Deep Listening

Dear Reader,

This post is about something you have quite possibly never heard of: podcasts.  As in broadcasts for the iPod.  My first experience with podcasts was way back in 2004.  Podcasts were a fairly new iTunes genre, but I loved radio shows on NPR and audiobooks, so the podcast offered a familiar and simultaneously unique form – almost like a weekly magazine but free. My favorite: Pottercast, a podcast dedicated to rehashing everything in the Harry Potter lexicon and speculating on how the series might end.  One of my favorite episodes featured an interview with Matthew Lewis – he played Neville Longbottom in the movie franchise.

And now you’ve seen my nerd card. Photo on 4-29-16 at 10.33 AM

For some reason, despite the moderate success of standout programs like This American Life, podcasts didn’t really take off at first. They remained kind of a fringe form of media: low-budget, low-interest.  Eventually, the Harry Potter book series came to a close, and I stopped listening to Pottercast and all other podcasts for a while. While the iPod itself is now virtually extinct, podcasts have hung in there, playing to a small audience week after week.

But then came a little podcast called Serial from the producers of This American Life.  Season 1 of Serial hit the airwaves like a lightning bolt.  If you have any curiosity about podcasts at all, download this podcast immediately and start listening.  The well-produced series also presented a compelling mystery told by skilled storyteller and former crime reporter Sarah Koenig. Serial is the story of a closed case that feels pretty unresolved – the 1999 murder of a high school student from nearby Woodlawn, Maryland named Hae Min Lee.  Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime, but the facts and circumstances made his conviction, well, un-convincing.  (An aside: Syed won an appeal for a new trial and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is currently weighing the state’s appeal of that ruling for a new trial.  Justice is not just blind but painfully slow and bureaucratic.) Whereas This American Life had always focused on telling several bite-sized stories on the same theme in a single episode, Serial took a new approach.  Koenig unfolded the story a little bit more week by week; Serial not only held listeners in rapt attention but spawned other true-crime podcasts in its wake, including Undisclosed, Truth & Justice, and Accused.  This year the producers of Serial kept the ball rolling with a new podcast, S-Town, that presented something like a southern-gothic murder-mystery. No spoilers here, but the story takes a dramatic, strange turn that left me thinking, “What am I listening to?!” – yet I couldn’t turn it off. The new format of S-Town and Netflix-style dropping of all episodes at once pushed the genre in a new direction again.

The Podcast Renaissance is going strong, and I am in awe of how many truly exceptional programs are being produced. Podcasts have transformed my commute, my workout, and my yardwork – I can’t wait to immerse myself in these episodes.  When I can’t sleep, I reach for my headphones- usually a bad idea because I get engrossed in the story and don’t want to sleep, but it’s better than the 2am television waste land. Search the iTunes charts, and you’ll find some truly esoteric stuff. There’s also some pretty mainstream stuff. Pottercast still exists, in case you’re wondering – they have a new episode up once or twice a month.fullsizeoutput_ce0

Of all the truly wonderful podcasts on the charts, I would like to focus on two of them for you that I am obsessed with right now: Ear Hustle and Revisionist History.

Revisionist History features Malcolm Gladwell, celebrated cultural critic and author of books such as Blink and The Tipping Point.  I love the premise of his podcast: that some things we take for granted as settled history deserve a closer look.  He takes on a wide range of historical and social issues, from Winston Churchill to country music to the educational system.  Gladwell always takes an angle that I am not expecting, and I truly do learn something every time I listen to it.  My only criticism of the podcast is that Gladwell sometimes goes too quickly for an oversimplification of complicated problems – maybe this is part of the limitation of a 30-minute conversation, or maybe he just really believes in Occam’s Razor.  A good example of this is in the Season One episode called “Food Fight” about wealthy private colleges Bowdoin and Vassar. He starts by comparing the dining options at the colleges and then progresses to a discussion of the efforts each college makes (or doesn’t make) to offer better access to low-income students.  His general point is that because Vassar has cut back on dining options and student amenities, they are able to admit more low-income students.  I asked a former student of mine who happened to attend Vassar during the time Gladwell recorded that episode, and she pushes back on his summation that basic options are the burden that more fortunate students must bear in order to increase opportunities for low-income students.  She pointed out that the college still spends plenty of money on non-student related amenities, such as champagne-rich faculty parties, new houses for administrators, and purchasing some rare, expensive golden bird for their art collection.  My student shared that Vassar made this acquisition at the same time they were preaching austerity to students, saying they’d have to cut back on providing access to basic health items such as sanitary products. So yeah, not just about food. But even though his food for students argument is a bit reductive, Gladwell does raise an interesting point about how colleges choose to use their money – and this applies to all colleges and universities, not just Vassar and Bowdoin. It makes me think harder about how my own college spends its resources.

