Zack Harold

writer/editor

Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, May 30, 2014.

Donald Moore knows everything there is to know about film projectors.

He’s sold bunches of them over his half-century running Moore Theater Supply Company on Lee Street. When a repair call came in, he could usually diagnose the problem over the phone.

Moore, 69, knows which lenses and bulbs to use, based on the screen size and the distance to the screen. He set up theaters all over West Virginia and its surrounding states, including a 1,200-seat movie house in the federal penitentiary in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Unfortunately, there’s just not much demand for his services anymore.

Nobody needs a film projector anymore because there’s no more film. The major movie studios stopped releasing movies on 35 millimeter film last year.

The West Side business is still hanging on, but mostly as Moore’s “man cave.” The space is filled with memorabilia, from old film canisters and projector lenses to movie posters and leftover theater seats.

“It’s just a thing of the past,” Moore said. “It’s a total different business. It’s nothing like it was.”

Here’s how it was:

At one point, Moore’s father owned 15 theaters throughout southern West Virginia, mostly in coal camps.

Every member of the family was expected to help out. On any given Friday night, Moore and his three brothers were at one of the theaters, selling tickets or concessions.

The movie business followed them home, too.

“We popped popcorn year-round in the basement, bagged it up and took it to the theaters,” Moore said. “It was hotter than hell.”

They also made up the preview reels in the basement, taking big rolls of movie trailers and cutting them apart with razor blades. They would pick the trailers they wanted to show and splice them back together with tape.

Each theater would run six movies a week plus cartoons, trailers and newsreels. They got their films from a distributor in Cincinnati. They only received one copy of each film, however, so theaters had to take turns.

“You just bicycled them from one theater to the other.”

It might be weeks before the new John Wayne reached the movie house in your hometown.

On the upside, going to the movies was pretty cheap back then. Moore said in the 1960s, regular price admission at his dad’s theaters was 75 cents for adults and 35 cents for children. On bargain nights—usually Wednesdays and Thursdays, when they played older movies—it dropped to 35 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.

Children could also get in for 15 cents on Saturday mornings, when the theaters would show cartoon reels. They could get a small popcorn and soft drink for 10 cents more.

The theater business started declining by the end of the 1950s, so Moore’s father diversified his business plan. He went to work for Charleston Theater Supply and, a few years later, opened his own theater supply business.

Moore started working with his father in 1962, after graduating from Stonewall Jackson High School. He took over the business when his dad died in 1966, and in 1969 bought out Charleston Theater Supply.

For years he sold everything from projectors, theater seats, movie poster frames and marquee letters. Moore still does the occasional stage curtain installation, although those are few and far between.

“Those jobs only come every 20 years. You put it in, you put it in right and they last forever,” he said.

He now uses the space as a workshop for his other business, the South Charleston Antique Mall, which he and his wife opened in 2005. The tools Moore once used to fix projectors now are used on items he plans to sell at the antique store.

He still likes movies—his favorites are “Shane: and “The High and the Mighty”—but he hasn’t been to a theater in years.

“They don’t match my expectations,” he said.

Moore said it’s difficult to enjoy himself, since he’s trained his eyes to notice every little detail about the projection.

Some things just aren’t like they used to be.

Sushi and exotic fish shop makes for odd but apt combo

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 28, 2014.

It could be an uncomfortable experience, enjoying sushi in the middle of an aquarium shop.

There are all those very-alive fish, just bubbling along while you enjoy a dish of very-recently-alive fish.

But Yuichi Fujita, 59, has made it work.

He is the owner of Fuji’s Sushi and Teriyaki along Jefferson Road in South Charleston. The tiny restaurant shares the building with Fujita’s other business, Fuji’s Reef Shop.

On one side of the small space, there are lights, tanks and chemicals for maintaining saltwater fish tanks, along with several tanks filled with exotic fish.

On the other, there’s a kitchen and a small seating area, including a four-seat counter where diners can eat in the blue light of a large burbling saltwater tank filled with colorful fish and swaying underwater plants.

“Japanese food, one thing that’s good, they put food and nature together,” Fujita said.

He keeps a folder of pictures ripped from Japanese-language museums, depicting restaurants with elaborate gardens or those built into picturesque landscapes. Fujita admires those restaurants and has captured some of that vibe with his shop.

When he opened the business in 2005, it was only supposed to be an aquarium store.

Fujita spent years working in kitchens before opening his own sushi restaurant, Fujita Express, in downtown Charleston. He grew tired of the restaurant business, however, and wanted to switch gears.

Some years before, he saw a saltwater tank in a pet shop and immediately fell in love.

He began researching the hobby, and although the Internet was a much smaller place in the early 2000s, Fujita was soon a self-made expert.

“I’m the kind of person, when you get in, that’s it.”

He installed a saltwater tank in his home, and then another and another.

His wife, Dawn, began to grow impatient with the fishtanks that were taking over their home—there were eventually so many aquariums they had to bring in contractors to upgrade the wiring—so Fujita decided to spin off his hobby into a business.

Things went swimmingly for a few years but business dropped off dramatically after the economy crashed in 2008, as people began cutting back on luxuries.

So Fujita decided to get back into the restaurant business. He built a kitchen in his shop and started doing to-go orders.

He soon had a sizable group of regular customers.

“Then people said, ‘why don’t you open a few seats?’”

Fujita added a few tables and a counter last year but kept the seating capacity low.

The restaurant is a small operation—Fujita and his wife, Dawn, who comes in around 5 p.m. after she leaves her day job, are the store’s only employees—but Fujita keeps it that way on purpose.

“I don’t want to deal with employees. I do everything. Lot of work, but less headaches.”

It gives him a close relationship with his customers.

“Pretty much every customer, I remember.”

He knows which flavors they like and those they do not. There’s a lawyer who doesn’t want anything green on his plate. There’s another customer that can’t stand green onions or anything with a similarly strong taste.

Some regulars trust Fujita so implicitly they don’t even order.

“Some customers, they’ll just say ’make me something,'” he said.

Fujita doesn’t think he’s that impressive, however. It’s part of his job to have a good relationship with his clientele. He used to work with a bartender who could remember the usual drinks for a few hundred regular customers.

“If you do it a long time, that’s your skill,” he said. “I have a good long-term memory.”

Running a small shop also gives Fujita the freedom to take time off. The store is closed this week while he goes fly fishing in Pocahontas County.

Fujita says he didn’t have any hobbies when he first arrived in West Virginia about 20 years ago but wanted something to occupy his time outside the restaurant.

“I didn’t want to be like my father. Work, work, work,” he said. “You want to enjoy your life.”

He saw a travel brochure with photos of fly fishermen and was intrigued. It wasn’t long before his obsessive nature took hold. He drove to Pocahontas County every week to practice casting in the trout-filled Cranberry River. He learned to tie his own flies.

“It’s a beautiful way to catch fish.”

He enjoys stepping into his waders and standing in the middle of a river, witnessing nature from a vantage point few people take time to enjoy.

You could say it’s another way to appreciate the balance between food and nature, except . . .

“I’m 100 percent catch and release,” Fujita said.

 

Swiftwater Cafe adds catering, general store

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

Last Friday morning, the folks at Swiftwater Cafe were already hard at work on lunch.

The long metal prep table in the restaurant’s new catering kitchen was filled with fruit, sandwich and cookie trays as employees rushed to fill orders.

The space—located on the first floor of the Daniel Boone Building on Capitol Street—was formerly a beauty salon, but when the salon’s owner retired earlier this year, Swiftwater owner Teddy Queen purchased the space and had it completely renovated.

The walls are painted bright green to match the restaurant’s color scheme, and a big window decal announces “Swiftwater Catering is open for business.”

Queen, 39, started doing small breakfast and lunch catering orders as soon as Swiftwater opened in 2003, although the workspace wasn’t ideal.

He and his employees were trying to prepare large numbers of sandwiches and wraps in the same small kitchen where they fixed lunch orders.

“It was very crowded,” he said.

After a few years he expanded the operation into a small closet-like space in the back of the beauty salon next door. That allowed a little more room for catering, but the space was not equipped for large orders.

Then earlier this year, the hair salon went out of business and Queen had the chance to buy the space.

He hadn’t planned to expand just yet. Last year, he opened the Swiftwater General Store on Capitol Street and purchased a new van for the business. But he decided to take the leap anyway.

“I said ‘Well, we’re stretched a little thin but let’s go for it.’ I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and the demand was there,” he said.

He opened the catering kitchen in early April.

The storefront gives Swiftwater a larger presence on Washington St., which Queen hopes will catch peoples’ attention and bring in more business. His catering operation is mostly limited to downtown Charleston right now but he wants to expand into Kanawha City and South Charleston, too.

The expanded catering business also has allowed Swiftwater to hire more employees.

While the cafe once had just three employees, plus Queen, the restaurant now has 12 people on staff, including two at the Swiftwater General Store on Capitol St.

Queen originally wanted to build a country store in Fayetteville, and even bought a piece of property and had architects draw up some blueprints. But there were problems with the land’s septic permits and Queen couldn’t seem to get any help from county officials. Then his wife, Lisa, got a new job she really enjoyed, and the couple was hesitant about moving their children.

“I said, ‘Too many factors are building up.’”

He decided to put his plans on hold for a while. Then, last year, a storefront opened across from Davis Park on Capitol Street and Queen jumped at the opportunity.

The Swiftwater General Store opened in September 2013.

“It’s been an immediate success,” he said. “I get thanked 15 times a day for putting it there.”

The store’s interior evokes an old-timey general store, which was partly inspired by Queen’s family history. His great-grandparents ran a coal company store in Fayette County, and one of his grandfathers ran a grocery store in Matewan.

In addition to snack cakes, potato chips and other convenience store fare, the wood shelves along the left wall of the store are stocked with essentials: canned food, toilet paper, paper towels, toiletries, a big jar of pickled eggs. Just about anything customers might need in a pinch.

