I Want To Live In A Way That My Love Speaks Louder Than My Hurts - 10 Questions with Polymath Al Letson
In the spring of 2007, on the soundstage at Austin City Limits, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) launched an initiative titled Public Radio Talent Quest. The objective of the initiative was to identify a new generation of public radio "on-air" talent. The talent quest was designed as a competition between Public Radio Exchange (PRX) and Launch, with each entity responsible for recruiting three original and compelling voices and then working to develop pilot programs for presentation to CPB. Jacksonville Native Al Letson was one of approximately 1,400 hopeful contestants to enter the competition.
In July 2008, Letson and Glynn Washington were named as the winners of the competition. Letson, who had cut his teeth as a poetry-slam veteran, writer, and educator in Northeast Florida, received $200,000 to refine and further develop his pilot program, State of the Re: Union (SotRU), an hour-long program whose stated mission was to "show listeners how we are more alike than we are different and the many ways our differences are celebrated."
In 2014, State of the Re:Union and WJCT were honored with a Peabody Award, an annual award that was first given out in 1941 as a way of honoring the most powerful, enlightening, and invigorating stories in television, radio, and online media. SotRU was recognized for its grassroots reporting while also holding itself to high standards of quality and value.
Prior to beginning his career as a broadcast journalist, Letson once stated that outside of This American Life he didn't initially listen to public radio that much because he didn't hear himself reflected in the programs. SotRU being honored with a Peabody Award was a massive accomplishment for Letson and his team. The award also represented a cultural shift for public broadcasting. Heightened attention was being given to diverse programs and podcasts that facilitated long overdue conversations around race, identity, and cultural biases.
Letson is a person who can be referred to as a polymath, someone whose expertise spans several disciplines. After graduating from Orange Park High School, He started his first adult profession, working as a flight attendant for American Airlines. The job was a means, not an ends, and it allowed Letson to travel around the nation and compete in poetry slams. Opportunities on stage eventually led to opportunities on screen and Letson's talent was showcased on Def Poetry Jam (also a recipient of a Peabody Award), a spin off of the popular Def Comedy Jam. In 2000, he won the Atlanta Grand Slam and placed third in the National Poetry Slam competition.
Building upon his way with words, Letson eventually shifted his attention to writing and performing original materials. He produced his first one-man show, titled Essential Personnel, in 2001. Letson again exhibited an ability to leverage one opportunity to create the next, and in 2004 he was commissioned by the Baltimore School of the Arts to write Chalk - a poetical that combined stage acting with poetry to reveal the inner voices of kids who are trapped in a society plagued with systemic bullying.
What's even more remarkable about Letson's career as a writer is that he has struggled with dyslexia his whole life, complicating his relationship with the written word. His aunt worked diligently with him to assist in overcoming this obstacle, but things didn't change for a young Letson until he was introduced to comic books - specifically, Captain America 100. Comic books strengthened Letson's reading comprehension and activated his imagination. Fast forward to 2016 and Letson is a graduate of DC's Talent Development Workshop. This year, he received his first DC writer's credit with their release "New Talent Showcase 2017 #1." This achievement comes after years of writing independent comics, including Imperfect, which Letson successfully Kickstarted in 2014.
In a 2017 interview with NPR, Letson referenced a conversation between Terry Gross and Father Greg Boyle, in which Boyle said, "I want to live like the truth is true, and go where love has not been found." Letson is now the host of Reveal, a radio program co-produced by PRX and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Through this program, Letson explores the subjective definitions that others place on truth, beauty, freedom, and love based on their programmed biases. Reveal can be heard on Thursdays at 1:00 PM and Saturdays at 12:00 PM over the airwaves of 89.9 WJCT.
10 Questions with Al Letson
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
Definitely. It depends on the method in which I'm telling the story. But, it all comes down to figuring out what's the beginning, middle, and end. To do that, I'll create an outline of the story, then start to fill it in. If it's a play or comic book that I'm working on, my preparation document includes an outline, character sketches, and a short story about the piece. If it is a poem, I start with just an outline.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
That I am like the rest of us, deeply flawed but wonderfully made.
