Ear Hustle, the winner of Radiotopia’sPodquest contest in 2016, took the podcast world by storm last year. Stories from inside San Quentin State Prison in California were fresh, raw, and from a population whose voice is rarely heard. In November 2017, I had the opportunity to ask Radiotopia Executive Producer Julie Shapiro a few questions via e-mail about how the show has been received both inside and outside of San Quentin (SQ). If you haven’t checked out Ear Hustle yet, you have time to binge before the next season comes out in March.
Audible Feast (AF): What are listeners saying about Ear Hustle? What do they resonate with most?
Julie Shapiro (JS): The response to the show has been remarkable, both from listeners and press outlets all over the world. We’ve received thousands of emails and I can’t even keep up with the conversations on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The show seems to resonate equally for those with some direct connection to someone in prison – family or a friend, or former prison staff, or people working with other prison programs, and also those who have zero connection at all, and are grateful to learn more about what life is like inside from real people living that life. This duality of purpose and resonance has been amazing to witness.
Many people have told us that Ear Hustle has changed they way they think about incarceration and the criminal justice system, and the people behind bars, and this is one of the things we’re most proud of about the show.
Also noteworthy: I started keeping track of people sharing that Ear Hustle has made them cry in public, and have counted dozens and dozens of messages about this. Podcasts have impact!
AF: What parts of the show are actually done behind the walls of San Quentin?
JS: In early January our outside consulting editor Curtis Fox and I flew out to California to meet with the team inside SQ and brainstorm initial story ideas for the season. For each episode, Nigel, Earlonne and Antwan conduct all of the interviews at SQ. They cut them down, shape the story, and write an initial script. Antwan and other inmates pitch in on sound design, sometimes with the help of volunteer production advisor, Pat Mesiti-Miller, and all of the music used in the show is either recorded or composed inside. Nigel and Earlonne record their host narration there, and pull together an initial mix. Curtis weighs in on this mix and gives Nigel notes on structure to take back and make the changes inside. (Repeat a few times per episode.) I listen to near-final drafts and may offer some input — final changes are made inside SQ.
AF: Are the inmates involved in production allowed to see/read feedback about the show and if so, what do they think about it? What internet limitations may make it more difficult for them to see feedback compared to someone on the outside?
JS: There is no internet and phones are not allowed in SQ, so Earlonne and Antwan cannot access emails, social channels, or any of the digital press we’ve received. Nigel is vigilant about sharing feedback and news about the show’s reception, and also has been able to physically share the 1000+ postcards the show has received from appreciative listeners.
AF: How does Ear Hustle create a community around the show? Can listeners only engage with Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams through the filter of Nigel Poor? Is there an audience community within the prison system or within SQ?
JS: Ear Hustle episodes are played on the closed circuit system in SQ so many inmates there have heard the episodes (especially during a three-week lockdown over the summer, when men basically spent full days in their cells). Feedback inside SQ has been very positive from both other incarcerated men and staff, including Lt. Sam Robinson who signs off on every episode. In my handful of trips out to SQ, each time I’ve met inmates who are familiar with the show, and share their appreciation openly.
Additionally, Ear Hustle is slated to be shared internally in prisons throughout California, and other prisons (in the US and beyond) have been in touch about sharing episodes internally as well. Plus, we’ve heard from listeners who are sharing the episodes with incarcerated family and friends via the transcripts. And dozens of educators have been in touch about using the show in their classrooms, from middle school through graduate programs.
As far as listeners reaching out to Earlonne and Antwan, as mentioned above, we’ve invited listeners to send questions to the team via postcard (“kites”) and that has been a phenomenal success, with Antwan and Earlonne seeing and weighing in on which to answer on the show. So far we’ve produced one full episode in which the team tackled some of these questions (some with the help of other men they interviewed in “the Yard”) and we intend to do more of these “Catch a Kite” eps, including a bonus one between seasons one and two. And many of the men featured in episodes have received letters directly from listeners who heard their stories, and were moved to reach out.
We’ve also seen listeners communicate between themselves via social platforms, and recently a listener donated her handiwork (gorgeous leather tote bags) to the Radiotopia fundraiser, to offer to other EH listeners, in an amazingly generous show of community.
AF: What is your answer to the listeners who think normalizing prisoners’ experience is somehow glorifying prison or that prisoners’ stories don’t deserve to be told on a prestigious platform such as Radiotopia?
JS: We don’t consider the show as glorifying or normalizing life in prison; rather we are giving voice to a population that is seldom heard from, many of whom made destructive decisions years ago, but have taken responsibility for their crimes and are trying to be the best people they can be. We believe they deserve the chance to tell their stories, and be seen (and heard) as human beings, not first and foremost as criminals, and that both the inmates and audiences benefit from understanding more about both the conditions that resulted in their incarceration, and the situations they deal with inside.
I would invite anyone who thinks this to listen to a few episodes before making this assumption, and would assure them without hesitation that Radiotopia is damn proud to have Ear Hustle in our ranks!
Ear Hustle appeared on Audible Feast’s Best Podcasts of 2017. My sincerest thanks to Julie Shapiro for answering my questions. Ear Hustle is hard at work recording a second season, which will debut in March 2018. This listener is truly looking forward to it!