The opposite wall is lined with coolers. The grab-and-go cooler is stocked with sandwiches, wraps, salads and other quick, healthy lunch offerings. There are pop coolers and a few beer coolers stocked with craft brews. Customers are welcome to build their own six packs.

The store has a steady stream of regulars, who pop in to pick up a cup of fresh coffee or a cinnamon roll from the bakery case. Queen said the store is perfectly positioned to attract business from surrounding office buildings as well as Davis Park.

“It’s going to be the best decision I’ve made long-term,” he said.

Stay Cozy

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Blink, and you might miss Kin Ship Goods’ new headquarters on Lee Street.

The company recently relocated from Louisville, Ky., to a tiny two-story building sandwiched between the former Stone & Thomas department store and the AT&T building.

It’s a little reminiscent of the house from the Stuart Little movies. But it’s the perfect home for a company whose unofficial motto is “Stay cozy.”

Kin Ship Goods produces a line of light-hearted home goods and apparel that have been featured in Country Living Magazine and websites like Apartment Therapy, Design Sponge and ModCloth.

Their most popular item is a T-shirt featuring a silhouette of a cat’s head, overlaid with the slogan “Ask me about my cat.”

“That’s what pays the rent, co-owner Hillary Harrison said.

The company’s other products are similarly ebullient. The second-most popular design depicts a kitten reading a book. Another design features a mountain sunrise, and another sports the faux-profane catchphrase “What the Cuss?”

There’s a baby romper that boasts “Too young for coffee but still going strong.”

Co-founders Dan Davis, 30, and Harrison, 33, started Kin Ship Goods in 2009, while they were both working at an art gallery. Davis was a longtime screen printer and Harrison worked as the gallery’s purchasing agent.

“We said ’Let’s just make our own stuff,'” Davis said.

The operation started small, with Davis printing shirts in a spare bedroom. But then Kin Ship Goods was featured on the front page of Etsy, an online marketplace for crafters and artists.

Orders came flooding in, and the business eventually became steady enough for Davis and Harrison to quit their other jobs and devote their full attention to Kin Ship.

The couple began talking about moving to West Virginia three years ago.

“The timing felt right,” Harrison said.

She was raised in Sissonville but moved away as soon as she graduated from high school.

“I knew the whole time I grew up here I was going to leave when I turned 18,” she said.

But the mountains kept calling her home.

Davis, who was born in Germany but raised in Louisville, visited Charleston with Harrison and found he liked the area, too.

“I like that it’s big, but it doesn’t feel big,” he said.

They began looking for a commercial space around the area to house Kin Ship’s new headquarters, but it wasn’t easy.

The couple found some places they could afford, but were not big enough to accommodate their growing screenprinting operation. They found places that could accommodate their business, but those spaces were far too expensive.

Then, while visiting the Mountain State last Thanksgiving, they noticed a “For Rent” sign on the little building on Lee St.

“I’d never noticed it before, and I grew up here,” Harrison said. “It just looked kind of abandoned.”

It was abandoned.

Davis and Harrison don’t know much about the history of their new building, but they have been told it formerly housed a dress shop and a cafe. At some point, Stone & Thomas might have used the space to store its Christmas decorations.

“We haven’t been able to find any solid information,” Harrison said.

Davis heard a tailor tried to set up shop in the space several years ago but it didn’t work out. The space has been vacant ever since.

The space was perfect for what Harrison and Davis wanted to do, however. They moved into their new headquarters in January.

It was hardly a smooth transition. First, a chemical spill that left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without potable water. Then, a water line burst and flooded the downstairs of Kin Ship’s new home, ruining lots of merchandise and destroying several of Davis’s printing screens.

They weren’t able to begin filling orders again until early April, but are now in full operation.

Davis set up his large screen printing presses in the back of the shop. He plans to build an even bigger press in the near future, that will allow him to screen print textiles.

Harrison works from a desk in the middle of the room, where she stuffs hand-printed boxes with t-shirts, sweat shirts, pillow cases, tote bags and coffee cups from a nearby shelf.

The couple plans to open a small store at the front of the building on June 26, in time for the city’s annual FestivALL celebration.

The shop will offer Kin Ship Goods merchandise along with other locally-made products and other unique items. Davis and Harrison also plan to host art exhibits in the space.

A Job You Wear

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

On June 15, 2015, elected officials, members of the public, and journalists crammed into the dark wood-paneled council chambers at Charleston City Hall to watch Kanawha Circuit Judge Todd Kaufman administer the oath of office to Mayor Danny Jones. He had been reelected just a few weeks earlier, carrying 62 percent of the vote over Democrat candidate Paul Monroe and independent challenger William Carpenter.

Although the swearing-in ceremony carried much less pomp and circumstance than a presidential or gubernatorial inauguration, it was a historic occasion for Charleston. Once Jones said “so help me God,” he officially began his fourth term as mayor, the longest tenure in city history. It was a milestone for Jones, too. With 13 years under his belt—and three more to go—he has spent more time as mayor of Charleston than at any other job in his life.  

Since he returned to his hometown after a two-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, which included some time driving a truck in Vietnam, and a yearlong stay at Marshall University, where he studied political science, Danny Jones has worked as a bartender, bouncer, cook, waiter, gravedigger, bottled water salesman, restaurant owner, public relations man, county sheriff, state delegate, and radio talk show host, among other gigs. By his count, Jones has held 35 jobs in his 65 years.

Political opponents criticized him for this when he first ran for mayor in 2003. They said Jones, the Republican nominee, wouldn’t have the attention span necessary to run a city government. After he won that race with more than 57 percent of the vote, his Democratic opponent Chris Smith came to congratulate him and offer a word of advice. He told Jones, “I want you to stick with this.”

Little did Smith—or anyone else—realize how well the mayor’s office would fit Jones. “Some people are suited for a job, and some people aren’t. This is a job that he is more than suited for,” says Charleston Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis. “It’s one he can get out and move around, or sit behind a desk and face a challenge. He loves challenges.”

There have been lots of challenges since Jones took over. His administration has faced budget problems, legal battles, and deadly tragedies. Jones was mayor during one of the worst environmental disasters of the century—when Freedom Industries dumped thousands of gallons of industrial cleaner into the Elk River, contaminating Charleston’s water supply and leaving its residents without potable tap water for days. While some government officials shrank from the ensuing media attention, Jones rose to the occasion, giving voice to the frustrations of his residents and demanding action against the perpetrators.

There have been personal struggles, too, which were often lived out in the local media. During his time in office Jones has been married, had two young sons, got divorced, battled prostate cancer, and dealt with the multiple drug-related arrests of his eldest son Zac, who was 13 when his father took office. While he might not have handled all these challenges perfectly, he has earned a reputation for addressing any situation with unwavering candor. “The one thing I like about Mayor Jones is, I know where I stand. He is honest and direct with his thoughts,” Davis says. “It’s politically incorrect, but it works.”

This is Jones’ modus operandi. “What else is there but the truth? The truth is to be used. The reason we don’t get to the bottom of issues is because people won’t tell the truth,” he says. It’s difficult to believe such a figure exists in our cynical age: a politician who speaks the truth for truth’s sake. You might even be inclined to believe he’s lying, but Jones is not blowing smoke. He’s not that kind of politician. He’s a mayor.

Occupying the space

Most mornings you can find Jones at the only Starbucks in city limits, located in the center court of the Charleston Town Center mall. He reads the newspaper over a small breakfast: a cup of coffee, a PowerBar, and maybe a pastry from the counter. Jones says he comes here to look at women. True to his politically incorrect nature, the mayor is a notorious flirt. But that’s just a bit of his barroom days showing through. Sit and talk with him, and you begin to see what is really on his mind.

Sitting on a stiff couch at a shopping mall coffee shop, Jones is surrounded by his city. He often stops mid-sentence to shout a greeting to a federal judge, lawyer, police officer, journalist, or taxi driver. Sometimes he greets people he doesn’t know. The strangers inevitably return the greeting. Jones calls this “occupying the space,” a concept he picked up from a political science professor at West Virginia State University, where he took a few classes while serving as Kanawha County Sheriff. “You’re mayor every moment you’re awake,” he says. “It’s not a job you work. It’s a job you wear.”

Danny Jones is a performer. During his time as county sheriff, he acted in local productions of Li’l Abner, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Music Man, and Annie Get Your Gun, which also featured a young Jennifer Garner. He considers playing the titular character in Abner the highlight of his life—besides, of course, his children. What was the attraction? “The power. You’re onstage. There’s 750 people in the audience and you can raise your eyebrows and they start laughing.”

But having your name perpetually on a marquee isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jones’ insistence on wearing his job and occupying his space often causes his critics to attack the man as much as his decisions. Not long after taking office, Jones pushed for a $1-per-week user fee on anyone who worked within city limits. The fee generated $2.5 million in its first year, money the city used to pave roads, hire maintenance workers, and put more than 20 new officers on its police force. Yet many people—particularly those who worked in Charleston but lived elsewhere—balked at the fee. Some still have not forgiven Jones for dipping into their paychecks. Back then, commenters on local news websites gave him the disparaging nickname “Dollar Danny.” The name stuck and still gets regular use in some circles today.

But perhaps nothing has drawn more anger than Jones’ efforts to stop a 2014 state law that repealed all municipal weapons bans on city-owned properties. The mayor lobbied hard against the legislation, publicly calling on lawmakers to kill the bill. His efforts drew vicious criticism from gun rights supporters, and he eventually gave up the fight. “I don’t really fault them at all. I was basically a strawman. It was a tactic,” he says. “But nobody was there to help me. I was fighting that battle alone. I didn’t want to spend my last few years fighting something I cannot win.”

Either of these episodes, spun in the right way by opponents, could have ended his political career. Fighting to raise taxes and ban guns certainly would not work well for most candidates running on a Republican ticket. And yet he remains unrepentant about the battles he has picked even when, as with the gun ban controversy, he lost. He says being mayor brings you “nose to nose” with issues that affect your community—leaving little time for blind partisanship. Nanya Friend, former editor and publisher of the conservative Charleston Daily Mail newspaper who has followed Jones throughout his political career, knows what he means. “When you’re running a city it’s hard to be a pure ideologue, because of the issues that come up,” she says. “When you’re dealing with gun crime on the West Side, or need to make sure kids are safe in community centers, you get a different point of view.”

