2 weeks ago 3 weeks ago
Somewhere on the outskirts of Marrakech, Morocco, inside a vault housed beneath the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, there sits an engraved silver-and-nickel box with the potential to spawn a shift in the way music is consumed and monetized.
The lustrous container was handcrafted over the course of three months by British-Moroccan artist Yahya, whose works have been commissioned by royal families and business leaders around the world. Soon, it will contain a different sort of art piece: the Wu-Tang Clan’s double-album The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, recorded in secret over the past few years.
Like the work of a master Impressionist, it will truly be one-of-a-kind—in lieu of a traditional major label or independent launch, the iconic hip-hop collective will make and sell just one copy of the album. And similar to a Monet or a Degas, the price tag will be a multimillion-dollar figure.
“We’re about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before,” says Robert “RZA” Diggs, the first Wu-Tang member to speak on record about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, in an exclusive interview with FORBES. “We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music. We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”
Wu-Tang’s aim is to use the album as a springboard for the reconsideration of music as art, hoping the approach will help restore it to a place alongside great visual works–and create a shift in the music business, not to mention earn some cash, in the process. The one-of-a-kind launch will be a separate endeavor from the group’s 20th anniversary album, A Better Tomorrow, which is set for a standard commercial release this summer.
According to RZA and the album’s main producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, a Morocco-based part of Wu-Tang’s extended family, the plan is to first take Once Upon A Time In Shaolin on a “tour” through museums, galleries, festivals and the like. Just like a high-profile exhibit at a major institution, there will be a cost to attend, likely in the $30-$50 range.
Visitors will go through heavy security to ensure that recording devices aren’t smuggled in; as an extra precaution, they’ll likely have to listen to the 128-minute album’s 31 songs on headphones provided by the venue. As Cilvaringz puts it: “One leak of this thing nullifies the entire concept.”
Though no exhibition dates have been finalized, Cilvaringz says Wu-Tang has been in discussions with a bevy of possible locations, including the Tate Modern (a representative from the institution did not respond to a request for comment). Other venues, including art galleries and listening tents at music festivals, could eventually round out the tour.
Once the album completes its excursion, Wu-Tang will make it available for purchase for a price “in the millions.” Suitors could include brands willing to shell out for cool points and free publicity (just as Samsung spent $5 million to buy copies of Jay Z’s latest album for its users) or major record labels hoping to launch the album through the usual channels (they’re used to paying top acts seven-figure advances).
There’s also the possibility that a wealthy private citizen could buy it and either keep the album or release it to the public for free in the name of democratizing a cultural artifact. That’s essentially what clothing mogul Mark Ecko did by purchasing Barry Bonds’ 756th home run ball for $752,467 and conducting a plebiscite to determine if he should blast it into outer space, send it to the Hall of Fame unblemished, or brand it with an asterisk (he eventually did the latter and sent it to Cooperstown).
“The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” says RZA. “And yet its doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.”
Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’s origins date back to 1997, while Wu-Tang was on tour in Europe. At one show in Amsterdam, the group allowed a few of the fans to hop up on the stage—and one of them happened to be Cilvaringz, then an 18-year-old just beginning to study entertainment law and music management.
“I recognized his energy,” says RZA. “There was something about him different from the rest of the audience.”
Cilvaringz kept in touch with the producer and even took the step of traveling to New York with friends to try and arrange a meeting, only to find that RZA was too busy to sit down with him. But when the Wu-Tang star’s mother met Cilvaringz hanging around the office, she was so impressed by his demeanor that she contacted her son and urged him to make time.
RZA did exactly that, and found himself even more knocked out by the up-and-comer than he’d been in Amsterdam, urging him to go back to school and continue learning about the music business. He soon became a mentor to Cilvaringz, showing him the ropes of production and the industry itself.
By the late 2000s, RZA and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan were ready to start working on the project that would become Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. Cilvaringz’s aim as producer was to create an album with a vintage Wu-Tang sound, the same one that drew him to the concert in Amsterdam a decade earlier.
The group was no stranger to collaborations with international artists like IAM, the French hip-hop group that collaborated on the 1997 track “La Saga” with members of the Wu-Tang Clan. The song features two verses in English, two in French, and shoutouts to cities from Medina to Marseilles.
So it wasn’t much of a stretch for Wu-Tang to work with Cilvaringz, who’d subsequently relocated to Marrakech, for Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. The pieces slowly fell into place, with the group’s original members agreeing to participate alongside few special guests. The lengthy leadup gave him plenty of time to think about how to ensure a lasting impact for the album.
“It took a long time,” says Cilvaringz. “After five years, I’m sitting here and I’m like, ‘Am I really going to release this record and see it die after a week?’”
That sentiment led him, along with RZA, to come up with the one-copy concept. After watching Jay Z debut his album in partnership with Samsung last summer—and buy 100 copies of Nipsey Hussle’s $100 mixtape—Cilvaringz and his Wu-Tang compatriots had something resembling proof of concept for Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.
“I think it’s a musical portrait that’s going to revolutionize music in the future,” said Wu-Tang member Jamiel “Masta Killa” Arief, via electronic message. “And I’m thankful to my brother Ringz, to collaborate with, and I’m ecstatic to be a part of it.”
Now, all that remains to be done is to transfer the digital files of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin to a physical disc, enclose it in the silver box, and nail down some dates for the exhibition. To be sure, there’s always a chance that this carefully conceived plan will combust before it sees the light of day, a possibility that Cilvaringz recognizes.
“I know it sounds crazy,” he says. “It might totally flop, and we might be completely ridiculed. But the essence and core of our ideas is to inspire creation and originality and debate, and save the music album from dying.”
The plan almost resembles a Kickstarter campaign in search of a single, super-wealthy backer; there are also parallels with Jack Conte’s Patreon. But it more closely mirrors the centuries-old patron model, where aristocrats would commission painters or bankroll resident musicians to create works of art.
Indeed, crowdfunding on the whole is the distant progeny of that system, as is the aforementioned activity of Samsung. Wu-Tang is betting that a full-circle return will yield industry-shaking—and pocket-fattening—results.
Cilvaringz is even hoping the album will mark the beginning of a scaleable private music service. And as far as RZA is concerned, the move is an opportunity to attain a unique form of immortalization, not just through music, but through model.
“There will be a time when we can’t tour, and that’s just the natural evolution of man,” he says. “And yet this particular privatized album, I think—this idea we have—will be something that will go longer than all of us.” (via Forbes)

