I must admit, the things I’m most afraid of are the things that fascinate me the most. That list includes, but is not limited to things like bees, aliens, and prison. I’m confirmed not allergic to bees, and aliens are probably a statistical anomaly I don’t have to concern myself with too much. While I feel like my life choices lend themselves to finding myself in prison to be unlikely, you never know what the fates hold in store for you on any given day. I would imagine plenty of incarcerated Americans never envisioned themselves behind bars. On a personal level, it’s that fear that sparks an intrigue in the US prison system. It’s why I love movies like Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile, why I watch docs like 60 Days In, and Lock Up late night on MSNBC, and why scripted dramas like Prison Break grab my attention, for the first season anyway.
Needless to say I was super jazzed when I heard about a new podcast called Ear Hustle produced by Radiotopia. If you’re a podcast enthusiast, then you’ve at least heard of other Radiotopia productions. More popular Radiotopia shows include: The Truth, 99% Invisible, The West Wing Weekly, and Criminal. All high-quality products. Ok, the concept behind Ear Hustle is that it’s a podcast produced by the inmates of San Quentin State Prison. I fired up the first episode really excited to get a “behind the veil” take of prison directly from the inmates themselves. Right off the bat we get the prison speak definition of ear hustle. Ear hustling is listening in on other peoples’ conversations. Yes! This is going to be raw and unfiltered, and we are going to hear about stuff that isn’t regurgitated and sanitized by the mass media.
Let me preface my critique of Ear Hustle with a couple of points. First and foremost, I let my enthusiasm of a concept cloud my rational thought. In what world would convicted felons be allowed to broadcast whatever they want though iTunes? Secondly, I’m sure this podcast’s existence is widely known amongst the inmates, therefore any real intrigue of current situations would probably be self-censored for the inmates’ own safety.
Ok let’s hit it. As of this writing we have four episodes available so this is by far the “newest” podcast I’ve reviewed, and traditionally podcasts get better over time. Here’s my first issue with the podcast. Some of the topics they choose to discuss are super predictable. Two of the four episodes are about cellmates and the SHU. It doesn’t get any more stereotypical prison than that. What makes it even more frustrating is that the other two episodes “Looking Out” and “Misguided Loyalty” are very interesting takes on time spent in incarceration. Both tales show a truly human experience, the first about coping with imprisonment and the need to care for someone or something. The other is about how one inmate got involved in gangs and a series of choices led to not only his conviction of a crime but a yoke of guilt that he will never shed.
My next issue is the hosts. Earlonne Woods is an inmate, and Nigel Poor, an artist living in the Bay Area, paint a verbal picture that lacks a spontaneity that lives in normal conversations. I’ll put it this way. I’m never going to like a podcast that sounds like the hosts are reading, because, guess what? They are.
My final point of contention is that every episode is approved by the prison’s communications officer. Yeah, upon hearing this, it makes total sense, but I don’t like how it’s dropped at the end of the episode. It makes me feel that everything I just listened to is PR or spun to caste the prison system as a whole in a positive light. It also makes me yearn for a pod to let these guys loose on whatever topics or ideas they truly want to express.
Episodes are pretty consistently between 25 and 30 minutes so they’ll fit in almost any commute.
Ear Hustle isn’t worthy of your buds just yet, but I’m really hoping this is a podcast that needs to find it’s groove in telling the personal stories of inmates because this can be a beautiful and haunting podcast that can stay with you hours after you’ve stopped listening.