TheEC: Prison Radio

Feb 3, 2014

Sony SRF-39FP
Credit Museum of Everyday Objects

A recent article in the New Yorker about radio in prison piqued my interest.  Besides providing a window into a world that many of us know little or nothing about, it caught my eye that these Sony SRF-39FP ("FP" for "Federal Prison") radios are actually remarkably good receivers.  

There's a subculture in engineering of "DX'ers"; people who attempt to successfully listen to extremely distant radio stations.   Your trusty engineer is not really a DX'er himself, but certainly is geeky enough to respect the inherent coolness of achieving a feat of engineering that's well beyond the norm.   Plus I routinely have to monitor RIPR's own stations and that sometimes means DX'ing is part of my job...I have an antenna rigged at my house in East Providence to listen to our 102.7 signal from Narragansett Pier.   As this freespace signal map shows, that's well outside normal listening conditions!

The DX community is always on the hunt for high-quality receivers.  And that's especially true for portable radios, which usually sacrifice quality to achieve a lower price.   But the SRF-39FP is rarely found outside of prisons, in part because they're made specifically for prisons and thus not really sold on the open market. But also in no small part because when inmates leave the prison, they traditionally leave the radios behind for other inmates.

I wrote to Susan Lamkins about this.  She's the Programming Services Officer/Chief of Information and Public Relations for the RI Dep't of Corrections.   From her I confirmed that in Rhode Island's prisons, they do indeed sell the Sony SRF-39FP model of radio, and radio listening is a common activity among many inmates.   The favorite stations of inmates, as in life, seems to run the gamut.  WPRO-FM 92.3, Coast 93.3, WHJY 94.1, WBRU 95.5, B101.5, Hot 106.3 were all cited as popular.   She mentioned that some inmates seem to like specific talk shows on certain AM stations, but it varies with the show.   Sporting events are popular, too.  Presumably Patriots games on WPRO 630AM/99.7FM and Red Sox games on "WEEI" (WVEI-FM 103.7FM) undoubtedly are the favorites.

Naturally, I asked if there were any RIPR listeners, and sadly recognition seems to be very low among RI's prison population.  But Lamkins did add that it's possible the inmates are listeners, but don't really realize it's public radio.  Given our frequent branding messages throughout the day, I'm not sure about that...but I've heard people confuse WGBH with RIPR and vice versa, too, so I guess anything's possible.

So there's a little look into a world that I hope none of you will have to have first-hand experience with, but it's probably good to know a little something about!