Amazingly, Jones’ habit of following his gut instead of the party line does not seem to have hurt him politically. If anything, it might have helped. Councilwoman Davis says this is because city politics are decidedly nonpartisan. “If you asked me to tell you who is a Democrat or Republican, I’d have to stop and think. When you come to the city level, you’re working for your neighborhoods. You’re working to make your city stronger. You don’t have time to think about who is what,” she says. “You don’t stay in office unless people feel you have the passion and they’re seeing change.”

Davis, for the record, is a Democrat. She was elected in 1999 and served for four years with Mayor Jay Goldman before Jones took office. “When I first went into City Hall, there was an area where there were hundreds of plans. Each administration makes its own plans of what it would like to see in Charleston,” she says. The plans in that room had never come to fruition. There’s only so much a mayor can accomplish in one term—and Charleston voters only allowed one of the five mayors before Jones to serve a second term. “Inevitably, what you have is a lot of plans gathering dust,” Davis says.

There aren’t many plans gathering dust now. Jones says he originally planned to end his mayoral career in 2011. But as he approached the end of his second term, he started to rethink his decision. “I thought eight (years) would be enough. But … there’s so many things that couldn’t have been done.”

Making a mark

Driving into Charleston at night, heading east on Interstate 64, the first thing that will catch your eye is the gilded dome of the West Virginia State Capitol. If it’s a summer night, another very impressive structure will come into view just seconds later. Appalachian Power Park is home of the Charleston Power, a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. Their games are a favorite social occasion for Charlestonians of all stripes, even those who don’t really like baseball.

But Appalachian Power Park almost didn’t happen. Early on, the project was incredibly unpopular. According to a Charleston Gazette article at the time, a poll found 75 percent of voters opposed the new park. Democrat mayoral candidate Chris Smith promised in his 2003 campaign to divert the $12 million state lawmakers set aside for the project to other needs like sewer system upgrades or a new library. Jones also expressed doubts about the project, but promised to see it completed. Over the following two years his administration oversaw the demolition of an old factory and grocery store on the site, and dealt with lawsuits that temporarily tied up the state funding. In the end, a modern, $23 million complex rose on the city’s East End and Power Park opened just in time for the 2005 baseball season. “It’s one of those amenities that make Charleston a better place to live,” Jones says. “It makes everything look better.” Now businesses and apartments are moving into a side of town that once contained little more than abandoned warehouses.

As you leave the ballpark, make your way toward the Kanawha River and turn right on Kanawha Boulevard. After a few blocks, you’ll spot another spectacular bit of architecture: Haddad Riverfront Park. What began as a simple concrete amphitheater along the Kanawha River is now covered with a sweeping white canopy, a little reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. Down front, the stage has its own arching canopy, designed to look like the paddlewheel of the sternwheeler boats that once frequented the adjacent waterway.

This park is also a monument to Jones’ tenacity. In 2008 he secured $2.4 million in federal earmarks from then-Senator Robert C. Byrd to build the roof at Haddad, which paved the way for additional donations from local philanthropists. The park, where spectators once blistered in the sun, is now the centerpiece of almost every summertime celebration in Charleston’s downtown.

By the beginning of 2018, Jones hopes to have completed another ambitious improvement project for the city. Workers have begun construction on a nearly $100 million revamp of the city’s Civic Center, largely funded by a half-cent sales tax passed by City Council in October 2013. It’s a project he has wanted to tackle since he first took office. “When I was in a show (in the Little Theater) in 1986, I was performing and the lights went out. It was a worn facility and needed work,” he says. “We don’t know how many events we lost, but we lost some.”

Now the aging, utilitarian Civic Center will be updated with a towering glass façade and an overhanging roof, a stylishly updated interior, and an outdoor plaza along the Elk River. Jones believes the project will attract bigger conventions and other events to the city, which will boost the local economy as a whole. “I’ve been in some world-class venues and I think this is definitely going to be one,” he says.

There have been other big changes since Jones took office. Businesses are growing on the city’s East End and West Side. Capitol Street in the heart of downtown was once a derelict row of boarded-up storefronts with a bad reputation; now it’s the city’s main cultural thoroughfare. But the accomplishment Jones is most proud of—the thing he hopes will define his legacy as mayor—is something you can’t see. It’s something visitors, as well as most residents, will never consider. “Barney Frank once told me you never get credit for what you prevent,” he says.

In 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts named Charleston as one of worst cities in America for unfunded pension liabilities. At the time, the city had  saved only a quarter of the $270 million it owed in firefighter and police pensions. Jones knew that kind of debt could bankrupt a city—pension debts are what drove Detroit, Michigan into economic disaster—so he began looking for ways to pay down the debt. The city instituted hiring freezes on its fire and police departments, then made deep cuts to the city budget in 2010, removing across-the-board raises for city employees for the first time since Jones took office. In 2015, the city instituted a half-percent sales tax, expected to generate $13 million a year by 2029. Although the city still has hundreds of millions in pension debts on the books, Charleston is now on track to have its accounts settled within 25 years.

Jones did not tackle any of these challenges alone, and he admits that. He’s proud to have built a team of smart people who know how to get things done. But he can be credited for creating an environment where good things can thrive. “Like him or not, you have to respect that he wants to push Charleston and make it move forward,” Davis says. Ric Cavender, executive director of Charleston Main Streets, says this will be the legacy of Jones’ administration. “He’s somebody that’s up for new ideas. His vision will have a residual effect. These aren’t changes that will go away.” Friend, of the Daily Mail, agrees. “I’m not sure I’d want to be his successor.”

Vacating the space

Danny Jones’ great-great-grandfather, Henry Clay Dickinson, was the sixth mayor of Charleston. His administration has only one notable accomplishment: Dickinson was the city’s shortest-serving mayor, lasting only a month in office before he unexpectedly died.

Dickinson’s great-great-grandson is now the city’s longest-serving mayor. But he has no intention of dying in office. When Jones announced he would seek a fourth term as mayor, he made it clear it would also be his final term. Will he change his mind? “That ain’t gonna happen. We need to have younger people in these positions,” he says.

He believes leaving office in 2019 is best for the city. But you also get the feeling the job is wearing thin for Jones. He finds being mayor an inherently lonely job. “It is, by nature, selfish. You have to base everything around yourself because that’s whose name is on the line.”

In the meantime, Jones is content. In January, he made his return to local airwaves as the host of “580 Live with Danny Jones,” an hour-long news talk show on AM station WCHS. On a snowy morning in February, he arrives at the station a few minutes before the start of the show. He exits his black Toyota and heads into the building without feeding the parking meter. The blue and yellow “Danny Jones, Charleston Mayor” sticker on his rear bumper ensures he won’t be ticketed.

Inside, Jones makes small talk with the receptionist and says hello to news director Jeff Jenkins before stepping into the subterranean broadcast studio. He carries no notes or other preparatory material other than the newspaper he had at Starbucks earlier in the morning. “When I go on the air, I never know what I’m going to talk about,” he says.

He has no difficulty filling the silence. In the radio studio, Jones is animated behind the microphone. He shakes his head, swivels in his chair, and talks with his hands. He muses about the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the U.S. Senate’s promise to block any appointee from the Obama administration. He talks about the sentencing of executives from Freedom Industries. Owner Dennis Farrell and CEO Gary Southern each received 30 days in jail, while other officials got probation. “They should’ve gotten a lot more time,” Jones tells radio listeners. “The damage those people did to this community is incalculable when you think about it. Three hundred thousand people were affected by what they did … and it lasted for days and days and days.”

He also talks about the political battles being fought at the State Capitol a few miles away. Jones, who served two years in the House of Delegates before leaving to run a barbecue restaurant full-time, says the state is in the worst financial shape he’s seen. He criticizes lawmakers—of both parties—for not doing more to fix it. “This is conviction-driven government. They have no new taxes. That is what they believe,” he says. “Where’s the money going to come from?”

Jones holds up Charleston as a model of effective government, touting his town as “a sea of certainty.” “A place where we give great service. A place that has good finances, unlike the rest of the state. I’m so glad we planned for 13 years. We put things in order. We did things the way they needed to be done,” he says. But he doesn’t spend too much time congratulating himself—he wants to hear from listeners.

Throughout the hour Jones asks again and again for calls. Two people phone in wanting to talk about medical marijuana. Jones isn’t against the idea, but is skeptical state lawmakers would legalize pot. Someone else calls in to ask why the city hasn’t sued over the Freedom Industries spill. “Can I answer that? We have,” he says.

He continues pushing listeners to call in. He wants something to sink his teeth into. Danny Jones wants a challenge. “We’ll take your calls and talk about any issue you want to talk about,” he hums into the microphone as the show draws to a close. “We have about four minutes left if you’d like to call the show. We’d like to hear from you if you’d like to ask me anything. You know, I am the mayor.”

Late Edition

This story was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

GZAround 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, the newsroom staffs of the Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette were called to the front lobby of their shared headquarters at 1001 Virginia Street East in downtown Charleston. Employees immediately knew something strange was happening. Although situated on opposite sides of the same hallway, the newsrooms seldom had contact with one another—and certainly did not hold mid-Sunday afternoon meetings by the front door.

Workers walked down the stairs from their second-floor offices and stood around the perimeter of the high-ceilinged lobby. Only about 30 people were in attendance. The newsrooms ran bare-bones staffs on Sundays, mostly just the sports departments along with copydesk staff, who edit stories and design the next day’s paper.

When everyone was assembled, recently named Gazette publisher Susan Chilton Shumate spoke up with an announcement: Effective immediately, everyone worked for the same publication, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The brand-new publication would go to press in just a few hours. After more than 100 years as fierce competitors, the Gazette and Daily Mail were no more.