In addition to Gladwell’s program, another real standout for me is the new podcast called Ear Hustle.  If you read Piper Kerman’s book Orange is the New Black or have seen the sensationalized series on Netflix by the same name, you probably have some notions and also some questions about life for the incarcerated. Ear Hustle is set in San Quentin State Prison and produced by two prisoners, Earlonne Woods & Antwan Williams, and a local

ear hustle
The Ear Hustle Crew (l-r) Williams, Poor, & Woods (Photo from Rolling Stone)
artist, Nigel Poor. To “Ear Hustle” means to eavesdrop – thus the podcast is what it is like to listen in on what actually happens in prison.  One of my favorite episodes is called “Cellies” – about the pitfalls and politics of choosing and enduring a cellmate. That’s right – sometimes you have a say in who your cellmate might be, and the decision is pretty complicated. The episode called “SHU” explores the effects of long-term solitary confinement in Pelican Bay where SHU inmates are held.  SHU stands for Security Housing Unit, and it is absolutely the loneliest place on earth. Woods himself spent a year in SHU and can personally speak to the way it altered him.  His stint was nothing compared to other men who contribute to this episode – some of them spent decades in the SHU before getting released.  Fortunately, due to a 2013 inmate hunger strike, the prison changed its policy and no longer commits prisoners to the SHU indefinitely; the maximum time there is five years – which is still an awfully long time to spend with no human interaction and no chance to breathe fresh air or feel the sun.

Ear Hustle does not pull any punches and does not romanticize the plight of the inmate.  The inmates are not portrayed as animals or as completely reformed saints, but as flawed men who feel the weight of what they’ve done and who face the consequences of their choices daily. The self-awareness of the inmates is disarming and somewhat unexpected.  The goal of the project, I think, is simply to lift the veil so we can better understand these men – not to pity them, but to humanize them. Our criminal justice system needs desperate reform, and perhaps seeing prisoners as people – not numbers, not problems – is a good first step in that process. So the podcast is not just entertainment, but a subtle exercise in activism.

The great thing about a podcast is that it allows for deep, extended listening.  I have always loved listening to things – it probably goes back to when I was a kid and used to listen to baseball games on the radio with my grandfather.  Too often, it seems to me that we do what I like to call resistant listening – especially when it is something that challenges us or that goes against things we already think or believe.  We don’t listen to understand – we listen in order to respond – because we live in a contentious, litigious society where everyone wants to have the last or loudest word about things. Podcasts are helping me become a better listener and by extension a better thinker about a variety of subjects – some things I never thought I’d be interested in.  Because of podcasts, I really think about the criminal justice system, I really think about how my brain works, I really think about my biases and how to be more aware of them.  Podcasts inspire research, questions, and conversations. From politics to pop culture, true crime to television, there really is something for everyone. And more than that, we can all stand to become better listeners.

In addition to the ones I have already mentioned throughout this post, here are a few podcasts that I highly recommend (all available through iTunes):

And I’m always looking for more.  If you are already a podcast lover, tell me: what are you listening to?

 

© Ryna May 2017

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Serially Obsessed

Dear Reader,

Last year, a podcast called Serial gripped the nation.  It was the story of a Baltimore-area high school honors student named Adnan Syed who was convicted in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.  This story has the stuff of great mystery: romance, possible love-triangle, shady characters, murder, and a cover-up – all told beautifully by Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig. If you have never listed to season one of the Serial podcast, you should. And also this post will mean nothing to you unless you have. But if you did, you likely had all of the same questions I did at the end. Like many other listeners, I could not let the story go once the podcast was over – there was just too much that didn’t seem right, too many unknowns.

Serial spawned several other podcasts, most notably Undisclosed and Truth & Justice (formerly known as Serial Dynasty). These podcasts picked up the story where Serial left it.  The Undisclosed team consists of three lawyers: Susan Simpson, Colin Miller, and Rabia Chaudry, a lifelong friend of Adnan Syed who has made it her personal mission to seek a new trial in this case. The lawyers have meticulously gone through testimony, tapes, files, and the timeline of events to give a more complete picture of the Hae Min Lee murder case. Truth and Justice is a podcast created by Bob Ruff, a former fire chief and investigator. Initially, Ruff’s podcast was a forum for fan theories, but he soon put his investigative skills to work in pulling on different threads of the case to see where they went. Some of the revelations have been surprising. It would likely take you weeks to binge-listen to all of the first seasons of Undisclosed and Truth and Justice, but it’s well worth it.

