Long Strange Tape

Roman Mars: With no fees or minimums, banking with Capital One is the easiest decision in the history of decisions–even easier than deciding to listen to another episode of your favorite podcast. And with no overdraft fees is it even a decision? That’s banking reimagined. What’s in your wallet? Terms apply. See capitalone.com/bank. Capital One, N.A. Member FDIC. This podcast is brought to you by Squarespace. Want to increase revenue this holiday season? Squarespace’s Courses feature gives you the tools you need to create and sell your own online course. Start with a professional layout that fits your brand, upload video lessons to teach skills, and tailor your course with the built in Fluid Engine editor. Create content, then add a pay wall, and set the price. Charge a one-time fee or sell subscriptions. Head to squarespace.com for a free trial. When you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible.” This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars. I’ve been working in radio a long time. It’s been so long that when I first started out, I did all my interviews on cassette tape. A Marantz PMD-222, to be exact. I have a soft spot for cassettes and that machine in particular. But honestly, cassettes never really sounded all that great. 

Marc Masters: So, it was assumed that people would use cassettes for voice recordings–things like reporters using them in the field. 

Roman Mars: That’s Marc Masters. He has a new book called High Bias about the history of the cassette. 

Marc Masters: But because the cassette was so much cheaper and easier to use and portable, a lot of people didn’t care so much about the audio quality. They just wanted to be able to use something that they could carry around with them. 

Martín Gonzalez: Portability was crucial to the success of the cassette. 

Roman Mars: That’s 99PI engineer Martín Gonzales, who knows a thing or two about making things sound good. 

Martín Gonzalez: Cassettes weren’t meant to be as high fidelity as vinyl or reel-to-reels. They were meant to go where those other formats couldn’t. 

Marc Masters: The guy, Lou Ottens, who invented it–his first idea was “I’m going to cut out a block of wood and put it in my pocket and see what feels comfortable. And then I’m going to try to make a cassette player that matches that size.”

Martín Gonzalez: Cassettes had another big advantage. They were much easier to record on. 

Marc Masters: Before the compact cassette was introduced, recording anything was hard to do. The equipment was expensive. The tapes were expensive. It was easy to mess it up. You kind of had to be sort of a semi professional to be able to figure any of this out. 

Martín Gonzalez: The cassette wasn’t really the best format in most ways, but it was the most useful format. Marc’s book has stories of all kinds of cool scenes that were only made possible by the use of cassettes. Underground home-recorded lo-fi indie rock. Early hip-hop blasting from New York City boomboxes. A treasure trove of Cambodian tapes stashed away in the Oakland Public Library. But there is a chapter that made me realize there’s one band that represents the ultimate triumph of the cassette. The Grateful Dead. Look, I am very much not a Deadhead. Sorry to our listeners who are. But honestly, up until now, I thought they sucked.

Roman Mars: The views expressed herein are solely that of Martín Gonzales and do not necessarily represent 99PI, Stitcher, or SiriusXM.

Martín Gonzalez: All right. I’ve come around a little bit on them. But it’s just… I was always, like, Mr. Cool Music Guy, you know? I’m the type that will corner you at a party to tell you, “Actually, my favorite Beach Boys song is the title track from their 1968 album, Friends, which I think is probably the apex of their post-Pet Sounds era.” I thought the Dead were for a very different type of person. You know the kind I mean. The ones whose natural habitat is in the parking lots of jam band shows. 

Sophie Haigney: Old school hippies. And people my age kind of living an old school hippie life where they’re just, like, in a van. They’re selling burritos, they’re white, and they have dreadlocks. And they’re wearing no shirt. And they’re selling mushrooms out of a bag. 

Martín Gonzalez: That’s writer and Deadhead Sophie Haigney. 

Sophie Haigney: Like a lot of people my age, I got into the Dead by osmosis through, like, my dad. And then it was just what we had in the car growing up. 

Martín Gonzalez: She knows what people think about Dead fans. 

Sophie Haigney: I approach loving the Dead with some amount of self-deprecation just because I’m aware that it’s not for everyone to listen to, like, endless jams. It can be, I think, really alienating for people who might not have a natural way in. 