A flurry of confused activity consumed the newsrooms, according to several employees who spoke with West Virginia Focus. They asked not to be named, for fear of losing their jobs. Both papers had been planning their respective Monday editions since the week before—now Daily Mail editors had to send each story and photo to the Gazette. Daily Mail copy editors went to the Gazette newsroom to help lay out the paper but had trouble accessing the computers since they did not have log-ins for the Gazette’s system. Someone cobbled together a new Gazette-Mail flag for the top of the front page. Charley West, the cartoon punster who had appeared in every issue of the Daily Mail since 1958, was nowhere to be found.

Copies of the reborn newspaper arrived on newsstands and doorsteps Monday morning. The front page featured a story about a domestic violence pilot program from crime reporter Tyler Bell, of the former Daily Mail, and a story about the Public Service Commission of West Virginia by business reporter Andrew Brown of the late Gazette. Both were listed as “staff writers.” A photo spread of public murals took up the middle of the page—although copy editors, in their haste, had forgotten to include an accompanying story by Gazette city reporter Rachel Molenda.

But the big news on that Monday’s front page—the “play” story, as it is called in newspaper lingo—does not feature a byline. The headline simply reads: “Announcing the Charleston Gazette-Mail.”

The text of the article was the same as an email sent to staffers around 5 p.m. Sunday. The statement also was published online around 8 p.m. Sunday night. “Beginning today, the two newspapers are combining newsroom functions with the exception of editorial page content,” it read. “Welcome to the Charleston Gazette- Mail.”

The story assured readers the new Gazette-Mail would retain two independent editorial pages—a conservative Daily Mail page and liberal Gazette page—and the new, larger staff would be able to cover more news than ever before. “This is not one paper gobbling up the other. It is a combination of the two newsroom staffs working in cooperation to produce the most comprehensive news product in West Virginia.” What the story did not mention was the interesting timing of this change.

Paper Route

The Gazette and Daily Mail had shared the same printing press, advertising, circulation, and business operations under a joint operating agreement established in 1958, but the newsrooms had remained independent. The Daily Gazette Company owned the Gazette, while MediaNews owned the Daily Mail. Each company held a 50-percent stake in Charleston Newspapers—the legal name for their joint operations—until 2004 when MediaNews sold the Daily Mail to the Daily Gazette Company for a reported $55 million.

The deal drew scrutiny from the federal government, and in 2007 the U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust suit alleging the Daily Gazette Company “planned to deliberately transform a financially healthy and stable Daily Mail into a failing newspaper and close it.” Three years later U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver issued a final judgment in the case, requiring that the Daily Mail remain a daily newspaper and returning control of the paper to MediaNews Group. No changes could be made to this arrangement without federal approval for as long as the judgment was in effect. Copenhaver set the ruling to expire five years from the date it was issued: July 19, 2010. It seems no one outside the newspapers’ upper management noticed as the fifth anniversary approached.

In the meantime, the world became an increasingly inhospitable place for newspapers. Especially after the Great Recession, publications all over the country folded as a result of diminishing advertising revenues and faltering subscription numbers. Charleston’s newspapers were not immune.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent five and a half years working at the Daily Mail, leaving in January 2015 to become managing editor of West Virginia Focus. During my final months at the Daily Mail I watched as the company made efforts to cut costs, raise revenues, and shore up its finances. Some of these changes were relatively small, like replacing expensive comic strips with less expensive ones. Others were more pronounced.

In January 2014, the Daily Mail sold its longtime domain name, www.dailymail.com, to the Daily Mail of London. The much larger London newspaper had coveted the web address for years, and the sale netted Charleston Newspapers around $1.6 million, according to news reports from the time. In October 2014, the Daily Mail and Gazette increased their newsstand prices from 50 cents to 75 cents Monday through Saturday, and from $1.50 to $2 for the Sunday paper. The newspapers also began producing joint editions for holidays. Subscribers received combined papers on Thanksgiving and Christmas 2014 as well as on New Year’s Day and Memorial Day 2015.

The company got rid of its in-house custodial staff, allowing some of those workers to move to other departments, and began contracting with an outside company for janitorial services. In January 2015, employees were required to begin using a new time clock and automated payroll system, which the company installed to replace its retired payroll clerk. Charleston Newspapers also switched to a thinner-weight newsprint in early 2015. This initially caused some headaches, as the paper had a tendency to break while passing through the printing press, leading to multiple delivery delays.

But the biggest indicator of Charleston Newspapers’ financial distress would not be made public until 10 days after the merger was announced, when the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) filed a federal lien against the company. It turns out Charleston Newspapers had fallen behind in payments to the PBGC to the tune of $1.34 million. So as the clock counted down on Copenhaver’s final judgment, executives had begun eyeing the company’s biggest cost-saving measure of all: combining the two papers.

Press Release

At 3 p.m. Monday, July 20, staff members of the newly combined paper gathered in a conference room to hear from top executives and editors about the future of the company. A staffer who attended the meeting provided West Virginia Focus with an audio recording. Shumate began with a brief statement, echoing the story in that morning’s paper. “We’re not losing one newspaper … we’re combining them together to make the best possible news product we can for this area, for this size paper.” She said the new, combined newsroom would be “considerably larger,” allowing reporters to write “deeper stories” and “take a different or more creative look.”

But Shumate made clear there would not be enough room for all existing employees. At the time of the merger the Daily Mail had around 33 full-time positions while the Gazette had 44 employees. The newly combined newsroom would only have room for 67 people. Every member of the newsroom staff—with the exception of former Gazette executive editor Rob Byers and former Daily Mail editor and publisher Brad McElhinny—would have to reapply for his or her job. The newspaper would offer severance packages for those who chose not to reapply and those who were not rehired.

McElhinny encouraged employees to view this as a positive step. “If you feel stuck in a beat or stuck in a role, there are going to be new opportunities,” he said. “This is not newsroom versus newsroom. This is, I swear, an attempt to find the best possible personnel moving forward.”

About halfway through the meeting, staffers began to ask questions about the merger. One asked why the change was so abrupt. “There’s no real easy way to do something like this,” said Trip Shumate, president and chief financial officer of Charleston Newspapers and Susan Shumate’s husband.

Another staffer asked how long the merger had been in the works. No one answered. Susan Shumate only said, “It’s a necessity. I know that’s not the answer. But unfortunately now, it’s an economic reality.” She said the company planned to send out a press release to “make a positive spin” on the situation. The statement drew a few rueful laughs—the papers were usually in the business of deciphering “spin,” not publishing it.

The meeting did little to allay some staff members’ concerns about the future of their jobs. For some, it seemed to add insult to injury. “They didn’t have answers to legitimate questions,” said one former Daily Mail reporter following the meeting. “There’s just so many I-don’t-knows.”

But others were optimistic, excited about what a larger newsroom might be able to accomplish. In their minds a larger staff would give reporters freedom to cover stories they couldn’t before, give copy editors more time to work on pages, and make photographers’ schedules a little less hectic. “I think the Gazette-Mail is in a position to do great things,” one editor said.

In the intervening weeks, the two staffs grew steadily more comfortable working together. The copy desk staffs divvied up pages, while editors worked together to assign stories. Erstwhile Daily Mail reporters went on assignment with former Gazette photographers, while former Daily Mail photographers shot photos for ex-Gazette reporters.

The competition between the two papers did not completely cease, however. Although they were no longer jockeying for stories, staffers were now competing for jobs. Some employees cranked into overdrive, determined to prove themselves before the rehiring process was over. “It’s easy to spot somebody that’s going to an interview,” one staffer said. “They’re dressed better than they have been all summer.” Others became listless. Suddenly unsure of their roles in the newsroom, their bylines began appearing less and less frequently.

Employee interviews began on Monday, August 10, conducted in the same conference room where employees first learned about the rehiring process. Tables were arranged to resemble a capital letter I. Shumate, Byers, and McElhinny sat at one end with large binders full of resumes. Employees sat at the opposite end. One employee said the three-judge panel reminded her ofAmerican Idol.

Each interview took around 15 minutes. McElhinny or Byers led the conversation, depending on which newsroom the employee came from. They asked why the employee wanted the job and quizzed them about their work experience. Shumate mostly remained silent, staffers said, only occasionally chiming in with a question. Almost every employee West Virginia Focus interviewed described his or her interview using the same word: “awkward.”

Some opted to avoid the process altogether. Like several employees, Gazette reporter Rusty Marks opted to take severance. He spent more than a few sleepless nights mulling his options. “I’ve been at the Gazette more than half my life,” he says. “I had intended to retire from the Charleston Gazette. I’d say it’s one of the four toughest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”

But Marks, 50, says he expects the newspaper will see more layoffs in the near future. “I just wasn’t willing to take the chance the paper would still be around in some kind of form I could live with in 15 more years,” he says. “I don’t want to be 55 or 60, laid off, and much more unemployable.”

Although he knew there was a chance he would be laid off, Daily Mail photographer Bob Wojcieszak wasn’t too worried. He’d first arrived at the newspaper in the early 1990s and had proved himself as a more than capable photographer. His photo essay about a local homeless shelter won Best Photo Feature at the 2015 West Virginia Press Association awards ceremony, held August 15.

But when Wojcieszak arrived at work on Tuesday, August 18 he quickly noticed something was amiss. He tried to log onto the paper’s computer system to check his assignments for the day but couldn’t. He rebooted the computer and tried to log on again. This time there was an error message. “It said my account had been deleted,” he says.

A few minutes later he received a call on his cell phone. It was Crystal McIntyre, Charleston Newspapers’ human resources director. She instructed him to report immediately to her office. “There’s Crystal, and Susan, and Rob, and Brad. Basically, they told me I didn’t ‘fit their vision.’ Whatever that means.”

Wojcieszak was asked to forfeit his parking garage keycard and key to the photo lab. McIntyre offered to escort him from the building and box up his possessions later. He balked. “They weren’t even going to let me say goodbye to anyone.” Wojcieszak walked back to the newsroom, shook a few hands, and collected his things. He already had everything packed up, assuming he would have to move to the Gazette newsroom sometime soon. His recent West Virginia Press Association award was still lying on the desk.

