This week, the podcast network Radiotopia will launch the first episode of “Ear Hustle,” a podcast produced at San Quentin State Prison. Each of the first season’s 10 episodes, running every other week, will delve into a different corner of life inside: cellmates, pets, family relationships, fashion. The much-anticipated series already has been hovering at the top of the iTunes podcast charts.
“Ear Hustle” — the phrase is slang for eavesdropping — is a collaboration between Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, both prisoners at San Quentin, and Nigel Poor, a Bay Area visual artist who teaches photography classes at the prison. Williams, 29, has served more than 10 years on a 15-year sentence for armed robbery. Woods, 45, has served more than 19 years of a 31-years–to-life sentence for attempted second-degree robbery. Their chemistry is one of the best parts of the show: the three share a deep rapport that is at times funny, frank, and raw.
San Quentin is a unique prison with a long tradition of inmate-produced journalism: The San Quentin News has been published on and off for almost 100 years, and Williams, Woods, and Poor got their start audio producing the “San Quentin Prison Report” for local radio station KALW. It’s hard to imagine a project like this flourishing anywhere else. Teeming with volunteers and donations from nearby Bay Area and Silicon Valley, San Quentin has a media lab with computers, editing software, and recording equipment.
But it’s still a prison. The media lab has no internet access or telephones. And all the episodes must be vetted by the facility’s public information officer. “This is Lt. Sam Robinson,” he intones at the end of each episode, “and I approve this story.” But Robinson insists, “I’m not in a position to censor what’s in these guys’ hearts. Our only issue is public safety.”
Robinson listened in as I talked to Woods and Williams last week. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
San Quentin is famous for its newspaper. How is your approach different than a newspaper reporter’s?
Antwan Williams: With the News, for as long as they’ve been in business it’s been about facts. They pride themselves on being professional journalists. We wanted to be a little more creative, to shed light on what it’s like in prison, what day to day life is like in here. The little moments that create prison. They’re hilarious, some are very tender. Some are heartbreaking. It’s a lot of those small moments that not only bring out the humanity in us, but it shows a different side to who these incarcerated men are.
The subject matter, at least on its face, is not explicitly political. Did you choose to not make a political podcast?
AW: If people don’t know exactly who it is that’s incarcerated — if they don’t know people on a personal level — it’s hard to care about the laws that dictate the lives in here. We can try to get to rules that are bigger than us, as far as sentencing reform, juveniles, three strikes. But if we don’t know who they affect, how can we begin to ask people to care about it? We think putting names and faces to the people that are incarcerated, it is speaking towards the politics. People start to think, “you remind me of my son, my father, a brother of mine, of my best friends.” That will make them interested in being more involved in the political side of prison.
If this is supposed to be stories about life inside, told by people inside, why have Nigel as a co-host? What does she bring to the project that you two don’t bring on your own?
Earlonne Woods: With Nigel, she’s our “outside collaborator,” so she can give us input of people in society. I might not be in tune to what’s going on in society, but she is.
AW: The things that are normal to us sometimes fascinate Nigel. We were talking about phone calls: We only have 15 minutes per phone call. How do you get somebody to fall in love with you in 15 minutes? It’s normal to us. So having Nigel be a voice in it, not only does it start a dialogue between outside and inside, but it allows her to say, explain to us. Take us a little deeper.
What have you learned about life in San Quentin that you didn’t know before beginning your work on “Ear Hustle”?
EW: What surprised me most is individuals being open about whatever it is they’re talking about. Being vulnerable about things that may have happened to them in their life. People usually don’t share as much. They hide certain details. Some people may be ashamed of things they did, or things that happened to them.
AW: We make sure the guys that are involved off the top know we’re not here to place any kind of blame, any kind of shame, but we need the truth. Just to have them sit in front of a microphone and to confess to the wrongs they’ve done, to own up, to take complete responsibility, be transparent about some things that have altered their lives forever. I’ve seen a lot of guys shut down and not want to say anything. But San Quentin has created an environment that is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced — an environment where you can start to be vulnerable.
What has been the hardest episode to make, and why?
EW: All of them. We were doing a story about a guy that, his wife used to come visit him a lot, and she left a visit and died in a car accident. Telling that story, the question was, were we just recapping a tragic event?
AW: That’s the hard part for us, is not just telling a story because it sounds good, or because it’s powerful, or it tugs at your heartstrings. But telling a story that actually sheds light on prison. We want to bring more of the truth out.
What do you want listeners to know about you, as people, going into this show?
AW: We’re just average people, suspended in animation.