Martín Gonzalez: My way into the Dead was through cassettes. I found it so charming to imagine total strangers, united by their love of this band, mailing each other tapes of shows that maybe neither of them even went to. But let’s rewind the tape back to the beginning of the Grateful Dead. I got to admit, this kind of rocks. What you’re hearing is their first known live recording from the January 1966 Acid Test. 

Roman Mars: These were happenings thrown by Ken Kesey and his group The Merry Pranksters. Everyone was dosed on LSD, and there were crazy lights and experimental spoken word performances. The Dead became the de facto house band. 

Martín Gonzalez: They became close with the era’s most prolific producer of acid, Owsley Stanley–also known as “Bear.” He became the band’s patron and first sound engineer, building gigantic high-fidelity PAs for them. 

Roman Mars: Bear started recording the band in his quest to improve the quality of the live sound. He explained this in this 1991 interview. 

Owsley Stanley: My way of doing that was constantly playing the tapes back. Listen to the tape, listen to the house, adjust them, listen to the tape, listen to the house. After every show, we’d gather in the hotel and play back the night’s gigs. There was always a tape being made. 

Roman Mars: Throughout the late 1960s, the Dead expanded from their Bay Area roots and started touring nationally. They became a focal point for the counterculture. Their shows were never the same twice. They would make up the setlist as they went, linking songs together with extended improvisations. 

Martín Gonzalez: The magic of their live shows didn’t quite translate into their studio albums. They released a few official live albums that were closer to the experience, but…

Marc Masters: People really wanted to hear every show, to hear the differences, to hear if there might be something new that they’re playing–if there might be some new take on an old song. 

Roman Mars: Intrepid fans would sneak in their own tape recorders and microphones to try to capture the elusive raw magic. Early tapers were mostly still using bulky reel-to-reels. When the tape ended, you had to unspool the whole reel to switch tapes. It was a difficult and time-consuming process to do mid-set. 

Marc Masters: And it wasn’t quite accepted yet, so you might have to hide it somewhere. You might have to try to figure out a way to put a whole reel-to-reel deck, like, in your pants or something. 

Martín Gonzalez: Marc isn’t kidding. Tapers resorted to elaborate measures, like disguising a mic stand as a leg brace or burying their gear in the stadium’s field a couple of days before the show. 

Roman Mars: In those early days, illegal bootlegging was a widespread concern in the music industry. And at first, the band was opposed. The crew would confiscate the tapes or even snip their cables. 

Martín Gonzalez: The taping quickly became so widespread that the band came to a sort of grudging acceptance. Here’s the 1971 recording where guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh poke fun at a taper who was a little too close. 

Bob Weir: Hey, you down there with the microphone. If you want to get a decent recording, you got to move back about 40 feet. 

Phil Lesh: It sounds a lot better back there. Believe me. 

Martín Gonzalez: And Jerry Garcia had taped bluegrass shows when he was younger. So, his philosophy was… 

Jerry Garcia: When we’re done with it, they can have it, you know? 

Roman Mars: New York tapers formed clubs to trade recordings. They were the first to establish an important principle: the tapes couldn’t be sold for a profit. You had to either swap for another tape or simply give it away. The music was a communal resource to be shared freely. 

Martín Gonzalez: The band came to understand that people were taping simply to enjoy the music not to make a profit. They also realized the tapes acted as free advertising for their concerts. And most importantly, they didn’t want to be narcs. 

Roman Mars: The earliest cassette recorders were still mono and lower fidelity. But throughout the 1970s, new, higher fidelity, portable cassette decks were released, made by brands like Nakamichi and Sony. Some even came with microphones. Taping became more and more accessible. 

Marc Masters: Suddenly, with cassettes, really all you had to do was pop it in the machine and hit record. There was almost nothing else to it. 

Martín Gonzalez: As the cassette spread, so did Dead tapes. When the band took a break from the road in the mid-1970s, the tapes kept circulating without them. 

Roman Mars: By the end of the decade, the band was a cultural phenomenon. Caravans of Deadheads would drive around the country, following them around from show to show. At that point, cassette decks had widely replaced 8-tracks in cars. So, as you drove from one show to the next, you could listen to your Dead tapes the entire way. The vibes never had to stop. 