Somewhere on the outskirts of Marrakech, Morocco, inside a vault housed beneath the shadow of the Atlas Mountains, there sits an engraved silver-and-nickel box with the potential to spawn a shift in the way music is consumed and monetized.

The lustrous container was handcrafted over the course of three months by British-Moroccan artist Yahya, whose works have been commissioned by royal families and business leaders around the world. Soon, it will contain a different sort of art piece: the Wu-Tang Clan’s double-album The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, recorded in secret over the past few years.

Like the work of a master Impressionist, it will truly be one-of-a-kind—in lieu of a traditional major label or independent launch, the iconic hip-hop collective will make and sell just one copy of the album. And similar to a Monet or a Degas, the price tag will be a multimillion-dollar figure.

“We’re about to sell an album like nobody else sold it before,” says Robert “RZA” Diggs, the first Wu-Tang member to speak on record about Once Upon A Time In Shaolin, in an exclusive interview with FORBES. “We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done in the history of [modern] music. We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”

Wu-Tang’s aim is to use the album as a springboard for the reconsideration of music as art, hoping the approach will help restore it to a place alongside great visual works–and create a shift in the music business, not to mention earn some cash, in the process. The one-of-a-kind launch will be a separate endeavor from the group’s 20th anniversary album, A Better Tomorrow, which is set for a standard commercial release this summer.

According to RZA and the album’s main producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, a Morocco-based part of Wu-Tang’s extended family, the plan is to first take Once Upon A Time In Shaolin on a “tour” through museums, galleries, festivals and the like. Just like a high-profile exhibit at a major institution, there will be a cost to attend, likely in the $30-$50 range.

