by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
There is a unique comfort and intimacy that only radio can provide. Perhaps with the psychological overwhelm of so many new technologies, the auditory focus of radio remains elemental. Radio still provides us with information and commentary; a soundtrack of disembodied voices and scenes in our vehicles, a go-to source during emergencies when we shelter at home.
With the development of podcasts, listeners for the past decade have encountered the ageless intimacies of audio reportage in new, downloadable forms. This year, the Pulitzer Prizes recognized the recent, ten-year “renaissance” of online radio work in a new journalism prize category: “Audio Reporting.” The 2020 finalists honored by the Pulitzer Prizes offered groundbreaking, illuminating, auditory takes on that age-old human activity: crime. This month, Booked & Printed delves into the storytelling work of Pulitzer-nominated crime and mystery podcasts, where journalist-sleuths around the world are finding new ways of uncovering the truth within an age-old medium.
* * *
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had its famous moments of terrible violence, with Selma, Alabama as one of the period’s most pivotal settings. But few Americans might recall one infamous murder from that era. On a March evening in 1965, three white men attacked a white Unitarian minister, James Reeb, in Selma, while insulting him for supporting black Americans. Reeb fell in the street, then later died of the head injuries sustained in the attack.
Reeb was a minister in Boston, but he traveled to Alabama to heed Martin Luther King, Jr. The civil rights leader had called for men of the cloth to join the movement in Selma, where white authorities were stepping up their racist attacks against black citizens asserting their rights. King, Jr. provided the nation updates on Reeb’s condition, and when the pastor died, President Lyndon B. Johnson offered his condolences and transported Reeb’s family on a private plane.
But the machinations of a racist apparatus, months later, proved too powerful. After a half-hearted local investigation, a federal investigation, and a brief trial, the three assailants were acquitted in Selma by an all-white, male jury of their peers. Though the Department of Justice reinvestigated the case in 2008 and 2011, agents closed it. To this day, one has ever been held to account for Reeb’s murder.
Into this vacuum of justice steps White Lies, a podcast from National Public Radio. The hosts, Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley, are both sons of Alabama, and they return to Selma in 2018 to investigate Reeb’s murder. Over seven hour-long episodes, their podcast brings painstaking attention to the James Reeb case, taking us to the streets, scenes, characters, and unanswered questions that dog the case.
Listeners will be hard-pressed to walk away from the podcast after beginning it. From its first moments, we feel as if we are walking with Reeb and his companion ministers in the last minutes of his life. We feel the frustration and hope of Grace and Brantley as they pursue lost transcripts, audiotapes, witnesses, and perpetrators. And we’re chilled by the undying conspiracy theories that blame the Civil Rights movement for a murder committed by white supremacists.
As with the best of focused investigations, White Lies summons a universe from the seemingly small interactions of individuals. Grace and Brantley’s insights and discoveries remind us of the need for a national reckoning with the poison of racism, and the harm prejudice still enacts. In a moving gesture at the end of the podcast, Brantley and Grace reveal the crimes of their own Alabama families’ pasts, drawing a direct line between their ancestors’ sins and their own attempts at a reckoning. Their admissions are an antidote to the denial, obfuscation, and outright villainy that continues racist violence in the country. During our present time, when both-sides-ism can often threaten to drown out real ethics, White Lies refreshingly pinpoints the identities, and the responsibilities, of perpetrators to change their criminal injustices.
Despite the despair of its subject, White Lies leaves the listener with a note of hope: that we each have the power to face our pasts, and attempt to make the present more correct.
* * *
We often assume that when we identify perpetrators, put them through our justice system, and confine them in prisons, our work as a healthy society has functioned as it should. We imagine that the indignities, limitations, and punishments of prisons are working as designed: to give perpetrators their deserved discomfort. In 2017, visual artist Nigel Poor and San Quentin resident Earlonne Woods collaborated on Ear Hustle, the first-ever podcast made from within San Quentin State Prison, distributed through PRX and Radiotopia.
San Quentin is California’s oldest prison, currently operating at 122% capacity with nearly four thousand inmates in minimum and maximum security facilities on the premises. “Ear hustle” is prison slang for “eavesdropping,” and together, Woods and Poor bring listeners an up-close, intimate view of modern prison life. Poor, a white American visual artist and professor, has volunteered as educator at San Quentin since 2011; she plays the curious outsider who questions Woods and other prisoners about their lives before and during prison. In Ear Hustle, we learn about the essential act of letter-writing, with men reading letters they’ve received from their children as they grow. We hear the collective chants of Samoan prisoners, a raucous, moving nightly ritual to end the day. We learn the unwritten but fiercely enforced rules of race that divide the prison facilities, and the one clique of Dungeons and Dragons-playing nerds whose geekiness seems to supersede race. The texture of life in confinement comes to feel varied and vivid, a microcosm of human endurance and emotion.
The storytelling is by turns playful, conversational, shocking, and heartrending, with characters who become indelible in our memories. Rauch, a monkish artist who uses his toes to hold his pencils and paintbrushes, relates how he kept pets in prison; spiders, baby birds, rabbits. He explains the urge to “look out,” to nurture. Curtis, a skinny middle-aged man, describes the years of journals he kept for his long-estranged daughter, to prevent himself from suicidal despair, and his joy at seeing her first reply when she was a teenager. Woods is a gentle narrator with an easy sense of humor, explaining elements of life in prison and responding with his signature affirmation: “Indeed.”
Woods and Poor often repeat that they are not journalists, and often have few resources to fact check the stories prisoners tell them. Nonetheless, listeners hardened to believe in harsh laws as deterrents might find themselves, through Ear Hustle, moved to consider other possibilities. Rauch’s mother attempted to drown him as a child; he wanted to comfort her after her violence. He hid in the rafters of friends’ homes for shelter, succumbed to addiction, lived houseless, and murdered someone in a fight, leading to his life sentence. Curtis survived neglect and sexual abuse as a child, and coped with cocaine use; though he never committed violence, he was sentenced to life in prison for stealing forty dollars, under California’s infamous three-strikes law. Woods grew up surrounded by violence in Los Angeles, reacting with anger and theft as survival, and was sentenced to life in prison for being the getaway driver for an attempted robbery under that same three-strikes law. One wonders: If our society invested more funds into psychiatric help, refuges for children, accessible housing, and addiction treatment, would our prisons be so occupied? Ear Hustle’s storytelling forces us to consider hard questions about what redemption our society makes possible, and what investments we’re willing to make for the safety of all.
The podcast has had other concrete effects in the lives of its participants. Upon hearing Earlonne Woods’s work on Ear Hustle, Governor Jerry Brown commuted Woods’s sentence, reconsidering his future in light of his maturity and insights. In a country with the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world, Ear Hustle forces us to consider more humane ways we might protect and nurture each other, and the more nuanced stories we might tell about what it takes to keep a society secure.