Martín Gonzalez: Much like the Dead’s shows, every cassette was a little different. There are two main types of recording: soundboard and audience. 

Bob Weir: Some folks trust to reason / Others trust to might…

Martín Gonzalez: This is a soundboard recording. It’s clear, tight, dry… Very little crowd noise. 

Martín Gonzalez: These were recorded by the Dead’s road crew, though sometimes they’d provide a feed to friendly tapers. Some of these leaked out to the tape trading community, but most of them went into the archives and weren’t heard until much later. Audience recordings were much more common. There’s a lot less clarity, but you get more overall blend of the band, the room sound, and the audience. This one was recorded at Bob’s recommended 40 feet back. I mean, this sounds pretty good considering it’s just a guy who stuck a tape deck down his pants and hoisted a mic up above the crowd. 

Roman Mars: In order to share the tapes widely, they would get copied over and over. 

Marc Masters: People would have dubbing parties where they all each bring a tape recorder and they chain them all together. 

Roman Mars: And later, dual-deck cassette recorders could make copies without needing a second machine. 

Martín Gonzalez: But those copies didn’t sound exactly the same. Every time you made a copy, you would reduce the fidelity of the tape further and further. The sound degrades a little bit more every time, and the tape hiss multiplies. That’s called generation loss. So, a pristine first-generation soundboard recording sounds much worse after being copied just three times. You can hear it’s way noisier. And if you copied it too many times–say ten–it gets pretty rough. The music gets buried in noise, and everything is all warbly

Roman Mars: Dead fans were willing to put up with these sonic drawbacks if it meant that they could listen to more Dead. The sound even had an advantage over the official live albums. 

Marc Masters: Cassettes became associated with sort of a more authentic experience in a weird way. It didn’t go to some recording studio and get polished. It’s just direct expression. This isn’t something that’s being passed through a lot of gatekeepers. 

Martín Gonzalez: All of this taping meant that Deadheads could listen to virtually every single show. It led to this kind of extreme scholarship. Sophie Haigney again. 

Sophie Haigney: There’s a kind of obsession with, like, encyclopedic details. But I think that it’s really boring to hear someone talk for six hours about some minor point of some keyboardists from 1989. 

Martín Gonzalez: Unfortunately, if I were a Deadhead, this is exactly the type of Deadhead I would be. 

Roman Mars: Diehard fans didn’t just listen to the music. They collected it, organized it, and cataloged it. Labeling cassettes became an art unto itself. Fan magazines published set lists and had classified sections: taper seeks tape.

Martín Gonzalez: I talked to the person who, by all accounts, has the single largest collection: Mark Rodriguez, an artist who builds massive sculptures out of copies of Dead cassettes. 

Mark Rodriguez: My collection is probably around 13,000 tapes or so. You know, that’s going to be multiples or doubles and triples of certain shows. 

Martín Gonzalez: The Dead channeled almost their entire artistic energy into their live shows. These tapes make them perhaps the most documented artist across any medium. 

Mark Rodriguez: Say, if you had a video recording of Van Gogh visiting his studio every day and making his paintings and knowing exactly what brushes he uses, you’d be like, “Oh yeah. When he painted Starry Night on such and such a date, he used the mongoose brush.” We see their development. We get all the hiccups. We get all the flubs. We get all the successes. 

Martín Gonzalez: Dead fans can debate about the best versions of songs or best eras of the band. But because everything was captured, people sometimes even have their favorite detritus. 

Sophie Haigney: Sometimes you want to listen to a song and you don’t want to listen to the part where they’re like, “Ooh, the guitar is not really working that well.” But I think that’s also part of it. I like listening to Bob Weir talking about how hot it is in Oregon–every time before it’s been raining.”

Bob Weir: This may be the first time I’ve ever been to Oregon. It didn’t rain, and now it’s too damn hot. 

Sophie Haigney: It wasn’t like Bob’s off the cuff comment about the weather was meant to live forever. And yet it kind of does. 

Martín Gonzalez: I don’t think the band expected that half a century later, people would be listening to their tuning and stage announcements. 

