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Photos and story by Ike Dodson, PIO, OPEC
Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams prowl the yard and facilities of San Quentin State Prison in metaphorical camouflage, watching… listening.
It’s open season inside the confines of California’s oldest correctional facility, where Woods and Williams are salivating at the thrill of the chase.
It’s not hooves and fur they seek, but anecdotes and whispers.
Along with volunteer Nigel Poor, inmates Woods and Williams are producing the much-anticipated podcast “Ear Hustle,” an award-winning project poised to release an inaugural 10-episode season this June.
“I think getting stories is like hunting,” Woods said. “You’ve got to go hunting.”
The team has bagged three episodes with another three in production, and plans to finish 15 topics before whittling the top 10 into a full series to open an already acclaimed campaign.
Finding compelling and revealing stories with grit and impact inside the confines of San Quentin requires time, effort, and the subtle surveillance the podcast is named for.
“It’s really about ‘Ear Hustlin,’ because you will be sitting in line for chow and you can’t turn your ears off from hearing a story that might be in front of you,” Woods said. “You might be like ‘That’s interesting. I’m not going to approach him now, but I can catch him probably tomorrow and inquire about that like ‘Man, you want to come down and talk about that?’’
“I think it’s easier (for us to get stories inside San Quentin) than regular media, because they’re talking to somebody in their same position.”
Williams, Woods and Poor are co-creators and co-producers of “Ear Hustle.”
Poor is a full-time photography professor at California State University, Sacramento, and has also been vital to the media center and the development of the San Quentin Prison Report that airs on KALW local public radio.
Woods is the podcasts’ audio producer and Williams the sound designer while Woods and Poor are co-hosts of the episodes.
The other active member of the team is San Quentin Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson, who reviews the content before its release. His role isn’t to censor the group, but to ensure the program doesn’t create any safety or security issues.
“San Quentin has been forward thinking for decades in allowing the men inside the imposing walls of the prison a mechanism to have their voices heard, beginning in the 1920’s with the Wall City News publication, which evolved into the San Quentin News publication that the prison operates today,” Robinson said. “Warden Clinton T. Duffy in the 1940s indicated the purpose of the San Quentin News and radio program ‘was to dispel rumors rampant both inside and outside the prison (via the ‘grapevine’).’
“Warden Robert Ayers Jr, who brought the paper back to life in 2008, after a nearly 25-year hiatus, decreed he ‘wanted the newspaper to be a vehicle of information that would dispel prison rumors and gossip which interfere with a safe living environment.’”
The policy hasn’t changed.
“Today, in 2017, San Quentin’s current Warden, Ron Davis, has continued the progressive initiatives of his predecessors, and has expanded on the aforementioned line of thinking by moving forward into the present day media realm,” Robinson added. “The hope is that ‘Ear Hustle’ becomes a vehicle to promote public safety through education, and to further the expansion of rehabilitative programs.”
The podcast will be broadcast via the Radiotopia network on the Public Radio Exchange (PRX). Woods, Williams and Poor collaborate with Radiotopia executive producer Julie Shapiro and PRX editor Curtis Fox.
The crew picked up technical training from volunteer Mark Jeffery, who created the same Pro Tools software that “Ear Hustle” uses, and donated the software for SQPR to use.
The crew also gets tutelage from Pat Mesiti-Miller, the sound designer for the popular WNYC radio podcast “Snap Judgement.”
Poor spends around 30 hours a week on the podcast and the project has the support of CDCR and San Quentin staff, but the grind often comes down to two inmates drafting ambient sounds and interviews in an office of the media center that isn’t even soundproof.
“It’s just the two of them right now, because we thought for our first season we really had to work on getting our sound down,” Poor said. “We may include more guys in the future.”
The podcast shares space with the radio program, but they admit the setting creates a surreal habitat for their art.
“We are able to create an environment — especially with this little room — that for some reason with two to three people just changes the dynamic of a conversation,” Williams said. “It’s an intimate setting.
“It’s really small, sometimes just us and an interviewee.”
On a mission to discover diverse talent and story-driven ideas by independent producers, Radiotopia’s Shapiro and 11 members of the PRX staff accepted 1,537 entries from 53 countries in an international “Podquest” search for the next great podcast last year.
Poor convinced Williams and Woods to cultivate a program for entry and the team developed some early topics and a trailer for the contest.
Their podcast teaser starts with some scattered sound bites, before Wood’s strong and melodious voice sets the tone.
“You are now tuned in to San Quentin’s ‘Ear Hustle.’ When you think about San Quentin, what comes to mind? Maximum security? Death row? Scary guys all tatted-up? Johnny Cash? I’m Earlonne Woods. In 1999 I was convicted of being a getaway driver of a second-degree robbery. I was sentenced to 31-years to life and I’ve been incarcerated for 18 years. I’m the co-producer and co-host of ‘Ear Hustle.’”
