On Monday, April 18, students, faculty members, and WESU board members attended “Restorative Radio: Public Airwaves in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” a talk delivered by Sylvia Ryerson ’09. The lecture was linked to a service learning course taught by Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology Kehaulani Kauanui called “Radio Production and the Politics of Independent Media.” The event was held in the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall, and was funded and co-sponsored by a Service Learning Initiative Grant, the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, the Center for Community Partnerships, WESU Radio Station, Wesleyan Students for Ending Mass Incarceration, and the American Studies and History departments.
Kauanui introduced Ryerson.
“She is a radio producer and musician who has spent the last five years living and working in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky at Appalshop, the award-winning media arts center in Whitesburg, Kentucky,” Kauanui said.
While at Appalshop, Ryerson served as a senior reporter and director of public affairs for their community radio station, WMMT FM. She also co-produced a show called “Calls from Home” and later produced a radio series titled “Restorative Radio.” Ryerson’s work has been well-received by national organizations.
“Her work has aired on NPR, been featured on ‘Here and Now,’ and will be the focus of a forthcoming CBS program, and she was selected as an artist to be profiled for KET, Kentucky Educational Television,” Kauanui said.
Ryerson began her presentation by reading the prologue to her senior thesis. She credits her thesis for building the political, intellectual, and historical foundation to guide her future work.
“On a hot Monday evening in July of 2008, I found myself sitting in as the guest DJ for a weekly call-in hip-hop radio show on WMMT FM 88.7 Mountain Community Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky,” read Ryerson.
In her thesis, she described “Hip-Hop from the Hilltop” and “Calls from Home,” radio shows that began in 2000 as a way to deal with the sudden increase of prisons in the central Appalachian Mountains. For the “Calls from Home” show, Ryerson fielded phone calls every Monday night from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. from the friends and families of men in the eight prisons that WMMT’s broadcast reached. At 9 p.m., every message was aired.
Family members called to tell their loved ones about the weather, read poetry, give weekly updates, and plan future visits. As the answerer of these calls, Ryerson found herself in an odd position.
“I found myself yet again in the excruciating position of middleman, holding one end of the phone line in a private conversation that wasn’t meant for me, but yet that somehow I had become a part of,” Ryerson said.
After reading her prologue, Ryerson provided context for the development of “Calls from Home.” Appalshop is located in Whitesburg, Kentucky, a southeastern town in Letcher County. The county is one of the poorest districts in the country and has become one of the most concentrated areas of rural prison development in the nation.
The “Calls from Home” show grew out of a hip-hop show that many men at the prisons listened to. One evening, a woman from Washington D.C., who knew that her brother listened to the hip-hop show, called to ask if a message to her brother could be broadcasted. The message was aired and “Calls from Home” was born.
Prisoners wrote home, and families called in.
“I miss you guys and I love you so much,” one caller said.
“Keep your head up. We love you,” another caller said.
A daughter sang her newly learned ABC’s for her father, and another daughter cheered that Mama would let her keep the puppy.
Ryerson hosted “Calls from Home” for four years and the show had a large impact on the families and prisoners. For example, one man filed a grievance form with the prison officials for being denied their one hour of recreation per day. When the man asked his cell mates to sign the form as well, he was charged with inciting a riot and was transferred overnight from Red Onion State Prison to Wallens Ridge State Prison. Though he knew no one at the prison, people immediately recognized his name from all the loving calls from his wife broadcasted during “Calls from Home.”
“Calls from Home” also had a large impact in May 2012 when men at Red Onion State Prison went on a hunger strike. They made 10 demands and every demand was for the prison to follow Department of Correction regulations. WMMT announced the prisoners’ demands during the show and received many messages of solidarity and support for the men on strike.
A few days after the broadcast, Ryerson went to the prison and met with one of the strike leaders named Pierre to try and coordinate with a lawyer’s guild in D.C. to help the prisoners. After their meeting, Pierre was never brought back to his cell.
“They took him to an empty cell that they had cleared out and they kept him in total isolation, cut off from any other organizers for a few weeks,” Ryerson said. “And then he disappeared in the system and we didn’t know where he went and then a few weeks later it showed up that he had been transferred to Colorado and the other strike leader had been transferred to Minnesota, and 10 other strikers had been transferred to another prison in Virginia.”
Pierre sent WMMT a letter describing WMMT’s impact on his experience.
“I was in the pod alone but I knew that the other brothers were listening,” Ryerson read from Pierre’s letter. “And to hear all those brothers and sisters from around the world calling in to send their solidarity, if never before, since I’ve been behind these razor wires, I felt like a human being again.”
“Calls from Home” helped to connect people through voice, but many of the callers had been unable to visit the incarcerated men in years. WMMT raised money and led a van trip. One woman on the trip hadn’t seen her son in over 15 years, and another hadn’t seen hers in over four.
After hosting “Calls from Home” for many years, Ryerson had the idea to do long-form audio pieces. She contacted the families she knew and worked with them to create audio postcards from home to be broadcast by WMMT.
Ryerson played clips from the postcards that they created. Family and friends recorded the sounds of themselves doing simple daily tasks such as starting cars, swimming laps in a pool, singing in church, and frying fish in a pan. The postcards helped prisoners feel like they were at home again and combatted the extreme sensory deprivation experienced inside a prison.
To conclude her talk, Ryerson discussed the restorative aspects of her radio production.
“On one level, it’s free and it’s something that the prison can’t control,” Ryerson said. “Prisons are by design the most closed and censored institutions in the country. Every letter is subject to being read every phone call can be listened to, visitation is extremely limited. But this is something that we can do on the outside and we don’t have to go through the prison regulations.”
Besides helping the affected families, Ryerson’s projects also reached a general audience.
“People gave us a glimpse into their lives,” Ryerson said. “Theirs is a message for specific people, but they also knew that it would reach a general listening audience.”
In the future, Ryerson hopes to set up more “Calls from Home”-type shows at other local radio stations including WESU.
Xandra Ellin ’18, who is in Kauanui’s class, said that the talk was insightful and connected to what she had been working on in the class.
“I really enjoyed [Ryerson’s] talk, especially having listened to some of her Restorative Radio episodes and done some prior research on her work,” Ellin said. “Our course deals with the politics of media. We talk a lot about how independent media, specifically radio, can be utilized as a means of promoting messages that tend to be subverted, forgotten, or misconstrued by the commercial mainstream.”
Ellin also talked about how she felt Ryerson’s idea could be recreated at the University and other prisons around the area.
“She shares the stories of prisoners and their families, stories that tend to be left out of the mainstream narrative in order to preserve the prison structure,” Ellin said. “As Sylvia noted, the work she does could be applicable at any radio station with a prison in listening range. There are many prisons that fall within WESU’s listening range, so it is totally possible that Sylvia’s work could be recreated in some capacity on WESU.”