ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The letters arrive at the radio station each week, dozens of them. The return addresses are jails and prisons.
In precise lettering or messy scrawl, they ask for dedications of love songs and shout-outs to girlfriends, boyfriends, wives and brothers on the outside:
Im OK still doing time in the hole but always know Im loving you, missing you, hugging you and kissing you
To my lil bro Delbert, stay out, this aint no place for us
To my fiance Mariah Im here for you, twenty-four seven. Dont forget it, lil mama.
Sometimes the letters arrive at the offices of KSKA-FM, Anchorages biggest public radio station, addressed to no one in particular.
But everyone knows they are for Marvell Johnson, who has for more than three decades been both a late-night soul, rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop music disc jockey and a messenger carrying words between inmates and the people they leave behind on the outside.
By day, Johnson is a custodial services supervisor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, a warm 62-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, an ample build and sensible shoes.
But come Saturday night, hes the self-proclaimed pilot of what he calls Flight Soul to Soul, his long-running music show.
His wife Sherry Johnson, he tells audiences in a liquid smoke voice, is his flight attendant.
The music which in a single show might veer from Teddy Pendergrass to Heavy D is the flights cargo.
Johnson grew up in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco until hippies moved in during the 1960s and his mom decamped the family to Oakland. His childhood was steeped in music Freddie Stone of Sly and the Family Stone went to the familys church. Radio hosts, he said, were his heroes.
The Army brought Johnson to Alaska and the beginnings of a life and career kept him here.
The opportunity to host his own radio show with the local public station lugging milk crates of disco records to the studio fulfilled a dream.
Back in the late 1970s when he used to broadcast all-night shows that finished at 5 a.m., he began asking for song requests and dedications as a way to fill airtime.
Inmates quickly became his most ardent listeners and frequent requesters, he said.
Over the years, the music and the requests have changed, but the theme of Soul to Soul is the same: love.
Johnson refuses to air letters about snitches or retribution or anything that hints at violence. His least favorite musical artist is Eminem, because his songs are so filled with rage.
He says hes happy to play the Jay-Z and Chris Brown songs his listeners request these days, but he prefers music thats a little smoother. He loves the cool growl of Luther Vandross, Earth Wind and Fire, the Jazz Crusaders and even Kenny G, who Johnson thinks does fine work with a saxophone.
He was not a fan of the enormously popular rapper Lil Wayne until Wayne released a bona-fide slow jam called How To Love, which has become one of the most requested songs in Soul to Souls history.
Johnson is sensitive to the fact that many of his audience members are listening from commissary-purchased radios in the cells of the Anchorage Correctional Complex.
There are songs that are just too sad for Saturday night.
A prime example would be I Miss You by the 1970s Philadelphia soul crooners Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Thats on the no-play list due to lyrics like Hows my little son? Does he ever ask about me?
Its the ultimate sad song of all sad songs, Johnson says.
KSKA does not release audience numbers, so theres no way to know exactly how many people listen to Soul to Soul on any given night.
Sometimes Johnson, who with his wife has raised many foster children in addition to four biological children between the two of them, thinks his Soul to Soul days may be coming to a close. He spends his own money subscribing to record pool services so he can make sure to honor all requests.
Sometimes I feel like not going on with the show, he said. I think, whats the purpose? Am I doing anything?
But those letters pile up every week. He doesnt save them. (If I did, this whole room would be filled with letters, he said.) But he remembers some.
Id like to thank you Mr. Marvell for making our words possible, one inmate wrote recently. For some like me letters is the only way to be heard by our loved ones.
So for now hell keep showing up every Saturday night ready to broadcast what he calls the best love in Alaska to heartsick girlfriends and lonely inmates.
Theyll be listening.