CARBONDALE -- Charlie Birger met his demise on a hangman's gallows in Benton on April 19, 1928.
It was Illinois' last execution by hanging.
But the notorious Southern Illinois gangster has come back to life thanks to a group of Professor Pinckney Benedict's graduate creative writing students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Last week marked the launch of a new podcast series, Blanket Fort Radio Theater: A Storytelling Initiative from Southern Illinois University Press, in collaboration with the Creative Writing Program and WSIU. The inaugural 35-episode podcast brings listeners into Birger's world. Other fascinating tales will follow.
WSIU is hosting the podcasts on the NPR One platform and they are available for free at blanketfortradiotheater.com.
An infamous "knight" kicks off the series
As soon as Jay Livingston saw the cover of Gary DeNeal's "A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger," he was intrigued.
"I said, 'We have to do a podcast on the sexy criminal bootlegger who went after the KKK,'" Livingston, of Charleston, told his classmates.
Livingston, who just completed his first year as a Master of Fine Arts poetry student, had never heard of the Prohibition-era mobster.
"I did not know a thing about Charlie Birger, or that he was even a person, prior to this podcast," agreed Audrey Holmes, another first-year MFA fiction student from Chicago. "What a fascinating individual, though."
While some had blanket forts, Lizabeth Engelmeier, a second-year MFA fiction student from Flora, said she "had a feather-pillow-and-folding-chair fort." It served her well as she voiced the part of Beatrice Bainbridge, Charlie's second wife, and other roles. In addition to enlisting her dad to play the part of deputy Joe Schafer on his cellphone, Engelmeier also edited nine episodes, selected some music and handled various other production elements, all while switching to teaching online graduate classes, making all new lesson plans and completing her own classwork.
"We set a very fast, demanding pace for ourselves," Engelmeier said. "There was never downtime in the production schedule."
Not an easy process
She encountered other obstacles, too. Proclaiming her home to already be "world's noisiest apartment building" located along a main road and alley with plenty of dogs, toddlers and other sounds, she found the distractions intensified as neighbors responded to the stay-in-place directives with hours of vacuuming, keyboard jam sessions and other noise.
"Sometimes recording a single paragraph for the podcast took me an hour because I had to restart around all the noise. The beauty of AKOAS is in how much is going on in it and how many tones it juggles, so a little roughness around the edges was fine," Engelmeier decided. "It's about making an interesting thing, not a perfect thing. That's a lesson I'm going to carry into my other podcasts and into my writing."
A family affair
Making the podcast was a family affair for Mandi Jourdan, a third-year creative writing/fiction MFA candidate from Vandalia. She recruited her brother Riley Herron, an SIU music student, to play the title role of Charlie Birger.
Her father, SIU music alumnus Cliff Jourdan, played several roles including Lory Price, a state patrolman killed by the Birger gang. Mandi's boyfriend, cinema and photography alumnus Justin Gordan, also voiced numerous characters including gang member Connie Ritter and Sheriff Lige Turner. Mandi also voiced several characters, including the blonde bombshell, and served as the editor for eight episodes.
"I loved getting to try out different voices and hearing everyone else's takes on their characters," Jourdan said. "It was challenging but fun to figure out how to incorporate difference voices and formats."
She was amazed at how everyone worked together creating an audiobook featuring so many parts with a relatively small cast of people. Working on the project taught her "a lot about collaboration and how to delegate jobs within a large project."
She bought her own microphone and a pop filter to help with her home recordings and also battled to record around lawn mowers, barking dogs and other neighborhood noises. She discovered "it's OK if we can't get everything shot perfectly within the first few takes."
"It was a challenge getting the voices we needed within the time frame we needed it every week, added Sarah Jilek, a double alumna of SIU from DeKalb who earned her bachelor's in English in 2016 and completed her MFA in fiction in May. "It taught us there's no excuse not to create."
She recruited fiancÚ Chris Clark to play gang member Carl Shelton and several other roles. Her dad, John Jilek, played a minor role, too.
"The multitude of minor characters gave us all the opportunity to have our friends and relatives play roles, which felt very special," Jilek said.
Livingston edited 11 episodes and voiced numerous small parts, some as small as a few words, while also working part-time at a local restaurant. He said he recruited many friends and relatives for roles -- "anyone with a decent mic, a newer phone or who might like to hear their voice on the radio." The voices chimed in from as far away as Chicago and the Quad Cities. For Livingston, the most difficult task was learning to do the sound editing, but he was fortunate to have a cinema and photography major roommate with good equipment and expertise to help.
