Podcasting from Prison
Most days, Rauch sits cross-legged in the same spot on the prison yard, what’s known as “hippie row.” From there, he draws and paints, holding pencils not in use between his toes. With a wispy beard and dreadlocks, Rauch — pronounced “Roach” — has been described by prisoners as “Black Johnny Depp” and “the original Jesus.” But Rauch is also San Quentin’s unofficial veterinarian. He’s cared for injured finches, a paraplegic vole, and a black widow. He constructs habitats for them made of stacked Folgers cans and dirt in the corner of his cell. At least once, Rauch propped a tired bee on the back of his hand and fed it icing from a honey bun he bought at the canteen.
On a recent afternoon, in a concrete building inside the prison, three radio producers gathered around Rauch. One of them asked, “Rauch, have you ever cried when a critter died?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, counting on his fingers. “A gopher, a mouse. The last gopher that died, I put him in the trash because I couldn’t dig. But I wrapped him up real tight with tape, so I knew that nothing could get on him. It’s like having a loved one die.”
The producers were interviewing Rauch for a new podcast on prison life. “There is a Rauch in every prison,” one of them told me. Afterward, they’ll edit together clips of the interview. They’ll record narration and compose original music. And they’ll do all of this without internet or cellphones, from a media lab steps off the prison yard.
Two of the three producers, Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams, are serving decades inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The third producer, Nigel Poor, is a volunteer and a photography professor in Sacramento. A few years ago, none of them had experience making radio stories. Today, they are vying for a spot on one of the most popular podcast networks, Radiotopia — a conglomerate of 14 podcasts with more than 13 million downloads per month. In March of this year, when Radiotopia announced an open call for new shows, Earlonne, Antwan, and Nigel pitched theirs. Despite competition from 1,537 aspiring podcasters from 53 countries, they’ve made it to the final four.
In 1938, prisoners in Texas began broadcasting a variety show called Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. Each week, an estimated 5 million listeners tuned in to hear prison bands with names like the Cotton Pickers’ Glee Club and the Rhythmic Stringsters. The host would interview inmates and prison officials, revealing jarring glimpses into life inside. In one episode, a man spoke about playing the harmonica on death row. A fellow condemned man asked him to play a ragtime song, “Chicken Reel,” as he walked to the electric chair. “Said he wanted to go down with that tune ringing in his ears,” the harmonica player said on the broadcast. “When it was all over, I threw my harmonica in the corner, and both sides flew off. Now I never play ‘Chicken Reel.’”
A few years later, a similar program called San Quentin on the Air began out of the California facility. On Sunday evenings at 7 p.m., a 17-prisoner orchestra opened the show with the theme song “Time on My Hands.” The program was briefly suspended a few months later because too much of the talent had paroled home. When it returned, San Quentin on the Air was picked up by the Mutual Broadcasting System — a rival to NBC — and broadcast to 300 stations and U.S. troops abroad.
By the mid-1950s, Thirty Minutes was defunct and Mutual had dropped San Quentin on the Air. But radio remained the primary method for delivering messages and entertainment within San Quentin. Each cell had a radio headset, and three speakers lined death row. Every morning, a closed circuit carried news and PSAs from the warden. At night, the men could hear four hours of radio shows and music curated by prisoners.
Other prisons developed radio programs, too. Announcers at Sing Sing in New York broadcast play-by-plays of the carceral football games. In the mid-1980s, prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, set up what they said was the first licensed radio station inside a prison, and anyone in a 25-mile radius could hear KLSP, nicknamed “The Incarceration Station.” One DJ complained to the Associated Press in 1986 about meeting the demands of his audience: “These guys who got put in here in 1973 want to hear music from 1973,” he said. “If you got arrested in the early ’70s, that’s where you’re stuck musically.” While Angola’s radio program still exists, by the early ’80s, radio at San Quentin had been replaced by a closed-circuit television system, which broadcast educational videos and in-person events, among other things.
This was still true when Nigel began teaching a photography class in the prison in 2011. After class one day, Troy Williams, a student who was building a TV news program inside the media lab, approached her about collaborating on a documentary. Nigel agreed, but, before long, they grew frustrated with the limitations of filming inside prison. “The only visuals we had were really just a person talking,” Troy said. Together, he and Nigel landed on the obvious alternative: radio. The only problem was that neither of them knew anything about it.
Nigel reached out to a radio station in San Francisco, KALW, and then-news director Holly Kernan came into the prison with reporters to hold workshops on interviewing, recording, and writing for radio. Troy recruited a team of nearly a dozen men, including Earlonne and Antwan. While prison radio had previously focused on music and live interviews, Troy had his sights set on radio journalism: reporting on stories from inside the system. After a few months of pitching KALW, they got their first story accepted.