“My name is Antwan Williams,” a softer, measured voice cuts in, “And I’ve been incarcerated since 2006 for armed robbery with a gun enhancement, and I am the co-producer and sound designer for ‘Ear Hustle.’”
A calm, feminine voice kicks in contrast.
“I’m Nigel Poor, and since 2011 I’ve been volunteering inside the prison. I’m the co-host and co-producer of ‘Ear Hustle.’ In 2013 we started producing radio stories about life inside. Now we’re turning our attention to longer-form story telling.”
“Our mission is to bring you the hidden stories of life inside, told from the perspective of those who live it,” Woods adds. “Forget the stereotypes, the scared straight, the Hollywood stories and the mass media B.S. We’re laying it out, bringing it to you straight.”
The trailer was a hit. “Ear Hustle” quickly made it to the top-50 of entry reviews by 99 Radiotopia donors. Winning the prestigious competition didn’t seem a reality until they were announced among a stellar list of top-10 entries June 1.
“I didn’t have expectations when we first entered because it was just a shot in the dark,” Williams said. “Once we got into the top 10, especially considering how many people entered… it was ‘Wow, we can really do this…’ It got real.”
“When we were talking about the other nine (semifinalists), one of the volunteers was like ‘Man don’t worry about the other nine, just worry about what you are doing,’” Woods added. “We had honed in on this area that we’ve got, that we know one thing — people can’t just come in (to San Quentin) and do stories willy-nilly.
“At least we can control the narrative as much as possible. We are just going to hit them with real storytelling.”
Twenty-seven days after the semifinalists were announced, “Ear Hustle” and three other podcasts qualified for top-four consideration. The finalists were asked to produce pilot episodes for judging by the PRX committee of 12.
In November, Radiotopia announced Ear Hustle as the winning podcast, committing to fund a 10-episode season that Williams, Woods and Poor produce.
“It’s been crazy-exciting,” Poor said. “We have been working really hard, and once we saw that we got it, we realized ‘Wow, we have this huge task ahead of us. How are we going to actually do this?’
“We have been putting in a lot of time, getting our heads together working diligently to put this season together for a 10-episode launch this summer.”
Poor used the funds awarded by Radiotopia to buy about $12,000 worth of equipment that she donated to San Quentin. It substantially updates the media center. She also hired someone to design Ear Hustle’s website and logo. The rest of the money will go toward taxes owed on the award.
“The whole objective is to try our best to build this area into 2017,” Wood explained. “These are like 2008 computers.
“We have people that volunteer and teach engineering skills and stuff like that. Hopefully we can make 30-40 engineers out of this.”
Ear hustlin’ gives the team plenty of ideas, but they have strict requirements for what becomes an episode.
“Two questions we ask ourselves in regard to pitches and stories. Are we inviting the audience to just relive a trauma? And what does it reveal about life in prison?” Williams said. “Because that’s the biggest thing. We want to showcase life inside — that it isn’t all stabbings and rapes and riots and people slamming bars.
“Sometimes that’s the furthest thing from prison.”
Not every gripping story belongs on the podcast.
“We were doing a story on a guy whose wife died leaving a visit, so it’s like how do you tell that story?” Woods asked. “It’s a good love story, but in telling it, is it just a recap of a tragic event, or is there a takeaway?
“That’s a good story because you think about your family coming and that’s one of your biggest fears, especially if they are coming from Los Angeles or somewhere far away and fall asleep. But doing the stories – it’s like man, what’s the takeaway, or why is this relevant? Why is this important for people to hear?”
Thirteen stories have made the cut to the “Ear Hustle” storyboard.
- Pets in prison
- What you can achieve in a 15-minute phone call
- Misguided loyalty
- The SHU (Security Housing Unit)
- Houdini in prison
- Brotherly love (brothers sharing a cell)
- PDA (public displays of affection)
- Fish kit
- Christian Macarena
- Ministering on Death Row
- The ‘N’ Word
- Fashion in Prison
The “pets in prison” topic leads that list because it’s one of the pilot episodes that helped “Ear Hustle” win Podquest. In the episode, the team unveils the story of a San Quentin inmate dubbed “Rauch” and his love for the creatures he’s found behind institution walls.
“It’s a story about nurturing, and the desire to care for another being in prison,” Poor said. “It’s one of my favorites because it challenges people’s assumptions about what happens in prison.
“Not all of the stories are really heavy, scary or about violence.”
Woods and Williams are enthralled by the episode breaking down inmate phone calls.
“You have 15 minutes on the phone. How do you tell a woman you love to stay with you and not leave?” Williams queried. “How do you get someone to visit you 12 hours away in 15 minutes? Can it be done? Are you able to do it and the preparation before that? We have to sign up the morning of or the night before to use the phone at 12:20 the next day. How do you get there on time?
“It’s just learning to ask the correct questions.”
The crew is still deciding if they will release the 10-episode season in consecutive weeks across two and a half months or drop one every other week for a five-month season.