There were several puzzles that Serial left us with, but I’m going to focus on what I think are the 5 big ones.  Over the past year and a half since season one of Serial wrapped, much more information has been revealed, and thanks to Undisclosed, Truth and Justice, and Adnan’s post-conviction appeal hearing, we know much, much more. There is no easy or quick way to summarize it all, but here is a pass at some of the key points. Once again, if you are familiar with the case and the podcast, this will make a lot more sense to you.

Number 1: The Nisha Call & Leakin Park Pings

There are two things that Sarah Koenig really could not reconcile at the end of the first season of Serial. One was why there is a call to a girl named Nisha on Adnan’s call record for 3:32pm on January 13, 1999 that lasted 2 minutes and 22 seconds. According to Adnan, he was at track at that time and Jay still had his cell phone. Jay says that Adnan had already killed Hae, been picked up by Jay, and that they were riding around in the car together at this time. Jay did not know Nisha and would have no reason to call her.  According to Jay, he and Adnan both talked to Nisha during the call.

So this looks bad for Adnan, but it is entirely possible that the Nisha call was a butt-dial that was never answered. Nisha testified that she did not have voicemail, so the call would have continued to ring if she was not available to pick it up. She also did not recall talking to Adnan and Jay during the day, but she did remember talking to both Jay and Adnan once on a call that came in the evening when Jay was at work.  It’s easy to date the call Nisha remembers because Jay was at work at an adult video store, a detail Nisha remembers about the call – a job he did not have in January of 1999.  But back to the 3:32 call on January 13th – because of the duration of the call, if it did ring for over 2 minutes, it is entirely plausible that AT&T billed Adnan for the call – the Undisclosed team was able to learn that similar AT&T subscriber contracts

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 9.58.00 PM.png
Adnan’s Call Log (from the Serial Website)
from that time show that AT&T had a policy of billing subscribers for calls over a minute whether they were answered or not.

The Serial team also could not explain the Leakin Park Pings. According to Jay, he and Adnan buried the body in Leakin Park sometime after 7pm on January 13th. There are two incoming calls to Adnan’s phone – one at 7:09pm and the other at 7:16pm – that “ping” a cell phone tower near Leakin Park, suggesting that, if nothing else, the cellphone is located nearby.

There’s only one problem with this line of thinking: when the prosecutors requested Adnan’s phone records from AT&T, the phone company provided those records along with a fax cover sheet that clearly stated that incoming calls are not reliable location indicators. In other words, in 1999 AT&T itself declared that incoming calls could not reliably indicate location. For example, in Adnan’s recent appeal hearing, Adnan’s attorney Justin Brown pointed to 2 calls on the log: 1 pinged a tower in DuPont Circle in Washington DC, and the other pinged a tower in Baltimore less than a half an hour later. Anyone who lives in this area will tell you that the laws of physics don’t even allow you to get out of DuPont Circle in 30 minutes, let alone get to Baltimore. This is the perfect illustration of unreliable. There are complicated reasons for this that are explained in detail by Susan Simpson in episode 8 of Undisclosed. The reason the defense never brought this up at trial was that Adnan’s attorney, Christina Gutierrez, never received that information from the prosecutor even though the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, received it from AT&T. The failure to disclose this information is what is called a “Brady Violation” – it means that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. That alone should have been enough to grant Adnan a new trial. In fact, the prosecution’s cellphone expert witness, Abraham Waranowitz, was not shown the cover sheet either before he testified for the state. He now says that if he had known that, he would not have testified as he did. So, yeah, that was kind of an important detail. So these 2 things that stumped the Serial team, the Nisha Call and the Leakin Park Pings, are not really rock-solid evidence. They are shockingly explainable given the information we have now.

Number 2: Where Was Hae Going That Day?

The popular narrative for Hae’s day is that she needed to rush out of school to pick up her cousin and then had to go to a wrestling match – she was the team manager. But Undisclosed was able to look through school records to show that there was no wrestling match that day – which means that many people who were interviewed about where Hae was headed that day were remembering the wrong day. In fact, Hae was supposed to work that evening at LensCrafters in Owings Mills, and then she was supposed to have a date with her new boyfriend, Don. She never made it to pick up her cousin, or to work, or to her date.

One person has a clear memory of talking to Hae at the end of the day: a friend of hers named Debbie. Debbie was interviewed by police and said that Hae told her she was in a hurry to leave school on January 13th, 1999 because she was going to see Don. Because several other witnesses mentioned the wrestling match, Debbie’s recollection seemed like the outlier, but given that the wrestling match everyone else remembers was not on that day, it is more likely the truth. If that is the truth, it’s an important detail to examine.