Reporter Tyler Bell learned of the layoffs over the phone. He got a call that morning from the newspaper but ignored it. Then his girlfriend, a copy editor in the former Daily Mail newsroom, called and said she was let go. Bell realized what the missed call was probably about. He called back and reached McIntyre, who put McElhinny on the phone. “I just start laughing because I know what’s coming,” Bell says. His time at the Daily Mail had ended after only seven months.

In all, seven people were laid off, including four employees from the former Gazette newsroom and three from the Daily Mail. An additional eight opted to take severance or left for other jobs, while three—the Daily Mail’s Charlotte Smith and Craig Cunningham, as well as Paul Nyden from the Gazette—decided to retire. All told, the rehiring process cost the Gazette-Mail 18 staffers.

West Virginia Focus asked Shumate for comment after the rehiring process was completed. She declined our request for an interview but sent a press release that also appeared in the Friday, August 21 newspaper. “Unfortunately, we said goodbye to a number of employees who were talented, dedicated members of our newspaper family,” she wrote. “The Gazette- Mail will miss them.” Shumate also repeated her assurances the combined papers would “provide deeper, stronger local coverage.”

Hard News

Rob Rabe has heard all this before. “The hair on the back of my neck always stands up when I hear publishers talk about streamlining and efficiency,” says Rabe, a journalism professor at Marshall University who specializes in the history of American newspapers. “That’s what they always say when one of these happens. Then a year, two, three years out, that doesn’t always happen.”

When papers merge, Rabe says, it’s common for publishers to tout a bigger, better paper. But as advertising and circulation continue to decline, it usually isn’t long before another round of layoffs. “I’ll be surprised if in three or four or five years the combined newsroom isn’t substantially smaller. That’s the way it seems to go,” he says.

Democratic political consultant Tom Susman says he feels the Gazette-Mail is living up to Shumate’s promises, so far. “It appears the paper’s thicker, there’s more content in it. It seems like they’re maintaining a writing staff and covering more stories.” But Susman, also a former newspaperman, predicts it will be more difficult to pitch stories. In the past, if one paper didn’t bite on a story, there was a good chance the competition would. Now, you get one shot. Conrad Lucas, chairman of the state Republican Party, wonders how the newspaper will handle political endorsements in the coming election year, with the newspaper’s dueling opinion pages. “Is every candidate going to be endorsed by the Gazette-Mail?”

There is some effort to postpone the inevitable. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is now pursuing a possible suit against Charleston Newspapers, alleging executives violated Copenhaver’s judgment by planning the merger while the judgment was still in effect. “This conduct, if proved, is a violation of the Antitrust Act,” Morrisey wrote in a petition filed in Putnam County Circuit Court on Aug. 13. The attorney general asked the court to cease “further merging” of the newspapers until the company complies with his subpoena. At press time, judges have not taken any action on Morrisey’s request.

It’s difficult to imagine what “further merging” might be left. All around Charleston, at gas stations and fast food restaurants, it is common to see two newspaper vending boxes sitting side by side. There’s a blue one for the Gazette and a green one for the Daily Mail. For years, the newspapers in these boxes often looked extremely different. There were different stories on each front page, different photos, different bylines. Now the boxes are sometimes filled with the same newspaper, but most often one box— usually the green one—is left empty.

This is the unfortunate history of American newspapers. It’s a story that has played out again and again throughout the country, in Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Tuscon, and innumerable smaller cities and towns. As with most things, the news just took a little longer to reach West Virginia.

Singer Todd Snider feels at home on ‘Mountain Stage’

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014.

My conversation with songwriter Todd Snider started off pretty normal.

Normal, at least, considering Snider’s confessed love of psychedelic drugs.

We talked about Snider’s upcoming appearance on this Sunday’s “Mountain Stage.” It’s his 15th time on the show, and he feels like he’s part of the family now.

“I can walk right in there and say, ‘Where’s the moonshine?’”

We talked about his acclaimed memoir, “I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like,” a project Snider says he did “for glory and cash.”

He wrote the book with the help of his friend, Tennessean reporter Peter Cooper. Cooper would come over to Snider’s place and get hopped up on coffee. Snider, who was under the influence of something a little stronger, would start rapping and Cooper would begin typing.

They cranked out 90,000 words in less than two weeks.

Next we talked about Snider’s new jam band, Hard Working Americans.

Formed last year, the group also includes guitarist Neal Casal (of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood), bassist Dave Schools (of Widespread Panic), keyboard player Chad Staehly (of Great American Taxi), lap steel player Jesse Aycock and drummer Duane Trucks, the younger brother of slide guitarist Derek Trucks.

Snider is the band’s lead singer.

“It’s like winning a contest for me,” he said. “I’m kind of in my favorite band.”

He’s found that playing in a jam band is quite different than performing as a solo artists.

“There’s parts of it that feel like your doctor would recommend it,” he said. “I just stand there and do the hippie thing, run in place and sing.”

Hard Working Americans is still considered a side-project, since everyone except Snider plays in another band.

He would be perfectly happy if the group became his full-time gig, however.

“It’s definitely my passion.”

This is when things began to get a little weird.

Snider told me he has been working on a concept album of sorts, based on Hard Working Americans.

But it’s not just a music album. The project also includes a 9,000 word story, a movie, a cartoon show and a board game, all of which explain how to take down ‘The Man.’

“I’ve done tons of research about who The Man is,” Snider said.

The main character of his Hard Working Americans project, Snider explained, is a folk singer called Blind Lemon Pledge. Pledge is sent on a journey to save rock and roll and, by extension, the world.

“’Cause rock and roll is bringing peace to the world,” Snider said.

One of Pledge’s first tasks is to stop Elvis from making movies.

While attempting to free the King, Blind Lemon discovers the 10 forgotten commandments Moses neglected to bring down from Mt. Sinai.

The commandments have survived the ages thanks to musicians, who have passed the commandments down through the generations while hanging out backstage at shows.

The translations are confusing, however. For example, one of the forgotten commandments is “Expose the Fonz.”

“Which really means, ‘Thou shalt be genuine,’” Snider said.

It’s clear he doesn’t have the whole thing worked out yet. But Snider says anyone who plays his “Hard Working Americans” game can take a “Blind Lemon pledge.”

Taking that pledge, he claims, will set off a series of 10 events that will occur over the next 24 hours. Somehow, everyone ends up in Memphis, Tenn.

“It ends in Memphis where we all get embarrassed for thinking what we do is important,” he explained. “The world doesn’t need to be saved from anything, except bands who think they’re going to save the world.”

I’m not sure if Snider means any of this stuff. I’m not sure he knows, either.

But that’s not really important.

Snider probably spent 15 minutes talking about his cartoon/board game/short story/music album project. Although I didn’t understand everything he said, I listened with rapt attention.

That’s what makes Todd Snider such a talented storyteller.

Whether he’s writing a country song, dictating a book, leading a jam band or conducting a very confusing newspaper interview, he delivers each of his words with unmeasured, childlike enthusiasm.

Just like listening to an enthusiastic child, you can’t help but pay attention … even if you have no idea what’s being said.

 

The Flip

This story was originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Talking with Bill Cole, you get the sense he doesn’t use phrases like “over the moon” very often. But that’s how the baritone-voiced, serious-faced Senate President describes his frame of mind on election night 2014.

Although he was not up for reelection, Cole was the chairman for state Senator Evan Jenkins’ campaign for U.S. House of Representatives. He started off election night at a party for Jenkins in Huntington before hopping in his car and speeding down Interstate 64 toward Embassy Suites in Charleston, where Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and members of the state GOP were watching election returns for her U.S. Senate race.

When he was about 10 miles outside the capital city, his cell phone rang with some big news. Jenkins had successfully unseated 38-year incumbent Congressman Nick Rahall. Cole kept the hammer down. “About the time I hit city limits, my phone started blowing up,” he says. It was more big news. The Republican Party, long relegated to a nearly powerless minority status in West Virginia politics, had taken control of the state House of Delegates. By the end of the night, the GOP also would succeed in tying the formerly Democrat-controlled state Senate.

The national Republican “wave,” as it was being called on cable news networks, had come crashing ashore in the landlocked Mountain State. “I was over the moon,” Cole says. “It was a phenomenal night.” The victory celebrations did not last long, however. By the next morning Cole was at the state Capitol, huddling with fellow Republican senators, trying to figure out how a 17-17 tie in the state Senate might work. Then the phone rang again, with a solution to their problem.

Daniel Hall, the 40-year-old Democratic state senator from Wyoming County, had an interesting election night as well. He spent much of 2014 working on the reelection campaign of his friend Raleigh County state Senator Mike Green, who was running against Republican challenger Jeff “Bubblegum” Mullins.

Shortly before the polls closed at 7:30 p.m., Hall sent Mullins a text message to congratulate him for a well-fought campaign. “I was fully confident Mike Green was going to win,” he says. Not long after, the first election returns were released. Green was trailing behind Mullins, but Hall remained optimistic. “I’ve been around politics long enough to know not to panic,” he says. The tide never turned, however. As each batch of poll results came through, Mullins remained in the lead. Hall noticed something else happening, too. All around the state, Republicans were beating their Democrat opponents.

He watched as the Associated Press called the 3rd Congressional District race for Jenkins. In Kanawha County, Delegate Doug Skaff—who was running for a seat in the state Senate—lost to political newcomer Tom Takubo. By the end of the night, Mullins would beat Green with nearly 57 percent of the vote. “All around the state, you’re talking about a complete swing,” Hall says. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”

Soon, Hall got a text from Republican Senator Dave Sypolt, of Preston County. “He said, ‘You always said if it ever got close, you’d consider switching. I think 17-17 is pretty close.’” Sypolt was right; Hall had said that. In 2006 Hall ran for the House of Delegates in Raleigh County as a Republican, only to lose in the primaries. He thought he was finished with politics, got married and moved to Wyoming County, where he registered as a Democrat. “I changed parties just so I could vote,” he says. Like many places in the West Virginia coalfields, Democrats had such tight control of Wyoming County, the outcome of many local races was decided in primary elections. In general elections, Democrats either ran unopposed or faced very weak challengers.

