Back Fence Gossip Finds Itself in Print
By Louise Kiernan
Louise Kiernan is a reporting intern at the Chicago Tribune.
The voice on the answering machine has the rumbling drawl of eastern Kentucky. "Thank you for calling the Mountain Eagle's Speak Your Piece," it says. "At the sound of the tone, you have one minute to tell what's on your mind."
For 10 years, the people of Letcher County, Kentucky, have done just that, anonymously confiding their secrets, suspicions, gripes and desires to the sympathetic ear of the Whitesburg Mountain Eagle, the coal mining community's 7,200-circulation weekly. What the callers say – or most of it, anyway – ends up in this forum-cum-personals column.
"The lady at the library is a grouch."
"My mom's an alcoholic and dates an ugly man."
"Does anyone have any tips on how to diffuse yourself when you get angry or frustrated so as not to hold all this in?.. Please respond because I don't have enough money to see a counselor and I'd rather not go to a local one."
"I think it is unfair that a certain freshman gets to go and sit with her boyfriend in his sixth-period class instead of going to her vocational class."
For the people in this isolated pocket of Appalachia, Speak Your Piece is a back fence where they can gossip all they want. "Oh, everybody reads Speak Your Piece," says local attorney William Collins. "The politicians read it, the lawyers read it, the preachers... Well, I don't know if the preachers read it..."
Managing Editor Ben Gish, 35, started the column in 1982, shortly after he graduated from college and went to work for the paper owned by his parents, Tom and Pat Gish. "We got a paper from a little town in Michigan that had a similar column," he says. "I didn't give a crap about Michigan, but I found myself every week reading that column."
Public officials are definitely fair game in Speak Your Piece, Gish says with obvious glee.
"We've had prowlers, burglars, stabbings and I never see a state or county patrolman on the road down here. Are they afraid?"
"This to Magistrate Mack Fultz: Could you please patch the potholes on Blair Branch instead of taking so much gravel to the head of Blair Branch Road? Thank you."
"Somebody tell me what they know about Carroll Smith that's running for county judge."
"I've noticed the magistrates have put the landfill coordinator back up at the landfill where he is supposed to be instead of being a chauffeur for the county judge."
As might be expected, politicians don't like the feature. "It ranks right up there with supermarket tabloids," says Whitesburg Mayor James Asher. Even so, he admits, he reads it just about every week, especially "if somebody tells me I made it."
Gish says Speak Your Piece is the only safe way people in Letcher County, which has a population of less than 30,000, can criticize public officials. "Politics are such around here that if someone writes a letter to the editor, they and their family are branded, so to speak," he says. "They're beat down enough without that."
A number of contributors talk about love. Sometimes, Gish says, the callers are crying so hard he can barely make out the words on the tape.
"To a certain woman: You think you've got my husband. Dream on. I'm watching you."
"To the person who thinks a 23-year-old man and 13-year-old girl dating is disgusting... If they love each other it's their business. More than likely you're just jealous."
"I am not 13 years old. I am 14, and what business is it of yours if I want to date a 23 year old?"
When Speak Your Piece first appeared, it filled about five broadsheet pages each week, and the paper's circulation jumped. Now, each week's column runs about two pages, but it still takes Gish five hours to transcribe the tapes. He discards about a third of the messages because of obscenities, repeat callers or concern about lawsuits. No one has ever sued the paper because of the column, but that's largely because Gish alters most of the messages he runs so that people can't be identified.
All of this is strange fodder for a newspaper recognized for its investigative work, a reputation that prompted one critic to say the paper "is to gutty journalism what the New Yorker is to stylish language."
"We've always had the reputation for taking up for the little man," says Gish, "so I guess Speak Your Piece fits us that way." ###