Every weekday morning, sound designer Antwan Williams and audio producer Earlonne Woods head to work just a few miles north of San Francisco. They spend the day in the media lab, working on their podcast: outlining narratives, interviewing subjects, editing tape. Other than meals, their only interruptions come when a correctional officer asks them to step outside for count.
Along with Nigel Poor, a photography professor at California State University Sacramento, the two inmates produce Ear Hustle, the latest addition to the Radiotopia podcast network. Hosted and produced entirely within San Quentin State Prison, the show offers listeners a perspective on daily life in prison, as told and edited by the inmates themselves. “As incarcerated individuals, we have funny moments, moments of tragedy, ups and downs: it’s the regular rollercoaster of everyday life for any other person in the world,” says Williams. “How good would it be to let others into moments like that?”
Stories from the Inside
Woods and Williams met Poor in 2012, when she co-founded the San Quentin Prison Report Radio Project, a program featuring segments produced by San Quentin inmates that airs on San Francisco radio station KALW. The trio wanted to gain some creative control in order to tell more personal stories, so in March 2016, they submitted a proposal to Radiotopia’s Podquest competition.
When Julie Shapiro, executive producer of Radiotopia, first heard about the proposal, she feared that it would be cliche. “Everyone has a Hollywood notion of prison,” says Shapiro. But after talking to Williams and Woods, she found that they offered a perspective otherwise unheard: “They have access to these stories as storytellers, friends, brothers.” In November 2016, Ear Hustle beat out 1,536 other entries to win the competition and join 99% Invisible and Criminal as an official Radiotopia podcast.
The first season comes out this summer; in the 10 planned episodes, the Ear Hustle team tells a range of stories from the inside, from prison fashion and inmates with pets to more emotional subjects like the difficult relationships between inmates and their mothers. “We’re still fathers, we’re still husbands and sons,” says Williams. “It’s not always The Wire or Orange is the New Black–it’s deeper than that. We want to show the genuine life inside of prison.” The episodes won’t just be for those on the outside; they’ll also air on the closed-circuit station at San Quentin, and the Ear Hustle team hopes expand that to some of the other 35 institutions in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Woods and Poor co-host the show, but all three producers plan episodes and interview subjects together. Although the podcast tells stories from the inside, Williams and Woods see Poor’s outside perspective as essential. She’s a stand-in for the uninitiated listener, asking questions about prison vernacular, how solitary confinement works, what it was like to come of age in a gang. More importantly, though, their work with Poor offers evidence to listeners that inmates can work together with someone on the outside. The result isn’t a field recording presenting prison life to be gawked at; it’s a collaboration between three people with different perspectives, two of whom are incarcerated.
A Safe Space in Prison
Inmates don’t often get to tell their story to sympathetic listeners, without judgment or retaliation, and trust them to preserve their perspective. “In prison, we have no control,” says Williams. “Once we tell someone anything, it’s in their control to frame it however they want. But in the podcast, we control our narrative.” Ear Hustle offers inmates a chance to tell their story in their own words, edited by their peers. “Our obligations as humans, especially incarcerated people, is to care for each other,” says Williams. “We’ve managed to create a safe space where people feel comfortable enough to bare all, to say things they’ve never talked about.”
Podcasts are often heralded as intimate: Listeners hear hosts tell them stories directly into their ears. That’s especially useful for Ear Hustle, which aspires to move beyond visual tropes of orange jumpsuits and gang tattoos. “In movies and television, you see it, but with your eyes, you can become distracted,” says Woods. “When you’re just listening to it, the sounds give you a reference point, but you’re also creating the scene. It’s like placing yourself there.”
That proximity, though, manages to reverse some established podcast tropes. Crime podcasts have traditionally hinged on listeners identifying with the host, much the way Serial allowed listeners to put themselves in the place of producer Sarah Koenig as she questioned the guilt and treatment of one incarcerated man. Ear Hustle goes a step further: Listeners can engage in thoughtful discussions of prison life, from the perspective of an incarcerated host.
Of course, a prison workplace creates unique challenges. “We’re colleagues, but when I’m not here, I can’t call them or email them, like I would with someone on the outside,” says Poor. “I can’t say, we’re in panic mode at midnight, let’s go to work.” Although they do have one clear advantage over other podcasts: It’s easy to record a follow-up interview when your subjects can’t legally leave the complex.
Like their programmer peers, Woods and Williams will leave prison with a skill set beyond auto repair or plumbing. Both plan to work as audio producers when released from San Quentin. “This is actually a viable skillset,” says Williams. “Instead of choosing to sit in a cell or play dominoes on the yard, we would rather dedicate our time towards something that’s not just beneficial to our lives, but can actually change the perception of life in prison.”
Williams has another three years on his sentence for robbery; Woods goes up for parole in 2028. In the meantime, they’ll keep developing their skills in San Quentin, and building a dialogue between those inside and outside. “This is our time to be as efficient and professional as we possibly can be,” says Williams. “So we take that, and we run with it.” For now, they’ll keep ear-hustling.