Martín Gonzalez: But people weren’t just listening to the tapes for the music. It was a way of carrying the atmosphere of a Dead show into your everyday life. The tapes were kind of a hang. 

Roman Mars: Fast forward to the early 1980s. Cassette sales had finally overtaken vinyl. The newly introduced Walkman created the power to soundtrack your life at all times. Meanwhile, the Dead were bigger than ever. They chose to fully focus on touring and went seven years without releasing a studio album. Even casual fans were mainly listening to the tapes. That was the only place to hear new songs outside of a concert. 

Martín Gonzalez: But there is a problem. Some of these tapers were driving other fans nuts. Another person they were driving nuts was Dan Healy, the Grateful Dead’s longtime sound engineer. He told the story in a 1989 interview. 

Dan Healy: Tapers got an inflated version of their own importance for a while there. They were beginning to lean on non-tapers who had seats that they wanted and stuff. One thing led to another, and the concept of the taper section–it was like, “Either ban taping all together, or organize it.”

Roman Mars: So, in October of 1984, the band set up an official taper section. Tapers would buy special tickets to sit behind Healy, where they wouldn’t bother the other fans who simply wanted to listen and vibe in peace. 

Martín Gonzalez: At that point, the band’s finances were dire. For their entire career, they’d struggled to break even. Their ticket sales were massive, but so was their overhead. 

Roman Mars: They started considering their tape vault as a potential source of income. So, they hired a prolific tape collector to help them sift through the archives. 

Dick Latvala: Hi. My name’s Dick Latvala, and welcome to the Grateful Dead Vault. In 1974, I started collecting tapes. And then I did nothing else for about ten years. 

Martín Gonzalez: Dick Latvala had struck up a friendship with the band and the crew over the years. Sometimes they’d slip him copies of soundboard recordings. He and other tapers had long advocated for official releases of these tapes. But the band always thought they were too lo-fi to put out. Eventually they came around. In 1993, they released the first CD of the Dick’s Picks series, which was an instant success. The advertising played up the rawness of the tapes, recognizing that fans had come to see it as a virtue. 

Roman Mars: By 1991, CDs replaced cassettes as the most popular format. Many tapers had also switched to digital recorders, but those were much more expensive, and CDR burners cost thousands of dollars at the time. The easiest way to share the recordings from fan to fan was still the cassette. 

Newscaster: Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist and co-founder of the band known as the Grateful Dead, died today, reportedly of natural causes. He was 53 years old…”

Roman Mars: The Grateful Dead split up in 1995 after Jerry Garcia’s death. But the story doesn’t end there. Similar taping networks sprung up around other bands. Dead tapes continued to circulate, and tapers still followed around the Dead’s offshoots and solo projects. 

Martín Gonzalez: Deadheads congregated and communicated on the internet, which they’d been doing since, well, the invention of the internet. Their early home base was close to the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, where many early internet protocols were developed. The lab was full of Deadheads, and the band would sometimes drop by, too. One of the lab’s first uses of email was to organize outings to Dead shows. As the internet slowly developed, Deadheads were there every step of the way–from 1980s Usenet groups to AOL Keyword: DEAD. They were using the internet to connect, but they still had to trade tapes and CDRs by mail. But it wasn’t long before all physical media was rendered more or less obsolete by the mp3.

Roman Mars: In the early 2000s, fans embarked on a collective project to digitize and organize the recordings, which found a home on archive.org. Deadheads no longer had to cultivate their own personal libraries or track down rare recordings themselves. With one click, they could pull up virtually any moment from the Dead’s entire history. And if they had a tape that was missing, they could share it with the rest of the fandom. 

Martín Gonzalez: The Walkman couldn’t compete with the iPod. The cassette simply wasn’t useful anymore. And so, people started getting rid of them. 

Sophie Haigney: The tapes are literally kind of worthless. The value that they hold is really only sentimental. And for people who possess this particular obsession, they function more like literal memories–like souvenirs–than as collector’s items. 

Roman Mars: 2023 saw the last shows by the final incarnation of the Grateful Dead. Dead & Company featured a couple of original members, plus some other jam band veterans, and Your Body Is a Wonderland singer John Mayer standing in for Jerry Garcia. 