Visitors will go through heavy security to ensure that recording devices aren’t smuggled in; as an extra precaution, they’ll likely have to listen to the 128-minute album’s 31 songs on headphones provided by the venue. As Cilvaringz puts it: “One leak of this thing nullifies the entire concept.”

Though no exhibition dates have been finalized, Cilvaringz says Wu-Tang has been in discussions with a bevy of possible locations, including the Tate Modern (a representative from the institution did not respond to a request for comment). Other venues, including art galleries and listening tents at music festivals, could eventually round out the tour.

Once the album completes its excursion, Wu-Tang will make it available for purchase for a price “in the millions.” Suitors could include brands willing to shell out for cool points and free publicity (just as Samsung spent $5 million to buy copies of Jay Z’s latest album for its users) or major record labels hoping to launch the album through the usual channels (they’re used to paying top acts seven-figure advances).

There’s also the possibility that a wealthy private citizen could buy it and either keep the album or release it to the public for free in the name of democratizing a cultural artifact. That’s essentially what clothing mogul Mark Ecko did by purchasing Barry Bonds’ 756th home run ball for $752,467 and conducting a plebiscite to determine if he should blast it into outer space, send it to the Hall of Fame unblemished, or brand it with an asterisk (he eventually did the latter and sent it to Cooperstown).

“The idea that music is art has been something we advocated for years,” says RZA. “And yet its doesn’t receive the same treatment as art in the sense of the value of what it is, especially nowadays when it’s been devalued and diminished to almost the point that it has to be given away for free.”

Once Upon A Time In Shaolin’s origins date back to 1997, while Wu-Tang was on tour in Europe. At one show in Amsterdam, the group allowed a few of the fans to hop up on the stage—and one of them happened to be Cilvaringz, then an 18-year-old just beginning to study entertainment law and music management.

“I recognized his energy,” says RZA. “There was something about him different from the rest of the audience.”

Cilvaringz kept in touch with the producer and even took the step of traveling to New York with friends to try and arrange a meeting, only to find that RZA was too busy to sit down with him. But when the Wu-Tang star’s mother met Cilvaringz hanging around the office, she was so impressed by his demeanor that she contacted her son and urged him to make time.

RZA did exactly that, and found himself even more knocked out by the up-and-comer than he’d been in Amsterdam, urging him to go back to school and continue learning about the music business. He soon became a mentor to Cilvaringz, showing him the ropes of production and the industry itself.

By the late 2000s, RZA and the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan were ready to start working on the project that would become Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. Cilvaringz’s aim as producer was to create an album with a vintage Wu-Tang sound, the same one that drew him to the concert in Amsterdam a decade earlier.

The group was no stranger to collaborations with international artists like IAM, the French hip-hop group that collaborated on the 1997 track “La Saga” with members of the Wu-Tang Clan. The song features two verses in English, two in French, and shoutouts to cities from Medina to Marseilles.

So it wasn’t much of a stretch for Wu-Tang to work with Cilvaringz, who’d subsequently relocated to Marrakech, for Once Upon A Time In Shaolin. The pieces slowly fell into place, with the group’s original members agreeing to participate alongside few special guests. The lengthy leadup gave him plenty of time to think about how to ensure a lasting impact for the album.

“It took a long time,” says Cilvaringz. “After five years, I’m sitting here and I’m like, ‘Am I really going to release this record and see it die after a week?’”

That sentiment led him, along with RZA, to come up with the one-copy concept. After watching Jay Z debut his album in partnership with Samsung last summer—and buy 100 copies of Nipsey Hussle’s $100 mixtape—Cilvaringz and his Wu-Tang compatriots had something resembling proof of concept for Once Upon A Time In Shaolin.

“I think it’s a musical portrait that’s going to revolutionize music in the future,” said Wu-Tang member Jamiel “Masta Killa” Arief, via electronic message. “And I’m thankful to my brother Ringz, to collaborate with, and I’m ecstatic to be a part of it.”

