by Jody DiPerna
Sylvia Ryerson is a fifth year PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale. Before graduate school, she worked for nine years as a DJ and radio journalist for WMMT fm in Whitesburg, Kentucky. She will be in Pittsburgh to show her film, “Calls from Home” at City of Asylum on Saturday, March 11th. The documentary chronicles the impact of a broadcast by WMMT that reaches several prisons across the line in western Virginia, and manages to connect families to their loved ones through a radio show.
In the late 1990’s, Virgil Prinklet, Jr., aka “DJ VIP,” had a late night hip hop show on WMMT. He received letters from people incarcerated at Red Onion State Prison and Wallens Ridge State Prison, as those facilities opened, in 1998 and 1999, respectively. Prinklet played requests and then he started answering phone lines to let incarcerated people share their messages on air. After that, he started playing messages from families and friends on the outside for the people housed in these prisons. The DJs have changed several times, but the show remains. WMMT continues to broadcast “Calls from Home” and the radio show now reaches seven different prisons, five in western Virginia and two in eastern Kentucky.
Here is our Q&A with filmmaker Ryerson. (Questions and answers have been edited for length.)
PINJ: When did the “Calls from Home” radio program start?
The impetus was these two super max Virginia state prisons that opened (Red Onion and Wallens Ridge.) That was 1998 and 1999. Letcher County, Kentucky, where Whitesburg and AppalShop are, is right there on the Virginia border and the radio towers are up on top of the ridge that is basically on the state line to Virginia. So these two supermax prisons were within the broadcast area of WMMT.
At that time, there was a late night Hip Hop show. DJ VIP started getting song requests from people who were incarcerated. And then he started getting phone calls directly from incarcerated people — they were able to call the station at that time. He started sharing their messages. Eventually, the show started broadcasting messages from their families over the air.
PINJ: Why make this film?
I really wanted to make it for two reasons. I had the experience of working at radio station and being a DJ for the show. Sometimes journalists would come through and say, ‘oh my god, this is amazing and we want to cover it.’ What I started to see sort of repeating was interviewing the DJs, getting some photos or maybe video footage of us in the studio. And that was it. I felt like the people on the other end of the phone — the incarcerated people and their families — weren’t in the picture at all.
It was a great thing that the radio station was doing, but what is so special about the show is the way it connects these geographies. How I could make visible the work that this show is doing? I was getting to know such incredible people and I want to keep working with them and share their stories. It just felt like there was a whole other way we needed to represent like what’s happened.
PINJ: It can be really difficult for families to visit these really remote locations, especially for people from the eastern part of Virginia traveling to the mountains in the western corner of the state. Can you tell us about that?
There’s no public transportation to get there. You can only get there by car and if you don’t own a car, or have a reliable car, it’s just impossible. There is a trip documented in the film that is a rideshare. That grew out of organizing through the radio show — working to connect with people in Richmond. Then a local pastor in Wise County started supporting a rideshare program and that was running pretty consistently for several years. (It was paused because of the pandemic.) But even with the rideshare, for people to make that long of a trip, for elderly people, it was hard. The rideshare left from Richmond, Virginia, but some people were coming in from further east, the Hampton, Virginia area, so it’s about a 10 hour trip one way. These were people who hadn’t seen their loved ones for long periods of time — 15 years and things like that.
PINJ: When you’re working with people who are incarcerated, it seems like it would be hard to create through the visual arts, because you don’t necessarily have consistent access and you can’t get inside. Can you talk about that?
It was so important — the whole point of this film is so show this triangle of communication — incarcerated people, families and the radio show. Wo we had to figure out a way to represent the experience of the listener. The question was, how are we going to do that? I reached out to different artists who had written into the show over the years. I was able to connect with Peter “Pitt” Murkuria. He regularly listened to the show for years and years, while he was in solitary. He would send this incredible, beautiful artwork to the radio station. I commissioned him to do a self-portrait that would give us a visual.
PINJ: You then used his art and had it animated, right?
Yes, we relied on animation throughout to get that perspective. It highlights, I think, the way that art is so crucial in figuring out ways to communicate with each other. Especially when these worlds are so separated.
PINJ: How did you end up at WMMT?
I first started as a summer intern after my junior year of college. I had heard from a good friend about this incredible media arts organization (AppalShop) that does traditional music. I’m also a fiddle player. I felt like — there is a place that does incredible Appalachian music and is also doing radical rural abolitionist organizing — I should go check that place out. I was there for a summer and loved it. I came back the following summer with a grant from my undergraduate college for thesis research. I wrote my undergraduate thesis project on prison expansion in Central Appalachia. And after graduating, I was able to come back work at the radio station and I ended up sticking around a long time.
PINJ: Is WMMT broadcasting again? [When terrible floods hit eastern Kentucky on July 28th, 2022, Whitesburg was hit particularly hard. AppalShop sustained extensive damage and WMMT was off the air for a long time.]
They are they’re just back on air. They were off air for four, maybe five months. They’re now broadcasting out of an RV in the AppalShop parking lot that they renovated to become a broadcast station.
Join PINJ for a special showing of “Calls from Home” on Saturday, March 11th, at City of Asylum. There will be a discussion afterwards with Sylvia Ryerson, as well as our panel, featuring Robert Wideman, Brittany Hailer, Richard Garland and Tanisha Long.
Artwork above by Peter Murkuria