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Sista’s Place: How KHSU’s radio station helped bridge the gap between Arcata and Pelican Bay

December 17, 2016

by Tina Sampay

Sharon Fennell, also well known by her disc jockey name Sista Soul, is originally from the Bronx and has been a Humboldt resident for over 30 years. Fennell is a HSU alumna, and through her volunteer work for 36 years at KHSU, she has shown continuous love and support for those held within the prison industrial complex.

For decades, Sharon Fennell has been Sista Soul to thousands of listeners to KHSU Radio; she’s especially loved by prisoners in the notoriously cruel Pelican Bay State Prison. – Photo courtesy of Sharon Fennell

She has grown to become an advocate for prisoners and shown faithfulness in bringing awareness to the conditions and contradictions of America’s penal system. After 36 years, Fenell – or Sista as she is called by friends and close acquaintances – has decided to move on.

She has one more radio show this Sunday, Dec. 18. Sista lives in Manila with her husband Michael.

Tina: Why did you decide to move to Humboldt?

Sista: Me and Michael decided we wanted to go back to school. When Michael was a young man, he traveled through Northern California and he remembered Humboldt as being a beautiful place and it also had a university.

Tina: How did you become involved in the radio station?

Sista: I was having a political house meeting around 1980 about Central America solidarity work. There were two guys that showed up at my house who already had a radio show at KHSU and they invited me to join them. The show was called The Alternative Review.

Tina: How did this transition into Sista’s Place?

Sista: Around that same time, I became a student at Humboldt. After being on the alternative radio show, I thought to myself, ooh, I would love to do a music show. During that time there were mostly students on the air and a few community members. So I got a show right away. I called it the Old Soul Show.

Tina: Where did you get the name Sista Soul?

Sista: Where I grew up in New York City, I hung out with everybody. The brothers that I came up with used to tell me that I was an honorary Soul Sista. So I took that, Soul Sista, and just flipped it for my radio name.

Tina: When did you first become aware of Pelican Bay and what were your initial thoughts?

Sista: 1987, ‘88, when there was word they were going to build a prison in Crescent City. A lot of us didn’t know what a supermax was, but that a supermax was coming. So we started to do our homework to find out all we could.

Tina: When did inmates start writing you?

Sista: When the prison opened and the station at KHSU had a strong signal that reached Pelican Bay. Troy and Ernest were the first. The only way they were able to do that was one night Troy had his radio out and was trying to get a signal when he heard someone playing Marvin Gaye.

Tina: From the letters, what were these inmates relaying that made you want to get more involved?

Sista: There was a guy Michael Dorrough, who’s still in prison by the way and still stays in touch with me. Michael and Troy, but mostly Michael, would describe to me the horrific conditions.

I think Troy was trying to protect me a bit from what was going on. Michael Dorrough spelled it out, telling me what solitary [confinement] was. So I was getting educated by prisoners themselves.

Tina: How do you think growing up in the Bronx helped shaped your views on the world?

Sista: We are all products of our environment. I grew up in a working class, not middle, working class neighborhood with all ethnicities. I could see through my whiteness how others were treated differently in all kinds of ways growing up. That experience growing up in a multi-ethnic working class neighborhood has informed my whole life.

Tina: Was there ever a time when you felt frustrated by your white peers due to your interest in different cultures?

Sista: No, mostly because I chose people in my life who thought like I did. A lot of my friends are multi-racial couples.

Tina: When inmates started writing you, how did you feel you could help the most through your radio show?

Sista Soul’s upbeat music and personality have been wiping away the misery for prisoners in solitary confinement every Sunday afternoon for decades. Her show helped the hunger strikers make history in 2011-2013. – Photo: KHSU Archives

Sista: At first I believed that the music would be the best thing that could happen for them because it was music that they loved and didn’t have access to anymore. It also happened to be the same music that I grew up listening to. Guys would write me asking me to play this song, or that song and I would do that.

