Loud and Clear

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
And this is the sound of, well here I’m going to play you the sound and if you’re old enough you’ll be able to identify it right away.

Benjamen Walker:
That’s the sound of a brand new cassette tape being unwrapped and put into a cassette deck.

Roman Mars:
That’s my friend and fellow Radiotopian, Benjamen Walker. He hosts the show, ‘Theory of Everything’ and he’s definitely old enough to know that sound.

Benjamen Walker:
Yeah well, so are you, pal.

Roman Mars:
Benjamin is sitting in a car, a car that happens to have a tape deck with Andrea Hart who works with the Sub Pop record label.

Andrea Hart:
“At first when we started doing the cassettes for every release…”

Roman Mars:
If you’re not familiar with Sub Pop, it’s kind of this small but really mighty record label that has signed some of the best indie bands in the last 30 years, Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, The Postal Service, Beach House. And Andrea has a job at Sub Pop that a lot of people might not imagine exists at a modern record label.

Andrea Hart:
“I work at Sub Pop Records. I’m doing cassette production.”

Benjamen Walker:
“It’s crazy. I just don’t think I’ve even held a cassette in my hand for a long time.”

Roman Mars:
This job, handling cassette production at Sub Pop, it disappeared completely for a while. But recently, record stores and distributors have been requesting Sub Pop to release their titles on cassette and Sub Pop asked Andrea to oversee the operation.

Andrea Hart:
“As of 2016, the plan is for every new release is to get a cassette release.”

Roman Mars:
I don’t like nostalgia for the sake of it, and it’s clear to me why cassettes have been replaced now a couple of times over by more convenient mediums. Mediums where you can actually skip tracks and you don’t have to rewind when you’re done listening. But I do think there are a lot of good things about the cassette. First off, you can fix a messed up cassette with some patience and a pencil. Plus, there has never been a better way to make a mix. And you can have a tape floating around on the floor of your car for years and then throw it in your tape deck and it sounds great. Well, it sounds okay. It never really sounded great. In any case, Sub Pop is betting that some of us will want to hear our favorite albums on cassette again.

Alix Lambert:
But, there is one population that never stopped listening to music on cassette.

Benjamen Walker:
That’s filmmaker, Alix Lambert. We’ve been working together on this story and actually, I’m just going to hand it over to her now.

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 a bottle 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 put my earbuds in then, I just be gone.”

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’d have a Fanny pack and I had my Walkman and in my fanny pack with my tapes. And I be listening to the Walkman while I’m watching out for security, or the police.”

Alix Lambert:
“A fanny pack.”

Adolfo Davis:
“We used to call it a pouch, but it’s the same thing.”

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 tapes. Then the younger generation that I would talk 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 all 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:
Machines collate all those parts together, transfer them across on a conveyor and then wrap them with cellophane and put a tear strip 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 Radio Shack, or from the merch table of some punk band you saw alive, 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.

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 is 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 the 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:
“Like, if my Walkman breaks, I’m out of there, so I take good care of it because if it breaks it like… I’d start crying.”

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

Adolfo Davis:
“Well, when it’s like a major shakedown and they bring other officers from other institutions, they would just break your TV, break your radio, take your TV, take your radio, take your cassette tapes. Once you destroy my Walkman, I cannot get another Walkman.”

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

Alix Lambert:
That’s Efren Peredes 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 would probably be Kendrick Lamar. I like Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Meek Mills. 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 is a catch.

Efrén Perédes, Jr.:
“In Michigan, there is 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 Efren 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 is 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.:
“We hear guys all the time yelling up to us saying, ‘Hey, turn the music on. Turn some music on, you know, turn on, turn Rick Ross on, or turn on Meek Mill’.”

Dreams and Nightmares, by Meek Mill:
(Ain’t this what they’ve been waitin’ for?)

Efrén Perédes, Jr.:
“You know, something so that they can hear down there.”

Dreams and Nightmares, by Meek Mill:
(You ready?)

Efrén Perédes, Jr.:
“Something that’s, you know, music from upstairs.”

Dreams and Nightmares, by 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 US 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 shared music with each other. You know, music allows everyone to escape from this place. I can’t do it without my music. In the days I have to rest my Walkman, I bought a Walkman with somebody else to listen to their Walkman, so I can go and sleep…”

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

Adolfo Davis:
“No. Like 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.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Benjamen Walker and Alix Lambert with Katie Mingle, Sam Greenspan, Sharif Youssef, Kurt Kohlstedt, Delaney Hall, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
The audio you heard from Chris Barrett, the guy who sent packages to prisoners, was from the film, ‘The Prison in 12 Landscapes’ by Brett Story. For more information about where and how to see that film, go to prisonlandscapes.com. Special thanks to Elyse Blennerhassett. She introduced us to both Adolfo and Efrén.

