When Nigel Poor wakes up in the dead of night with a concern about her podcast, she can’t fire off a text to her co-host. She can’t give him a quick call, drop him a line on Twitter or stop by his house.
That’s because, like the other men locked up in California’s San Quentin State Prison, Earlonne Woods doesn’t have his own phone. He doesn’t even have access to the internet. But, unlike his fellow inmates, Woods is the co-host of his own podcast.
Woods and Poor are two-thirds of Ear Hustle, a new show about life on the inside being launched by the podcasters at Radiotopia. Their co-creator, co-producer and sound designer is Antwan Williams, another inmate at San Quentin. Together, they make an unlikely trio for Radiotopia’s network of high-end podcasts: Poor is a visual artist who volunteers at the prison; Woods is serving 31 years-to-life for attempted second-degree robbery; Williams is serving a 15-year sentence for an armed robbery.
But that’s sort of the point, Poor said. Popular culture doesn’t do a sterling job of representing prison life to the world. To do that properly, a show needs two hosts: An insider to recount the experience and an outsider who can serve as a surrogate for the audience. And it sends a message: Prison doesn’t totally erase an inmate’s ability to carry out professional work.
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“It was important to us that we have an inside and an outside person as co-hosts because part of what we’re trying to do is mirror the idea that inside and outside people can work together as professional colleagues,” Poor said.
Still, Ear Hustle is a highly unusual podcast. That’s one of the reasons it won Podquest, a contest held by Radiotopia last spring to pick one user-submitted podcast for admission to the network’s roster of shows. The contest received more than 1,500 submissions from around the world, but Ear Hustle stood out in part because of its concept, said Julie Shapiro, the executive producer of Radiotopia.
“It wasn’t like I was fielding lots of calls about podcasts produced inside of prisons,” Shapiro said. “I appreciated the creativity of that. It was clear right away that this was going to be a big project to take on.”
Producing a podcast in prison has its upsides and downsides, Poor said. Even though prisoners are constrained by their circumstances, there’s still a wealth of stories inside San Quentin — “issues about food, hygene, how to deal with family, how to deal with your job, love, sex,” Poor said. Any story that you could tell on the outside has its counterpart in prison, she said.
There are some drawbacks, though. For one, Woods and Williams don’t have phones, and they aren’t at liberty to work on the podcast with Poor whenever they want. Poor begins her 10-hour days at the prison’s media lab at 9:30 a.m., helping Woods and Williams think through story structure, sound design and editing choices. They whiteboard story ideas at pitch sessions and conduct pre-interviews together to make sure sources are as interesting as the team hopes they are.
“When I get in there, Antwan and Earlonne are already down in the media lab,” Poor said. “…They both have pretty amazing work ethics.”
Poor compared working with Woods and Williams to colleagues that she’s had outside of prison. In the “real world,” there are co-workers whom you admire and those you’d rather avoid. In San Quentin’s media lab, there are inmates Poor trusts and those she wouldn’t to work with, and she counts Woods and Williams among the former.
But there are differences, she said. Per prison protocol, there are details about her life that she can’t share with them.
“And I want to always remember that, because I want to be as truthful as possible with what’s happening,” Poor said. “And I like on the podcast to admit my own foibles about my assumptions and call myself on not being too romantic about what’s happening in prison or idolize people.”
Working in prison also presents some challenges most journalists don’t often encounter, Poor said. Jailhouse rules can turn even the simplest tasks into weeks-long ordeals. After she purchased recording equipment for the show, installing it in the prison media lab took four months. Every episode is reviewed by Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin’s public information officer, who has to sign off before they air.
The unpredictability of prison life also make for difficult reporting circumstances. Midway through an episode about cellmates, for example, a subject’s cellmate was released from prison. Another episode about a prison party planner was interrupted when the subject was paroled. Solitary confinement could present another challenge.
“When we think a story’s going really well and it turns out one of the guys gets put in the hole or gets shipped out of San Quentin, all of a sudden that story isn’t what we thought it would be,” Poor said. “And we have to figure out: Is there another story in there that we can work with? So it’s letting go of things and not getting frustrated by the amount of roadblocks that get thrown in our way….I always tell people, if you want to work in prison, you’ve got to be patient, polite and persistent or you’ll never accomplish anything.”
The Public Radio Exchange is holding a listening party tonight to celebrate Ear Hustle’s June 14 launch. Woods and Williams won’t be there. But they recorded a welcome video for the audience so they could be there in spirit.
“They just have this section where they talk about how they have no idea how hard it is to make a podcast,” Poor said. “It was so sweet.”