Martín Gonzalez: There were still tapers, but now fans could livestream professional recordings of every show. Taping was no longer a necessity but more of a hobby. Sophie saw Dead & Co. many times, including their July farewell shows in San Francisco. 

Sophie Haigney: The culture of going to a massive stadium Dead show that includes original members of the band–that feels like it’s ending. I can’t really see what replaces that, and that’s really sad. Like, I think, “What will I do next summer?”

Martín Gonzalez: Sophie is not the taper type. But of course, she did have her phone. Phone cameras have turned us into a culture of compulsive documenters simply because it’s so easy. I asked Sophie if she had any videos from that last show. 

Sophie Haigney: I actually did not take very many phone videos, but, you know, I have some. So let me just see what I have. 

Martín Gonzalez: They weren’t exactly Cornell ’77. 

Sophie Haigney: All my videos are, like, six seconds long and low quality. You can’t even really– That’s Fire on the Mountain. Let’s see what we get here. So, there you go. 

Martín Gonzalez: She told me the clips were so short because she kept having a sudden realization. It’s a familiar feeling to me and probably to you too. You’re having a great experience, so you pull out your phone and take a photo or video. Maybe you even post it right away. But then you realize, “Now I’m just looking at my phone.”

Roman Mars: Documenting and sharing is so easy that it’s become our new default. But this old man is going to shake his fist at a cloud right now and tell you there is no way around it. Capturing a moment makes it harder to be in the moment. 

Martín Gonzalez: Dead cassettes are an artifact of when recording was rare and sharing took work. Tapers were volunteering on behalf of Deadheads past, present, and future to try and capture every fleeting moment–to capture the entire moment–not just the music but the feeling of being there. 

Roman Mars: There’s one place where cassettes are still the most useful format for music. We’ll take you there after the break. I am mostly on board with the holiday season, but one part that stresses me out is getting gifts for people, especially the type of people who are very hard to get gifts for. But if you’re a business owner and you need to grow your team, your perfect gift is simple. You want a smart hiring solution. So, look no further than ZipRecruiter. And right now, we’re gifting it to you for free at ziprecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter uses smart matching technology to identify the most qualified people for a wide range of roles. ZipRecruiter lets top candidates know that they’re a great match for your job to encourage them to apply. And the bow on top? If you see a candidate who’s a great match for your job, ZipRecruiter makes it easy to send them a personal invite so they’re more likely to apply. So, get your hiring wrapped up quickly with ZipRecruiter. 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Alix Lambert: The United States prison system has the largest prison population in the world. And when the more than 2 million prisoners in this country have access to music, it’s often on cassette. 

Adolfo Davis: Well, my number one thing to keep around here is my Walkman, my tapes, my legal papers, and some bottled water. Yeah, they have everything else.

Alix Lambert: That’s Adolfo Davis. At 14 years old, he was involved in a gang related shooting. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. 

Roman Mars: Adolfo is 39 now, and he’s serving his sentence at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois. Listening to music on tapes is one of his only means of escape. 

Adolfo Davis: That’s the only way, I think, I’ve made it so far because I have a good imagination and I just close my eyes and my earbuds in. And I just be going.

Roman Mars: In 1990, the year Adolfo was incarcerated, everybody was listening to music on cassette tapes. In fact, Adolfo had some with him when he went to prison. 

Adolfo Davis: Yeah, I got locked up with a Walkman and, I think, like, seven tapes. Yeah. When I used to sell drugs, I have a fanny pack. And I have my Walkman in my fanny pack with my tape. And I be listening to the Walkman while watching out for security–for the police. 

Alix Lambert: A fanny pack. 

Adolfo Davis: We used to call it a pouch, but it’s a fanny pack.

Alix Lambert: Let’s be real. 

Roman Mars: Just a few years after Adolfo was locked up, the cassette tape would be all but replaced by the CD out here in the free world. But in prison, the cassette lived on. 

Adolfo Davis: I be telling my family, like, “I need to order tape.” The younger generation that I be talking to–they don’t even know what a tape is.

Alix Lambert: And not just any old cassette tape is allowed in prison. 

