BEHIND THE SCENES with Ann Heppermann and Kara Oehler

With such a variety of jobs in the underground economy, how did you choose the ones to profile? What influenced your decisions

Ann Heppermann: From the get-go, we decided not to focus the documentary on the conventional "down and out" stories usually associated with the underground economy. We didn't want to highlight only the illegal activities people already think about when they hear the words underground economy -- drugs, guns, prostitution, etc. Those activities are fraught with value judgments and make it easier for listeners to distance themselves from the people involved. So we focused primarily on people doing something we all might do if we were strapped for cash -- finding innovative ways to make a few bucks, whether that's cutting hair out of the home, using cars as cabs or selling a little candy to pay for a daughter's graduation

Kara Oehler: At the same time, we were looking for people who could tell a good story. We interviewed more than 40 people for this documentary. This was by far the most difficult piece we've ever worked in regards to finding sources. Interviewees only showed up about half the time. Trust was a big issue. A few people didn't have telephones, so we just showed up and took a chance. Those with phones sometimes wouldn't pick up when they saw my number on caller ID. And honestly, I don't blame them. What did anyone stand to gain by talking to us about the illegal ways they earned cash? I would try them using my Arizona number -- no answer. Then I'd call using a Chicago phone and get the person right away. And then some stories just kind of fell into our laps. In the end, we tried to pick the most surprising stories, ones that challenged the typical criminalized view of untaxed money

How did you meet the women working as prostitutes and how did you gain their trust

AH: This is going to be more Kara's territory than mine, since she did almost all of the legwork and recording on this section. We met Gypsy and Cat through the Chicago Recovery Alliance needle exchange program ( The program sets up shop every day in different locations throughout Chicago. It distributes needles and does other work to help stop the spread of HIV and other diseases through intravenous drug use. While there, we came across a sociologist who does harm reduction research

KO: Dr. Greg Scott of DePaul University was instrumental in providing contacts and research for our documentary. He works with, films, and surveys drug users in order to document their habits and encourage immunization for those at risk of contracting hepatitis-B virus. He had built a lot of trust with Gypsy and Cat, and through him we were able to gain access. (He even conducted and recorded a few interviews for us.

Greg and his assistant Victoria Stob took me to Cat's motel one night following a needle exchange. Greg was filming and the rest of us ended up playing dice and chatting late into the evening. After that, I started stopping by the motel every time I was in the neighborhood. I hung out with Cat at the motel four or five times before actually conducting the interview. I don't know if the trust was ever truly there on her part. Cat doesn't trust many people. But I learned enough about Cat to know that if she didn't like me, I wouldn't have been welcome there. Gypsy and I met only once before the interview. I kept taking the wireless off, thinking the interview was over, and then putting it back on again as she told story after haunting story. We used a wireless mic, and both interviews ended up being more like long conversations. Cat loved talking about her hustles, and I think Gypsy just wanted to tell her story

Floyd, the cigarette hustler, takes us on an odyssey through underground Chicago. Where did you meet him, and why did you choose him to narrate the program

KO: Dr. Greg Scott also introduced us to Floyd. When we first met Floyd, he took us on a tour of his route. We interviewed him in the car with our trusty Shure 58 microphone. Floyd teased us relentlessly: "Put that damn thing away! No one will ever trust me again!" After that first meeting, we always recorded Floyd using a wireless. I drove around with him four more times after that. He hid the wireless box in his inner jacket pocket and buttoned the wire under his shirt. Floyd was a natural guide and insightful about what he was doing. He was also very charming

AH: At one point, I can't remember exactly where it was, it hit me that Floyd should be our narrator. Initially we thought we would be able to use the tape we already had of Floyd without constructing a script. But it didn't work out, so we worked with Floyd to create a narration that was natural. Plus, he's an incredible speaker. We were really lucky and fortunate to be working with him

KO: By the way, we came to this conclusion one week before the documentary was due. I hopped in my car and drove to Chicago. Ann, Floyd, and I worked on the script, and then we recorded him via ISDN from Chicago to New York so Ann could start mixing immediately

Why do you keep a low profile throughout Chicago Hustles , showing up very briefly just two times in the documentary

AH: That's kind of a funny question for the both of us. This is the first time we've ever made an appearance in any of our collaborative works. It felt a little revealing to have our voices in the piece. The big influence on the decision was Jad Abumrad, our editor from WNYC's Radio Lab . We had heard some of Radio Lab 's pieces where the show gave listeners a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes in making radio. At the same time, we felt we were reminding people about our role in the making of this documentary. Reminding them that what they were listening to is not organic but created

