For a media organization covering a state that’s almost entirely rural, its stations dig deep with shows that highlight a wide range of voices across the region
“It’s Mississippians making radio for Mississippians. That’s what it is. We are not trying to be anything but ourselves.” Java Chatman, executive producer at Mississippi Public Broadcasting (MPB) said in an earlier interview when first asked what they do best. MPB, a public media organization covering the entire state with eight radio stations as well as public television programming. When Chatman has the chance to expand on that quote, he digs into what he meant. “I mean, we got the Bubbas [an often affectionate term you hear in rural areas] but we also have the PhDs and it’s just being able to just talk to all people to get their perspectives,” Chatman laughs, “We may have a more southern draw than other places, but it’s still a professional polished sound and that’s appreciated by a lot of people.”
All of MPB’s stations are what the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) consider a Rural Audience Service Station (RASS), defined as a public radio station with a coverage area population (CAP) density equal to or fewer than 40 people per square kilometer. As a result, RASS stations have to balance a wide swath of land and dispersed audience with an eclectic mix of programming–a defining feature of rural stations explored and studied in the report, Connecting Communities: The Essential Service of Rural Public Radio. Chatman himself is the executive producer for some of that deep bench of programming at MPB, with shows like Deep South Dining, Fix It 101, Creature Comforts, and Gestalt Gardener, showcasing the breadth of local people and interests coming to and from the stations.
This kind of cultural nexus is vital for states like Mississippi. With rural areas, radio has evolved from being one, if not the only, source for news, arts, and especially local culture in a set community. Chatman knows that cultural element needs to be weaved into the day-to-day planning of their shows. “On [Deep South Dining], we could have all of the five-star restaurants, award-winning chefs, award-winning cookbook authors on [the air], but if we don’t talk about greens, cornbread, and all of that type of stuff, we are not talking about the totality of Mississippi food and Mississippi culture.”
Mississippi culture means a lot, cause it’s not just about Jackson, MS, where Chatman and most of the DJs are based. Rural or not, it’s a big state with a lot of people. “We make it a point to include the Delta and the coastal area, and North Mississippi when we’re doing our shows,” Chatman says about the kind of Mississippi culture they consider for programming.
One of the most vital parts of culture, especially in the South and certainly in Mississippi, comes from the area’s musicians, which is why one of the stand out shows on MPB is its weekly local music program, Third Coast Radio. The show was the brainchild of Brad “Kamikaze” Franklin and Donyalle Walls, organizers and producers for the Jackson Indie Music Week festival, and draws its name from the Big K.R.I.T. song that popularized the term, “3rd Coast.” Chatman, Franklin, and Walls all figured a collaboration between them could build a radio community on top of the great work accomplished by the festival. Franklin remembers when those first ideas became something real. “Donyalle came up with the idea actually, and went to Java and presented the idea of having an accompanying radio show to go along with the festival so that we could continue our mission throughout the year.” With a focus often on hip hop, soul, and R&B, their on-air playlist isn’t actually limited by really anything other than being local. “Our ‘sound’ is music. That’s what our sound is. That’s what Mississippi is.” Franklin emphatically points out.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) provides assistance–including music licensing fees, broadcasting and digital infrastructure, and other system support–that allows public radio stations like MPB to create new music content that serves their local audience. Preserving the CPB annual appropriation is essential for ensuring that stations have the resources to serve the local communities, particularly those in rural areas.
From the music to the food to the people who listen to MPB, they’re covering a lot of culture that isn’t found anywhere else. It can be difficult to consider what an entire state is hoping to hear, a challenge facing many rural stations. It’s a constant source of consideration for Chatman. “I give kudos to my director of radio, Jason Klein, [so] I don’t forget about the little towns and the smaller areas. I’m a lifelong Mississippian, but some towns I haven’t even been to.” Chatman knows what the mission for MPB is though. “But people live there, people listen there, and they are a part of your audience.”
MPB’s programming highlights the unique audience it serves, and it strives to be something different–not the East Coast, or the West Coast, but a sound true to Mississippi. “Mississippians making radio for Mississippians” rings in Chatman’s ears for the entirety of the conversation. This phrase means a lot to him, the station, and most importantly, the communities reached by MPB, including the most rural and remote audiences around the state. And it’s an endeavor that MPB is thrilled to keep taking on.