Earlonne Woods, the co-creator, co-producer, and co-host of the Pulitzer Prize–finalist podcast Ear Hustle, will be Berkeley Journalism’s Class of 2020 commencement speaker.
Woods’ voice first reached listeners’ ears in 2017, when Ear Hustle debuted. Along with co-creators Nigel Poor and Antwan Williams, Woods’ podcast tells the stories of life in prison and after incarceration.
“As journalists, I think it’s essential that we think seriously about who is allowed to tell their own stories,” said Mickey Capper (’20), a multimedia journalist and audio producer who spearheaded the commencement-speaker search. “So much criminal justice reporting is done by outsiders, and treats incarcerated people as faceless statistics, or two-dimensional victims or villains.”
Earlier this month, Woods — along with Poor, an artist and San Quentin State Prison volunteer, and Rahsaan Thomas, an incarcerated journalist — were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prizes’ inaugural Audio Reporting category. The Pulitzer Prize board called Ear Hustle “a consistently surprising and beautifully crafted series on life behind bars produced by inmates of San Quentin State Prison.”
“Earlonne brings so much joy and heart to Ear Hustle, which I think helps ground the show’s stories in the humanity of the people incarcerated in San Quentin,” Capper said. “I couldn’t be more proud to have Earlonne Woods as our commencement speaker and look forward to hearing his speech on Saturday.”
Woods, a Los Angeles native, was sentenced to 31-years-to-life behind bars in 1997 for attempted armed robbery under a three-strikes law. In 2016, Ear Hustle — prison slang for eavesdropping — beat out over 1,500 entries in podcast network Radiotopia’s call for new programs, and Woods, Poor, and Williams began producing episodes from within San Quentin. In 2018, then–California Gov. Jerry Brown commuted Woods’ sentence, writing, “He has set a positive example for his peers and, through his podcast, has shared meaningful stories from those inside prison.” Woods was quickly hired by Public Radio Exchange as a full-time producer.
“Earlonne’s accomplishments speak to his remarkable success as a powerful and imaginative voice, and to the entrepreneurial vigor of the media in defiance of an unforgiving business environment,” said Edward Wasserman, dean of the J-School. “It’s an honor to welcome him to our commencement.”
Ear Hustle, available wherever folks listen to their podcasts, has now run more than 40 episodes over five seasons and has won a number of awards, including last year’s Webby Award for documentary podcast and last year’s iHeartRadio Podcast Award for Best Social Impact. “Combine the comedic rapport of Orange is the New Black with the investigative journalism of Louis Theroux’s Miami Mega Jail, and you’re halfway towards Ear Hustle,” wrote Vanity Fair. “This podcast gives an unparalleled insight into the most human aspects of incarceration.”
After accepting his role as speaker, Woods was honored by UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ “with heartfelt admiration for his work to improve himself and the community at large, set a positive example for his peers, and share meaningful stories from those who are incarcerated.” In shedding “unprecedented light on the lives and struggles” of San Quentin’s inmates, Christ wrote in her Chancellor’s Citation, Woods has put “a human face on the consequences of three decades of increased mass incarceration in California.
“The university commends Earlonne for spotlighting the complex and nuanced humanity of life at San Quentin, and for embracing the potential, and powerful impact, of inspiring storytelling,” Christ said.
Woods is the latest in a line of impact journalists to address Berkeley Journalism graduates. Michael Barbaro, host of The New York Times’ industry-leading podcast The Daily, headlined 2019’s ceremony. Jodi Kantor, the Pulitzer-winning Times reporter who helped launch the #MeToo movement by breaking the Harvey Weinstein story with a colleague, addressed the Class of 2018.
UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s commencement — a virtual affair due to the pandemic — is this Saturday, May 16 at 10 a.m. PST. It will stream live on YouTube.