Then a friend of mine named Bato Talamantez from the San Quentin Six urged me to do more educational work. And I was conflicted because the guys would write telling me, “Your two hours of music helps me take my mind off where I’m at.”

Many years ago I decided I was going to do that, and I started interviewing all kinds of people, from prison rights attorneys to those doing great prison reform work.

Tina: Is there anything from this experience you learned that you want to share?

Sista: People should know that you can help change somebody’s life by just having correspondence. What amazes me, as someone who only spent half a night in jail, is the resilience of folks to be able to survive a really toxic environment which is prison.

So anyone that survives it with any mode of success is amazing. There are great success stories and I am blessed to know some of these people.

It has enriched both me and my husband’s life, without a doubt. I have to say that it was KHSU, Humboldt State’s radio station, that really, really shaped the rest of our lives. Not just mine but Michael’s too.

Tina: For people who are not informed or involved with prison work, what do you want people to know or do?

Sista: Since we all pay for prisons through our tax dollars, we should be mindful of what happens when we lock people up. Regardless of what they did, we should be mindful of what happens to them because we are paying their way.

In California the recidivism rate, which is how many guys come in, go out and come back in, is 70 percent. If we are going to take away people’s freedom because they offended, and I don’t disagree with that, it’s what we do when we take them that matters.

Tina Sampay, a journalism student at Humboldt State University who writes for The Lumberjack, the student newspaper, can be reached on Facebook. This story first appeared in The Lumberjack.

Finding her frequency: Sista Soul’s 36 years at KHSU

by Brenda Starr

Sharon Fennell, aka Sista Soul, has heard it all. And through it all she has created a family where rhythm and lasting connection to her listeners run deep … especially in the still of the night.

Sista Soul’s last installment of Sista’s Place is Sunday, Dec. 18.

It was 1980 when Humboldt State student Sharon Fennell found KHSU-FM, the public radio station located on campus.

At the time, producers of Alternative Review, a radio show that offered news, interviews and analysis from a progressive perspective, wanted a woman’s voice. So they turned to Fennell. An activist, organizing local house meetings for a group called Central American Solidarity, Fennell “loved it, loved it, loved it.”

With microphone in hand, she covered picket lines and strikes and interviewed Noam Chomsky and guests from Nicaragua, El Salvador and South Africa. Produced by Tom Cairns, Sharon Fennell and husband Michael Fennell, Alternative Review aired for 15 years.

Troy Williams’ artwork graced the cover of the monthly KHSU membership program guide Confluence in June 1992. His visual representation of holding up the radio to hear those far away precious songs was done in pencil. Troy would send Sista many cards and letters filled with self-portraits, drawings and poems. – Photo: KHSU Archives and Troy Williams

But the love of her heart and soul was soul music. “I had so much music inside me that was so good,” she said, “and I played it all.”

Growing up in the Bronx, Fennell had always been called a soul sister. In 1981, Fennell officially became Sista Soul when she hosted her first music show, “Old Soul Show.”

The Friday night program marked the beginning of her next chapter at KHSU – a journey rich with rare R&B to sultry soul, Latin soul, jazz and gospel. Sista’s Place had the music. The show also would become about much more than the music.

In 1989, the Pelican Bay State Prison opened in Crescent City. Sista prayed to her goddess that the KHSU signal could be heard up north, so her show, and the music she so very much loved, could be shared. “I knew that the music I loved would be the same music that those men at Pelican Bay would love.” She was right.

One fan was Troy Williams. With a piece of wire fashioned into an antenna, Troy and his cellmate tuned into some Marvin Gaye, then Smokey Robinson, then Gladys Knight.

“I hear your program and a feeling of nostalgia overcomes me. It sure sounds good and definitely helps to ease the pain,” Williams wrote in a letter to Sista Soul.

His cell mate told him he was wasting a stamp, that Sista would look at the return address and never write back and probably wouldn’t even read it. How wrong he was. Sista read the letter and many more to come.

At the time she had no idea how a letter would transform lives.