How do you define success in what you do?
Success is in stages: First, it's completion - actually making the thing I dreamt of. Next, it's how the intended audience received that thing. Then, it's the reach. Lastly, it's how the piece went and what I learned from it.
What are some current public radio programs or podcasts that you feel are representative of a diverse population and are helping to amplify the voices of minorities or marginalized communities?
The Stoop (KALW San Francisco - Stories about black identity that aren't always shared in the open.)
Another Round (BuzzFeed - Covers everything from race, gender, and pop culture to squirrels, mangoes, and bad jokes, all in one boozy podcast.)
Ear Hustle (PRX - Brings you stores of life inside prison, shared and produced by those living it.)
Reveal (The Center for Investigative Reporting/PRX - Investigative journalism and groundbreaking storytelling to spark action, improve lives, and protect our democracy.)
Errthang! (Everything from storytelling to radio drama, pop culture reviews to interviews with some of the most interesting people on the planet.)
Lost in Translation
The Heart (A show about love, life, bodies, and feelings.)
How do you define your social and moral obligations as an investigative reporter?
I don't define my obligations by my role as an investigative reporter. I define my obligations based my role as a human being. That label trumps any others - Journalist, Christian, American, Black, whatever. I govern myself in a way that sees other people's humanity. I want to live in a way that my love speaks louder than my hurts, my anger, or my fear.
That's my goal. Some days I hit it. And other days, not so much.
What excites or intrigues you about reporting on a story or event and have any subjects that you've reported on had an effect on you in an unexpected way? If yes, can you give an example of such a situation and how you were affected?
I want to widen our understanding of each other, so stories that do that excite me. Stories that hold the powerful accountable also gets me going.
I once interviewed a man who lost his child to gun violence. He immediately went out into the community, working to save other kids from the same fate. He took no time to himself - just got right to work. He told me "We have to do something extraordinary for our kids." In his heartbreak, he found his voice. When I think of it, all these years later, it still touches and moves me.
Did you develop any skills or communication techniques when working as a flight attendant that surprisingly benefit or serve you in your role as an investigative reporter?
Being a flight attendant taught me how to be aware and how to understand my environment.
What role did comic books play during your formative years and what does it mean to you as an adult to be working with one of the major American comic book publishers?
I'm dyslexic. It was through comic books that I learned to read and love reading. They have been my longest companion and first love. Getting into that class was the culmination of a lot of love and hard work. Working with DC has been a dream. I still can't believe it happened.
The latest graduates from the DC Talent Development Workshops show off their skills in stories starring some of DC’s greatest characters. In these tales, Poison Ivy fights an ancient demon, Doctor Fate is confronted by the cost of magic, Red Hood and Duke Thomas face off in a training day simulation and so much more!
How do you define the role of the artist in society and the role of the arts in general in the divisive world we currently find ourselves living in? Additionally, as an advocate for giving to the arts, what's the most compelling motivator you can generate as a reason that someone who is financially capable should give to and support the arts?
In these times, it's the artist job to speak the truth. To force us to look into the mirror and ask uncomfortable questions of ourselves. To show others our lives, to celebrate them, and to mourn for our collective or individuals losses. The artist is the canary in the coal mine that warns us from folly.
Art is essential for human beings, neighborhoods, cities, and states. When people measure quality of life, art and artist are a large part of that equation. Giving to an institution is important and that gift reaches the people of Jacksonville. But, it's also important to support artists directly by buying their work and going to their shows. This not only supports them, but it also gives something back to you.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector?
Several years ago, I worked on a proposal to create a grant system for individual artist in Jacksonville. It was an idea that was based around developing, retaining, and attracting talent to the city. I love that institutions get funding in Jacksonville, but individual artist need funding too.
With 1% of the funding the city gives to the Jaguars (no knock on the Jags at all), we could make Jacksonville a sustainable place for working artist to not just develop but to also stay. I'm not advocating for my specific idea. I'm advocating for any idea that would help develop and retain artistic talent in the First Coast, just like we would for big business, sports teams, or any other beneficial entity.