Roman Mars:
A slightly different version of this story will air on Benjamen Walker’s ‘Theory of Everything’. Benjamen is one of my oldest friends in radio and you should definitely be friends with him too. But in case you don’t already listen, this is one of my favorite clips from his program that has a little bit more Benjamen Walker in it. Enjoy.

Benjamen Walker:
There is this painting that I keep with me always. It’s one of those little postcard reproductions. I’ve even made a gold frame for it out of balsa wood. The painting is called, ‘The Artist in His Studio’. It’s by John Singer Sargent. I’ve brought it with me here to the studio. I have it right here in front of me propped up next to the microphone. The painting depicts a man painting a picture in his studio, but this artist’s studio is not an ordinary studio. It is the artist’s home. The man has his painting propped up on the bed in the bureau. There is no easel. You get the idea that the only things in the room are the bed, the bureau and the chair upon which the man sits. The man is confined to extremely small quarters. The setting is grim and it contrasts with the painting that the man is working on, a landscape. The man is painting a landscape. Horses meander through a soft green meadow and the trees are lush and full and the blue horizon is dotted with clouds.

Benjamen Walker:
Most Sargent commentators dismiss this painting. They consider it to be nothing but a silly joke, an artist painting a landscape in his cramped doleful bedroom. But I consider this painting to be a masterpiece because it captures the idea that through art man is able to transcend his dismal surroundings. This painting is not a joke. This artist is not painting a landscape. This artist is painting a window. Look out this window for a moment. Here, let me move out of your way. You’ll find the view is breathtaking.

Benjamen Walker:
I’ve spent my entire life looking for the way to get to the other side of this window. I’ve been told time and time again that I’m wasting my efforts, but I’ve never given up. I’ve always known that there is a way to break the glass and crawl out over the windowsill. I’ve always been certain of it. And I made a vow that I would never give up until I discovered the secret. You’re snickering at me. Well, go ahead and laugh. You think I’m crazy for believing that there is something on the other side of this window. Well, I’m not. The reality on the other side is just as real as the one we stand in right now. Sometimes I think it’s even more real, but we do not have to go into that now. I have not brought you here to this window to discuss the metaphysics of reality. I have brought you here to this window because I need your help. You see, I believe that I have finally discovered the secret.

Benjamen Walker:
So, I’m going to go to the other side of the studio now and I need you to kneel down here in front. I’m going to count to three and on three I’m going to run towards you and you are going to lift me into the air. You are going to catapult me through the window. Trust me, this is going to work. With your help, I am going to break the glass and land on the other side. So, on three, one, two, three. Oh! Ow! Mother! Oh, goddamn it! Oh!

Roman Mars:
That’s the introduction to Something Will Happen Soon, an episode from Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything from Radiotopia.

  1. Marten Fahse

    There is something wrong with a justice system that send 14 and 15 year old kids to prison for life

  2. Rickie C Marecek

    It’s happening again. When I click on “Download” it plays instead of downloading.

    1. Alan Beirne

      Your browser is probably opening the file instead of saving it. Right click on Download and choose the save option from that menu.

  3. Dear Roman and 99% invisible,

    I am a relatively longtime, though slightly irregular, listener to the show.

    Tonight I was peeling a grapefruit in my friend’s kitchen (where I am
    Couch surfing) after a long day on my feet in New York City. I never do this, but I just wanted to tell you that your show brought me to tears. Well specifically the snippet of Benjamin Walker’s show you aired at the end of this episode. (The cassettes story was beautiful and fascinating as well, I’m not playing favorites)

    At any rate, I am an artist, and I know all too well the trials of making work, and believing against all odds in the work. Thank you for choosing to make work, and believe in work, and support those people who irrationally radically surrender to the belief that the window to our creative visions is open. Whether we fly or fall on our asses that is a beautiful world to live in.

    That’s all. I’m gonna go eat my grapefruit.

    Love, Fitch

  4. Thank you for sharing this story. According to Efrén Paredes, Jr., “We enrich lives and transform the world every time we share stories about the world of the incarcerated which are often trapped behind the brick and mortar designed to isolate their experiences from the outside world. Each story shared with the world brings us all one step closer to understanding these experiences snd reimagining a better vision for our broken criminal justice system.” Please support Efrén by Liking the Free Efrén Facebook page at: http://www.fb.com/Free.Efren.

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