Ear Hustle, one of the newest podcasts on Radiotopia’s roster, just debuted in June — and it’s already a smash hit, reaching almost 1.5 million downloads in its first month, alone. It tells the stories of life inside San Quentin State Prison, shared and produced by those living it. Co-hosts Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods, along with sound designer Antwan Williams, gave us a peek behind the scenes.
On the Podcast
Tell me about how you got the idea for Ear Hustle. What was your inspiration? Did you come up with the idea before Podquest?
Earlonne: Nigel and myself were working on a podcast for the institutional closed circuit channel and we recruited Antwan to do the sound design. It just so happened a few weeks later Nigel mentioned Radiotopia was hosting the international Podquest competition and suggested we submit a two-minute promo.
Nigel: I had been working on a radio project inside San Quentin for several years, and it was great, but I wanted to do something that was less news oriented that could be approached more like an art project. Earlonne and I had similar impulses, so we hatched a plan to see how we could create long-form, first-person narratives about life inside. We wanted to co-host it to make the inside/outside relationship an important component of the show. We were working on this before I heard about Podquest, but the contest certainly motivated us to tighten up the idea and bring it to a place that could be shared outside of prison walls.
Antwan: I have always been into music, but doing this podcast introduced me to one man in particular, Pat Mesiti-Miller — he showed me what production consists of. He helped me understand that production for podcasts is completely different from producing music. You have to use sound as a way to enhance a moment. Sound has to bend time and space but not be misleading or even force an emotion. So shout-outs to my boy Pat. Thanks.
Speaking of Podquest, what episodes did you enter into the competition? Have you used any of them this season?
Nigel: We entered “Misguided Loyalty,” “Looking Out” — at the time called “Pets in Prison” — and “The SHU,” but the versions we submitted and the versions we aired are very different. When we started this process we were still very new to podcasting. We had a vision and we had the story ideas, but over the many months that have passed since we won the Podquest, our skills and understanding of how to tell a story have deepened. We learned to “kill our darlings” in order to make our stories better, a painful but important lesson. One of things I love about any creative endeavor is that you never stop learning, you never stop evolving — and we plan to continue to grow and challenge the way we put a story together.
Has your vision for the show evolved since the first episode dropped?
Nigel: No, not really. From its conception, our vision for Ear Hustle was to tell the everyday stories of life inside, from the perspective of those who live it. That has not changed. What will evolve is the way we tell the stories. We like the idea of not being formulaic — we want people to recognize the tone of Ear Hustle stories, but we want to play with how they’re structured and how they sound.
What’s the most difficult part about creating an episode of Ear Hustle? The most rewarding?
Antwan: I would say not having access to the Web makes it both easier and harder. Since we can’t listen to trending podcasts, we don’t know what’s popular. On the other hand, not hearing other podcasts makes it easier for us to not sound like anyone else. So it goes both ways.
Earlonne: I’ve been locked up for 19 years, six months so I don’t know if the internet would make it easier to tell a story from prison. The only difficulty for me is trying to figure out a good story that the world should hear.
Nigel: The most difficult part for me is thinking about the overall story structure. I tend to get very focused and fascinated by small details. My background is as a visual artist, which may be why I am very comfortable with abstraction and not having concrete answers. That doesn’t translate as well to aural storytelling. We edit, edit, edit, a difficult process that helps us define the story arc. There are many rewarding aspects to the project — hearing people’s unedited stories is incredible, but so is walking through the yard and having guys stop me to say how much they enjoy the show or that their friends or family on the outside love it. This project allows us to connect with people in a profound way, and that is most gratifying.
Antwan: I like how we listen to people talk and we start to see moments that can stick to people’s heart. I think about the sound design that can enhance a moment. In an environment where creativity can sometimes fade away, creating these moments with sound is one of my favorite parts.
Earlonne: For me, I appreciate being taught by some of the best minds in the podcast business. I now study audio engineering as a career. I try to learn as much as I can from all the experts, especially when it comes to storytelling structure. Learning everything I can about podcasting is invaluable.
