Jun 12, 2023

PBS Appalachia, which will cover Southwest Virginia, launches Saturday

The studio for the nation's first all-digital public TV station, dedicated to covering Southwest Virginia, will be built at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Bristol rather than in Abingdon, as originally announced nearly a year ago.

The partnership was announced Thursday, two days before the official launch of PBS Appalachia Virginia, which can be watched through local cable providers, live streamed via the website or the mobile app PBS Appalachia Virginia, and accessed on demand at or through the mobile app.

"Partnering with Hard Rock is a perfect fit for PBS Appalachia because we are both community-minded companies who want to help move the region forward," Julie Newman, general manager of PBS Appalachia, said in a news release. "We are grateful for their partnership and support."

Allie Evangelista, president of Hard Rock Bristol, said in the release: "We work to improve lives, help communities and sustain the Earth, infusing the power of music into all we do. Ever since Hard Rock's founding, we have planted roots and thrived wherever we operate. We are proud to partner with PBS Appalachia."

The plan is for a studio in about 4,000 square feet of space with construction to start next month and be completed by July 2024. The studio will be enclosed in glass and there will be an adjacent control room so people can watch productions as they happen or watch shows playing on a virtual wall when the studio is not being used.

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The exact location of the studio within the casino/hotel complex off Gate City Highway in north Bristol was not released.

Originally, the plan was for the new station's studio to be built over the last year at the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Center in Abingdon. The new station was first announced last July.

Newman said the change was made once those involved realized how complicated it would be to join two nonprofit organizations under the same roof.

"We’re not moving forward with a partnership with the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center. But there's no bad blood there. It simply was a matter of … once we started trying to piece together a partnership, the marriage of the nonprofits started to get a little messy because the cultural center has several layers of partnerships," she said in an interview.

One of those funding partners was the Virginia Tobacco Commission, which provided a total of more than $11 million over multiple grants to the cultural center, which opened in 2011. PBS Appalachia had applied for funding from the commission, whose officials weren't comfortable funding both organizations, according to Newman.

Since then, PBS Appalachia has been approved for a total of $530,000 from the commission, and most of the money will go toward equipment, said Newman, a familiar face in Southwest Virginia because she was a longtime anchor for WCYB-TV 5 in Bristol. She noted that the station will invest in high-end equipment that will give the content a rich production quality and feel.

The project also gained the unanimous support of the Southwest Virginia legislative delegation, which helped secure $500,000 in the Virginia General Assembly's 2023 budget, she said.

Budget amendments were filed during the regular session this year to provide another $500,000 as part of the 2024 state budget, but that money remains in limbo. The General Assembly adjourned without an approved budget in February, and the impasse continues.

According to a spokesperson for state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, the House version of the 2024 budget included the proposed $500,000 for PBS Appalachia, "So, like everything else, it is tied up unless/until budget conferees reach a compromise," he wrote in an email.

The mission of PBS Appalachia is to serve an area that is not currently receiving PBS and its content. Blue Ridge PBS, which is headquartered in Roanoke and covers 42% of the geographic commonwealth, will serve as a parent station to PBS Appalachia. Blue Ridge PBS once had transmitters in Norton and Marion that broadcast its content into Southwest Virginia, although Newman said many people complained about the signal, which was weak due to the topography of the mountainous region.

In 2013, however, those transmitters were shut down after then-Gov. Bob McDonnell stripped state funding to public TV stations, according to Newman. That state funding drought lasted 10 years.

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When Will Anderson became Blue Ridge's CEO in 2019, he made reestablishing service to Southwest Virginia a priority. He won a grant to start "Project Southwest," a web-based/app-based/YouTube-based platform dedicated to local content for the unserved communities. A dedicated executive producer, Jacob Dellinger, was hired and the project was "wildly successful," she said.

Anderson said the station's launch would not have been possible without a lot of local and statewide support, and he particularly thanked Pillion, Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington County, and Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, who he said recognized what PBS Appalachia could mean for the region.

Southwest Virginia viewers can now watch the full offerings of PBS from news to kids’ programming, as well as local content focusing on Southwest Virginia residents and their stories.

Newman said those at the station are working hard to make sure the "production quality is better, the content is better and it serves the mission of what we say we’re going to do, which is really celebrating Southwest Virginia," she said.

