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Eavesdropping in San Quentin: Ear Hustle kicks off Season 3
The first thing that drew me to Ear Hustle, a Radiotopia podcast that has just begun its third season, was the title. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not the latest viral dance craze, it’s prison lingo for eavesdropping. Based out of San Quentin State Prison in California, co-hosts Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods (with help from sound designers Antwan Woods, David Jassy and Pat Mesiti-Miller) explore everyday life on the inside, and it’s not what you might expect.
Though there is the occasional story of violence, the main focus is how the inmates have built lives for themselves in this strange world that is both so like normal life (dating, enduring family drama, buying groceries) and so different. Each episode focuses on a different topic, ranging from light-hearted (meeting a dread-locked inmate called Rauch, who keeps unique pets in his cell) to heart-wrenching. In an episode centred on family, we meet a man who practiced hugging himself alone in his cell in anticipation of his mother’s first visit in over a decade; he hadn’t touched another person in thirteen years and he was afraid he’d forgotten how.
The podcast does an excellent job of transforming the listener into a fly on the wall in America’s most infamous prison, showing the inner reaches of prison life without all the in-your-face Hollywood hype we see in films and television shows. The storytelling is excellent as well; it’s impossible not to empathize with the real human beings living there – even the ones who are there for terrible reasons.
Co-hosts Earlonne and Nigel make an unlikely and charming team and clearly have formed a real friendship in spite of their starkly different backgrounds. Nigel is an enthusiastic and giggly visual artist and prison volunteer who is able to go home to her partner when the microphones are turned off. Earlonne, an inmate serving thirty-one years to life for attempted robbery, is easy-going and quick-witted. Unlike Nigel, however, he is unable to leave at the end of the recording sessions in the prison’s media room. In their conversations, listeners can hear a genuine affection between the two that brings to mind a bear playing gently with a tiny kitten.
Each episode ends with another reminder of what makes life for Earlonne different from that of your average podcaster: a short speech by the show’s behind-the-scenes third host, Lieutenant Sam Robinson, who must approve the content of each episode before it can make its way to our earphones.
If you’re looking for a fascinating podcast with short, easy-listening episodes (most are around the half-hour mark, and seem even quicker) and great storytelling, I would highly recommend Ear Hustle. If you also like music, you’re really in for a treat, as several episodes feature original (and impressive) tunes from the inmates themselves.
Season 3 has just kicked off, so your commute home today is the perfect excuse to start listening! It’s not necessary to listen to Seasons 1 and 2 first, but once you get started with Ear Hustle, you’ll surely want to go back and check them out.