Prison Radio: broadcast uncensored and incarcerated voices
“We have a deep braid of the tech industry and a great progressive tradition in the Bay Area,” said Jennifer Beach, co-founder of Prison Radio, recording and broadcasting uncensored incarcerated voices since dawn of Internet.
“When we launched Prison Radio, you had to do a DAT recording to get broadcast quality; it was difficult, you had to send tapes to people, ”said Beach, whose first base of operations with founder Noelle Hanrahan was their apartment on 24th Street. Over 25 years later, “we have quality streaming recordings that go up in days,” she said.
The walls of Prison Radio’s small Mission District office are lined with leaflets, posters and pictures of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political activist and journalist serving a life sentence. The art was sent from all over the world by artists in solidarity with Abu-Jamal. The shelves and floors are crammed with books, including Abu-Jamal’s latest, “Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, Manifest Destiny.” The first edition of Prison Radio, the book was co-written by Abu-Jamal and Stephen Vittoria, director of the film “MUMIA: Long Distance Revolutionary”, from which a collaboration was born.
“Mumia would tell you this is her magnum opus,” Vittoria said. “The account of the book is in many ways the account of Mumia’s journey. We wanted to tell the story of the people who are on the wrong side of capitalist wars and empire, the victims instead of the victors, the stories that are often overlooked, ”he said. The duo were inspired by Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, which they used as a benchmark during the writing process.
“There was the normal back-and-forth work of the collaboration,” Vittoria explained. “Only one man is free and the other is incarcerated, handcuffed literally and figuratively.
Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1981 of shooting Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He and his supporters claim his innocence and have worked tirelessly for four decades to study the law and appeal the case when possible. Over the years, he has written over a dozen titles for various publishers, including his memoir, “Live From Death Row” (his sentence was commuted in 2011 from death to life in prison).
“I learned about Prison Radio through the publishing industry,” said Keasley Jones of Prison Radio, formerly of Peachpit, a press specializing in the design and development of web books. He remembers a sales conference where he heard about Abu-Jamal’s first book “Live From Death Row”.
“It was the most moving, passionate and inspiring presentation I have seen in my entire publishing career,” said Jones, who more than 20 years later is selling Abu’s new book. -Jamal.
“Editors are not reluctant to accept a book by Mumia, in fact quite the contrary,” Jones said of Abu-Jamal’s prophetic, poetic style and rigor as a journalist. “He has an audience.” However, at its 1,400 pages, “Murder Incorporated” proved intimidating for traditional publishing houses, so Prison Radio ended up with the three-volume job.
“We felt so passionate about this material and you can’t cut it down,” Jones said, though there was hardly any one-sided love for Abu-Jamal’s groundbreaking voice.
“The Fraternal Order of Police opposed the publication of Mumia’s first book and threw a banner over the publishing house,” said Beach, who also faced resistance from the broadcast media.
“In the early 90s, Mumia got a contract with ‘All Things Considered’,” she recalls. “Bob Dole mentioned it in the Senate and threatened to lead the charge to cancel all NPR funding and NPR dropped the show.”
Nonetheless, by the mid-1990s, Prison Radio found a home for its content in the early days of the Internet, when dreams of a more democratic and just society were alive and before the web’s dominance as a as a sales, marketing and monitoring tool. . In the current era of hashtag activism, Prison Radio remains visible through alternative media, although it is locally owned by a vital network that is working to change public policies regarding mass incarceration and reduce US statistics by over two million people in prison (the United States is the largest jailer).
“San Francisco is a central point. Students from across the country come to learn about prison justice and participate in programs inside San Quentin, to visit Critical Resistance and the Restorative Justice Project, ”Jones said. On the day of this interview, Liam, a summer intern from Philadelphia was working alongside Jones and Beach.
“There is a really rich movement here, around the examination, disclosure and questioning of the prison industrial complex,” Beach said. “The Bay Area continues to be at the forefront, even though San Francisco has changed so much over the past 25 years and some of the organizations have moved to Oakland.”
Hanrahan has since moved to Philadelphia with her family and closer to jail where she and Abu-Jamal, 65, tape her missives for Prison Radio while awaiting further news on her recently reinstated right to appeal (it appears the judge of the case was biased).
“Noelle Hanrahan has undertaken a Herculean task, to obtain the voice of Mumia from the depths of hell all over the world,” said Vittoria. “Prison Radio did the same with the book.”
Although conditions inside the American prison nation are grim, hope reigns in the offices of Prison Radio in San Francisco, where change is long overdue.
“Change can happen in an instant,” Beach said. “We think we’ll see Mumia free in our lifetime.”
Denise Sullivan is author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions”. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the reviewer. Follow her on www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @ 4DeniseSullivan.