Now, all that remains to be done is to transfer the digital files of Once Upon A Time In Shaolin to a physical disc, enclose it in the silver box, and nail down some dates for the exhibition. To be sure, there’s always a chance that this carefully conceived plan will combust before it sees the light of day, a possibility that Cilvaringz recognizes.

“I know it sounds crazy,” he says. “It might totally flop, and we might be completely ridiculed. But the essence and core of our ideas is to inspire creation and originality and debate, and save the music album from dying.”

The plan almost resembles a Kickstarter campaign in search of a single, super-wealthy backer; there are also parallels with Jack Conte’s Patreon. But it more closely mirrors the centuries-old patron model, where aristocrats would commission painters or bankroll resident musicians to create works of art.

Indeed, crowdfunding on the whole is the distant progeny of that system, as is the aforementioned activity of Samsung. Wu-Tang is betting that a full-circle return will yield industry-shaking—and pocket-fattening—results.

Cilvaringz is even hoping the album will mark the beginning of a scaleable private music service. And as far as RZA is concerned, the move is an opportunity to attain a unique form of immortalization, not just through music, but through model.

“There will be a time when we can’t tour, and that’s just the natural evolution of man,” he says. “And yet this particular privatized album, I think—this idea we have—will be something that will go longer than all of us.” (via Forbes)

1 month ago 1 month ago

The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliché and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliché or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliché and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids. You can probably remember seeing it in certain really great coaches, or teachers, or some extremely cool older kid you “looked up to” (interesting phrase) and wanted to be just like. Some of us remember seeing the quality as kids in a minister or rabbi, or a scoutmaster, or a parent, or a friend’s parent, or a supervisor in a summer job. And yes, all these are “authority figures,” but it’s a special kind of authority. If you’ve ever spent time in the military, you know how incredibly easy it is to tell which of your superiors are real leaders and which aren’t, and how little rank has to do with it. A leader’s real “authority” is a power you voluntarily give him, and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, the way you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you couldn’t ever get to on your own.

In other words, a real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.

Cite Arrow David Foster Wallace on “leadership” from Consider the Lobster and Other Essays
1 month ago
Sony’s SRF-39FP Radio: The iPod of PrisonBy: Joshua Hunt, The New Yorker, January 16, 2014
In early 2005, Josh Demmitt arrived at a federal prison camp, in Sheridan, Oregon, to serve a thirty-month sentence for starting a fire outside an animal-testing facility at Brigham Young University. The nineteen-year-old received a warm welcome from his fellow inmates, who greeted him with coffee and cigarettes, advice on procuring vegan meals, and a pocket AM/FM radio.
The radio provided hours of welcome distraction for Demmitt, who had come from Sheridan’s adjoining detention center, where, he says, he spent weeks without a radio while confined to a small cell for at least twenty-three hours a day. The radio was unlike any Demmitt had seen outside prison, with a transparent plastic body that revealed the landscape within: a single AA battery rested at the bottom of its circuit board, while its antenna—one and three quarter inches of copper wire coiled around a small ferrite bar—peeked through a white Sony logo, just above the AM/FM dial.