They have a self-imposed deadline to finish in April.
Responsibility and Quality control
While Woods and Williams don’t enjoy the freedom of their podcasting peers, they certainly comprehend the fortune of their situation.
They have received training from experts in the field of audio engineering and are presented with an opportunity to break ground on the first podcast produced inside a correctional facility — one that’s already celebrated.
“We want to say ‘Thank you’ to the administration here at San Quentin, Lt. Sam Robinson, Warden Ron Davis, Steve Emrick (San Quentin Community Partnership Manager and program coordinator), Nigel Poor, CDCR and everybody at headquarters that has supported us thus far,” Williams said. “We thank you for allowing us this opportunity that has never been done before.
“We take that extremely seriously. We look to do you guys justice, to show that the opportunity you’ve given — it hasn’t fallen by the wayside. We are going to make sure that we represent the institution right.”
Wood recently spent several hours repairing an audio clip from an interview that showed breaks in the signal every 10 seconds. It’s tedious, but it’s part of the team’s devout quality control.
“One of the things we realized with Ear Hustle is perspective is everything,” Williams added. “Not only do we believe we will be perceived as – OK, were just prisoners and that the work won’t be good – but to some degree people believe the quality won’t be as good as it is.
“So we want to make sure that when we work, the sound will be as good as it can be. The design and the sound, it can be professional. The atmosphere and environment, just everything around it screams professionalism.”
The team spends around 12 hours a day on the project, working five days a week and occasionally on weekends.
“We take this extremely seriously, because we don’t want an opportunity, something of this magnitude, to slip through our hands and not do our absolute greatest,” Williams said. “Like (Woods) was saying, fixing pops and little digital tears in the tape or creating music, our texture to really represent that moment in its entirety.
“We spend a lot of time going over the minute things, the smallest things so we make not just a quality tape, but a product that any person in the field says “’This is good work’ — not just because they are in prison, but because of the quality of the work.”
Woods said the 12 hours isn’t always spent on the computer. Since the team shares space, they often give up seats and map out storyboard directions on a whiteboard in the media center’s main room.
It’s rare that a podcast can make a name for itself before its first episode, but the “Ear Hustle” team keeps landing nation-wide notoriety in the months following their Podquest selection.
“It feels like every couple of weeks I am talking with somebody else in the media,” Poor said. “I talk about it on a daily basis.
“In my heart I had hoped for that. It deserves that kind of attention.”
The group has been featured by Forbes Magazine, Wired Magazine, Southern California Public Radio, Itsalljournalism.com, Capital Public Radio, All Access Music and current.org. The California Sunday Magazine also did an enterprising profile on the podcast.
Nicholas Quah, a New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Wired contributor, listed “Ear Hustle” as one of nine subscription-worthy new podcasts for 2017, citing the program as Radiotopia’s most topically ambitious show to date.
Producing a successful and well-marketed podcast could be huge for Williams and Woods as they pursue careers outside the walls of San Quentin.
Williams is scheduled for release in 2020 while Woods will face the Board of Parole Hearings around 2028.
“You have so many traits you can take with you, and the question is what do you want to do when you parole?” Woods said. “I know one thing – I will understand audio engineering, so I will get a job somewhere.”
The labor skills they developed are vital to the pair’s future.
“The work that we are doing now, it requires us to get up and be somewhere and do something for a set amount of time, where we are acclimated with working in an environment every day,” Williams added. “It’s not like I am trying to just lay up all day. My body doesn’t work like that. My mind doesn’t work like that.
“This podcast is giving me a skillset, a focused determination. It’s building those little things that are going to push me further in life.”
Both agree the program directly attributes to freedom – specifically that, when they get out, it will help them stay out.
Though it’s never been done before, the success of “Ear Hustle” could open doors for projects of a similar nature.
“As far as I understand, we are pioneers of this, because I have not heard of another podcast produced inside a prison,” Poor said. “This is the only situation I know of where incarcerated and non-incarcerated persons are working inside a prison as colleagues unveiling stories about life inside.”
Williams and Woods aren’t ready to take responsibility for the movement, at least not until their first season hits the web.
“I don’t feel like we’re the leaders or pioneers because we are still in the fight, still doing it,” Williams said. “Once the first season is out and we start to hear about other people in prison trying to do this or do that – then I think I will start to feel that way. But as of right now we’re still in the fight, still in the struggle, still living the day to day life, the life in prison that almost every other incarcerated American is living, male and female.
“So I just think us staying the course is the best thing for any future podcasts that may come out in prison. We do want to make sure we do it justice, to where somebody would be willing to let this occur in another institution. “
The team has engineered the process for that — expert training bolstered by hard work and driven by the most basic of prison instincts — Ear Hustlin.’
The hunt continues.
(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)
Visit earhustlesq.com to receive notifications about the first season of “Ear Hustle,” by email.