Roman Mars: Some prisons require a very specific type of cassette tape. 

Steve Stepp: It has to be clear. It has to be sonically welded so it can’t be taken apart and put back together. And the box it goes in has to also be perfectly clear. 

Roman Mars: That’s Steve Stepp, owner of National Audio Company, America’s preeminent manufacturer of cassette tapes. 

Steve Stepp: The reason you can’t have a five-screw cassette or maybe a colored cassette that’s opaque is they don’t want a razor blade or narcotics or something else to be enclosed in a cassette. They do have people in the correctional facilities who look at and inspect incoming materials. And they have to be able to see through, or they won’t allow them in. 

Roman Mars: Steve has gotten familiar with this subfield of cassette tape manufacturing, even though it is not the focus of his business. Mostly he makes normal cassette tapes for a number of different markets: music labels, spoken word, audiobooks. 

Alix Lambert: Steve’s factory in Springfield, Missouri, produces both blank tapes and tapes with audio already on them. 

Steve Stepp: The machines collate all those parts together, transfer them across on a conveyor, and then wrap them with cellophane and put a tear strap in. 

Alix Lambert: Steve was one of the first people in the cassette industry. And he’s one of the only people still in it. 

Steve Stepp: We’re the only people I know of. Most of the people left in the cassette industry are mom-and-pop shops or small operations. 

Roman Mars: If you purchased a cassette recently from anywhere–from RadioShack or from the merch table of some punk band you just saw live–it probably started out in Steve’s factory. His company ships out up to 100,000 cassettes a day. And a small number of those cassettes are special orders for prisoners, made with clear plastic and without screws. 

Steve Stepp: Once the tapes leave here, we don’t really see where they end up. That’s the part of the business that we can’t see from where we are. 

Alix Lambert: As for why cassettes have stuck around in prisons all these years, it’s hard to get a definitive answer because every prison is different. 

Roman Mars: But there’s one theory we heard from a few different people. Tapes are allowed because CDs are easier to weaponize. 

Chris Barrett: They say that it’s the most safest way for them to listen to music because a CD you could break and maybe cut somebody with. 

Roman Mars: That’s Chris Barrett. This tape of him was recorded a couple of years ago for a short film. Chris used to run a service that helped families send packages to people in prison in New York State. He had a warehouse full of items that had already been approved by the prison authorities. Everything from food, clothing, boxer shorts, and–yeah–cassettes instead of CDs. But he never really understood the logic behind it. 

Chris Barrett: They let me sell tuna fish cans that, you know, you pull off the top and that thing is metal. Like, it’s much more dangerous than a CD is my point–the tuna fish can than CDs. So, I don’t know why they come up with some of the rules that they come up with. We just try to stay within those guidelines. 

Roman Mars: Chris, whose package-sending service recently went out of business, also sold a lot of cassette Walkmans. Walkmans used to be available for purchase in prison commissaries, but they generally aren’t anymore, which makes them extremely coveted items.

Adolfo Davis: My Walkman breaks, I’m out of here. So, I take good care of it because if it breaks, like, I’d start crying. 

Alix Lambert: And wear and tear is not the only threat to the life of a Walkman. 

Adolfo Davis: But when it’s a major shake down and they bring other officers from other institutions, they will just break your CD, break your radio, take your TV, take your radio, take your cassette tape washing. Once you destroy my Walkman, I cannot get another Walkman. 

Efrén Perédes, Jr.: It’s probably one of the most prized items, you know, for theft. People try to hold onto them as much as they can–protect them as much as possible. 

Alix Lambert: That’s Efrén Perédes, Jr. He was a 15-year-old honor student when he was tried as an adult on a murder charge and sentenced to life without parole. He’s always maintained his innocence. 

Roman Mars: Efrén is 43 now. And during his 28 years in prison, he amassed a pretty big collection of music. 

Efrén Perédes, Jr.: Some of my favorites are probably Kendrick Lamar… I like Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Meek Mill… I like Lil Wayne. 

Alix Lambert: At Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan, where Efrén is serving his sentence, prisoners can actually have mp3 players. 