Tell me about your team. What’s the overarching dynamic?
Earlonne: I met Nigel in 2012. She was volunteering with the San Quentin Prison Report, and she was teaching guys how to observe everything in a photo and write out observations. At the same time, she and a former prisoner named Troy Williams launched the SQPR Radio project, where Nigel had a show called Windows and Mirrors. So I started assisting her productions.
Working with Nigel gives me a glimpse into what it’s going to be like as a productive citizen in society. I mean, I’ve never worked this hard on a project before. With Antwan and Nigel it’s a collaboration, and we don’t agree on everything, but that’s what makes this work. We can agree to disagree and work it out to produce a high-quality product.
Antwan: I also met Nigel in 2012 when she started working with the radio side of the media lab. I was her audio engineer when she came, and I didn’t even know what I was doing. We have come a very long way. I’m so proud.
I enjoy the atmosphere. We push each other to do and be better, and can rely on one another. The respect has always been there and it’s created a solid working relationship. I wouldn’t change anything.
Nigel: We are a tight and collaborative group, all super passionate about what we do. We each bring different skills to the project, and we respect those differences and understand that our individual perspectives are part of what makes it work. I think we allow each other to thrive and take chances. We work incredibly hard and we all believe in the dream. What we are doing is incredibly hard. The challenges and pitfalls are plenty, but we share an optimism and an unwavering belief that we will prevail, and that has gotten us through many difficult times.
How long do you have each day to work on Ear Hustle, and how many hours does it take to produce each episode? How do you decide what length each episode should be?
Nigel: We work incredibly long hours. We can be in the lab Monday to Friday from 8 a.m.-8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 2-8 p.m. Between the hours I work on Ear Hustle inside and outside the prison, I spend between 40–70 hours a week on the project. It takes us weeks — and sometimes months — to complete an episode.
Antwan: We get many, many edits, so we can be working on an episode for at least a month. We got good with help from many people who took time to teach us how to interview effectively and how to sculpt unique moments in prison into dynamic stories for the world. Along with many hours of edits and re-edits. We brainstorm ideas, hold interviews then figure what tape is best and which story is more clear, powerful and interesting.
Earlonne: We work on each episode up until it’s time for Nigel to post it … For some reason there is always something to tweak, and I’m cool with that. It shows me that at the end of the day, hard work goes a long way.
Ear Hustle works a little differently than many podcasts, in that episodes need to be approved by San Quentin Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson. Listeners are really curious — has he ever nixed any part of an episode?
Nigel: Lt. Robinson is incredibly supportive. His job is to protect the safety of the institution and to make sure our stories are factually correct, in terms of prison policy. He’s never nixed a story or told us anything is off limits. Editorial and artistic choices are left to us. I see his role as an adviser and, in some ways, a mentor. He’s very open to conversation, and if he were to object to something in a story, it would be a group discussion.
Do inmates ever decline to be interviewed for Ear Hustle? Or do you ever decline to interview certain inmates?
Nigel: Yes, like anywhere else, there are people who do not want to be interviewed and there are people we don’t want to interview. We’re interested in specific kinds of stories, so sometimes people will come to us with a story idea that doesn’t work with the vision of the podcast and we decline to pursue that avenue.
What reactions have you gotten from inmates who’ve been featured in episodes, so far?
Nigel: Our episodes are played inside the prison on a closed-circuit channel, which allows those inside to hear what we are doing. So far, the reaction from people inside has been nothing but positive. People seem to take pride in it and like the way we are representing San Quentin and what happens inside. As we move on with the project, we hope to include more men in the production side of things.
On the Space
Can you walk me through the space where you record your narration and edit together the audio? How big is it? Are there windows?
Nigel: The space is very industrial — it used to be the laundry facility. Now it houses San Quentin News, San Quentin Radio and Ear Hustle, and there’s also an area where video production happens. It has concrete floors and wooden roof. There are no windows. There’s an inside wall that divides the space in half and has windows in it, so you can see from one side to the other. There’s no air conditioning and in the winter, there are large heater fan systems mounted on the walls that can be very loud. It’s not particularly comfortable, nor glamorous, but space is a premium in prison, so we’re grateful to have a place to work.
