'In the middle of nowhere, Chatham County, NC'

A modest grant from AARP opened Bynum Front Porch to the world during COVID

“You can’t hear the bass.”

Emily, a headphone-wearing tween whose expression reads, “I can fix this,” glares at an iPad screen displaying several Zoom-like windows and toolbars. A few feet away, the bluegrass band Swift Creek is playing on an outdoor stage before about 160 people on a pleasant but humid July night in Bynum, North Carolina. The iPad controls a feed to whoever might be streaming on YouTube or Facebook. And while the upright bass sounded just fine to the folks nearby, its sound isn’t apparent on the livestream.

It’s the band’s first in-person gig since November 2019. They brought their PA system, making some of the volunteers’ work easier. They ran the feed straight from the band’s mixing board to a SlingStudio Hub, which wirelessly sends the feed to an app on the iPad. The app lets the tablet work like a separate mixing board, one that doesn’t affect what the in-person audience hears.

With the band’s sound system in place, the volunteers from Bynum Front Porch, which hosted the show, didn’t have to set up the house PA, balance its mix for the live audience from their board, and then make sure the livestream came through cleanly.

Still, to online viewers, the bass was lost in an otherwise flawless mix. During a break between songs, Emily snuck on stage, twiddled a few dials, and brought the bass to the online party. Problem solved.

Good job, Emily, said the handful of folks by the folding table that serves as a mixing station. A few fist or elbow bumps may have been swapped. She shrugged, as if to say, no problem, listened a little longer to make sure the mix held, and then wandered away for a few minutes.

Just another Friday “in the middle of nowhere, Chatham County, North Carolina,” my friend Cindy Raxter, the emcee for the evening, told me that afternoon.

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Wednesday’s newsletter introduced Bynum Front Porch, some of its origins and part of its purpose. It’s based at Bynum General Store, which opened during the Great Depression and kept plugging along even after the local cotton mill closed in 1983.

The store is a local landmark, the center of a once-vibrant township that refuses to lose its sense of place and purpose even though its economic engine, the cotton mill, closed nearly four decades ago. Bynum is rebounding thanks to the love and dedication of the locals … and social media.

Twenty years ago, locals began hosting the Bynum Music Series, scheduled performances of primarily traditional music to drum up business for the store and highlight the community. Five years later, the store operator retired. Locals again came together, first by contributing $250 each — enough to pay a year’s “rent” (aka property taxes) for the building and property. Then by creating bynumfrontporch.org, a nonprofit to maintain the store and its surroundings and host cultural programming and workshops.

The programs reach far beyond the grounds where the store sits, finding neighbors around the world. It’s happening because people want to connect. They may have a longstanding tie to the community, they recognize the performers, or they just enjoy the prospect of seeing an energetic live performance without leaving their living rooms.

That’s possible because of tech like Facebook and YouTube and the SlingStudio Hub — which Bynum Front Porch bought with a grant from AARP’s Livable Communities program, relying on Raxter’s prowess at finding value while pinching pennies.

An audience hungry to stay connected

Bynum Front Porch’s programs had a regular following before COVID hit. BFP had an email list with 5,000 addresses along with an active Facebook and YouTube presence.

A couple hundred people might pull up a chair to see an outdoor show at the summer music series. As many as 100 could squeeze into the General Store to watch a storytelling session (much like seeing several performers do sets at a night of standup comedy) or watch a music gig during the winter music season … or if it rained on a summer Friday night.

A host of traditional musicians who graced the Bynum Front Porch stage early in their careers include Grammy winners The Carolina Chocolate Drops (founded by MacArthur Genius grant winner Rhiannon Giddens); Mandolin Orange; Tift Merritt; Jonathan Byrd; Mipso; and Chatham Rabbits.

Music performances and storytelling sessions were recorded and posted to the social media feeds. 

But the pandemic threatened to cut off outside access to the general store … and the community.

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A scheduled March storytelling session couldn’t take place in person. So Raxter and a couple of volunteers decided the show would go on, streamed on Facebook Live. The equipment? An iPhone and two LED lamps she found at a dollar store. 

The show had 1,200 views and 93 comments.

They continued streaming weekly sessions of storytelling and music, though bandwidth was a challenge. When one of the volunteers offered the use of his unlimited data plan, Cindy said, “Thank you, Jesus!” with a laugh.

A publicized test of the streaming equipment drew 3,300 views and 34 shares. 

The audience was there. But BFP wanted to provide a better experience, higher-quality audio and production values. Some weeks, the feed might drop nearly a dozen times during the performance.

Raxter noticed AARP had shifted the focus of one of its community grant programs to “quick-action projects” to keep people connected during COVID. AARP gave rural and low-income communities a leg up.

She filed her first grant proposal, for slightly less than $8,000.

Among other items, Bynum Front Porch asked for the SlingStudio Hub, the iPad, a couple of iPhones (for the cameras and microphones), a switching station, an audio mixer, external hard drives, Gimbal stabilizers to hold the phones, handheld mics, cables, and accessories, plus reimbursement for the monthly broadband bill. No overhead. No reimbursement for volunteers or staff.

Bynum Front Porch won one of 184 grants awarded in the U.S. The $7,764.79 request was fully funded. The sessions could continue, with a professional look and sound.

The audience grew. USO chapters across the country (with some promotional help from AARP) carry the livestream. BFP hosts urge viewers who know service members stationed far from home to share the livestreams. A few military bases host watch parties — as does the USS Barry, a destroyer based at Naval Station Yokosuka, Japan. 

Folks from remote places who’d rented a house in or near Bynum to attend UNC-Chapel Hill watched the livestreams. A UNC alum from China who Cindy had helped learn standup comedy (figuring his ability to tell jokes in English might help his professional prospects) contacted her from the other side of the world to say he was following the weekly streams.

And, of course, BFP urges viewers to donate a few dollars to the nonprofit on Venmo or PayPal so it can expand its programming (including backpacks for underprivileged students, scholarships for local high school graduates, a free community library, music jams and workshops), upgrade its facilities, and keep the community vibe humming.

As the pandemic wound down, in-person shows resumed. The streams continue. 

I attended the Swift Creek show. The band sounded like they hadn’t missed a beat. Audience members were friendly, active listeners (and participants).

BFP also punches way above its weight (and bank account) in production quality. 

Gimbals armed with smart phones are set up at several angles, including one at the back of the stage facing the audience. Whoever has control of the iPad can change the main camera image, pivot the cameras, or set the software to automatically rotate among the cameras every few seconds.

The streams have occasional drops or other glitches, but considering the modest cost of the hardware and software, the production quality is stellar. Hard to imagine anything of the type just a few years ago.

We’ll visit Bynum Front Porch again to talk about some of the other ways they’re maintaining traditional folk culture using cutting-edge (yet affordable) technology. And how they’re inviting the world to their front porch at a time critics warn these technologies are destined to drive us apart.

Check the schedule. Send a few bucks their way. Drop by for a show. Or stream one. It’s a fine way to unplug on a weekend night.