Of course, Hall’s political career was far from over. In 2008 the newly minted Democrat ran for, and won, a seat in the House. After serving two terms in the lower chamber, he made a successful bid for the state Senate in 2012. From that time on, Hall says Republicans tried to court him back. “I said, ‘Guys, why would I join the minority party?’” Now things had changed. Hall tapped out a two-word message to Sypolt: “Let’s talk.”

The morning after the election, Hall had to be in Huntington for his day job with Frontier Communications. At some point that morning he found out Cole, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, and several other Senate Republicans had already convened at the Capitol. So as he was driving back to Charleston, following the same route Cole had taken the night before, Hall called up Carmichael to begin negotiating the terms of his defection.

Hall stopped at the Capitol that afternoon for face-to-face meetings with Cole and Carmichael. “I did make one demand that was turned down,” he says. Hall wanted to be the Senate Finance Committee chairman, but was informed former Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, of Putnam County, was taking that job. The leadership team instead offered Daniel Hall the position of Senate Majority Whip. He accepted. “Let’s be honest, we’re playing poker,” he says.

That afternoon Hall walked to the Secretary of State’s office on the Capitol’s first floor and switched his party affiliation. “We were going to wait until the next morning, and they said, ‘Let’s just go do it now.’ Some of them were nervous I would back out,” Hall says. “I said, ‘Fine, lets go.’” He waited until almost 5 p.m., hoping he could sneak in and do the paperwork without anyone noticing. “Somebody in the office tweeted it out and within a little bit it was viral,” he says. Reporters jumped on the story and, within the hour, the news was all over the state: The GOP had successfully taken control of both houses of the West Virginia Legislature for the first time in more than 80 years.

He wrote a post on his Facebook page to explain the decision. “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming, and McDowell counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate,” he wrote. “I have always picked our people over party … and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”

His constituents largely did not mind the switch—“If I can deliver, they’re not going to care,” Hall says—but his decision did upset some members of his former caucus. “Overall it’s been great. A few of them will never get over it.” It’s easy to understand why. With one swipe of a pen, Hall cast Democrats into a role they had never played under the current Capitol building’s big gold dome. Suddenly, historically, they were the minority party.

The Wave

The change in leadership at the statehouse has been described as a “Republican wave,” but the phenomenon is more akin to a volcanic eruption than a tsunami. The signs were there if you paid attention. For instance, West Virginia has been trending red in national elections for some time. The state has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. Voters in the state’s 1st congressional district elected Representative David McKinley in 2010, making him the first Republican to serve that district since Arch Moore left the seat to become governor in 1969. Moore’s daughter, Shelley Moore Capito, remained vastly popular in the 2nd congressional district since she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000. And while Rahall was able to keep his seat through several fiercely contested races, in recent years his margin of victory over Republican challengers shrank with every election.

As Republicans made inroads on the federal level, voters began electing more Republicans in state races, too. The GOP has steadily gained seats in the House of Delegates since 2006. In 2012 voters picked Republican candidate Patrick Morrisey over longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

This rising swell of Republican support joined with several other factors in 2014 to pave the way for a leadership change in the statehouse. First, President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular in West Virginia, which turned many voters against state Democrats, too. Republican voters also were motivated to get out to the polls, thanks to several high-profile races at the top of the general election ballot: Capito was running for retiring Senator Jay Rockefeller’s seat, Jenkins was running against Rahall, Alex Mooney was vying for Capito’s old House of Representatives seat, and McKinley was up for reelection.

Jason Crowder, a Cole staffer who first moved to West Virginia to help run his boss’s 2012 state Senate campaign, says Republicans also managed to out-campaign Democrats. Crowder says the GOP worked hard to recruit a slate of top-notch candidates, then used data on voter registration and voter turnout trends to target areas where their message would be most effective. “Like anything, it’s planning and execution,” he says.

Although there was some sense the House of Delegates might flip in the 2014 election, not many people believed the state Senate would follow suit. But about two weeks before Election Day, Crowder began handicapping Democrat and Republican campaigns. It became clear the GOP had a real shot at taking control of both chambers. “If you look at it district by district, it tells a different story,” he says.

Take, for instance, the sixth state Senate district. State Senator Truman Chafin had represented the district since 1982, so no one expected much when political newcomer Mark Maynard signed up to face him in November’s election. Maynard didn’t even raise money for his campaign. According to the Associated Press, he just spent some money out of his pocket to have pamphlets printed, and someone donated $350 in yard signs to his campaign. Yet, to the shock of many, Maynard eked out a victory over Chafin, taking the seat by fewer than 400 votes.

Crowder wasn’t surprised, however. He says Chafin’s district was redrawn in 2011 to include new sections of Mercer County, where voters did not have a strong historical connection to the longtime lawmaker. Maynard also had a geographical advantage because he lived in Wayne County. “So many people vote addresses in West Virginia,” Crowder says. Maynard also had another advantage Chafin did not—the “R” beside his name on the ballot. Crowder says Chafin, like many Democrats across the state, did not think Republicans would put up such a strong fight. They dismissed their opponents, at their own peril. “They didn’t expect it. It’s easier to do when people think it’s impossible,” he says.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler agrees. He says his party did not see the Republican wave coming—although he’s not sure Republicans did, either. “Politics are volatile. Nobody’s backside is welded to any of these seats,” he says. Kessler admits Democrats are partly to blame for their losses, however. Instead of touting their accomplishments—like repealing the state’s food and business franchise taxes, privatizing worker’s compensation, tackling the state’s mounting pension debts, and expanding Medicaid to more than 150,000 previously uninsured state residents—Democrats chose instead to let their challengers control the conversation. “We were so unwilling to call ourselves Democrats because of the association with federal Democrats we stood back, kept our mouths shut, wrung our hands and hoped our two-to-one (voter registration) average played out,” he says. “We did a terrible job of giving the electorate a reason to rehire us.”

Playing Defense

While he’s not happy with the outcome of the election, Kessler says Democrats still have an important role to play in the Legislature. They no longer have the privilege of setting the Legislature’s agenda, but they still can work to influence the agenda set by Republicans.

That’s probably easier done in the Senate, however, where the majority hangs on one vote. Democrats in the House of Delegates have a bit more working against them. “It’s much harder to play defense when one team has a lot more people on the field,” says Kanawha County Delegate Mike Pushkin. Pushkin was one of the few first-time Democrat lawmakers elected last year, so he has no idea what it was like to serve in the majority party. But he says many Democrat lawmakers have found the change in leadership frustrating. “There’s a lot of people who have served for a long time, and they’ve won every battle they’ve fought for years. That’s not happening now,” he says.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley’s frustration is palpable. “We have … very little, if any, influence on what gets on agendas,” he says. Democrats have managed to amend some bills, but nothing that diverts too dramatically from the Republican leadership’s original intentions. “The working relationship has been very cordial, but that doesn’t mean there’s been a whole lot of compromise,” he says. “I believe it was different in the past … but that’s politics. When you have a new majority with a new ideology, they don’t have to compromise.” Miley, who served as speaker of the House during the Democrats’ last session as the majority party, says he is concerned the Legislature will make lots of concessions for corporate interests, but do little to help average citizens. “There’s very little that’s going to be done to help individual families in West Virginia,” he says.

Newly elected House Speaker Tim Armstead, a Republican from Kanawha County, does not share his predecessor’s sentiments. “I really believe the voters have called for change, and we’re giving them change,” he says. “So many of the things we’ve tried to do for years, we’re finally able to get them on the agenda.” The party wasted no time getting to work. Within days of the new session’s start, the Republicans were running bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, establish charter schools, abolish straight-ticket voting, create alternative certification requirements for teachers, establish nonpartisan elections for judges, repeal prevailing wage requirements for state construction projects, audit the state Department of Highways, and reinstate a section of code protecting private property owners from lawsuits if dangers on their property are “open and obvious,” among other things.

Democrats, for the most part, only succeeded in making piecemeal changes to legislation. But the party was not without its victories. Senate Democrats convinced two of their Republican colleagues—Hall and Sen. Chris Walters—to side with the minority and defeat a bill that would limit cash awards in civil lawsuits. Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee also were able to convince their GOP colleagues to table a bill requiring photo identification at voting booths. Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat from Pendleton County, successfully amended a revenue bill to divert about $1.5 million annually from the state lottery fund for “veteran-related projects.”

Democrats have also joined their Republican colleagues to support many pieces of legislation, including a repeal of the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act. The law, originally passed in 2009, would have required state power plants to begin using more alternative fuels, including clean coal technologies. Republicans decried the legislation as a “cap and trade” law, saying it would hurt the state’s coal industry and raise families’ utility bills. Some Democrats argued the bill wouldn’t do anything at all, except maybe give the impression West Virginia is not interested in alternative energies. Republican lawmakers pushed the bill forward, however, and it eventually passed the House on a 95-4 vote and the Senate with a unanimous vote. It was the first bill to land on the governor’s desk in the 2015 legislative session.

“There’s an energy here you’ve never seen before,” Armstead says. “Our goal was to be running legislation in the first week. There is a natural procrastination to the legislative process. Our view is, we have 60 days to make significant changes and we don’t want to waste any of those days.” During his 16 years in the minority party, Armstead says the 60-day session seemed to stretch on forever. It seems to go much faster now that his caucus is running the show.

Armstead is the first Republican Speaker of the House to serve in the marbled halls of the current West Virginia Capitol building. Cass Gilbert’s grand statehouse did not open its doors until June 1932, just six months after Republicans ceded control of the Legislature.

