WHITESBURG, Ky. (WDKY) – It’s not unusual for a radio disc jockey to take song requests. What is unusual is who is making the requests on Monday nights at WMMT-FM in Whitesburg.
While Gabby Gillespie is on the air with a show called “Hip Hop from the Hilltop,” Elizabeth Sanders is in another room, passing on the requests and recording some very personal messages. The messages come from people who have loved ones incarcerated in one of the six state or federal prisons within the listening area. Those messages will be played back after the hip-hop show.
The calls come from cities all along the eastern coast of the U.S. and sometimes from as far away as Hawaii or the Virgin Islands. Nearly 5,000 people are locked up in the facilities in eastern Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
Leaders welcome prisons here as a form of economic development, hoping to offset the loss of thousands of coal mining jobs. Recently, federal officials cleared the way to build another prison on a reclaimed mine site six miles outside of Whitesburg. That would add another 1,200 people to the region’s prison population.
The show is called “Calls From Home” and the messages are a once-a-week connection for many families.
A recent sampling of the things listeners heard:
“Keep your head up and keep your faith. Love you son.”
“Lilly had to run this race with her group at school and she finished and got a little medal.
“”I’m hanging in here, trying to find a way to pay the rent.””I ate a little kiwi for breakfast, trying to stay healthy.”
Family members often can’t get to central Appalachia to visit their loved ones who are locked up.”We don’t have great public transportation here in the mountains,” Sanders said. “So it’s limited if you don’t have a car and then the time you need to get here, the hours, you have to have a place to stay, take off work…it’s rough.”
“It can be heart-wrenching to hear some of this but it also brings a lot of joy,” said Gilliespie.
The “Calls from Home” show began nearly 20 years ago almost by accident when a family member of an inmate in Virginia’s Red Onion Prison called in and asked to give a shout-out to her loved one over the air. The disc jockey on duty said “sure” and they soon realized a lot of inmates were tuning in. The station now has binders full of thank you letters from family members and inmates.
WMMT is part of Appalshop, the renowned nonprofit arts and film-making center. The shout-outs are usually quite simple. It’s all about hearing a friendly voice. But sometimes the news is sad. Callers have reported deaths in the family or ended a relationship. Children tell dads they wish they could come to school events.
“In an ideal situation, it wouldn’t be me recording,” Sanders said. “They’d be able to talk directly to their loved one and it wouldn’t have to air out for everyone to hear.”
Getting phone calls in and out of a prison can be difficult and expensive, so the board lights up when the station’s toll-free line opens. Surprisingly, there have been very few complaints about the show. Listeners seem to accept it as a public service and sometimes the messages are good for anyone to hear.
On a recent show, a grandmother from Roanoke, Va. told her grandson and his fellow inmates, “If we learn to treat each other like we love ourselves, the way we want to be treated, oh what a great world this would be.”
“A lot of people ignore folks who are locked up,” said Gillespie. “And you know, they’re as much a part of this community as anyone else in our eyes.”