Season two of Ear Hustle was wonderful, challenging and over too soon!
There were so many difficult, suspenseful, tender, funny and tearful moments this season, but doing the interviews for “Dirty Water” had a different kind of impact. It was the first time we brought someone from the outside to be in the story, the first time a story included a woman — and, oh yeah, it was the first time we asked a survivor and a perpetrator to sit across from each other and just talk.
We brought Sara up from Los Angeles to participate in the story, and thought we would need two days to complete all the interviews. We started by interviewing LA and Sara separately, and then sat them across from each other to hash it out. You would think E and I had made an extensive plan as to how the process would work, but in fact we hadn’t — we sat them down, gave one prompt (which I believe was to share some background about they grew up), stepped back and pushed record.
What followed was the most vulnerable, intense, revealing, honest and profound conversation I have ever witnessed. Through the conversation that Sara and LA had, we heard about unbelievable cruelties and treatment of children too horrible to share, but we also heard insight, compassion and bravery.
The Ear Hustle crew is pretty tough — we hear it all, and obviously E has seen a lot — but when that conversation ended, everyone in the room was in awe and exhausted. At the end of the day we all knew there was nothing more to say, nothing more to ask for. We packed up, and I took Sara to the airport to catch an early evening flight home. She pushed herself perhaps beyond reason to share her story, and she needed to be home with her family — all of us needed time alone to take in what we witnessed and to figure out how to turn into a story.
When I came back to work the next day it was clear we were still in a kind of shock. For me, there was a lot of anxiety about how to put the story together, how to select the audio respectfully and how to be fair and balanced to two people on very different sides of a story, who both let their guards down to expose their most vulnerable thoughts.
Earlonne: I met Sara Kruzan at a Transformative Justice Symposium hosted by Restore Justice and we elaborated on a plethora of things and experiences. Based on what she shared with me about herself, I told her that we would like to do a story on her, and in that same conversation I mentioned a guy that said he got 229 years for sex trafficking — and Sara was like, “I would like to talk to him.” I asked LA, who had the 229 years, if he’d like to participate in the story, and he was like, “Yes, I would love to.” So, Sara flew up, we did the interview, edited it, did the sound design, and prior to the story going out LA came to me like, “I talked to my lawyer and I can’t do the story.”
Hearing him say that really irritated me because of the countless hours we had put into that story. Mind you, we weren’t just starting this story — we were a week or two away from airing this story, and he hit us with a bombshell.
So I sat LA down and talked with him about the importance of the story, and about how this story may help someone get out of that life. Then I let him hear the story again, and he finally consented.
“Down Low” was an important story to do, and one I had to really advocate for. I spend a lot of time inside the prison and have the privilege of being involved in all kinds of conversations, most of which are varied in topic, expansive, elucidating and complex. There are few topics we cannot discuss in an open way.
But the one topic I found myself constantly knocking heads over was conversation around the LGBTQ community. I was frustrated by the attitudes and denials that such a community existed inside the walls of San Quentin. I knew it was going to be a hard story to tell because it required getting people outside their comfort zones to talk as honestly as they could about a topic that’s still taboo inside.
Lady Jae is a very public person inside and people know her story, while Mike Adams is a much quieter presence who had a lot to lose by speaking up. We were fortunate that they both stepped forward and volunteered to be our escorts into this conversation.
“Down Low” was another example of a difficult topic that didn’t always show people in their best light, but it was absolutely incumbent on us to explore how the LGBTQ community is treated, and mistreated, inside San Quentin.
Earlonne: “Down Low” was one of those stories that had to be told. For me, it was hard because of the power of the pronoun. Calling a person in a men’s prison a woman was something that took practice. If you don’t socialize with the transgender community on a regular basis, it’s hard to understand. But I’m growing and continuing to educate myself.
And then “Thick Glass” was interesting because I talked to both Derrick Holloway Sr. and Jr. about doing the story, and both were like, “I don’t know.” They were just learning about one another and didn’t quite have a relationship yet. I worked on them both for a couple of months and finally got big Derrick to come down to the media lab. Then I got little Derrick. And I shared notes with both of them, and finally we got them both together.
Season Two Changes
Earlonne and I started Ear Hustle without really knowing what we were doing — neither of us had produced a podcast before, so season one was a real challenge, since we had so much to learn. Producing season one was beyond difficult — I am a hard worker, but I had never worked that hard on anything before.
Earlonne and I hoped that everything we learned during season one would make season two so much easier. Well … that wasn’t really the case. Yes, we knew a bit more, but to be honest it hasn’t gotten substantially easier. Because doing anything well is hard, the challenge is to make the final “product” appear effortless. As long as Ear Hustle exists, Earlonne and I will work hard to produce engaging stories that sound like they just landed in our laps!
Earlonne: I don’t think the stories got any easier.
In season two we tackled some very hard topics and made a conscious decision to tell stories that didn’t always have completely likable characters. Our goal is to tell honest stories, and that means knowing our listeners trust us to get into messy territory that won’t always be uplifting.
Earlonne: We also wanted to add something to the flow of the show. So we added Count Time, which is tape that may not have fit in the story but we wanted the listeners to hear it anyway. I think that was cool.
Season two also saw a push with sound design as Pat Mesiti-Miller worked more with the sound design team, encouraging them to think more about the sounds of San Quentin as an important character in the story.
Earlonne: We started including music from more men inside, like David Jassy. The sound design sounded better for season two.
E and I have worked really hard on becoming better narrators, trying not to sound stilted when we have to narrate information to push the story forward.
Earlonne: I’m still working on how to sound natural when speaking. How to be my authentic self.
I have learned so much about putting a podcast together, and what has improved most for me are my writing skills — I didn’t know podcasting required so much writing. Working closely with our editor Curtis Fox has been invaluable.
Looking Ahead to Season Three
While Ear Hustle does have a particular storytelling style, we want to continue to grow and push ourselves. Next season, we plan to include more music, attempt a death row follow-up, include people of more races and ethnicities in our stories and, if I get my way, I want to produce one story that is completely non-narrative. Plus, we’re planning to add a way for listeners to leave us verbal kites, with all their burning show questions.
Earlonne: Since the listeners love to hear the songs from within these walls, we’re thinking of adding a song or spoken word piece in each episode. Also, we’re thinking about writing down eight places to go within San Quentin and in each episode, we’ll pick a number and just go to that location and talk about whatever is happening there. We’re still in the planning stages of what to actually add. But I’m sure whatever it is, it will be a great addition to the show.
Oh yeah, and I want to push the clock and make the episodes longer …
Earlonne: And I’m sure all of our listeners will be happy that the show will be extended by a few minutes.