But not all of the Pelican Bay residents had access to radios. The reception inside the walls wasn’t the best even with the new signal but more and more men began listening. They also began writing her letters, requesting songs for their loved ones and thanking her for the joyful, nostalgic “mushy-gushy” love songs she played.

Soon the prison put KHSU on their cable network. If someone had a television or radio unit they could get access.

“I hear your program and a feeling of nostalgia overcomes me. It sure sounds good and definitely helps to ease the pain,” Williams wrote in a letter to Sista Soul.

That changed in 2001. The warden of the supermax prison wrote to the management of KHSU about safety and security issues regarding the institution and the public. According to the warden, via the letters sent to Sista Soul’s radio show, messages allowed inmates to communicate with each other and the community.

Authorities saw dedications and shout-outs to their families and associates as criminal activities inside the prison. The warden explained that although Sista’s Place might see the letters as an innocent activity, they viewed them as coded messages and cut access to the cable network.

Sista’s Place, with the support of KHSU’s staff and management, made a compromise with the prison: She would alter names and not use last names over the airwaves and authorities restored radio access.

Sista, guided by her sensibilities and consciousness as an activist, began addressing prison conditions at Pelican Bay such as solitary confinement and other topics. The prison authorities, however, thought she was innocently being used.

This is Sista Soul at the KHSU controls during a recent show. – Photo: Bob Doran

They removed the KHSU signal off of their in-house cable network once again, citing security and safety reasons. That was back in 2009. At this time, it’s still not total open access on the prison network channel, but if a prisoner has a radio or radio-TV combo, he can still hear KHSU.

On Dec. 18, Sista’s last show, Williams will read some heartfelt letters over the air. Troy has become the son Fennell never had. “I never expected that what happened, happened,” says Troy. “Sometimes I am in disbelief,” he tells her, that all of this has happened. “That I’m here, that my life is good.”

And that’s what Fennell tells Troy as well. Their friendship wasn’t planned. It happened because of Sista Soul. She understands that Sista Soul has deeply affected the lives of the men of Pelican Bay, and it blows her away.

“We all come into this life wanting to do something good” she says, “and we get handed the deck we get handed and life happens. I never expected that what happened to me would indeed happen …

“My eyes opened to what we do in this country to our prisoners. To the least of the least. I have played my part of opening hearts and minds. I’m just very grateful.”

Sista Soul found her frequency. In her 36 years of volunteering and working with KHSU, Fennell has been the public affairs executive director (1986-1994), underwriter-sale-fundraiser (1983-1989) and fine arts coordinator (1983-1994). She also supervised local in-house productions of 12-week programs including “Labor USA,” “Men’s Alternative to Violence” and “For the Birds.”

After 36 years of volunteering at one place, she’s learned that the joyous sounds of Soul, R&B and Doo Wop opens hearts, giving her the capacity for unlimited love. “My greatest joy has been keeping this music alive” she says.

“My eyes opened to what we do in this country to our prisoners. To the least of the least. I have played my part of opening hearts and minds. I’m just very grateful.”

So what’s next? What happens after the last Sista’s Place show?

“I hope I’ve opened up something for someone to step in,” Sista says. “Time to move over for someone else. Time to diversify. Now it’s up to someone else and the station to maintain a PLACE.”

When the radio plays the last song, the souls that Sista has touched will thank her with their own unconditional love. The kind that generates change. For one song, as one letter, can change lives.

Sista Soul hopes to still do love shout-outs and might be on the radio from time to time to talk about issues she cares about. You can hear Sista’s Place, the last show live on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, from 2 to 5 p.m. on KHSU 90.5 or KHSU.org.

Brenda Starr is a host of Thursday Night Talk, a call-in talk show on KHSU every Thursday night at 7 p.m., and Through the Eyes of Women on Mondays, 1:30-2:00. She can be reached via admin@khsu.org. This story first appeared on KHSU.org.

One thought on “Sista’s Place: How KHSU’s radio station helped bridge the gap between Arcata and Pelican Bay

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