Number 3: Jay’s Stories

Jay Wilds is perhaps the biggest enigma in this case. Given all of the new evidence, it is more than likely that he knew nothing at all about what happened to Hae but rather made up a story to please the police. Why would someone do that? Many rumors have abounded – such as the one where Jay was jealous of Adnan’s friendship with his girlfriend, Stephanie. The two were close and in the magnate program together at Woodlawn High School. One is that Jay was afraid of the police because he was dealing pot and didn’t want to get locked up for that. Jay himself has cited this as the reason he decided to talk to the police.

Two other ideas have emerged from the work of the Undisclosed team and Bob Ruff at Truth and Justice. The first is that Jay did it for money. In Episode 10 of Undisclosed, we learn that Metro Crime Stoppers paid about $3K to an informant in this case. Per the rules for paying out these rewards, the informant can only get the money if the information leads to arrest and conviction. There is only one witness for the prosecution that gave that kind of information: Jay. And, the police would have to authorize the payment. The second idea is that the police threatened Jay – told him that he would be charged in this crime and that they would seek the death penalty against him. So to get off the hook, Jay agreed to help them tap-tap-tap together a narrative against Adnan – that is who the police really wanted to charge anyway.

One thing is for certain – years after this and the multiple versions of events that Jay related to the police in interviews and at trial, Jay’s story continues to change. In an interview Jay gave to The Intercept in December of 2014, he told yet another version of the story. Where Jay is concerned, there is no truth.

Number 4: Asia McClain

We have all wondered why Asia never testified in Adnan’s trial. She claims to have seen him in the library at the same time the state says he was strangling Hae in the parking lot of Best Buy. Why didn’t Gutierrez call Asia to the stand? There are 2 possible explanations for this. The first is that the Undisclosed team discovered that Asia’s name was misprinted in Gutierrez’s records as Aisha, not Asia, in a critical place that included notes about the alibi. Aisha is a real person – Hae’s best friend. Gutierrez may well have dismissed it based on this. The second is that Gutierrez just forgot to follow up on it.  She seemed to have a lot going on at the time, and as we now know, her health was really deteriorating, and she was not able to perform her job at a high level.  Things got missed.

The prosecution also said that Asia recanted her affidavit, but this is not true. When Asia testified at Adnan’s appeal hearing in February, she maintained the same version of events that she told in 1999. She also testified that the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, misrepresented their conversation and even discouraged her from testifying in the first appeal, saying that they had overwhelming evidence against Adnan. Asia’s testimony would force the state to come up with a totally new timeline for the murder – one they probably could not put together successfully or coherently given the giant holes in Jay’s stories. From an evidence standpoint, it’s the whole ballgame.

Number 5: Don

If you had a date with your girlfriend or boyfriend and she/he failed to show up, would you call her/him? Would you want to know why you were stood up? Apparently, Hae’s boyfried Don was not concerned when A) his girlfriend didn’t show up for her shift at the place where they both worked, B) stood him up for a date, and C) seemed to disappear altogether with no phone call, no email, no anything.

In addition, Bob Ruff was able to learn that Don falsified his timesheet and created a (false) alibi immediately when Hae disappeared – even thought he reportedly told police that he thought she must have run off to California. Why would he need a false alibi then? Don’s mother, the general manager of LensCrafters, doctored a time sheet to attempt to place him at work the day Hae vanished. That’s not shady at all. For some reason, the police never aggressively investigated Don or his alibi, even when they could not locate/talk to him until 1am the day/evening of her abduction. This does not mean that Don killed Hae, but Don was never subjected to the level of scrutiny or investigation that Adnan was, and he really should have been.  But once the police decided to pursue Adnan as a suspect, they let go of every other thread in the case.  They stopped pulling.

These facts give us a more complete picture than we had when Serial ended. Adnan was given a chance to appeal in a post-conviction hearing in February of this year.  The case is currently in the hands of Judge Welch, who previously ruled against Adnan in an earlier appeal. But the evidence appears overwhelming: Adnan should get a chance at a new trial.

Why is this story so compelling?  I’ve wondered that.  I don’t even really like crime shows.  Maybe it’s because I’m from the Baltimore area, so to me, the places in the story are not abstract – I used to drive past the infamous Best Buy all the time when I worked in that area.  Maybe it’s because I work with honors students and I can’t imagine any of them in this scenario.  But I think it’s also because, as someone who teaches and studies Ethics, I am troubled by the idea that the police might seek convictions and not truth.  We also see this in the popular Netflix documentary Making a Murderer.  (That’s a whole other topic for another time.) One of the pillars of our social contract is that our police and prosecutors should seek justice, not simply seek to win cases.  The truth matters – the truth is what compelled Asia to come forward after all this time. What troubles me about Adnan’s case is that, if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.  It could happen to you.  Like Adnan, you might never see it coming.

 

PS – If you want to hear more from Adnan himself, you can preorder Adnan’s Story, written by Rabia Chaudry.

© Ryna May 2016