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Two SAI Professors Give an Untold Story a Platform—and Win Awards Along the Way

When Northwestern University Sound Arts and Industries instructors Sarah Geis and Bill Healy set out to revisit a 1997 Chicago hate crime, winning a Pulitzer Prize or Peabody Award wasn’t on their minds.

Instead, they were focused on producing a podcast that could bring a fresh perspective to the event and amend the historical record of the case—all from the perspective of a formerly incarcerated drug dealer who’s investigating the incident some 25+ years later.

When that podcast, You Didn’t See Nothin’, was recognized with a Pulitzer and Peabody this year, it was like putting the final touch on a project nearly four years in the making.

Part Memoir, Part Investigation

Both Geis and Healy are involved with the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit production house that reports on human rights abuses and police on Chicago’s South Side. There, they had produced a podcast together before. Released in March 2020, Somebody explores a mother’s journey as she teams up with Invisible Institute journalists to investigate her son’s murder, confront police, and uncover the truth about his death.

Through the Invisible Institute, Geis and Healy met Yohance Lacour, who had a fellowship at the production house after serving a decade-long sentence in federal prison for peddling drugs. He had a story he wanted to share—and he’d been waiting decades to share it.

In 1997, 13-year-old Lenard Clark, who was Black, was beaten into a coma by a gang of older white teens for riding his bike through a predominantly white Chicago neighborhood. Lacour wanted to dig past the narratives about reconciliation and racial healing told by mainstream media and investigate what really happened.

Initially, he planned to pen a long-form written piece about the hate crime, but meeting Geis and Healy changed his strategy.

“It soon became clear that this project was big and needed a team,” says Geis. “It also had lots of sonic possibilities. In Summer 2020, we started to work with Lacour to tell this story. As we got to know him, and he got to know us, we decided to make it not only an investigation into this event, but also a memoir of his own story.”

And that’s how You Didn’t See Nothin’ was born.

The Making of You Didn’t See Nothin’

The project spanned Summer 2020 to February 2023, when the seven-part podcast series was released. While Geis and Healy both dedicated time to the podcast, they also worked on other sound projects and continued to teach—at Northwestern and the University of Chicago.

“It can be really slow to make this kind of work,” says Geis. “But I think the stewing and brewing and drafting and iterations are all part of it. It’s a process that takes a lot of time and thought.”

While Healy says many podcasts are produced for profit, You Didn’t See Nothin’ was fueled by passion. “We felt compelled to do it,” he emphasizes. “We had to do it. It was so much more important than just filling time on the radio or filling column inches. That’s one of the things that makes it stand out in a very crowded field of podcasts.”

The production team included Geis and Healy, as well as a handful of other sound professionals from the Invisible Institute and USG Audio.

“Everyone on the team did a lot of everything,” describes Geis. “We all brought different skill sets, experiences, and interests to the group.”

Geis handled much of the foundational work, thinking through the story structure, drafting the first episode, editing drafts, and connecting with sound designers and composers.

Acting as an investigative reporter, Healy helped the podcast come alive, uncovering archival audio about the crime in places like college libraries and the basements of Chicago residents. He also wrote many first drafts of the scripts and recorded much of the tracking with Lacour.

Geis explains, “Our process involves a combination of oral-history-style interviews that turn into a script, combined with improvisation. We spend a lot of time thinking about story, structure, tone, and second drafts.”

Following a track-improvise-script-repeat model, the team first recorded Lacour as he read the script. After that, they captured additional takes of him ad-libbing his way through the same talking points more naturally.

From there, the audio was edited. The team chose the lines they liked best, whether they were from the script or off the cuff. The lines were then woven together. 

To help Lacour speak as naturally as possible, Healy frequently reminded him to talk like he was speaking to one of his friends or cellmates—even putting up a picture of his friend, Earl, in the sound booth as a reminder.

“Things were constantly being handed back and forth so that everyone had the chance to weigh in,” explains Geis. “At some point, you don’t even recognize what you wrote or recorded vs. what someone else wrote or recorded.”

In other words, the team became one: a team of professionals from Chicago making work about Chicago—and doing it all in Chicago.

Geis and Healy also shared their podcast work with their classes as it progressed. This was a great opportunity for Sound Arts and Industries students to see a real-world project take shape.

“When we were working on the second episode, I brought in an early draft of a script and three different approaches to it,” Healy explains. “We read all three scripts as a class and talked about their strengths and weaknesses. The students’ input helped guide my thinking about that episode.”

Students also got to experience the business side of creating a piece of sound art, learning about things like budgets and putting together a production team.

The Most Gratifying Recognition of All

Nearly four years after the project began, Geis and Healy say the final result is something beautiful.

“We made something deep yet funny,” says Geis, “surprising yet really strong.”

While awards don’t drive their work, being recognized with a Pulitzer and Peabody has helped bring national attention to Lacour’s story.

“With the background work we do as producers, our job is successful when we’ve disappeared from the production,” says Geis. “You feel really proud and excited, but people don’t necessarily know who we are and how we’ve contributed. There’s something about this level of recognition that is very gratifying in that regard.”

Geis is quick to point out, however, that the most gratifying recognition of all isn’t the awards but hearing from Black activists in Chicago who feel like their stories are being validated—and knowing that Lacour’s story was finally given the justice it deserves.

Recognition also draws more people to listen to You Didn’t See Nothin’, says Healy. With so many podcasts to choose from, awards are one way to rise above.

But adding these awards to their credentials also feels a bit surreal, they admit. Many people across the country and around the world know about the Pulitzer Prize and the Peabody Award. “My sister took her kids to the library, and they were sending me pictures of books with the Pulitzer Prize emblem on them,” says Healy.

“It’s mutually reinforcing to have a strand of our practice be teaching and then get to extend our relationship in other ways. We’re able to do it because we’re supported by all the other faculty at Northwestern,” he explains. “We’re both incredibly lucky to be able to work with one another in these capacities.”

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