As the last notes of Childish Gambino’s “Me And Your Mama” fade to silence, Tom Sexton leans forward into a microphone.
“Coming up by request,” he says in a softened-for-radio Appalachian drawl, “going out to Sporty Black from his wife, this is Kendrick Lamar with ‘LOVE.’ ”
The melodic R&B track then begins to emanate from the heart of this small eastern Kentucky town, across the ice-clad mountains of central Appalachia. Close to 100,000 people could be tuning in, but tonight’s shows are targeted for a very specific audience. People like “Sporty Black.”
More than 5,000 men are incarcerated in the six federal and state prisons in the broadcasting range of WMMT. Every week, for almost 20 years, the station has produced a show called “Calls From Home” that broadcasts recorded messages from the inmates’ friends and family members.
WMMT bills itself as “a 24 hour voice of mountain people,” and as far as the station is concerned, if the inmates can tune in, then they are mountain people too.
“They’re not willingly part of our communities here, but they’re here and part of our communities,” says Elizabeth Sanders, WMMT’s co-general manager and a “Calls From Home” producer.
“Anything we can do to help make the barriers between them and their families a little bit less, then we’re fulfilling part of our mission as the radio station here,” she adds.
In the Summit City bar in Whitesburg, Eli Jefferson, a young man with a white trucker hat and a bushy beard, is among the patrons familiar with the show.
“It’s pretty depressing,” he says. But “I feel like it’s a good way to connect with prisoners.”
And, he adds, “I feel like it’s good for the people that are hearing it.”
On this frosty night, Ms. Sanders is taking calls while Mr. Sexton DJs in the studio downstairs. When song requests come in she texts them to him. Some of the calls come with children discussing a report card, a “happy birthday” rendition, or more somber family news. Many, she says, simply recount the routine events of the day. One of the first calls of the night fits that profile.
“Hey baby, this is your wife, this is your Monday blues chaser,” begins a tired-sounding woman. “The girls are behaving, and I’m good. I’ve been hard at it, I got some decent sleep the weekend. Yeah, some normal hours.”
Pitched as a new source of economic development amid coal power’s decline, prisons began sprouting up around Appalachia in the 1970s. Sanders grew up near Whitesburg during the prison-building boom, but in the seven years she’s spent working on “Calls From Home” she says she’s gained a far more intimate knowledge of the routines, processes, and challenges of incarceration.
Take the difficulties families can have visiting loved ones in prison, even on weekends. There is no bus to Wise County, Va. – where Red Onion and Wallens Ridge state prisons are located – for example, and it’s a six-hour drive from Richmond, Va., where many inmates’ families live. Living in a city with public transportation, many families don’t have cars and have to find alternate ways to make the trip, weighing the cost of staying in a hotel overnight against a 12-hour round-trip.
There are also inmates whose families don’t live in the continental United States. For a few years Virginia had a contract to house inmates from the US Virgin Islands, while a private prison in Kentucky held inmates from Hawaii. Getting calls from the Virgin Islands “just baffled me,” Sanders says.
Then there are the costs of calling prisons directly. Those have been rising for years, reaching in excess of $10 a minute in some cases until 2015, when Federal Communications Commission announced a rule capping how much telecom companies could charge. (The FCC lost a lawsuit against the rule last summer, a decision the Trump administration is not appealing.)
“Having a toll-free number can help families keep in touch a little bit more,” says Sanders. Sometimes, when a caller reveals something sensitive like a death in the family, she thinks: “It’s one of their only ways.”
The show began with a call, out of the blue, from a woman who said her brother, an inmate at Wallens Ridge, listened to the station’s popular hip-hop show. Could she give him a shout-out?
Most people in the community don’t have a problem with new prisons being built in the area, Sanders says, though they have grown skeptical of the promises of thousands of jobs. Some locals find “Calls From Home” so emotional they say they can’t listen, she adds, while others listen so often they can recognize regular callers.
“At the core, it’s like human decency,” says Sanders. “I do feel like it’s the least we can do to provide some small means of connection.”
What the staff of six hopes is that the show gives their listeners – particularly those not behind bars – insights similar to theirs. After all, they say, there is only one federal prison currently being considered for construction. It would be built in Letcher County, a few miles from Whitesburg.
“If you listen to [the show], it just kind of puts, I don’t know how you say it, maybe a face to it,” says Sexton. “I’m not a shrink, but it’s good for people to have some proximity to that.... Hopefully they come away with having humanized these people that are oftentimes demonized and marginalized and cast aside.”