Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle Moves to the Outside, But We're Still Listening In
In its fourth season, the podcast is evolving alongside its cohosts.
In 2017, an idea began to take shape for a podcast with a unique premise: telling the stories of life in prison from inside prison. The concept for Ear Hustle was seeded by Nigel Poor, a San Francisco Bay Area-based visual artist who had been working at California's San Quentin State Prison as a volunteer teacher for the Prison University Project since 2011. Earlonne Woods, who was serving a sentence of 31 years to life for attempted armed robbery, was one of the participants; given the length of his term, his insider perspective seemed like a strong foundation.
“Initially, our idea was to do a podcast just for San Quentin,” says Woods. But when Poor brought in a brochure advertising Radiotopia’s Podquest—a contest to develop a new podcast series—and the prison administration greenlit their request to compete, the duo set their sights on reaching an even broader audience. Poor and Woods, as cohosts, along with co-creator Antwan Williams, another San Quentin inmate, did just that, beating out 1,537 other entries in a multistep piloting process to win the competition.
A story worth telling
Ear Hustle's debut season was unlike any other podcast that had been broadcast before—the first and only podcast made entirely from inside a prison. That access allowed it to give listeners a unique perspective that was a departure from representations of prison in other forms of media. “I think what makes Ear Hustle stand out is that we’re not following the prescribed path of what people expect to come out of prison,” Poor says. “The goal was to really concentrate on the small, everyday details and to do something really radical, which was to tell stories from inside prison that aren’t just about crime and punishment and the overused idea of redemption, but to actually talk about life inside in all its complexities and varied emotions.”
For Woods, even as the scope of their audience shifted, the vision for Ear Hustle remained the same. “I think our original concept of doing these stories was to bring stories that are hidden inside of prison out,” Woods says. “To allow individuals to tell their own stories, and we were just simply there to escort these stories through and humanize a population that people don’t hear about or know about.”
Any podcast can suffer hiccups along its production timeline, but the challenges the Ear Hustle team faced were especially unpredictable. Aside from the more run-of-the-mill technological issues—no internet inside the prison, and limited access to phones and printers were among some of the constraints—day-to-day life at San Quentin involved significant obstacles. “We work at the whim of the prison,” Poor notes.
Lockdowns can drag on for days, and one in particular lasted three weeks, grinding production to a standstill and shutting down communication between the cohosts. “We couldn’t talk to each other at all,” Poor says. “We just had to trust that I was getting done what I could get done on the outside and that Earlonne was getting done what he could get done inside the prison. So it’s a lot of trust and being patient, not losing your temper, and realizing that we’ll work as hard as we can to get it done, but sometimes things happen that are completely unforeseen.”
Adapting to great news
As Ear Hustle was wrapping its third season in November 2018, the cohosts received an extremely unforeseen piece of news: California Governor Jerry Brown was commuting Woods’ sentence; after 21 years, he was being released. Woods was immediately hired by PRX as a full-time producer for Ear Hustle, which found itself with two hosts on the outside as it set out to plan a fourth season.
The loss of a founding cohost that was able to seek out and tell stories from within San Quentin might have seemed devastating, but Poor and Woods adapted quickly. In Season 4, which is currently airing, Woods’ release has allowed Ear Hustle to broaden its focus to explore stories of life post-incarceration, a topic Woods and Poor immediately knew they wanted to cover. “We definitely went in with the idea of merging the stories inside and out, and I think, so far, it’s been going great,” Woods says. They've explored topics like jobs and dating post-incarceration, and they've also been able to include more women’s stories, a constraint that was tricky to navigate in prior seasons given the all-male population of San Quentin.
But constraints like that were also an essential part of the original show—and Poor notes that they had a sort of positive impact. “One of the things that I think is challenging is now that Earlonne’s out and we can tell any kind of story we want, how do we keep it intimate, how do we keep the creativity at the same level?” she says. “To me, in some ways, having more options makes it more difficult. You know, there was something really special about doing everything inside the prison.”
And so, having someone on the inside remains a key component of the podcast. That meant adding a third cohost to serve as Poor and Woods’ ears on the ground. They held a formal job search at San Quentin for the role, described as a three-tiered application process, and ultimately chose Rahsaan “New York” Thomas to report for Ear Hustle from within the prison. “I couldn’t do the show out here as if I was in there, so naturally it was only right that we put someone in place that’s still serving time,” says Woods. “I like New York—you know, that’s my partner. I enjoy hearing him.”
Poor agrees. “New York is doing really well. It’s great working with him,” she says. But the change is somewhat bittersweet. “Earlonne and I have a long history together, and we created the show together, so I think when we’re hosting, you can hear the longer relationship between us. I miss Earlonne. I’m glad he’s out, of course, and we get to work together on the outside, but you know, change is good.”