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Radio show helps prisoners spread the love

Michelle Theriault Boots
Marvell Johnson hosts the KSKA radio show "Soul to Soul" on Saturday nights. The program regularly features letters from inmates wanting to dedicate songs to friends and family.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News
Back in the late 1970s, when he used to broadcast marathon, all-night shows that finished at 5 a.m., Marvell Johnson began asking for song requests and dedications as a way to fill airtime. Inmates quickly became his most ardent listeners and frequent requesters, he said.
MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

The letters arrive at the radio station each week, dozens of them. The return addresses are jails and prisons.

In precise lettering or messy scrawl, they ask for dedications of love songs and shout-outs to girlfriends, boyfriends, wives and brothers on the outside:

... I'm OK still doing time in the hole but always know I'm loving you, missing you, hugging you and kissing you ...

... To my lil bro Delbert, stay out, this ain't no place for us ...

... To my fiance Mariah ... I'm here for you, twenty-four seven. Don't forget it, lil' mama. ...

Sometimes the letters arrive at the offices of KSKA 91.1, Anchorage's biggest public radio station, addressed to no one in particular.

But everyone knows they are for Marvell Johnson, who for more than three decades has been both a late-night soul, rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop music disc jockey and a messenger carrying words between inmates and the people they leave behind on the outside.

'FLIGHT SOUL TO SOUL'

By day, Johnson is a custodial services supervisor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, a warm 62-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, an ample build and sensible shoes.

But come Saturday night, he's the self-proclaimed pilot of what he calls "Flight Soul to Soul," his long-running music show.

His wife, Sherry Johnson, he tells audiences in a liquid-smoke voice, is his flight attendant.

The music -- which in a single show might veer from Teddy Pendergrass to Heavy D -- is the flight's cargo.

Johnson grew up in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco until hippies moved in during the 1960s and his mom decamped the family to Oakland. His childhood was steeped in music -- Freddie Stone of Sly and the Family Stone went to the family's church. Radio hosts, he said, were his heroes.

The Army brought Johnson to Alaska and the beginnings of a life and career kept him here.

The opportunity to host his own radio show at the local public station -- lugging milk crates of disco records to the studio -- fulfilled a dream.

Back in the late 1970s, when he used to broadcast marathon, all-night shows that finished at 5 a.m., he began asking for song requests and dedications as a way to fill airtime.

Inmates quickly became his most ardent listeners and frequent requesters, he said.

Over the years, the music and the requests have changed but the theme of "Soul to Soul" is the same: love.

Johnson refuses to air letters about snitches or retribution or anything that hints at violence. His least favorite musical artist is Eminem, because his songs are so filled with rage.

He says he's happy to play the Jay-Z and Chris Brown songs his listeners request these days but he prefers music that's a little smoother: He loves the cool growl of Luther Vandross, Earth Wind and Fire, the Jazz Crusaders and even Kenny G, who Johnson thinks does fine work with a saxophone.

He was not a fan of the enormously popular rapper Lil Wayne until Wayne released a bona-fide slow jam called "How To Love," which has become one of the most requested songs in "Soul to Soul's" history.

Johnson is sensitive to the fact that many of his audience members are listening on commissary-purchased radios in the cells of the Anchorage Correctional Complex.

There are songs that are just too sad for Saturday night.

A prime example would be "I Miss You" by the 1970s Philadelphia soul crooners Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. That's on the no-play list due to lyrics like "How's my little son? Does he ever ask about me?"

"It's the ultimate sad song of all sad songs," Johnson says.

COURTNEY AND TATTOO ROB

Johnson asks his audience to keep their shout-outs and dedications concise but that doesn't stop people from filling two and three pages of a legal pad with a long list of shout-outs or lengthy romantic confessions.

On a recent nearly-moonless Saturday night, Johnson sat in the basement studio where he broadcasts his show with a stand-in co-host named Liz puzzling over a scrawled, multi-page dedication he was going to play just before midnight.

"This is long!" he said, and ended up reading the whole thing anyway.

He understands it's a big deal: Dedicating a love song on the radio is one of the few grand romantic gestures available to an inmate.

Then Courtney Waggoner called the studio phone to make a request.

Waggoner, an effervescent 22-year-old, wanted Johnson to play a song called "Weak" by the early 1990s girl group SWV: "I get so weak in the knees I can hardly speak/I lose all control and something takes over me."

Her boyfriend, known as Tattoo Rob, was in jail awaiting trial on charges including felony assault and theft.

The Saturday before, Waggoner had caught the tail end of Rob's "Soul to Soul" message to her, which came with a song dedication of "Sure Thing" by an artist called Miguel.

"I love you more and more every minute of every day," Rob had written for Marvell to read over the air. "I can't wait to hold you close to me."

Having an incarcerated boyfriend is tough, she said.

Waggoner said she always made a point to be near the radio on Saturday nights in hopes of hearing Rob's words broadcast. It made up for some of the romance she was missing out on.

"When you hear your name," she said, "your heart gets all fluttered."

She wasn't worried that Rob would somehow miss her dedication.

"All the guys on the mod (cell block) listen to it," she said. "If he doesn't hear it, he'll hear about it."

THANK YOU, MR. MARVELL

Over the years, Marvell Johnson has gained a kind of celebrity in Anchorage.

Once, he was recognized at an Arby's, where the cashier told him how much the show meant to him and said he'd be getting his roast beef sandwiches for free.

Bede Trantina, KSKA's program director, says Johnson's encyclopedic knowledge about soul, disco, R&B and hip-hop makes him a community treasure, as do the prison dedications.

"It's letting people know that they're still cared for and they still have a connection," Trantina said. "It's very sweet that we have that."

KSKA does not release information about the audience size of its programs, so there's no way to know exactly how many people listen to "Soul to Soul" on any given night.

Sometimes Johnson, who with his wife has raised many foster children in addition to four biological children between the two of them, thinks his "Soul to Soul" days may be coming to a close. He spends his own money subscribing to record pool services so he can make sure to honor all requests.

"Sometimes I feel like not going on with the show," he said. "I think, what's the purpose? Am I doing anything?"

But those letters pile up every week. He doesn't save them. ("If I did, this whole room would be filled with letters," he said.) But he remembers some.

"I'd like to thank you Mr. Marvell for making our words possible," one inmate wrote recently. "For some like me letters is the only way to be heard by our loved ones."

So for now he'll keep showing up every Saturday night ready to broadcast what he calls "the best love in Alaska" to heartsick girlfriends and lonely inmates.

They'll be listening.

Tune in "Soul to Soul" airs Saturday nights from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. on KSKA 91.1 FM.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News