The pocket analog radio, known by the bland model number SRF-39FP, is a Sony “ultralight” model manufactured for prisons. Its clear housing is meant to prevent inmates from using it to smuggle contraband, and, at under thirty dollars, it is the most affordable Sony radio on the prison market.
That market consists of commissaries, which were established by the Department of Justice in 1930 to provide prisoners with items not supplied by their institutions; by offering a selection of shampoos and soaps, they shifted personal hygiene costs to inmates, while distractions like playing cards eased tensions among the nation’s growing prison population. More than half a million inmates each week shop at commissaries stocked by the Keefe Group, a privately held company that sells items to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and twelve out of fourteen privately managed state departments of corrections. A sample commissary order form lists items like an I.B.M. typewriter ribbon, hair dye, RC Cola, Sensodyne toothpaste, chili-garlic sauce, Koss CL-20 headphones, and a “Sony Radio.”
Commissaries often carry other, bargain-brand radios, but according to former inmates and employees of the Bureau of Prisons and the Keefe Group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, America’s federal prisoners are most likely to own a Sony. Melissa Dolan, a Sony spokesperson, confirmed in an e-mail that selling portable radios in American prisons has long been a “stable business” that represents “sizable” sales for the company. Of the models available, the SRF-39FP remains an undisputed classic, still found on commissary lists an impressive fifteen years after its initial release, making it nearly as common behind prison walls as Apple’s iPod once was outside of them, despite competition from newer devices like digital radios and MP3 players.
But sheer availability doesn’t explain its ubiquity. The SRF-39FP is the gold standard among prison radios in part because it runs on a single AA battery, and offers forty hours of listening time—longer than an iPod Classic. Digital models can require twice as many batteries, like the Sony SRF-M35FP, which runs on two AAAs. Federal inmates are particularly attuned to battery life because they are allowed to spend just three hundred and twenty dollars each month on commissary goods; more cash spent on batteries means less for snacks, stationery, clothing, and toiletries.
The importance of radio battery life in prison communities cannot be overstated; the devices are relied on for more than listening to music, hearing about local news and weather, and watching television (TV sets in common areas often use transmitters to broadcast sound on a dedicated frequency). A study conducted at San Vittore prison in Milan, Italy, found that “in a place where privacy is constantly denied, radio becomes a vital tool for building and maintaining one’s private self.” Some inmates even had a term for using their radio to create a bubble of personal space: “I headphone myself,” one said.
There is also a bit of prison culture itself at work in the story of the SRF-39FP. Radios like the one that was loaned to Demmitt are usually left behind by inmates who have reëntered the free world. Some prisoners believe that it is bad luck for radios to leave prison with their owners, while others believe that taking them simply violates the “convict code,” according to former inmates like Demmitt and Steven Grayson, author of “The Unauthorized Federal Prison Manual.” Whether radios are abandoned as a matter of solidarity, convenience, or good karma, they pass from inmate to inmate, serving one sentence after another. The durable, analog SRF-39FPs have been changing hands in this manner for a decade and a half, which adds up to a lot of radios in circulation.
This practice helps explain the relative rarity of the SRF-39FP outside prisons. A unit in good condition can fetch up to double or triple its retail value among enthusiasts and collectors like Gary DeBock, a co-founder of the Ultralight Radio Group. According to DeBock, the outside supply depends upon stock siphoned from the California prison system and sold on auction sites like eBay.
DeBock is a member of the “DXing” community, whose hobbyists attempt to pick up distant radio or television signals, including those from amateur or pirate radio stations. (“DX” is shorthand for “distant stations.”) DeBock’s fascination with the SRF-39FP began when he realized that it could receive AM signals from places as distant as Japan and Korea at his home in Puyallup, Washington. “Since then, I’ve probably had more exposure to the SRF-39FP than anyone else who has managed to stay out of prison,” DeBock said.
Others in the online DXing community argue that the SRF-39FP is superior to virtually every other pocket analog radio, praising it for its large tuning thumbwheel, over-all sensitivity and audio quality, and, above all, its reputed indestructibility. Electronics and radio collectors also marvel at features that are normally associated with professional equipment rather than consumer goods: in particular, an exceptional single-integrated-circuit receiver that insures reception in remote locations—or deep within heavy prison walls. In fact, the SRF-39FP was one of the first radios to use the breakthrough CXA1129N integrated-circuit chip, considered by DeBock to be the primary innovation among Sony pocket radios; it helped make the SRF-39FP the smallest and most sophisticated in a line of pocket radios that had launched two decades earlier, in the late nineteen-seventies.
In recent years, Sony has opted to shift its prison-radio lineup away from analog, focussing instead on digital models like the SRF-M35FP. Last year, the Bureau of Prisons decided that it was time to further upgrade prison tech. Following a successful test at the same West Virginia federal prison camp where Martha Stewart spent five months for lying about a stock sale, prison officials began selling MP3 players that allow inmates to download songs at terminals in prison commissaries.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said that the MP3 program wasn’t expected to make money in its early years. Price is one reason: the MP3 player sold in federal prisons costs roughly three times as much as an SRF-39FP, and downloads can cost up to a dollar and fifty-five cents per song. Limited song selection is another reason; the Bureau of Prisons prohibits songs deemed explicit or likely to incite the inmate population. (JPay, a company that provides services to inmates, boasts that, with its catalogue of ten million songs, “no other music service in corrections offers as many tracks for download.”) However, despite modest expectations for the technology upgrade, the Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Ed Ross said that more than fifty per cent of federal inmates have already bought MP3 players. It seems inevitable that the MP3 player will soon completely eclipse radios like the SRF-39FP in American prisons, just as they did outside, but for now both devices are woven into prison life.

