Behind-the-Scenes with Nigel Poor, Antwan Williams and Earlonne Woods

How did you get to know one another and come together to create Ear Hustle?

Nigel: I met Antwan & Earlonne in 2012 when I started working on a radio project inside San Quentin called the San Quentin Prison Report. Antwan and Earlonne worked on and off on the project and from that experience we realized that we would make a good team. We enjoyed working on radio but we wanted to do something that was creative in a different way, something that would allow us to do longer stories, more first-person narratives that included music and sound design.

What kind of storytelling do you hope to accomplish through Ear Hustle, and for whom?

Earlonne: I would like to tell stories that are entertaining and just unexpected. As to the audience, I would love for people to just give us a chance. I’m from the Hip Hop era so I would love to introduce a lot of people to the world of podcasts. I would also like a world wide audience. As to what I hope to accomplish with Ear Hustle , maybe just to open a dialogue on incarceration in America.

Antwan: And our audience is those who are directly affected by mass incarceration, so that is 2.4 million people.

Nigel: Our stories concentrate on the everyday experience of people inside - we are looking at complex issues through the smaller details of life. Stories we are working on: having pets in prison, celebrating special occasions, family visits, race relations, cooking, the relationship between correctional officers and incarcerated men, ministering on death row, how does being in prison affect memory.

We hope that our audience is varied but that it will include incarcerated people and their families, formerly incarcerated, people interested in criminal justice issue, and everyone who is interested in stories about the complexity of being human. We also hope that people interested in true crime stories will tune in, and that we can offer them a more nuanced view of those involved in the criminal justice system.

What are the extra challenges you face producing a podcast in prison?

Nigel: There are incredible challenges to doing this project: prison is a very unpredictable place. When there are lockdowns, for example, the men are confined to their housing units and we’re not able to work. Everything inside prison takes time, there are all sorts of protocols that need to be followed. The administration’s first objective is keep the prison safe so our needs and deadlines are not a priority. If you cannot be patient, persistent and polite you will not make it far as an outsider trying to work within the prison system.

Once I leave the prison I have no contact with Antwan and Earlonne, we cannot talk on the phone, use email or the internet - all our work must be done face to face. Also, once I am inside I have no contact with the outside world, so if we need information that is not available inside the prison I am cut off from that until I leave.

Antwan: We have major deadlines because Public Information Officer Lt Sam Robinson has to clear all the stories we create. We have to get them to him ahead of schedule so can make sure that all stories never threaten the safety and security of any of the inmates, staff or the institution.

Is there concern that something that happens on the podcast could lead to issues (fights etc) in prison?

Antwan: We make sure that all of our stories are honest and truthful not packed filled with drama, that can cause issues. We want to open people’s eyes to the truth about prisons. You can find the propaganda elsewhere.

There’s a lighthearted feel to the first episode, and quite a bit of laughter… San Quentin feels like home, in some ways not that different from life on the outside. Is this a feeling we’ll hear throughout the series or is it particular to this first episode?

Earlonne: As to the lighthearted aspect of prison, San Quentin is a community of incarcerated individuals committed to changing their lives. I can’t say that all of the stories will have the same lighthearted feeling as the first episode but when those moments occur we will highlight them.

Antwan: I didn’t think that we have one form of storytelling we want to accomplish because prison is filled with so many different kinds of people and each story is unique - some stories are profound and compelling, some are so funny they don’t seem true. There will be stories that will be sad, insightful, a tad political and hopeful. We want to make sure that the listeners get a chance to see prison for what it really is and not for what a lot of the media portrays it to be.

Nigel: One of the things I came to realize after spending time in prison is that everything that happens on the outside, happens on the inside. I used to think that everything inside prisons would be dark and depressing and that everyone inside would be scary and angry and of course that is a very one-dimensional view of life inside. We experience all kinds of emotions when we work, situations and stories can be happy, joyous, upsetting, depressing, frustrating and all those emotions will be presented in the various stories. We wanted to start with a lighter tone, but of course in the story there are also very serious moments, as the story touches on violence and race relations as well as camaraderie, family and affection.

Why did you start with the Cellies story?

Earlonne: We started with Cellies because we felt that people probably can’t relate to prison but they can definitely relate to a roommate, especially a roommate from hell. Prisons in California is doubled celled and most of the time you don’t have a choice of who you move in with. It could be a complete strangers convicted of god knows what or as in Cellies it could be your brother.

In this episode we don’t hear about the prisoners’ crimes… or maybe the tough life stories that preceded their prison terms. Is that intentional, will that change in upcoming episodes?

Nigel: We want to have an emotional arc to the season so there will be some very heavy stories coming up. We are telling stories that take place inside prison which of course means post crime and conviction. But we do always mention what the subject’s crime is and we will be doing a few stories that center on a specific person’s crime and how they got to prison.

But we are not a “true crime” podcast though obviously crime is part of the underpinning of our stories. It is a delicate balance, we are not hiding why people came to prison but we want to explore what happens in life after you come to prison.

For me a big part of wanting to do this project is to mirror the possibility that incarcerated and non-incarcerated people can work together as equal and professional colleagues. Earlonne, Antwan and I have an excellent working relationship - we get along well, respect each other’s abilities and creative input and push each other to be better- and I think that contributes to the “warm feeling”.

Also, we are all deeply involved in what we are doing. The creative, intellectual and aesthetic challenges are considerable and I believe when the mind is challenged in such a way, you cannot help but feel joy because you are working at your fullest potential and stretching your perception of self. We feel like we are doing good and important work and that is exhilarating.