WKNC deejay's show focuses on prison inmates

WKNC deejay ‘Uncle Paul’ Willams hosts a popular segment that takes requests from prison inmates.

dmenconi@newsobserver.comNovember 10, 2012 

— Lips pursed in concentration, deejay “Uncle Paul” Williams intently scanned the handwritten pages spread before him at the console. As the last notes of Austrian Death Machine’s “It’s Not a Tumor” faded out, he flipped on the microphone to begin speaking over the air.

“Eighty-eight point one, WKNC, and now we come to ‘Penitentiary Rock,’ which of course is the part of the show where we read your letters and play your requests – for those who can’t call in. Got a good group of letters this week, so let’s get to it.”

Hey Uncle P,

Exemplary show last week, Maestro! This week, if possible, let’s get 99.9% evil with some Morbid Angel, “Lord of All Fevers and Plague” or “Unholy Blasphemies.”

Many thanks as always,

Tim

p.s. To Tibb: Just who IS that damn Beast – he sounds like one Foul and depraved individual!

“Thanks for writing,” Williams said. “Here we go with some Sepultura, this is ‘Arise’ and we’ll get to Morbid Angel next.”

Off-mike, Williams looked again at the letter. It was from an inmate thoughtful enough to send him Christmas cards, birthday greetings and even condolences on the December day each year when Williams lays a wreath on his father’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

“He’s been writing in the entire time I’ve been doing this, and he’s on death row,” Williams said. “I think I’ve had letters from over 20 death-row inmates over the years.”

“Penitentiary Rock” closes “Friday Night Request Rock” on WKNC, N.C. State University’s noncommercial, student-run FM radio station. The show dates back to Williams’ initial early-1990s tenure at WKNC. Back then, three deejays did the show, taking requests from 7 to midnight.

Inmates from the local penal institutions were listening too, on portable radios bought at prison canteens, and a few would write in to request songs. Five hours is a lot of time to kill, so the deejays started reading letters on the air. More prisoners took to writing, enough for inmate requests to become a regular segment. They held a contest to name the show. The prison to amass the most signatures got to choose.

“Of course, Central Prison got the most,” Williams said. “Well over 100, and ‘Penitentiary Rock’ is what they named it.”

By the mid-’90s, all three Friday-night deejays had moved on. Williams left the area before work brought him back to Raleigh in 2006. Now 41, he does sales training and software support at Leith Automotive.

On returning to Raleigh, Williams resumed his studies at N.C. State; he’ll get his degree in interdisciplinary studies in December. He also resumed “Penitentiary Rock.” Unless pre-empted by a sports-event broadcast, he’s on every Friday from 8 to 10 p.m.

WKNC is a more powerful station nowadays thanks to a higher antenna, and Williams’ audience has broadened well beyond Central Prison and Butner Correctional Institute. Williams hears from seven or eight prisons as far away as Warren Correctional, up near the Virginia line.

“They say the weather’s gotta be just right to get it,” Williams said. “A little cloud cover but not too much, so the signal will bounce further.”

He also gets e-mailed requests from people listening online from even farther away – New York, Texas, even Pakistan. And sometimes, he hears from relatives of inmates, saying it would mean a lot for their son/spouse/father/daughter to hear a particular song.

Unkle Paul

I’ll try to make it short this week.... I remember that you use to play Demon Hunter fairly often...... They just released a new album called “True Defiance” that I have not had a chance to hear – do you by chance happen to have it?........ If not – this week could you play anything else from Demonhunter, Volebeat, or “Gemetra” by Slipknot off of “All Hope Is Gone”?.....

Thank you for the “Happy B-Day”.....

Sincerely,

Irish

Not surprisingly, aggressive metal dominates the requests. But the playlist isn’t as hardcore as it used to be. Nowadays, a surprising number of the 20 or so letters Williams gets each week come from female inmates.

“They might even write in more than the guys,” Williams said. “They seem more into hearing their letters read than making requests. There are people who kind of write back and forth to each other by letters they send in. I’ve heard some complaints that it sounds like ‘Dr. Laura’ with metal music. But the guys still want the women to write in, so they usually don’t complain too much.”

Indeed, “Penitentiary Rock” seems to fill a grapevine role between institutions, with inmates sending shout-outs back and forth. A lot of the same names come up in a given batch of letters: Sam All Mighty, Vlad the Impaler, Chino Loco, Irish, Harry Potter, Maximus, Lazarus.

“They’re not allowed to have direct contact between prisons,” Williams said. “So sometimes when people get transferred, they’ll continue writing in even though they can’t listen, just so they can say things to their friends who are still where they used to be.”

It’s something the authorities are aware of.

“It’s fair to say that prisons have taken a look at the issues surrounding the program to see if there are any concerns,” said Keith Acree, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Public Safety. “When I raised the issue, no one was aware of any incidents or trouble caused by the program over the years.”

At any given time, Williams has eight to 10 inmates who write in every single week. Given prison pay scales (as little as 40 cents a day, according to Acree) and the fact that they have to buy their own stamps, that’s a significant commitment.

“Sometimes they’ll go in together and I’ll get envelopes with two, three, four letters stuffed in there,” Williams said. When you get paid in pennies, a stamp is a lot of money.”

Williams keeps every letter, about 800 a year. They fill boxes and boxes at his home.

Dear Pastor,

Salutations!

To: Tim, Sammy-G., and Vlad The Impaler. Indeed I delivered a solid right to the face of that clown, Little E., and left a nice ol’ knot. No steal, or sneak, but straight on (I looked ’em in the face and made a “nice” comment before firing). However, I couldn’t have my way for there was a gang of pigs on deck, unfortunately. And yes, in true SUCKA fashion, the fool is denying any & all bumps & bruises; even lying to his own, but what’s new, right? I trust the REAL cons will relay the true version of thangs. I’ve not got my time yet, and the clown was cut loose the other day. Yeah, you heard that right! The fool actually said he made a statement saying he was on the phone and the next thing he know he was gettin’ wrapped up by the pigs. Where do they make these guys at? Off-brands “R” Us? Tim, make sho’ my homeboys know the situation started here.

Pastor, do me the honor of spinning “Blacklist” by Exodus, thank you, and take care!

Runnin’ with the Devil,

Chino Loco

p.s. What up, Maximus & Lazarus?

Sometimes, he’ll get phoned-in requests after his inmate writers get out. But that’s as far as it goes. He’s never met any face-to-face.

“We’re advised to be very careful about what we say to prisoners, not to encourage them to make contact,” he said. “They never seem interested in meeting. They might call for a few weeks, might still listen. But then they go on with their lives, and some move away. And, uh ... some do go back in.

“I’ve had a couple of those, people who wrote for a long time and they’d talk about how excited they were to get out. Then they go back a year later.”

Greetings from Death Row Uncle P,

Thanks for the Face Punching tunes. All of mankind owes you a debt of gratitude P.

We’ve sold our spleens to Rock n Roll.

There’s sad news though P. The space-time continuum is on shaky ground, according to the philosophers here on the row. All learned men to be sure P.

So in lieu of any life expectancy I’d like to request some Motorhead – “Voices n the Sky.”

Shouts to – J.D., Cliff, “Q,” Cale...And of course that damn Beast

Take care P,

“TiB”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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