The Conversation: Al Letson

Al Letson
Writer, Producer, Performer, Radio Host
Conversation with and photograph by Tiffany Manning

You were born in New Jersey, where you lived until the age of twelve when your family moved to Orange Park. What was it like to shift gears to life in the South at such a pivotal age?
Traumatic. When I first moved here, I hated it. I didn’t understand the kids, the racial politics, and at that time the paper mills made the city stink. I tried to run away every chance I got. At some point I fell in love with the area, but it took a while.

Poetry via hip hop was an integral part of who you were in your early adult years, and it gave you a platform to express yourself and highlight your experiences in a major way. When you look back at those defining moments on the road performing at poetry slam competitions, how do you think they shaped the man you have become?
Drive. I think making hip hop in North Florida, at a time when not many people were doing it on a professional level (I was fifteen going into recording studios) was hard. Most of the engineers I worked with in those days had never worked with hip hop. So, at a young age, I had to blaze trails, figure things out on my own. The only way that was going to happen was if I put my head down and put in work. It built this desire in me to push myself.

You have such a powerful voice, and as a playwright that voice landed you and your one man show about a summer spent at Jacksonville’s Sanctuary on 8th Street in NYC to debut off-Broadway. Such a huge accomplishment; but tell us what it felt like to tell a story about your adopted hometown on a stage in NYC.
It meant everything to me at the time. But in the years since my view has changed a little bit. Being off-Broadway is a big deal, because it means something professionally, but I thought I’d be performing for people who’d seen a lot of professional theatre, so it was more … prestigious? But that’s not true. What I’ve learned is that an audience is an audience, and as a performer you have to work with each audience in a new way, but always bring them into the world of the performance. So yeah, it was an honor, but it’s always an honor to get in front of any audience.

In 2007, you won a national competition with more than fourteen-hundred applicants to host a new radio show called “State of the Re:Union.” That show ran for six seasons and garnered you three consecutive Edward R. Murrow Awards, two NABJ Awards, three NLGJA Awards, and a Peabody in 2015. In those six years, what were the defining moments that taught you more about yourself and/or your mission?
“State of the Re:Union” helped me understand this country, and where I fit in all of it. I’m humbled by the experience. So many of the interviews that I had with people really stuck with me. One moment that plays out in my head all the time, was an interview with a man whose son had died in gang violence. His son wasn’t in a gang, just a victim of a drive-by. Soon after his son died he became active in trying to stop anyone else’s son from dying. He told me once, “We have to do something extraordinary for our kids.” I think about it all the time. We have to do something extraordinary for our kids, everyday.

The work you are doing currently as host of the radio show “Reveal” from The Center for Investigative Reporting on PRX is so powerful that it garnered you a second Peabody Award. And with a mission to engage and empower the public through investigative journalism and storytelling, I think you are on the pulse of what our democracy needs most right now, which is truth. What is your perspective and why is it important to have transparency in all we do in the digital age?
I think transparency is especially important with government so we can understand what’s being decided for us as constituents, but also so we can understand politicians’ motives. I worry though that politics has become like sports and we no longer care about transparency, we just care about whether our team wins.

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Author: Arbus

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