Seeing the students' determination and how skillfully they were able to create a polished final product was "one of the best times I've ever had as a teacher," Benedict said.
"This shows the resilience of these bright students and their commitment to this project," Amy J. Etcheson, interim co-director of SIU Press, said. "I'm utterly delighted and surprised by what they could do."
Learning experience with many possibilities
The making of the podcasts has been a monumental learning experience on many levels, the students say.
"I never knew how much bootlegger activity there was in this area back during Prohibition, and I certainly never would have guessed the gangs were arming up with tanks and airplanes to use against each other," Ballard said. "It was a wild ride!"
Jilek was fascinated to discover another side of the region. While vocalizing a couple of parts and editing and producing nine episodes, she also enjoyed "learning the history of places I had visited in person or lived in."
"For example, I read about a shootout on Route 13 between Carbondale and Marion, which was the route I had taken to work every day for a year. Surreal moments like that happened frequently while working on this project."
Holmes said finding out about Birger and working with Benedict and the other talented students were the best parts of the project. She played the role of Beulah Adams, the wife of Joe Adams, who was shot to death in front of her eyes by the Birger gang on Charlie's orders.
Learning to use the recording and editing software from scratch was the most difficult part of the project but also quite rewarding for Holmes, whose career plans are to teach, including at the college level, and to publish novels.
"This project was amazing. I learned invaluable sound-editing skills and also got to see how writing stories with audio is done," Holmes said. "Stories nowadays seem to tend more and more towards and audio medium, whether it be through a podcast or a movie or something else sonic, so learning how to make a good story using only audio is absolutely going to help me professionally."
"This project was the most stressful thing I've done but in a good way," said Livingston, whose goal is seeing books of his poetry published. "It was also the biggest creative group endeavor I've ever been involved in; there was a lot of respect and accountability. It was a good experience."
Engelmeier agreed, noting that despite all of the difficulties, the students persevered and created a finished project they are all very proud of.
"This podcast taught me to just go for it," she said. "A global pandemic and a state lockdown couldn't stop us from producing an audiobook. What can stop us at this point from doing anything?"
Jourdan already has five novels and two short story collections published and works as a proofreader for a publishing company and its imprints. Working on this project has increased her confidence and her ability to work remotely and enhanced her abilities, especially related to podcasting, she said.
"I know I'll be able to keep recording and editing my own podcast, "Shadows of the Mind," which is an adaptation of my novel series, even if I don't have access to the school's podcasting labs," she said. She also said Benedict's teaching has been phenomenal in many ways, including his challenge to his students to set up TikTok accounts because "he thought that learning to be interesting to strangers in 15-second intervals would help us become more interesting in our fiction."
She said the goal was to make a video good enough to get 100 likes. Her Harry Potter-related videos garnered up to thousands of views and likes. Jourdan kept her @absaluki TikTok account and has worked to build her audience. Now boasting nearly 2,000 followers and 50,000 likes, she hopes to get these fans interested in her fiction as well.
"I learned that there is no excuse to not try to create the project you're putting off because of an apparent lack of funding, resources or anything," Jilek said. "The recording spaces in the library and the podcasting lab in Faner were great resources while we had them, but the shift to our home recording studios didn't stop us. It simply made us more creative and resourceful, and more technically skilled in the process."
Her goals include novel writing, teaching and podcasting. Her first crime/dark comedy novel is due out in October from SFK Press, and she's confident her work on Blanket Fort Radio Theater: A Storytelling Initiative is paving the way toward the future success.
Benedict said the project model and the productions are "unprecedented in the country" in that a university press, public radio and academic programs are working together to create a high-quality broadcast that could quite easily serve as a model for other institutions.
Podcast previews have drawn rave reviews already.
"I'm just thrilled with this. I think it's terrific, a fascinating project with a lot of possibilities," Jack Tichenor, interim executive director of WSIU, said. "One of the many benefits of this project is that it gives the students practical experience producing a professional-quality audio book and podcast."
The students say they indeed appreciate what an extraordinary opportunity they've undertaken with this project.
A new episode of "A Knight of Another Sort" will be released each week. Later this year, the second podcast will debut; episodes of the two podcasts will overlap.
Several other podcasts are in the works, each produced by SIU students from SIU Press books.
*"Knight" author Gary DeNeal is the uncle of Harrisburg Register Editor Travis DeNeal.