SQ inmates’ victory lures the biggies of internet podcasting

By Rahsaan Thomas

The CEO of a major podcasting network, along with other executives, took an eventful trip from the East Coast to meet with the incarcerated men who defeated more than 1,500 entries from 53 countries in a storytelling contest.

PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman and Radiotopia Executive Producer Julie Shapiro entered San Quentin State Prison for the first time and met Earlonne Woods and Antwan “Banks” Williams. Previously, the executives had only met Nigel Poor, the co-host and producer of the show Ear Hustle. Poor represents the trio beyond the prison walls.

“It’s great to meet these guys in person after communicating through Nigel,” Shapiro said. “I’m so excited about the project. Ear Hustle is gonna be huge.”

Ear Hustle is scheduled to air on Radiotopia, an online radio network, in May. The executives believe it can break barriers.

“From a network point of view we want to attract more listeners,” Shapiro said. “And there’s a creative itch we are scratching, empowering these three to tell stories in the long form about life inside usually told by statistics. The impact it can have … It questions our own presumptions about who’s in prison. Who are the people behind the criminal? It helps us think about the inmates as people who have opinions and emotions.”

Shapiro said listeners’ response was overwhelmingly positive except for a little pushback about why a White woman’s voice was part of telling incarcerated men’s stories.

“They had such a crystal clear concept of why Nigel is crucial to creating that dialogue,” Shapiro said, referring to Woods and Williams.

“Her race doesn’t matter,” Woods said. “She’s a very talented woman.”

Williams added, “Regardless of what race you are — White, Black, Hispanic, Asian — if you’re a woman and you choose to come in here, you deserve all the respect you have coming.”

They agreed that Poor gives them a unique kind of credibility with the outside world, and working with her proves that incarcerated people and free people can work together as colleagues.

Shapiro said Ear Hustle stood out from the other 1,537 entries in the Radiotopia-hosted international contest for a spot on the PRX network.

“We had entries about everything under the sun. The Ear Hustle clip took us by our ears,” Shapiro said. “We were hearing from a world we have no access to. The artfulness of it let us know they were doing something brand-new.”

Woods added, “She had the audacity to give us a chance. She’s a down-to-earth person who is really thoughtful.”

Shapiro described the ordeal it took to reach San Quentin. She said her flight was delayed; her BART train hit a tree, and she jumped into an Uber with strangers in order to visit the prison’s media center and see where Ear Hustle will be created.

“I feel extremely privileged that they made the trip,” Williams said. “Their flight was probably longer than their time with us. People in the business world don’t have to fly to go visit some incarcerated people. I believe they did it because they see us as people.”

Radiotopia works with producers, handles the business and marketing end for podcasts while the ’casters concentrate on making great stories, Shapiro said.

Working with Radiotopia has exposed Woods and Williams to more colleagues in their field, such as Consulting Producer Curtis Fox (Fox Productions).

“I listen to all the work that they’ve done, and I’ve already helped rewrite the scripts,” Fox said. “They are largely self-taught, and they’ve done an amazing job. My role is to coach and bring them to a higher level.”

Ear Hustle’s intro piece can be heard at letsearhustle.com. Look for Ear Hustle in May or at http://www.Radiotopia.fm/

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