Why be a voice for the “voiceless” when you can just pass the mic?
That’s exactly what Radiotopia podcast Ear Hustle is doing for the incarcerated population.
Written, produced, and co-hosted by Nigel Poor (visual artist) and Earlonne Woods (currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison), along with fellow inmate Antwan Williams, Ear Hustle features inmates sharing their stories of life inside prison. An honest exploration of the full humanity of incarcerated individuals, Ear Hustle resonated with the Internet community and beyond—landing the project the 2018 Webby Award for Documentary in Podcasts & Digital Audio.
We chatted with Woods and Poor about the collaboration, what the podcast means to them, and much more.
What inspired you all to start Ear Hustle?
Earlonne: I was inspired by Nigel who introduced me to the podcast Snap Judgment. She always planted the seed that we should do longer-form storytelling to air within the prison and hopefully one day beyond the prison. That’s how it all got started.
Nigel: In 2011, I became a volunteer professor at the Prison University Project, which is a program at San Quentin State Prison where men can earn an AA degree. While teaching I was so inspired by the conversations we had that I became determined to find a way to work on a collaborative project with the men inside. In 2012, I started a radio project with some of the men I had met while teaching, but eventually found myself wanting to do something more artistic and less journalistic. I met Earlonne while working on the radio stories, started talking about the possibility of what we could do, and together we hatched the idea for a podcast.
What has been the most surprising thing you’ve encountered while making Ear Hustle?
Earlonne: Winning Radiotopia’s Podquest was very surprising for me. It validated that the incarcerated population has a voice worthy of being heard. Subsequently the positive responses from our dedicated listeners and the 13 million downloads thus far.
Nigel: The entire endeavor has been a surprise—Earlonne and I really had no idea what we were doing. Neither of us had made a podcast before; in fact E. didn’t know what a podcast was, so the first surprise was that we were actually able to do it! What continually surprises me is the response from listeners. The number of letters, emails, and social media responses we get is incredible and it tells me that people in general are interested in having their assumptions challenged and want to hear new perspectives.
Season 1 Episode 1: Cellies
What do you hope people both inside and outside the prison system take away from the podcast?
Earlonne: From reading comments/postcards that Nigel brings in and the letters I personally get, to talking to the tours that Lt. Robinson escorts through the prison, it seems the takeaway is clear—people that may have once thought incarcerated people were either another species, a monster, or nonhuman realized through Ear Hustle stories that we are just regular people that made bad decisions in our lives.
Nigel: I hope people take away the fact that people on the inside and outside have so many commonalities and that when we make the decision to ask each other questions and listen carefully everyone involved learns and grows.
What does your Webby win mean to you, your team, and those whose stories you’ve told?
Earlonne: Winning the Webby Award to me means that we have some of the best dedicated listeners that love what we do so much they want to see us get all of the accolades and recognition for our work. You gotta love the Ear Hustlers!
Nigel: For me, Ear Hustle winning the Webby was huge and exciting. Being able to share the news with, not only the team inside, but with those who have been in the stories was a thrill because it is tangible proof that the world outside cares and that those inside have not just been thrown away. Though the current political climate tries to make us feel otherwise, winning this shows me that the world is still filled with love, compassion, and the desire to connect with those who on the surface may seem very different from ourselves.