A New York Times Podcast Club Q&A with Nigel Poor, of Ear Hustle

(Photo by Eddie Herena for Ear Hustle)

Nigel Poor hosted a question-and-answer session in The New York Times Podcast Club Facebook group on Saturday, June 24, about the first episode of Ear Hustle, “Cellies.” We’ve got the questions, and their answers, below, for fans of the show who didn’t make it to the virtual Q&A.

I’ve noticed that, sometimes, in passing, you will mention the crimes and the sentences of some protagonists. Are you afraid that, in spite of all the effort you make to connect with us and seem like ordinary people with ordinary problems, like choosing a roommate or cellie, some people will still judge them for their offenses and refuse to connect? (From Paul-Emile Brunet)

We thought about this a lot and debated back and forth — right now we feel like it is best to get out in front of the question that may be lingering in some listeners’ minds: “What did this guy do?” One thing about the podcast is that we will continue to evolve, and what seems like a good choice now might not in the future.

How did you introduce the inmates to the idea and concept of podcasts? Were you able to play some for them so that they could get a sense of the style and delivery? (From David Reinwald)

I talked about podcasts with them a lot — the idea was new to them. I was lucky to be able to get some podcast cleared to bring them in, so they could hear examples: Snap Judgment, Reply All, Criminal, Love and Radio (to name just a few). The men also can get local public radio stations inside the prison, so they are able to hear This American Life, The Moth and some other podcasts played on air.

It’s interesting to see how they keep themselves informed and somewhat connected to the outside world. Do they talk about that? (Follow-up from David Reinwald)

Oh, interesting question. Well, they certainly have TV and radio and, of course, family and friends, so there is a connection to the outside — but there’s so much they miss. One reporter asked Earlonne, “Isn’t it hard to work without the internet?” And he said, “I wouldn’t know. I’ve been inside almost 20 years.”

What kinds of stories or details, if any, have been censored by the San Quentin warden? What areas are you wanting to explore that you think may not fly? (From Julie Subrin)

We work very closely with Lt. Robinson, who is the public information officer at San Quentin. We have not had anything censored, yet, but we have had things corrected for accuracy. For example we are doing a story about the Segregated Housing Unit, or SHU. I kept calling it “solitary,” and that is not what it is technically called. We’re not investigative journalists, so we don’t see it as our job to do stories about specific crimes or whether people are truly innocent or guilty — but I suspect if we wanted to do stories like that, it wouldn’t fly.

Do you have the goal of making Ear Hustle a sustainable show, or are the initial planning and execution stages aimed toward having a limited series? I can see how either kind of goal can influence what seems important to document in this very novel kind of show. (From Barry Lam)

We dearly dearly hope this is an ongoing project!! There are so many stories to tell, and we have many goals for this project that cannot be achieved in one season. It’s a crazy amount of work, but our goal is to stay around for a while!!

Do you have the ability to listen to podcasts on the inside, and if so, which were or currently are inspirations to you? (From William Smith)

Snap Judgment is a big one for us — especially because Antwan and Earlonne love music, and we are fortunate enough to have Pat Mesiti Miller (who is a sound designer for Snap) come in to advise on music and other areas of production.

Did you have this idea prior to Podquest, or did you brainstorm after the contest was announced? Did you propose the idea to Radiotopia, or did you have a finished product? How much of the production is by you and your team, and how much is influenced/edited by the input from the PRX and Radiotopia team? (From Evan Stein)

We were already thinking about doing a podcast before the Radiotopia Podquest — in fact, it was underway. We were just going to do and see what happened. Then I heard about Podquest, and we entered it. We do all the production inside the prison!!! And we still have a lot to learn … but we do have an outside editor who helps us with story structure, and it’s my understanding that that’s how most podcasts work. Antwan, Earlonne and I have no background in audio, so we had a lot to learn — and are still learning!!

Both co-hosts sound so natural, even when delivering script. Tips for that? Also, what’s your production process — are you story gathering and then shaping episodes, or do you seek stories to match the episode theme? (From Carol Jackson)

Earlonne and I have a very collegial and professional relationship, and we hope the respect and delight we take in each others’ observations come across. That being said, we do write scripts and are working on how to keep it spontaneous. We have pitch sessions where we talk about stories and topics we want to cover — and sometimes we start with a story we have heard, but sometimes we start with the theme and go out and find the story. We are ALWAYS hustling for stories inside.

I’d imagine that the rewards that traditionally are afforded to creators of widely consumed media — direct interactions with their audience, professional mobility and monetary gains — are unable to be given to Woods, Williams and the other collaborators on the inside. Do you feel like there is a disparity between what rewards they are able to enjoy and the ones you feel like they should? Do you feel as though the inmates working on this project have real equity in it? (From Morgan Williams)

We talk about this all the time. Of course there are issues because of the inside and outside connection — for example, there is no way for Antwan and Earlonne to participate in this Q&A. But we do have plenty of reporters coming in [to San Quentin], and they [Antwan and Earlonne] are able to speak for themselves about the project [in that context]. Whenever I speak publicly about Ear Hustle, Antwan and Earlonne prepare a video so they can be part of the experience. We are all learning incredibly valuable new skills that I hope they [Antwan and Earlonne] will be able to use when they get out [of prison]. Of course I wish it were different, but that is the nature of being in prison. I do feel like they have equity in it — we are co-creators and make all the creative choices together — but there are things that they cannot do that I can, and I always do my best to explain and share with them everything that is happening on the outside! But, believe me, this is an issue we constantly think about.

I’m wondering if California still mandates arts programming in prisons, and if that’s how your program is funded (or partially funded). Also, I recently saw that you were working on making the podcast accessible on the inside. I’m wondering if you’ve discussed this with participants and if there was reflection on how it might impact the depth to which inmates share their truth — as some truth/vulnerability is unsafe to disclose to the masses (inside). (From Taliana Crmaza)

There is still an Arts in Correction program in the California Prison System, but we are not funded by them. Antwan and Earlonne know that the podcast is heard on the outside — we are co-creators of the project and together wrote the proposal for the Radiotopia contest — and it is because of Radiotopia that we are heard on the outside. We always take into consideration the safety of those who participate in our stories and the safety of the institution.

If you have a question for Antwan, Earlonne or Nigel, send them a kite — that’s prison slang for a written note — to their mailbox at San Quentin. Grab a postcard and stamp, and send it to:

Ear Hustle SQ
P. O. Box 883723
San Francisco, CA 94188–3723

The Ear Hustle team likes to post pictures of the kites they catch on their Instagram account. Maybe you’ll see yours there.

Ear Hustle’s second episode is out Wednesday, June 28. If you missed the first, subscribe and listen now.