Your narration tracks are really clean. How do you get it so quiet in your recording space? Do you have a soundproofed area?
Nigel: It’s always funny to hear people say our tracks sound clean because we work in a chaotic, loud concrete space where lots of activity is happening. The ceiling in the space we work in has acoustic tiles, but some have fallen down and you can see up into the structure of the roof — sometimes birds are flying around up there. When we record, we ask people around us to be quiet, but that doesn’t always work — people are talking, dragging chairs across the floor, laughing, yelling — it almost never stops. I don’t know what to say, except that maybe soundproofing is overrated and you can work in less than optimal surroundings and still get the job done.
Do you have a thinking or reflection space — somewhere you go inside or outside of the studio to gather creative inspiration?
Nigel: It’s almost impossible to find a quiet, reflective space in prison — it is loud, crowded and everyone wants to talk. You have to learn to catch your reflective time in a different way. This was very challenging for me, because I was used to working alone in a quiet studio with lots of privacy, but I have learned to shut out the constant hubbub happening around us. When outside people come to visit, they often remark on how chaotic it is and wonder how we deal with the constant interruptions. We just do — we don’t have a choice. We have to be adaptable and work with what we have.
It may be that we gather inspiration from the chaos happening around us. When I come in and walk through the yard, I’m greeted by dozens of people who say hello or engage me in conversation. That energy is invigorating, and there is always the possibility of ear hustling an idea for a story.
Where does Lt. Robinson listen to the episodes before he approves them? Does he listen in your studio space or his office?
Nigel: We usually put our stories on a CD, and I deliver them to Lt. Robinson’s office. On rare occasion, he will listen to part of a story in the media lab. Everyone wants to talk to Lt. Robinson, so I’m not sure he would ever get 20 to 30 uninterrupted minutes to sit in the lab and listen to a story.
Do inmates come to you to be interviewed, or do you usually go to them? How many of your interviews happen in the yard vs. in your studio space?
Nigel: We conduct all of our interviews in the lab — we cannot roam freely in the prison with recorders. In order to record outside the lab, we must be accompanied by Lt. Robinson or another prison official. When we’re able to go out to the yard, we do record “yard talk,” but we consider that to be more vox pop and less of a formal interview.
What type of equipment do you use to record Ear Hustle?
Nigel: We have two Mac computers. We use Avid Pro Tools, and Antwan uses Logic for scoring the episodes. Our mics are Shure SM7Bs, mounted with Rode PSA1 studio arms, and we also use Tascam portable recorders. We use an Audient iD14 audio interface and an Apollo Twin audio interface — and let’s not forget our Sony MDR-7506 headphones.
Why do you produce a podcast instead of a broadcast radio show?
Antwan: A podcast is the best and most creative way of storytelling. Podcasting is like creating dynamic films, only for the ears. It’s the best thing we could’ve done.
Earlonne: [Podcasting] is a great medium to showcase the hidden stories of what’s behind these walls. A podcast gives us the leverage to do longer storytelling. And it’s not forced upon people — they have the choice to hear it.
Nigel: I felt a podcast gave us more latitude to be creative, to not have to follow a prescribed format and to use more music and sound design. Basically, it allows us to work as artists and storytellers.
What was the learning curve like in understanding podcasting and figuring out how to use audio equipment?
Nigel: Enormous, and we are still learning, though we all bring our previous work and life experience to the table, and we make use of that. We are not afraid of failure or hard work because that’s how you learn — our goal is to bring this unique project out into the world, and our determination pushes us up that steep learning curve.
Antwan: We can’t listen to other podcasts, so we were trying to figure out what good podcasts sound like. Every point of making this podcast has had its difficulties.
What do you think the future of the podcasting industry looks like?
Nigel: I hope the industry will become more populated with diverse voices and surprising collaborations.