Armstead says he tries not to think about his place in West Virginia history, but it sometimes creeps up on him. It usually happens when he’s standing behind his podium at the front of the House chamber. He remembers, early in the session, watching as members debated nonpartisan elections for judges. Republicans have supported the idea for years but never had any success getting it through the legislative process. “It just hit me—we are on the floors of this house, discussing this issue,” Armstead says. “I want the people of West Virginia to look back at 2015 and say, ‘That’s when we changed the direction of our state.’”

Too Soon to Tell

Despite those 83 years wandering in the wilderness of political obscurity, Republicans once had a long, successful run in West Virginia politics. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, Republicans dominated the West Virginia Legislature for the first eight years of the state’s existence. And though Democrats would gain control in the early 1870s, the GOP again rose to prominence following the election of 1896.

“We were a progressive state, as progressive as any around us,” says West Virginia State University history professor Billy Joe Peyton. The demand for coal was growing by leaps and bounds, especially after competition from European coal markets dwindled after World War I. That boded well for West Virginia’s economy, as well as Republicans’ pro-business policies. “We became the world’s number one industrial nation, and coal was powering that industry,” Peyton says.

But toward the mid-1920s, European economies began to rebound. It was good news for the global economy, but bad for West Virginia coal mines. “Our production dropped because demand decreased. The price of coal went down, wages went down, miners went out of work,” Peyton says. Although the Great Depression was still years away, the state’s economy began to slip—taking with it Republicans’ foothold in the statehouse. “It’s the party in charge that gets the blame, even if they’re not responsible,” Peyton says. “The Republican Party was the face of the collapse.” The West Virginia House of Delegates flipped to Democratic control after the election of 1930, when voters added 37 Democrats to the lower chamber, giving the party a 68-26 majority.

The transformation was complete in 1932. Voters nationwide went looking for change and found it in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s promise of a “New Deal.” The Democrats’ sweep in Washington was matched in West Virginia with the election of 22 more Democratic lawmakers, giving the party a 24-6 majority in the state Senate and a 79-15 majority in the House. Voters also elected Governor Herman Kump, the second Democratic chief executive in 40 years.

It would be more than 80 years before the floodwaters would recede. At times, Republican numbers in the House of Delegates got so small the entire caucus could fit in a family sedan.

The parallels are evident. Just like the 1930s, we have the combination of a flagging coal market, voter dissatisfaction with the ruling party, and a contentious national political climate creating a surge that carried the minority party into power. What remains to be seen, Peyton says, is whether it will last this time. “As a historian, it’s years before you can assess change. It’s too early to tell right now,” he says. “Everybody’s talking about change, but until we see what the results are, you might as well just throw up a coin and see how it lands.”

After nearly 70 years of riding, motorcyclist still enjoys the open road

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, Sept. 26, 2014. 

Pat Long (photo by Bob Wojcieszak)

Pat Long (photo by Bob Wojcieszak)

Pat Long came to West Virginia on a motorcycle. He almost left on one, too.

It was Groundhog Day 2012 and Long, who was 84 at the time, was riding his 1984 Harley-Davidson Sportster along on W.Va. 34 in Hometown.

A Corvette came up behind him. The car was following a bit too close, so Long decided to speed up in the turns and lose him.

He headed around a sharp left-hand curve when he hit a patch of gravel and the bike skidded out from under him.

When he regained consciousness, he was lying on the ground. Bystanders had removed his leather jacket and chaps and cut the rest of his clothes off.

“They thought I was dead. I didn’t wake up for 15 minutes, they said.”

Long doesn’t have a cellphone but carries a list of emergency contact numbers. Someone called an ambulance, and then his son and daughter.

He spent a few days in Charleston Area Medical Center’s General Hospital where doctors determined he broke his neck and left shoulder.

He wore his arm in a sling for a month and had a brace around his neck for four months. He was back on his motorcycle before he could take the neck brace off.

“I never have thought about quitting,” he said.

Long, now 86, still rides as much as he can.

Age has slowed him down a little — “I don’t take as many chances as I used to,” he said — but he has no desire to hang up his chaps.

His knees give him a little trouble when he’s walking, but it doesn’t impede his riding.

“They seem to feel better on the bike.”

Long prefers to stick to the back roads. He only uses interstates if he’s in a hurry.

He clocked 301 miles on a recent Sunday, driving to Rainelle, the Bluestone Dam, Princeton and Blair Mountain before making his way back to his North Charleston home

The next day he rode 168 miles through Racine and Beckley before heading home on U.S. 60 across Gauley Mountain.

Long can’t really explain why he likes motorcycles. He just knows he’s enjoyed riding from the time he got his first bike at 17 years old.

He was working at a lumber camp in Corunna, Michigan, at the time, and was on the lookout for a motorcycle.

A friend spotted a 1936 Harley-Davidson sitting on the side of the road and suggested they go take a look.

“He wanted me to buy that motorcycle so he could ride with me.”

The owner wanted $225 for the bike.

“I said man, I ain’t got that much money,” Long said.

His friend encouraged him to buy the motorcycle, however, and offered to loan him some money.

That was enough to convince Long. Since he had never ridden a motorcycle before, the owner suggested he take the bike around the block a few times to practice.

A few minutes later, he was on his way.

“It didn’t take me long to learn.”

He rode that bike until he enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1946, when he sold it to a friend.

He was honorably discharged 19 months later and bought a 1940 Harley with the money he’d saved.

Pat Long with his wife, Clara, who he met after coming to West Virginia on a 1940 Harley-Davidson.

Pat Long with his wife, Clara, who he met after coming to West Virginia on a 1940 Harley-Davidson.

That was the motorcycle that brought Long to West Virginia.

He had met Hubert “Dutch” Beck, a Dunbar native, while serving in the Marines. After they got out, Beck sent Long a letter.

“He’d got married down here and wasn’t getting along good with his wife,” he said.

Beck came to Michigan and worked for a time, but soon decided to return to the Mountain State. He borrowed Long’s Model A Ford to make the drive.

“Then he wrote me a letter and wanted me to come down.”

Long hopped on his Harley and made the trip to West Virginia.

“Then I married his sister and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.

Long married Dutch’s sister Clara, better known to her friends as “Tody,” in 1951.

He made a career as a crane operator for Kanawha Manufacturing and WCF Construction, riding his motorcycle to work every day until the roads turned icy.

A local bike shop used to run a safety contest, awarding a trophy to the biker who rode the most miles without an accident. Long won the competition three years in a row.

“The fourth year, I got the mumps,” he said.

Long was off work — and off his bike — for about six weeks. One of his competitors seized the opportunity, clocked some extra miles on his bike and won the competition.

“That was the only reason he beat me,” Long said.

That’s not to say Long didn’t have his share of wrecks through the years, however.

An insurance salesman once rear-ended him at a stop sign.

Another time, he was driving off the hill from Yeager Airport when he hit a patch of ice on Greenbrier Street.

“I went out into a field, end over end,” he said. “I had so many clothes on, I didn’t get hurt bad.”

The wreck broke the crash bars and mirrors on his bike and bent one of the fenders. Long was able to bend everything back in place and ride the motorcycle home.

Most of the time, however, Long is pretty good at staying between the lines.

When he was 82, Long made the trip to the Kentucky-Tennessee border to ride “Tail of the Dragon,” an 11-mile stretch of road with 318 sharp turns.

It’s a notoriously rough patch of road — there’s a “Tree of Shame” along the highway, covered in busted motorcycle parts — but Long made the run without a hitch.

He doesn’t think it was much of an achievement, though. While there, he met a woman whose father came from Florida to ride the “Dragon.”

“He was 92, so I didn’t have anything to brag about,” he said.

Long just hopes he’s still riding at that age.

He has three bikes in his garage now.

His main ride is a 2007 Harley-Davidson Sportster he bought about two years ago.

“A preacher had it and he was afraid to ride it.”

He also has a 1995 Suzuki 800 he bought from his sister, and a 2002 Suzuki 800 he found in the classifieds.

He gave the newer Suzuki to his son, Mark. The exhaust pipes are too loud for Long’s tastes. He has preferred quiet pipes ever since he owned a Honda Goldwing.

“That spoils you,” he said. “I figured out you could ride with somebody and visit with them while you’re riding.”

Long mostly rides by himself now, however.

His wife used to go with him sometimes, but she died of cancer in 2001. Her brother Dutch, Long’s old Marine buddy, died two years later.

“Sometimes I think, man, I wish somebody else was here to see this,” he said.

So now he travels with a camera. He has albums full of photos from his travels. His motorcycles appear in almost every shot, posed in front of a landmark or with friends he met along the way.

Long isn’t in many of the pictures, but he doesn’t need to be.

The photos are for other people to see.

If Pat Long wants to see something again, he’ll just fire up his Harley and go.

Roots Town Radio goes silent after internal struggles

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Oct. 28, 2014.

A little more than six weeks after it went on the air, Charleston’s first community radio station is nothing but static.

The community radio station collapsed in a heap of dysfunction.

Burr Beard, 95.7 FM WXDB’s vice-president and station manager, moved to West Virginia earlier this year to set up the volunteer-run, low power FM station.

He spent months raising money for the project, collecting thousands of dollars from local donors.

The station’s parent organization, Roots Town Radio, received a $9,000 grant from the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, a $1,000 grant from the Tamarack Artisan Foundation, and $1,000 from a crowd funding campaign on the website Indiegogo. The station also held several fundraising concerts to help pay the bills.

Beard organized and trained a cadre of dedicated volunteer disc jockeys, who began broadcasting on local airwaves on Sept. 7, playing a wide variety of music from classic country, bluegrass, classic rock, Americana, gospel and more.

The music stopped last Monday.

That day, Beard contacted the Federal Communications Commission and surrendered the station’s construction permit, shutting down the station for good.

The reasons behind the demise of WXDB differ depending on who you ask.

Volunteers blame Roots Town president Dawn Warner, Beard’s on-and-off girlfriend. They say she created a toxic environment at the fledgling station, alienating staff members with a heavy-handed management style while remaining largely absent from WXDB’s day-to-day operations.

