New Seven-Part Serial Investigation and Podcast Series “Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe” to Debut From “Reveal” and PRX on October 16

Hosted by Al Letson, the seven-part series will be available free as a podcast and will air on the radio across more than 540 public media stations

PRX
PRX
Oct 14 · 6 min read
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In a new serial investigation, journalist and host Al Letson and co-reporter Jonathan Jones investigate the death of Billey Joe Johnson, a 17-year-old Black student and top high school football recruit who reportedly died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound after being pulled over by a white police officer in Lucedale, Mississippi on December 8, 2008. Now, after years of reporting, Letson and Jones have unearthed troubling questions and a deeply flawed investigation by law enforcement.

This reporting forms the basis of a new seven-episode investigative audio series, “Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe,” from the award-winning podcast team at “Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, in partnership with public media organization PRX. Weaving between the case, the history of racial injustice in America, and the current reckoning around policing, “Mississippi Goddam” also examines how justice looks different for different people in America.

“Mississippi Goddam” debuts on Saturday, October 16 with new episodes weekly through early December. The audio series will be released via the “Reveal” podcast, available free on-demand across all major podcast platforms including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and Amazon Music. The series will also air on 544 radio stations nationwide, including WNYC in New York, KPCC in Los Angeles, WBEZ in Chicago, WHYY in Philadelphia, KERA in Dallas-Ft. Worth, KQED in San Francisco, and WAMU in Washington, DC.

“Reveal” is a home for the world’s best investigative reporting. Available online, via podcast, and on public radio, the show examines what governments, businesses, and communities are doing behind the scenes, hidden from public view. “Reveal” has produced over 200 episodes to date. “Reveal,” a three-time Peabody Award-winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, has won numerous awards including the Edward R. Murrow Award, Gerald Loeb Award, RFK Journalism Award, Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), National Headliner Awards, News & Documentary Emmy Awards, Overseas Press Club, Online Journalism Awards, Society of Professional Journalists, and more.

“We don’t know what happened to Billey Joe, and it’s not our job to find out. Our job is to ask the questions that investigators never did and to finally give the Johnson family something that they have been yearning for: to be heard,” said Al Letson, host of “Reveal” and “Mississippi Goddam.” “This story pulled me in immediately, because it reminded me of growing up as a Black kid in the south, where justice looks different for different people. It’s about the Mississippi that Nina Simone sang about, but also very much about America. So while our series is called ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ really it should be called ‘America Goddam.’”

Host and reporter Al Letson and co-reporter Jonathan Jones interviewing Johnson’s family (photo by Imani Khayyam)

More about “Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe”

17-year-old Billey Joe Johnson was one of the top high school football recruits in the country. On the morning of December 8, 2008, during a traffic stop with a white sheriff’s deputy, Johnson reportedly shot himself with his own shotgun. After an investigation, a grand jury ruled that his death was accidental. His family and a large segment of the community do not believe that Johnson killed himself and suspect that his death was the result of foul play.

In 2011, Al Letson traveled to Lucedale, Mississippi to report on the clean-up of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and learned about the suspicious death of a high school football star. He has worked to tell Billey Joe’s story since that time. In episode 1, Letson tells the story of the genesis of this reporting project. He meets with members of Billey Joe’s family and promises to investigate the investigation and the system of justice at play. The series introduces us to Billey Joe as well as to his relationship with his girlfriend.

As the series progresses, Letson and reporting partner Jonathan Jones retrace the morning of Billey Joe’s death, first using the police case files obtained by a family attorney, and then grand jury findings. They examine the attitudes about race and interracial relationships that prevailed in southern Mississippi and how Billey Joe’s relationship was perceived. And they explore Mississippi’s death investigation system, which was built on the tenets of white supremacy, the autopsy that was performed, the available evidence, and eyewitnesses. What they uncover is a deeply flawed death investigation, with law enforcement failing to follow leads, explore inconsistencies, corroborate witness accounts, or to complete crucial forensics tests. Throughout the series, “Reveal” also explores the unequal system of justice in the U.S.

Host and reporter Al Letson (illustration by Molly Mendoza)

Al Letson is an accomplished playwright, screenwriter, and journalist who has been awarded three Peabody awards and an Emmy. His theater work has appeared Off Broadway and on stages across the country, and he has worked on several TV projects with AMC and Hulu. Letson continues to write, develop, and tell new stories for both broadcast and live audiences.

Jonathan Jones has produced a series of award-winning investigations on topics ranging from eminent domain to problems in the fertility industry. He has covered conflict and human rights in 10 countries, including Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Jones has earned awards from the Emmys, Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Third Coast International Audio Festival.

“Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe” is produced by “Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

About “Reveal”

“Reveal” from The Center for Investigative Reporting engages and empowers the public through investigative journalism and groundbreaking storytelling that sparks action, improves lives and protects our democracy. Our public radio program and podcast reaches millions of people a week across more than 500 stations nationwide, our video team produces documentaries with the likes of Netflix and cable television channels, and we team up with partners across the country to distribute our long-form stories in digital and print. We are regularly recognized for our excellence, creativity and impact.

From prisons to protests, immigration to the environment, Peabody Award-winning “Reveal” goes deep into the pressing issues of our times. The Atlantic says “the experience of each episode is akin to a spoonful of sugar, even when it’s telling a story about Richard Spencer’s cotton farms or a man’s final days as a heroin addict.” “Reveal” is a project of The Center for Investigative Reporting and is co-produced with PRX. The show is hosted by Al Letson and partners with reporters and newsrooms around the world, including The Washington Post, ProPublica, APM, The Marshall Project, and The Investigative Fund.

About PRX

PRX is a public media organization shaping the future of audio by producing and distributing content, building technology, and training talented, independent producers. With an award-winning portfolio of iconic public radio programs such as ‘The World,” “This American Life,” “The Moth Radio Hour,” “Latino USA” “Snap Judgment,” and “Reveal,” PRX is also home to a growing body of podcast productions, including via the Radiotopia podcast network. More at PRX.org.

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PRX is a non-profit media company shaping the future of…

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PRX is a non-profit media company shaping the future of audio by producing and distributing content, building technology, and training talent.

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PRX brings significant stories to millions of people. We make The Moth Radio Hour, This American Life apps, PRX Remix story stream, Radiotopia, and much more.

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PRX is a non-profit media company shaping the future of audio by producing and distributing content, building technology, and training talent.