of his work with the North Carolina Fund. According to Barnes, the plan was shot down by Jim Gardner, then a conservative state legislator, who feared putting too much power in the hands of mountain people traditionally known for their Lincoln Republicanism. Barnes's description of how the issue unfolded is indicative of deep-seated political tensions in the state.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, October 7, 2003. Interview O-0037. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

My famous failed attempt at getting a radio station for poor people in the mountains?
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
You know, I heard you briefly talk about that on the other interview that was done in 1995 of you.
BILLY E. BARNES:
Okay. This is a compendium of documents having to do with that. The thing drew a whole lot more attention than I thought it deserved.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
Wow.
BILLY E. BARNES:
All these are newspaper clippings where [the radio controversy was reported]. See, there's one that says, "Is it going to be another Pravda? A government-sponsored newspaper, where actually we—." I got a phone call one day from a friend of mine at OEO. And she said, "We're not getting any proposals that are really innovative. We get the same old crap. And especially we're not getting any public information proposals that are innovative. I want an innovative proposal." I said, "Well, I've got one that's been rolling around in the back of my head." She said, "Send it to me." So, I sent her a proposal to—. What I wanted to do was get a license for a radio station, a fairly low-wattage radio station, that would be in the Boone area that would be owned and operated by a group of poor people. And they would have news of things of interest to poor people about what's available. I don't know. It could be Food Stamps. It could be government commodities. It could be an education program that they're having at the community action agency. I wanted a little newspaper too, just a modest thing. That would go with some regularity to — probably more of a newsletter - low-income people who had been identified by the community action agents or anybody else who wanted it and communicate with them. Also, my idea was that the radio station would possibly even sell some advertising and it wouldn't be a public radio station. It would be a commercial station owned by a nonprofit, but also an important component would be training some people for careers in broadcasting. And the same with the newsletter. It could be training some people for possible careers in journalism. Oh, they loved it. They loved it at OEO. And, they gave us a little bit of money to do the preliminary work. Well, I hired a lawyer. Getting a license for getting a radio station is very complicated. I hired a young attorney who understood what we were trying to do. He went to work trying to get a license. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
BILLY E. BARNES:
The word got out in Washington in the Congress that we had applied, that the North Carolina Fund had a lawyer working trying to get a license for a nonprofit group in Wautauga County to get a permit for radio station to be operated by poor people. And, Jim Gardner, who is, I don't know whether you know anything about Jim Gardner—.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
A little bit.
BILLY E. BARNES:
He's one of the most conservative politicians in North Carolina history. He was a Congressman at the time. He later became lieutenant governor. Thank God, he was never elected governor. Jim started jumping up and down and raising Cain and [so did] the Wautauga Democrat, which is very ill named. Wautauga County has a huge Republican element and has ever since the Civil War; I don't know whether you knew that. The mountain people didn't participate in the Civil War. They didn't own any slaves and so most of them were Lincoln supporters. So, they had a tradition of Republicanism up there. And this was a very, very conservative newspaper and still is. And, they ran the first editorial on it. Well, the other newspapers started to pick it up and before you knew it, there was this dang book full of—. Look at them. Look at them. [Barnes points to scrapbook of more than fifty newspaper articles statewide.]
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
Wow.
BILLY E. BARNES:
All about that stupid little idea I had. The whole thing.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
Who knew that would explode into controversy.
BILLY E. BARNES:
They launched investigations of the North Carolina Fund. They called it a communist plot. It was just unbelievable, the stuff that was stirred up. And, OEO, of course, backed off. There was so much political hoodoo about it up there that they backed off and wouldn't fund the project. And we couldn't afford to fund the project so it died. But that's just one of the little interesting things.