Roman Mars: Inmates can purchase an mp3 player through the prison commissary and then download music to it through a kiosk provided by a company called Access Entertainment. Before downloading, they have to transfer money to the company and receive a credit for a certain amount of songs. But there’s a catch. 

Efrén Perédes, Jr.: In Michigan, there’s a policy that they try to restrict as much music that would be labeled as “Parental Advisory.”

Alix Lambert: In other words, the state of Michigan will try and sentence a 15-year-old as an adult. But when he becomes an actual adult, the state won’t let him purchase music deemed inappropriate for a teenager. 

Efrén Perédes, Jr.: It’s interesting that, you know, the Department of Corrections has never taken any steps to restricting cassette tape purchases. 

Roman Mars: We couldn’t confirm that there were no restrictions on cassette music, but Efrén hasn’t encountered them. And that’s why, he says, a lot of inmates still prefer cassettes. They listen to them all the time on their personal Walkmans and sometimes out loud. 

Efrén Perédes, Jr.: Actually, as we’re talking right now, there’s a gentleman in the bathroom washing clothes with his radio on, playing the song Play at Your Own Risk. 

Roman Mars: Right underneath the part of the prison where Efrén is locked up is the wing that houses the prisoners in solitary confinement. 

Efrén Perédes, Jr.: So, we hear guys all the time yelling up to us, saying, “Hey, turn the music on! Turn some music on! Turn Rick Ross on! Turn on Meek Mill!” You know, something so they can hear down there–something that’s music from upstairs. 

Meek Mill: I used to pray for times like this, to rhyme like this So I had to grind like that to shine like this And the amount of time I spent on some locked-up sh*t In the back of the paddy wagon, cuffs locked on wrists Seen my dreams unfold, nightmares come true

Roman Mars: Prisons tend to be late adopters of technology, so maybe one day all prisons in the U.S. will just make the switch from cassette to digital. Or maybe they’ll go to CDs first just to be illogically chronological. 

Alix Lambert: Whatever the format, the most important thing about music to Efrén and Adolfo is escape and connection. Here’s Adolfo again. 

Adolfo Davis: Music connects us all together. Everybody shares music to each other. Music allows anyone to escape in this place. I can’t do it without my music. In the days I have to rest my Walkman, I bought a Walkman from somebody to listen to their Walkman, so I can go to sleep.

Alix Lambert: The days that you don’t have your Walkman?

Adolfo Davis: I play my Walkman, like, three days. Then I let it rest, like, two days. 

Roman Mars: Wow. He rests his Walkman. That is love. That story was originally produced by Benjamen Walker and Alix Lambert. A slightly different version of this story aired on Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything. Benjamen’s got a new series coming out in January that’s going to be great because everything he does is great. Go subscribe to Theory of Everything now. 99% Invisible was produced and mixed this week by Martín Gonzalez, edited by Chris Berube. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Music by Swan Real and Martin Gonzalez. Marc Masters’ book, High Bias, is out now, it’s so great. You can also hear him on the Wastoids podcast. Mark Rodriguez’s book “After All is Said and Done” is a gorgeous object. Thank you to Jesse Jarnow, who provided editorial support. He co-hosts the official Grateful Dead podcast, and his book, Heads, is a definitive resource on psychedelic counterculture. If you’re Dead-curious but don’t know where to begin, our website has a list of which tapes to start with. It’s a public service right there. And if you tune in to channel 23 on SiriusXM, you’ll find the official Grateful Dead channel–all Dead, all the time. 99PI’s executive producer is Kathy Tu. Our senior editor is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Gabriella Gladney, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered a short, normal trip six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California–home of the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I am a proud community owner. As other professional teams leave, the Oakland Roots are Oakland first–always. You can find us on all the usual social media sites. We are not on Letterboxd, but Chris and Martín keep telling me it’s the only good social media. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.

Martín Gonzalez: Uh. Okay. Stitcher. SiriusXM. Stitcher… Too sweaty. I can’t do it.



99% Invisible was produced and mixed this week by Martin Gonzalez, edited by Chris Berube. Editorial support from Jesse Jarnow, whose book Heads is a definitive resource on psychedelic counter-culture. Additional fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Music by Swan Real and Martin Gonzalez.

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