Warner, meanwhile, alleges the volunteers attempted to wrest control of the station from her and Beard.

Emails obtained by the Daily Mail provide a glimpse into the drama.

Volunteers say around the second week of September, Warner and Beard ended their romantic relationship. (They have since reconciled.)

WXDB engineer Larry Hoskins said Warner notified volunteers Beard was fired from the station. Someone also posted an announcement on the station’s Facebook page that Beard would no longer have any affiliation with WXDB.

But things had changed by Monday, Sept. 15.

In an email, Warner confirmed that she and Beard would remain owners of WXDB.

Her attempt to fire Beard apparently worried WXDB volunteers, however.

Emmett Pepper, co-host of the WXDB world music show “Beats Without Borders,” suggested the station’s parent organization add two additional board members to serve as secretary and treasurer.

He expressed concerns that Warner’s son, Nemo, was serving on Roots Town Radio’s governing board despite having no involvement with the station. Pepper said one of the new board members could serve Nemo’s replacement.

“I speak only for myself, but given what has happened over the past month, I am very uneasy being involved with this organization under the previous/current structure, which has proven to be highly volatile,” Pepper wrote in a group email on Sept. 25.

Volunteers also were becoming concerned that, despite repeated promises to move from Pennsylvania, Warner never made it to West Virginia.

“Beats Without Borders” co-host Alasha Al-Qudwah expressed this sentiment in a Sept. 26 email to Beard, Warner and others involved with the station.

“Dawn doesn’t live in (West Virginia),” she wrote. “Why is she president? I don’t have anything against her or any of you, just against the actions that caused a lot of drama and negativity.”

Warner responded later that day in a tersely worded email.

“The fact is I am (president) and that is not going to change. That is not me being bossy or pushy that is simply a fact that both Burr and I felt needed to be explained,” she wrote. “Burr and I need to regain control of an unfortunate situation. We either move forward together and let the past be the past or I am concerned about WXDB’s future.”

A few hours later, Warner sent another email with a much different tone.

She apologized for any her previous email, expressed her appreciation for the volunteers’ hard work and promised to replace Nemo and add a secretary/treasurer to the governing board.

“Let’s leave the past where it belongs and move forward,” she wrote.

But on Sept. 29, Beard sent out an email announcing Warner’s departure.

“Dawn decided to stay in (Pennsylvania) with her family and friends and will not be part of WXDB. She was happy to hand over the reins of the station to me. We are breaking up our previous business and personal relationship and are keeping up a friendly level of communication,” he wrote.

This alone probably would have been the death blow for the station. FCC regulations forbid stations with pending licenses, like WXDB, from replacing more than 50 percent of their governing board members. The departure of Warner and her son meant two-thirds of the original board was gone.

But Beard and the volunteers held onto hope. He assured them he was “here to stay and be your leader” and urged the team to move forward.

On Oct. 6 volunteers received another email from Beard, announcing he was taking the week off. He said he lost his job with Friends of Old Time Music and Dance, where he was arts administrator, and needed to find new work.

Steve Ballman, a FOOTMAD board member, said both Beard and the organization agreed he would quit.

“The stress and difficulties of the radio station kind of overwhelmed him,” Ballman said.

In his email, Beard made it clear he would not leave Charleston, however.

“I am not going back to (Pennsylvania) or leaving the station. Roots Town will prevail,” he wrote.

On Monday, Oct. 13 — one week before the station would go dark — Beard sent an email to volunteers announcing he would step down as station manager but remain a board member.

Five days later, on Saturday, Oct. 18, Beard sent the volunteers an email announcing his complete departure from WXDB.

“I think I got myself in too deep. My time for starting up a new station came, happened and went, some 25 years ago,” he said.

On Monday, Beard forwarded staffers an email from James Bradshaw, deputy division chief of the FCC media bureau’s audio division.

“Please treat this email as the official notification of the cancellation of the construction permit, per the request of Roots Town Radio,” Bradshaw wrote.

The email also included a note from Warner and Beard, saying the WXDB call letters were deleted from the FCC database.

“There is ​no legal authority whatsoever to continue operat​ing​ the station,” they wrote.

Beard, in a short phone interview last Wednesday, said he was moving back to Pennsylvania. When asked about the closure of the station, he said he didn’t feel like talking about it right then.

He has not responded to multiple requests for a follow-up interview.

Rookie mistakes

Warner’s story of WXDB’s demise is quite different than staff members’ accounts.

“The volunteers bullied me out of my moving down there and wanted to take control of the station,” she said. “You have a group of volunteers that never have done radio, never had experience with it, and it all goes to their head.”

Warner said DJs were not providing station identification at the beginning of each hour, which is required by the FCC, and said some DJs were allowing profanity to go out over the air.

She also alleged the station was violating FCC rules because WXDB’s antenna was not installed at the height specified by its construction permit.

(Radio stations receive construction permits before being granted full licenses, to allow the stations to test their equipment.)

Worried the FCC might fine her or Beard, Warner said she wrote a letter asking the agency to terminate WXDB’s construction permit.

“Burr decided he was leaving the station because he had lost control over it. To protect ourselves from any FCC violations, that was the only thing we could do,” she said. “The only way we could become not liable legally was to surrender the construction permit.”

Hoskins acknowledged radio hosts sometimes forgot to give station IDs at the required times and profanity sometimes crept onto the airwaves, but he said volunteer DJs were not intentionally skirting the FCC rules.

They just did not have much experience in radio.

“It wasn’t DJs cussing on the air. It was songs that had profanity in them, because they’d never (previewed them),” he said.

It’s standard practice for radio stations to preview every song they play on air, no matter what. Hoskins said WXDB’s amateur DJs weren’t aware how important this due diligence was, so some explicit language slipped through.

“I chalk that up to rookie mistakes. I don’t think any of that was intentional,” he said.

He said problems with the station’s antenna could have been fixed with a little paperwork.

Hoskins said the station had some trouble getting its antenna installed on West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s radio tower, since the state government’s new vendor hiring system did not include any approved tower climbers.

By the time WXDB finally got its antenna installed, it was only installed at about 50 feet instead of the 100 feet specified in the construction permit.

But Hoskins said the station only needed to modify its construction permit with the FCC to accommodate for the new antenna height.

“It wasn’t like it was set in stone,” he said.

Every WXDB staffer who spoke to the Daily Mail for this story denied Warner’s accusations that the volunteers tried to bully her or Beard out of the station.

And while none claimed to have a close relationship with Warner, many expressed feelings of sympathy for Beard.

“Burr Beard did a really great job of pulling together some of the best people, most knowledgeable and most connected musicians and music lovers in the area. We had a really great station going,” Pepper said. “It’s not a good idea to mix your business with your personal relationships. I think this is an example of that.”

Silver lining

Despite the demise of WXDB, community radio in Charleston might not be dead.

Chris Long, a local critical care nurse and chief operating officer of Pulmonary Associates in South Charleston, is working to set up his own low power FM station.

The FCC did not accept his initial low-power application because of a problem with his chosen frequency, but Long is in the process of reapplying.

He is working with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based group that seeks to help communities start low power FM stations.

“They’re very optimistic that with the reapplication on the right channel I should be able to (be approved),” he said.

He said the Prometheus Project has warned him the process will take at least three months, however.

Long also said he is in “preliminary talks” to assume control of WXDB’s equipment.

“We’re thinking we can easily turn the keys over to my organization,” he said. “All of the volunteers are still interested. All is not lost. There’s a very big silver lining.”

Warner said Beard left everything associated with WXDB in Charleston.

“We walked away from everything. The assets — equipment, computers, antenna — that is all there in Charleston for this group of volunteers. We did not take any of that,” she said.

It is unclear, however, who owns the equipment WXDB purchased.

Because Roots Town Radio was not a registered nonprofit organization, it partnered with FOOTMAD, which served as the station’s fiscal agent.

FOOTMAD received donation money from the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation and other donors on behalf of Roots Town Radio, then made purchases for the station.

Ballman, who was FOOTMAD’s treasurer at the time of the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation grant, said there is no money left in the station’s accounts, but wonders if his organization now owns the equipment purchased for WXDB.

“That’s a murky question, we’re seeking legal advice to figure that out,” he said.

Ballman said FOOTMAD has no interest in using the equipment but would like to hand it over to another community radio group.

It might not be that simple.

Sheri Ryder, senior program officer with the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, said no one had notified her group that WXDB has gone off the air. Ryder was not aware the radio station was defunct until a Daily Mail reporter called last week.

Even though FOOTMAD served as the station’s fiscal agent, Ryder said the organization does not own WXDB’s equipment.

“They would need to contact us and we would need to see if we could work something out,” she said.

Ryder said in the past, organizations have returned grant money to the foundation when projects failed.

Other times, the foundation’s board has required the money (or items purchased with the money) be given to another organization.

On some occasions, the foundation has not received anything back.

“The money was given, it was gone and the organization was gone,” Ryder said.

She said the fate of WXDB’s equipment ultimately rests in the hands of the foundation’s board of directors.

The fate of the station’s legacy — the volunteer DJs who, however briefly, filled the air with unique programs — also is unsettled.

Al-Qudwah said she initially wanted to help with WXDB because community radio stations allow DJs a large amount of freedom to choose music for their shows.

“That’s inspiring to me,” she said. “I’m obsessed with world music and instrumental music. I think it’s important people hear those kinds of sounds.”

She’s determined to continue her efforts even without WXDB, and said other DJs feel the same way.

Al-Qudwah and Pepper also are looking for ways to take “Beats without Borders” to online audiences.

They had a few dozen people listening online during their first few shows, which they consider a success for an unknown show on an unknown station.

The duo, like many former WXDB hosts, also has agreed to join Long’s station whenever he gets it running.

But Al-Qudwah said she’s disappointed WXDB didn’t work out.

“I feel very sorry for Burr, honestly. He had a big vision for this radio station,” she said. “When love gets involved everything gets messy.”