Sony’s SRF-39FP Radio: The iPod of Prison
By: Joshua Hunt, The New Yorker, January 16, 2014

In early 2005, Josh Demmitt arrived at a federal prison camp, in Sheridan, Oregon, to serve a thirty-month sentence for starting a fire outside an animal-testing facility at Brigham Young University. The nineteen-year-old received a warm welcome from his fellow inmates, who greeted him with coffee and cigarettes, advice on procuring vegan meals, and a pocket AM/FM radio.

The radio provided hours of welcome distraction for Demmitt, who had come from Sheridan’s adjoining detention center, where, he says, he spent weeks without a radio while confined to a small cell for at least twenty-three hours a day. The radio was unlike any Demmitt had seen outside prison, with a transparent plastic body that revealed the landscape within: a single AA battery rested at the bottom of its circuit board, while its antenna—one and three quarter inches of copper wire coiled around a small ferrite bar—peeked through a white Sony logo, just above the AM/FM dial.

The pocket analog radio, known by the bland model number SRF-39FP, is a Sony “ultralight” model manufactured for prisons. Its clear housing is meant to prevent inmates from using it to smuggle contraband, and, at under thirty dollars, it is the most affordable Sony radio on the prison market.

That market consists of commissaries, which were established by the Department of Justice in 1930 to provide prisoners with items not supplied by their institutions; by offering a selection of shampoos and soaps, they shifted personal hygiene costs to inmates, while distractions like playing cards eased tensions among the nation’s growing prison population. More than half a million inmates each week shop at commissaries stocked by the Keefe Group, a privately held company that sells items to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and twelve out of fourteen privately managed state departments of corrections. A sample commissary order form lists items like an I.B.M. typewriter ribbon, hair dye, RC Cola, Sensodyne toothpaste, chili-garlic sauce, Koss CL-20 headphones, and a “Sony Radio.”

Commissaries often carry other, bargain-brand radios, but according to former inmates and employees of the Bureau of Prisons and the Keefe Group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, America’s federal prisoners are most likely to own a Sony. Melissa Dolan, a Sony spokesperson, confirmed in an e-mail that selling portable radios in American prisons has long been a “stable business” that represents “sizable” sales for the company. Of the models available, the SRF-39FP remains an undisputed classic, still found on commissary lists an impressive fifteen years after its initial release, making it nearly as common behind prison walls as Apple’s iPod once was outside of them, despite competition from newer devices like digital radios and MP3 players.

But sheer availability doesn’t explain its ubiquity. The SRF-39FP is the gold standard among prison radios in part because it runs on a single AA battery, and offers forty hours of listening time—longer than an iPod Classic. Digital models can require twice as many batteries, like the Sony SRF-M35FP, which runs on two AAAs. Federal inmates are particularly attuned to battery life because they are allowed to spend just three hundred and twenty dollars each month on commissary goods; more cash spent on batteries means less for snacks, stationery, clothing, and toiletries.

