KALW Brings the Magic of a Radio Storytelling Project to Solano Prison
By Eli Wirtschafter, KALW’s Transportation Reporter, Audio Academy class of 2016 and Manager of a new KALW training program
Since 2013, KALW has trained inmates at San Quentin State Prison in audio production, and aired their stories on Crosscurrents from KALW News. Now, the station is beginning a new project at Solano State Prison in Vacaville. The projects are made possible by a grant from the California Arts Council, with funding from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, along with support from the Association for Continuing Education.
One of the men in our class said he’d never seen a Mac computer before. He was incarcerated in 1978.
Another student has been locked up since the 1990s.
“I’ve missed the information age,” he told us. “I can’t believe I get to actually learn this stuff.”
KALW has donated three brand new Macs to the Solano State Prison as part of our new training program for incarcerated men there. With the help of prison staff, we set up the computers with Pro Tools, the audio editing software that’s the industry standard for both music and audio news production. We’ve transformed a tiny room in the prison’s education building into the institution’s first ever radio lab.
We have seven students. The group includes a poet, a software engineer, published authors, Shakespearean actors, toastmasters, newspaper writers, and a banjo player. They are the best students you could ever hope for: eager; ready to learn; and excited to start up a brand new project at the prison. They’re learning skills that one day they could use on the outside.
Over the next few months, the men will learn how to record audio interviews with other inmates. They’ll learn how edit those interviews on the computers we’ve brought in. A team of professional radio producers, including KALW producer Hannah Kingsley-Ma (Audio Academy class of 2015), KQED reporter and producer Jessica Placzek, KALW editor Andrew Stelzer, and myself, is going in about once a week to teach all the skills of interviewing, recording, and editing. We’re adapting the same curriculum we use to train fellows in KALW’s Audio Academy – the same program that trained me to be a radio producer.
As soon as the students’ pieces are complete, we’ll send them out of the prison and air them on KALW.
The stories the men at Solano will produce (at least at first) will be in a slightly different format from the feature stories that come out of our program at San Quentin. At Solano, the reporters will create pieces in the style of StoryCorps, the national oral history project. (StoryCorps was also a partner of ours during early stages of developing the project.) They’ll record long, intimate conversations and edit those conversations down to two to four minute radio gems. This work might be less technically complicated than producing a feature with many voices, but in some ways the editing challenge is even greater. You have to create a narrative arc using just a single conversation.
On the first day of class, we wanted to play the students an example of the kind of story they will produce. We chose a StoryCorps classic, a conversation between a woman and her devoted husband as he nears the end of his life. You can listen to it here.
It’s not easy to express vulnerability in prison. The men guard their emotions closely. Some talk about the masks they wear out on the yard. But as they listened to that story, we watched their masks melt away. With tears in their eyes, one man talked about the love his own parents had for each other. Another man talked about the love he hopes to feel once he leaves prison. They understood the magic of radio, how it can connect you with a stranger in just a few minutes.
Although Solano doesn’t have as many volunteer programs as San Quentin, they do have a lot of classes taught by other incarcerated men. It’s been awesome to see our seven students build a supportive culture for each other. The ones with the most computer experience are helping the others master completely unfamiliar technology.
They’re excited to learn a bunch of new skills, and they’re excited to get their stories out into the world.