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Why a small-town radio show gets call-ins from across the country every Monday night.

The best of hip-hop and the sounds of home, straight through prison walls.

Why a small-town radio show gets call-ins from across the country every Monday night.
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William Griffin was a teenager when he had his first run-in with the law. Now in his mid-40s, he's been in prison for a quarter-century.

Michelle Hudson was a childhood friend of Griffin's, but the pair lost touch when her father's military job relocated her family. Returning to Virginia decades later, she learned about the mistakes that landed Griffin in prison.

"It was just street life, hanging out, doing the wrong thing," says Hudson, describing the unfortunate events that led Griffin from "street life" to "sentenced to life."


Photo via iStock.

Griffin's crimes weren't the fatal ones we typically associate with a life sentence, but he'd made one too many mistakes for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Between the state's three strikes law and an unsympathetic judge on the bench, he was ordered the maximum punishment.

For Hudson, a casual inquiry about an old friend became a mission to help him. What she didn't predict was that mission blossoming into mutual love and eventually an engagement — despite the challenges and uncertainty his life in prison presented.

In the beginning, Griffin and Hudson reconnected with help from "Calls From Home," a radio show broadcasting out of the small mountain town of Whitesburg, Kentucky.

Every Monday night after their nightly hip-hop program, WMMT-FM invites audiences to record messages of encouragement for their listeners in over a dozen prisons throughout Central Appalachia.  The station records calls from 7-9 p.m. local time to be aired during the one-hour show at 9 p.m.‌‌

Though Whitesburg is small enough that you may be reading about it for the first time, believe it or not, the radio station never has a shortage of calls. In fact, former co-host Sylvia Ryerson wrote, as more prisoners tuned in, they started receiving calls from all over the country. Here's why:

The majority of U.S. prisons are built in remote regions like eastern Kentucky or upstate New York, which makes visitation a challenge for many families.

Griffin, for example, spent the first 23 years of his sentence at Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, an hour south of Whitesburg and hundreds of miles from Hudson and the rest of his family.

In 2016, he was transferred to a prison closer to home, where after decades of isolation he finally enjoys weekly visitation. But during his time "in the mountains," Griffin says he was lucky to see a family member once a month.

‌"He said it was like 'dialing to his heart,'" Hudson said about Griffin's reaction to her first "Call From Home" in 2012. Photo via Michelle Hudson, used with permission.‌

"Over time, we start to think we don't even exist, that nobody cares what we're going through or the change we're trying to make," he says. "I deserved corrections. I deserved punishment. But I didn't deserve to lose my life."

For prisoners like Griffin, the inflated outgoing call rates, prospect of mail interception, and restrictive visitation rules are barriers enough. But the distance courts create by sending them to far-off facilities present often insurmountable financial hurdles for their families to visit.

Regular visitation between prisoners and their families can help reduce the likelihood of criminal offenses after they are released.  

A 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that "visitation in general significantly decreased the risk of recidivism."

And according to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, more "visitor-friendly" policies could be a boon to public safety by establishing for offenders "a continuum of social support from prison to the community."

‌Photo via iStock.‌

But since existing policies don't make regular visitation easy, "Calls From Home" has helped fill that void for 17 years, becoming a lifeline of sorts for its incarcerated listeners.

"I'm always amazed at the persistence and love that comes in every Monday night," says co-host Elizabeth Sanders. "Some days are harder than others. Sometimes you end up crying. Sometimes you laugh with them. But everyone is just so thankful for the chance to shout out to their loved ones."

Fan mail for WMMT from an area prison. Listeners know Sanders as "DJ Izzy Lizzy." Ryerson's fans knew her as "DJ Sly Rye." Image via WMMT/Restorative Radio, used with permission.

Though the messages they record are usually directed at specific individuals on the inside, Ryerson believes sharing their families' stories can help change public perceptions about people with criminal backgrounds.

Sylvia Ryerson. Image via Field Studio/WMMT/Vimeo.

"When you air voices from their children, their grandmothers, their church pastors, it allows them to be seen as whole human beings that have families and communities that love them and want them to come home."

Ryerson has expanded on "Calls From Home" with a new project called "Restorative Radio: Audio Postcards."

In this longer-form radio series, she collaborates with family members to create immersive audio experiences that transport prisoners into their families' lives while also revealing to audiences the fundamental humanity beneath their criminal records.

Hudson was one of Ryerson's first participants, recording over 10 hours of her life and interactions — cooking, chatting with family and friends, visiting the local swimming pool with her kids, attending her daughter's dance recital — that ultimately became a one-hour "postcard" to Griffin.

Restorative Radio participants Lessie Gardner (left) and Louise Goode arrive for visitation at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia. Photo by Raymond Thompson/Restorative Radio, used with permission.

"These are not the love sounds he gets to hear every day," says Hudson. "He hears chains, prison guards, and prison doors slamming shut, which can make a person very cold. We wanted to warm his heart, bring that humanity back to him, because they try so hard to take that away from them."

Hudson explained how making the postcard became a form of healing not just for Griffin, but also for the people she recorded. "It brought him closer to his family and his family closer to him," she says, noting how it reunited him with his brother and even the son he never knew.

Griffin's story shows how even in the direst circumstances, a little bit of family contact can go a long way toward prisoner rehabilitation.

"I believe something good is going to happen for me. The show helped my wife come into my life and open the door for me to believe in myself again. Now I want to help other people," he says, adding that he hopes to one day be a guide for at-risk youth. "I have a testimony, and I want to bring it to people who want to do better."

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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