The importance of radio battery life in prison communities cannot be overstated; the devices are relied on for more than listening to music, hearing about local news and weather, and watching television (TV sets in common areas often use transmitters to broadcast sound on a dedicated frequency). A study conducted at San Vittore prison in Milan, Italy, found that “in a place where privacy is constantly denied, radio becomes a vital tool for building and maintaining one’s private self.” Some inmates even had a term for using their radio to create a bubble of personal space: “I headphone myself,” one said.

There is also a bit of prison culture itself at work in the story of the SRF-39FP. Radios like the one that was loaned to Demmitt are usually left behind by inmates who have reëntered the free world. Some prisoners believe that it is bad luck for radios to leave prison with their owners, while others believe that taking them simply violates the “convict code,” according to former inmates like Demmitt and Steven Grayson, author of “The Unauthorized Federal Prison Manual.” Whether radios are abandoned as a matter of solidarity, convenience, or good karma, they pass from inmate to inmate, serving one sentence after another. The durable, analog SRF-39FPs have been changing hands in this manner for a decade and a half, which adds up to a lot of radios in circulation.

This practice helps explain the relative rarity of the SRF-39FP outside prisons. A unit in good condition can fetch up to double or triple its retail value among enthusiasts and collectors like Gary DeBock, a co-founder of the Ultralight Radio Group. According to DeBock, the outside supply depends upon stock siphoned from the California prison system and sold on auction sites like eBay.

DeBock is a member of the “DXing” community, whose hobbyists attempt to pick up distant radio or television signals, including those from amateur or pirate radio stations. (“DX” is shorthand for “distant stations.”) DeBock’s fascination with the SRF-39FP began when he realized that it could receive AM signals from places as distant as Japan and Korea at his home in Puyallup, Washington. “Since then, I’ve probably had more exposure to the SRF-39FP than anyone else who has managed to stay out of prison,” DeBock said.

Others in the online DXing community argue that the SRF-39FP is superior to virtually every other pocket analog radio, praising it for its large tuning thumbwheel, over-all sensitivity and audio quality, and, above all, its reputed indestructibility. Electronics and radio collectors also marvel at features that are normally associated with professional equipment rather than consumer goods: in particular, an exceptional single-integrated-circuit receiver that insures reception in remote locations—or deep within heavy prison walls. In fact, the SRF-39FP was one of the first radios to use the breakthrough CXA1129N integrated-circuit chip, considered by DeBock to be the primary innovation among Sony pocket radios; it helped make the SRF-39FP the smallest and most sophisticated in a line of pocket radios that had launched two decades earlier, in the late nineteen-seventies.

In recent years, Sony has opted to shift its prison-radio lineup away from analog, focussing instead on digital models like the SRF-M35FP. Last year, the Bureau of Prisons decided that it was time to further upgrade prison tech. Following a successful test at the same West Virginia federal prison camp where Martha Stewart spent five months for lying about a stock sale, prison officials began selling MP3 players that allow inmates to download songs at terminals in prison commissaries.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson said that the MP3 program wasn’t expected to make money in its early years. Price is one reason: the MP3 player sold in federal prisons costs roughly three times as much as an SRF-39FP, and downloads can cost up to a dollar and fifty-five cents per song. Limited song selection is another reason; the Bureau of Prisons prohibits songs deemed explicit or likely to incite the inmate population. (JPay, a company that provides services to inmates, boasts that, with its catalogue of ten million songs, “no other music service in corrections offers as many tracks for download.”) However, despite modest expectations for the technology upgrade, the Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Ed Ross said that more than fifty per cent of federal inmates have already bought MP3 players. It seems inevitable that the MP3 player will soon completely eclipse radios like the SRF-39FP in American prisons, just as they did outside, but for now both devices are woven into prison life.

1 month ago
A History of Everything, Including You.

By: Jenny Hollowell

First there was god, or gods, or nothing. Then synthesis, space, the expansion, explosions, implosions, particles, objects, combustion, and fusion. Out of the chaos came order, stars were born and shown and died. Planets rolled across their galaxies on invisible ellipses and the elements combined and became.