The station's content can be accessed in every way people normally access TV, with the exception of using an old-fashioned antenna, Newman said. The station will also have four cable channels — PBS Appalachia, World, Create and PBS Kids — through agreements with the major cable companies servicing Southwest Virginia, including Shentel (through Cox), Comcast/Xfinity and Cable Plus, she said.

PBS Appalachia is starting out on a high note when it comes to content, which before it launched received seven Emmy nominations in late May from the National Capital Chapter, which includes Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. The awards ceremony is June 24.

The new station has three signature shows. "French Magnolia Cooks" is a lifestyle and cooking show set in Southwest Virginia. It takes viewers from the farm and field to wine and the table, according to Newman.

The PBS show that brings famous musicians to Danville has been nominated for a Capital Emmy award.

"The Life of a Musician," created by Danville resident Brandon Adams, features famous acoustic artists in historic locations around the city.

The first of the show's two seasons is a contender in the "Interview/Discussion" category.

"There couldn't be people who are more shocked than us," Adams said about the nomination, adding that his team never considered the possibility of winning an award when they created the show.

Adams said he's especially proud of the nomination because of its category.

"The fact that they felt like the conversation and the content of those conversations, along with the music, was worthy of recognition, that makes me happy," he said. "At the end of the day, they thought it's a good conversation. There's good content here. It's not just throwaway TV."

In most episodes of the show, Adams converses with a famous musician, and then the two play a few songs together. In a few episodes, which Adams calls house concerts, the musician plays a live show in an intimate setting with no question-and-answer portion.

Featured musicians have included John Jorgenson, guitarist for Sting, Elton John and Bob Dylan, who appeared in the first season, and Redd Volkaert, lead guitarist for Merle Haggard's band The Strangers, who appeared in the second season.

Episodes have been filmed in locations across the city and have featured featured local businesses like The Dog-Eared Page, a downtown bookstore, as well as historic homes.

Adams said the nomination is still surreal, and he's trying not to focus on it too much.

"I’m still just mowing my lawn and petting my cat," he said. "Pretending like it isn't happening. … If we get submitted for a nomination for season two, I’ll take it seriously."

— Grace Mamon

Each episode features a dish such as pheasant, which is featured in a new episode.

"In the present episode, we actually take you on the pheasant hunt, show you how to skin the bird, how to prepare it with our Chef Missy [Fraley], who serves it up … with friends and family and they share a meal and an experience together," Newman said.

A new episode of the 10-part series will air every other Monday and will be available on demand. Other recent episodes focus on chicken, goat cheese, strawberries and apples.

A show Newman is especially excited about is called "Hometowns" and focuses on the small towns of Southwest Virginia and what makes each unique.

"It really examines the heartbeat of what makes that town special, meets the people and the characters of that town. They tell the stories of its history and all the cool things that are going on now and new avenues and economic development. So, it shines a spotlight on the hidden gems that we have here in Southwest Virginia," she said.

"Hometowns" is also the favorite of Dellinger, who came up with the idea and created it. He dubbed the show "authentic."

It's also a 10-episode series and will be shown every other Thursday.

The third show is "The Life of a Musician," which is centered around sit-down interviews with well-known musicians. Newman described it as a "pick a little, play a little interview about life on the road and their career and how they got started."

Earlier episodes were done by PBS and will be shown on the new station. New shows will be shot in Southwest Virginia and will be under the copyright of PBS Appalachia, she said.

The show is a natural fit for an area with so much musical talent and history, she noted.

All three shows have been nominated for awards. Newman said they were eligible because some of the material was pre-released to test whether there was interest in it. All had to be viewable in 2022 to be nominated.

The Southwest Virginia station also recently added a YouTube channel called "Storytellers of Appalachia" that provides an opportunity to show extended interviews and pieces that don't make it into the other shows, so there is always fresh content.

The station currently has five employees and Newman plans to hire three more. Blue Ridge PBS and PBS Appalachia will share some employees, including a programmer, traffic manager, development director, engineering, human resources representative and chief financial officer.

Another YouTube channel dedicated to Appalachian music and a third channel dedicated to outdoor recreation in Central Appalachia are in the works.

Anderson said he felt a "unique sense of pride" as he reflected with Newman about how important the station will be for Southwest Virginia.

"After four years of hard work and planning, PBS Appalachia is happening, it is Southwest Virginia and it's beautiful," he said.

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia... More by Susan Cameron

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