KO: We both thought we might have showed up too much. Jad really pushed us on that one, and we ended up liking it. The scene with Mark, who works at the car wash, was a nice exchange between him and his fellow workers and showed the camaraderie of the guys. At the same time, it showed that as producers, Ann and I had some explaining to do when interviewing people. We certainly weren't blindly trusted

My voice was used as a transition. It didn't seem appropriate for Floyd to be asking Cenabeth what money meant to her, but we loved her answer and wanted to include it. The only way was to use my voice

The rapid-fire editing of dialogue in the doc feels almost David Mamet-esque, moving the documentary along in a quick and intriguing fashion. What was the feel you were looking for and how did it fit the subject of the documentary

AH: We felt that one of the most important aspects of this documentary was to convey the magnitude of the underground economy. There are millions of dollars passing through Chicago under the radar screen. However, although all of the experts we spoke with (economists, sociologists, etc.) agreed that the underground economy existed and is sizeable, they were very hesitant to provide any hard and fast numbers. So what did we know? That it's big, it's significant and it's going on all over Chicago. Therefore, we wanted to include as many voices as we could in our piece

KO: So we included a variety of stories and we went through them quickly. The underground economy is complex and fast-paced, and we wanted the sound to be layered and reflect that complexity. Floyd was a large part of that. Not only was he the narrator, but he was an educator, and the tour guide. He was a fast, smooth talker who interacted with at least 100 people a day. We recorded Floyd using three different mics, which gave him a feeling of movement. I think he carried us through the piece in a way that matched his personality

When you started working on this story did you expect to find people living a bleaker existence than what you discovered (the prostitutes' stories aside)

AH: Our very first conversation with Julia McEvoy, executive director of the Chicago Matters series, addressed this issue. The three of us all agreed that just because people are living on the financial margins does not mean their lives are bleak. That's not to say that life in the underground economy isn't hard. It's really hard. There are real reasons behind why people have to come up with innovative ways to try and make ends meet. Some of those ways can be a bit surprising. So we sought out the person who sold the candy out of her apartment, the guy who used his car as a cab, the person who cuts hair for her neighbors. We'd also like to give credit where credit is due. Julia came up with the idea to try and find someone who sold non-narcotic pharmaceuticals to his neighbors. When we came across John, we couldn't believe we actually found him

KO: I also think the reason most characters didn't seem to lead a "bleak" existence was because we didn't include their personal histories in the piece. We don't think bleak is exactly the right word, but it's not as though people start selling pharmaceuticals or candy because it's a fun way to operate. Everyone has a reason why they earn money in the underground economy. A lot of our characters have a history of addiction. Most people grew up in poverty. Cenabeth has a college degree, but staying in her community, near her family, still warrants cutting hair once or twice a month. That doesn't mean life is bad or bleak, but it's hard to find enough money to get by. I think most people are mimicking what they have grown up seeing people around them do for cash. Floyd is hustling because he's been selling things his whole life—and also because he doesn't have much to put on a resume in order to get a legitimate job

AH: When I interviewed our one academic expert who made it into the piece, Columbia sociologist Dr. Sudhir Venkatesh, he talked about the larger social, political, and historical reasons behind Chicago's underground economy. As producers, we chose not to address these issues in a direct way. The closest we got was when Sudhir talked about the relationship between accumulating money in the legitimate economy versus making money in the underground economy. You can make money but you'll never get wealthy in the underground economy. Life is hard. But is it bleak? We don't know. I mean people are struggling, but they're also coming up with innovative ways to put food on the table and at the same time are creating a community where people can really count on their neighbors. Kara and I will probably continue to talk about this issue for a long time after this interview

Were you ever worried that by doing this documentary, the people you interviewed might get in trouble with the law? Did you feel protective of them

AH: Yes and yes. We were very sensitive to the fact that people were not always keen on talking with us. What did they have to gain by being a part of our documentary? Nothing but the possibility of a whole lotta trouble. Because we wanted to protect them and their livelihoods, we never pressured anyone to provide us with their real names. About half of the people, including Floyd our narrator, used a fake name. We were also very sensitive in our editing about giving away people's locations who wanted to maintain their anonymity

KO: As Ann will tell you, I was about to lose my mind right before the doc aired. I kept asking her, "Do you think they'll be able to find the motel? Will the police know where to look for Cat and Gypsy?" We both worried John and his pharmacist might somehow get busted. He had a lot to lose and we fall into the camp of thinking John is helping people. But as Ann said before, John isn't John's real name, nor is Floyd's, nor is Cat's or Gypsy's, so in the end, they were protected. In the interviews, Gypsy and Cat told us the name of the motel where they were living. We edited it out. There were other times where we took out information that might place people in jeopardy. Yes, we felt protective of the people we interviewed. To various degrees, everyone took a risk in speaking with us for this documentary and we're so grateful to them for their honesty and their trust.