At 5 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon in the fall of 2013, the nightly news hour crackled through, and a woman announced: “Today, we’re launching the San Quentin Prison Report.” In the prison’s media lab, the room erupted into hollering and backslapping. Troy watched the mix of happiness and awe wash over the group as the voice of one their own — Tommy “Shakur” Ross — filled the room. “I think we all left prison for that moment,” Troy said.
In 2014, Troy paroled home, but the San Quentin Prison Report continued. In all, Nigel and the guys have produced 39 stories for KALW. They covered HIV inside. They profiled an inmate magician. They became their own foley artists: recording a man’s shuffling gait, an inmate splashing around in the sink, a guard’s jangling keys.
Over those years of reporting, Earlonne, Antwan, and Nigel realized that the stories that excited them most wouldn’t fit in a short news format. They wanted to focus less on the facts and more on little moments. Like how one man, while in solitary confinement, found a small hole in the door, and every day he’d stick his pinkie through it, hoping that somebody would touch him on the other side. When Nigel found out about the Radiotopia podcast competition, the three of them put together a promo and agreed on a name: Ear Hustle. “It means eavesdropping,” Nigel said. “It’s pretty much exactly what we’re doing.”
Radiotopia’s executive producer, Julie Shapiro, said she initially had reservations about a podcast made inside a prison. The media lab has no access to the internet, which stunts communication. The team can’t work the late nights its competitors can. On top of that, everything must go through a media gatekeeper, Lieutenant Sam Robinson, before leaving the prison. But when Radiotopia opened its decision process to a group of superfans, “Ear Hustle was far and away the runaway favorite,” said Julie.
One Wednesday morning in August, I drove to San Quentin and met Nigel at the East Gate. Nigel, a tall woman with straight hair streaked gray in front, goes in at least three times a week, but in the run-up to the podcast deadline, she’s been making the drive on the weekends, too. Earlonne and Antwan met us at the door to the media lab; they’d already been editing for an hour. At 28, Antwan is the most energetic of the group and the most stylish. He embroidered stripes into his state-issued oxford, which he buttons up to the neck. Earlonne, who turns 45 this year, wears his blue uniform loose, like an afterthought. He is quieter than Antwan and often edits his own voice out of a story. We bonded over which headphones we use and how annoying it is to record an interview with a fan whirring. A poster on the wall read: Don’t forget to get 30 seconds of room tone!
They told me about the stories they were working on. Earlonne talked about his fascination with the priest who works on death row. The priest told Earlonne that shaking a serial killer’s hand feels no different than any other handshake. But Earlonne was curious: Is there anyone the priest can’t pray for?
Nigel talked about a trans woman inside who makes cosmetics out of cooking oil and the pigment from magazine pages. The group plans to have her give Nigel a makeover on tape. There’s also a story about bartering inside: How many trades does it take to turn two ballpoint pens into a custom-drawn Mother’s Day card?
Working on these stories has changed how the producers view their surroundings. “I’m seeing stories everywhere,” Antwan said — in the visitation room, the chow hall, on the faces of correctional officers. Antwan learned years ago that prying into someone’s business in prison could get him into trouble. “I’m nosy now,” he said. “It’s like breaking a rule that you’ve been abiding by for ten years.” Their peers have started pitching them, too. “I’ve been getting a lot of offers like, ‘I got a story, too!’” Antwan said. “And I’m telling people, ‘It’s not that simple.’”
Sometimes the most interesting stories come from an outside perspective. Nigel gave me an example. At the end of their finalist interview with Radiotopia, Antwan asked Julie Shapiro: “What kinds of stories do you want to hear?” Julie thought for a moment and said, “What about pets in prison?” Antwan and Earlonne immediately thought of Rauch. “It doesn’t always occur to them that something is interesting because it’s their daily life,” Nigel said. “It’s one of the reasons the collaboration between inside and outside is so crucial.”
For years, Antwan and Earlonne had acted in plays with Rauch and taken classes with him. But in front of the microphone, the team asked him questions they would never ask on the yard. They learned he was severely abused as a kid and ran away from home. His birth name is Ronell Draper, but he calls himself Rauch because he used to sleep in the rafters of other people’s homes, up with the roaches. “Now I see why he’s so protective over a creature that might not be protected,” Antwan said. “Man, I know more about [him] now than I ever would have known.”
This month, along with the other three finalists, Ear Hustle will submit three pilot episodes — one on Rauch and pets in prison. Radiotopia will announce the winner by November. Whether or not it’s chosen, the group has gained the attention of public radio. Pat Mesiti-Miller, the sound engineer for WNYC Studio’s Snap Judgment, has been going in to train them. “In all my years doing this work, it’s rare to see that kind of passion for audio,” he said. The team is eager for an audience, even if it’s only their peers. The CDCR has confirmed that Ear Hustle will be distributed to every prison in the state. “Y’all ready to listen?” Antwan said. “’Cause we ready to talk.”