Life evolved or was created. Cells trembled, and divided, and gasped and found dry land. Soon they grew legs, and fins, and hands, and antenna, and mouths, and ears, and wings, and eyes. Eyes that opened wide to take all of it in, the creeping, growing, soaring, swimming, crawling, stampeding universe.

Eyes opened and closed and opened again, we called it blinking. Above us shown a star that we called the sun. And we called the ground the earth. So we named everything including ourselves. We were man and woman and when we got lonely we figured out a way to make more of us. We called it sex, and most people enjoyed it. We fell in love. We talked about god and banged stones together, made sparks and called them fire, we got warmer and the food got better.

We got married, we had some children, they cried, and crawled, and grew. One dissected flowers, sometimes eating the petals. Another liked to chase squirrels. We fought wars over money, and honor, and women. We starved ourselves, we hired prostitutes, we purified our water. We compromised, decorated, and became esoteric. One of us stopped breathing and turned blue. Then others. First we covered them with leaves and then we buried them in the ground. We remembered them. We forgot them. We aged.

Our buildings kept getting taller. We hired lawyers and formed councils and left paper trails, we negotiated, we admitted, we got sick, and searched for cures. We invented lipstick, vaccines, pilates, solar panels, interventions, table manners, firearms, window treatments, therapy, birth control, tailgating, status symbols, palimony, sportsmanship, focus groups, zoloft, sunscreen, landscaping, cessnas, fortune cookies, chemotherapy, convenience foods, and computers. We angered militants, and our mothers.

You were born. You learned to walk, and went to school, and played sports, and lost your virginity, and got into a decent college, and majored in psychology, and went to rock shows, and became political, and got drunk, and changed your major to marketing, and wore turtleneck sweaters, and read novels, and volunteered, and went to movies, and developed a taste for blue cheese dressing.

I met you through friends, and didn’t like you at first. The feeling was mutual, but we got used to each other. We had sex for the first time behind an art gallery, standing up and slightly drunk. You held my face in your hands and said that I was beautiful. And you were too. Tall with a streetlight behind you. We went back to your place and listened to the White Album. We ordered in. We fought and made up and got good jobs and got married and bought an apartment and worked out and ate more and talked less. I got depressed. You ignored me. I was sick of you. You drank too much and got careless with money. I slept with my boss. We went into counseling and got a dog. I bought a book of sex positions and we tried the least degrading one, the wheelbarrow. You took flight lessons and subscribed to Rolling Stone. I learned Spanish and started gardening.

We had some children who more or less disappointed us but it might have been our fault. You were too indulgent and I was too critical. We loved them anyway. One of them died before we did, stabbed on the subway. We grieved. We moved. We adopted a cat. The world seemed uncertain, we lived beyond our means. I got judgmental and belligerent, you got confused and easily tired. You ignored me, I was sick of you. We forgave. We remembered. We made cocktails. We got tender. There was that time on the porch when you said, can you believe it?

This was near the end and your hands were trembling. I think you were talking about everything, including us. Did you want me to say it? So it would not be lost? It was too much for me to think about. I could not go back to the beginning. I said, not really. And we watched the sun go down. A dog kept barking in the distance, and you were tired but you smiled and you said, hear that? It’s rough, rough. And we laughed. You were like that.

Now, your question is my project and our house is full of clues. I’m reading old letters and turning over rocks. I burry my face in your sweaters. I study a photograph taken at the beach, the sun in our eyes, and the water behind us. It’s a victory to remember the forgotten picnic basket and your striped beach blanket. It’s a victory to remember how the jellyfish stung you and you ran screaming from the water. It’s a victory to remember treating the wound with meat tenderizer, and you saying, I made it better. I will tell you this, standing on our hill this morning I looked at the land we chose for ourselves, I saw a few green patches, and our sweet little shed, that same dog was barking, a storm was moving in. I did not think of heaven, but I saw that the clouds were beautiful and I watched them cover the sun.

(Editor’s note: Jenny Hollowell wrote it in a day. It’s part of a collection of short stories called, New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond. Hear her read it on Radiolab here.) 
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