Appalshop has its roots in the War on Poverty and community media movements of the 1960’s. It was born in 1969 as a project of the Community Film Workshop Council (CFWC), a nation-wide jobs training program created by the American Film Institute and Office of Economic Opportunity to teach film and video skills to disadvantaged youths. This era also saw the rise of a community media movement led by social issue filmmakers such as George Stoney, who advocated for teaching people how to use the tools of media production to tell their own stories and address problems in their communities.
It was in this climate that the Community Film Workshop Council sent Bill Richardson, a Yale architecture school graduate with an interest in community filmmaking, to the Appalachian coalfields to launch the Community Film Workshop of Appalachia in the town of Whitesburg, Kentucky, home of The Mountain Eagle and the law offices of Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Bill and his wife Josephine set up a workshop in a storefront on Main Street, complete with 16mm film cameras, audio recorders, and film editing equipment, and waited for interest to spark. He formed a friendship with local high school teacher Carl Banks, who encouraged some of his students to pay the workshop a visit. Interest began to grow, and more and more young people stopped in to learn how to make films in downtown Whitesburg.
Whereas most CFWC workshops were set in urban areas and had some proximity to jobs in film and television, the Whitesburg, Kentucky site was in a coal-industry dominated region of the country where jobs in media production were almost non-existent. Meanwhile, the historic lack of media self-representation in Appalachia, coupled with prevailing stereotypes about mountain culture, had contributed to distorted popular perceptions about life in the region. Through their work in the program, the Whitesburg trainees became acutely aware of the power of documentary filmmaking to counter stereotypes and represent the rich world of stories, conflicts, traditions and cultural changes that surrounded them.
Rather than leave their homes to seek jobs in the media industry, a core group formed a non-profit production and distribution organization that would focus its work on Appalachian art, culture, and social issues. When CFWC funding ended in 1971 they incorporated as the Appalachian Film Workshop (which was soon shortened to “Appalshop”), formed a unique self-management and governance structure, and set a mission to give voice to the stories of mountain people.
A grant from the NEH led to a surge of productivity and as the organization’s reputation grew, it attracted young media activists and youth from around the region, many of whom were influenced by the growing field of Appalachian Studies led by scholars such as Dr. Helen Lewis. By 1974-75, Appalshop began to diversify, creating the Mountain Photography Workshop, the quarterly journal Mountain Review, June Appal Recordings to record and distribute the music of regional musicians, and Roadside Theater, which adapted the storytelling traditions of mountain culture to the stage. In the next decade, Headwaters Television was launched and more Appalshop divisions were created, including the community radio station WMMT-FM and the Appalachian Media Institute, a youth media training program which established an on-going media program for local youth.