A piece of genuinely good news (remember those?) was dropped into Ear Hustle’s social media feeds yesterday: co-host Earlonne Woods, who has served 20 years of a 31 year-to-life sentence for attempted robbery, has had his sentence commuted and will be released from San Quentin State Prison in California next week. The podcast is mentioned in Governor Jerry Brown’s commutation of sentence letter as one of a number of activities that Woods has undertaken inside as part of his rehabilitation, as well as two citations from podcast producer colleagues. In its conclusion, the letter notes the fact that “through his podcast, [Woods] has shared meaningful stories from those inside prison” as one of the reasons that he is now considered to be ready for release.
A further update clarified that Woods’ release from San Quentin won’t mean the end of the podcast. “Rest 100% assured Ear Hustle will continue, with Nigel [Poor] working with guys on the inside, and E. contributing stories from the outside,” the release said. There will be more information about the new shape of the show soon, apparently, but I think it’s reasonable to expect that Woods’s release will change the character of the podcast and broaden its scope. Up until now, the show has been focused entirely on life inside prison, mostly choosing not to focus on the past histories of the inmates who appear on it. With a co-host out in the world, it can look at bigger issues of rehabilitation and adjustment beyond the prison walls.
In light of this news, I think it’s worth just taking a minute to reflect on what an extraordinary story Ear Hustle is. The show was one of 1,537 entries to Radiotopia’s Podquest contest in 2016, debuting its first season a year later in June 2017. Despite the fact that none of its three producers had any background in audio — Nigel Poor is a visual artist and photography professor who volunteers in the prison, while inmates Woods and Antwan Williams have picked up all their skills inside — it broke 1.5 million downloads in its first month. In 2017, it was also nominated for a Peabody award.
Woods actually transferred to San Quentin from another prison because it has a media lab, and he was interested in trying to make a film about life inside. Poor, a long time volunteer, recognised his storytelling ability, but steered him towards audio as she rightly identified that it would be easier (although still not easy) to get round prison red tape with just sound. Without podcasting as a means of distributing what they make, there’s no way it would have gained the international audience it has today — given that even Radiotopia only found the show through a contest, it’s hard to imagine an established radio broadcaster coming across it and signing it up. It had to be digital first, and it had to be unfiltered. A version of Ear Hustle does play on prison radio so that inmates can hear it, but it’s one of the most fundamentally podcast-native shows I know of.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the podcast was a big factor in helping Woods secure release. As the commutation letter describes, he’s clearly put in years of work on his rehabilitation, but Ear Hustle was the showcase for his new attitude to life. A big part of why I’ve always enjoyed listening to it is his gentle, good-humoured presence, coupled with his smart, incisive observations, and I’m sure it made a big impression on any prison officials who listened too. I can’t wait to hear what he makes once he leaves prison, and to see what direction the show takes now that it has to move on from its original premise.