January 24, 2019 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

NPR reporter Howard Berkes has logged a lot of miles on roadways in central Appalachia. For six years he’s been interviewing coal miners with severe lung disease. He’s met with physicians, respiratory therapists and staff at the rural clinics that specialize in treating miners with black lung and silicosis. The miners struggle to breathe. There is no cure.  Berkes and his colleagues have let us hear their voices.

Today I listened to seven coal miners, all them have severe disease. Each audio clip is about 15-seconds long and provides a small window into their lives. Charles Shortridge is one of them.

“It’s pretty hurtful, pretty painful. It’s a death sentence. You know you just have to take it one day at a time, and hope for the best. Hope and pray the Lord will bless us to have another day.”

Berkes and Benny Becker of Ohio Valley Resource assembled the audio clips. It’s a wonderful way for them to share what I presume are many, many hours of audio recordings from their reporting about the black lung epidemic (e.g., here, here, here, here.)  These brief audio clips are treasures from the cutting room floor (or whatever the equivalent is for radio producers.)

Listening to the voice of Charles Shortridge and the other six miners reminds me of something important: We must support and defend journalists. Who else would report this?


After 37 years at NPR, Howard Berkes is now retired.  He went out with a bang this week with an investigation for NPR and PBS Frontline called Coal’s Deadly Dust. Like the audio recordings I heard today, Berkes conversations with coal miners punctuate the film—and they struggle to breathe. His collaborator Elaine McMillion Sheldon brought 47-year-old coal miner Danny Smith into our living room. When Smith said this, we felt his loss:

“I think about all the hours that I worked. I was under one mine, I never come outside for four days. I actually slept underground. And you sit and think about that and all the things that I give up with my family. You know, I’m working anywhere from 12 to 18 hours a day. I’m dying over it now.”

Thank you Howard. You’ve done your part.

It’s up to us to keep the voices you’ve captured…Danny Smith, Charles Shortridge, and Mackie Branham Jr. ….fresh in our minds. We need their voices to force change.

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