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Lost in Transmission

Oz Woloshyn was mulling over something when he wrote me a note.

He had read a column I wrote last month about the rise of right-wing podcasts, and felt there was some connection to be unspooled with a specific trend he had observed in the responses to Forgotten: Women of Juárez, an audio documentary series he made with Mónica Ortiz Uribe, since its release over the summer.

Forgotten is a dense investigative piece that examines the history of femicide around the US-Mexican border, with a specific focus on the city of Ciudad Juárez that sits just across from El Paso, Texas, where Ortiz Uribe is based. It straddles the micro and the macro, linking together individual stories as means to illustrate the bigger picture of the ways in which capitalism and American policy directly drive the systems behind the crisis. “My primary intention was to give back some of the humanity that was so brutally stolen from the women slain in Juárez,” Oritz Uribe told me. “I wanted our listeners to get to know them as they were in life. I also wanted to show how American consumption habits, both legal and illegal, are directly connected to violence in Mexico.”

The series comes out of a deal with iHeartMedia, and as part of that arrangement, Forgotten was the beneficiary of a podcast marketing campaign that’s still fairly novel in many ways. The series was promoted aggressively over the company’s vast broadcast radio apparatus, even reaching a point earlier this summer where Forgotten turned out to be the most prolifically advertised product on national radio airwaves, receiving over 71,000 instances of advertising between July 27 and August 2, according to Media Monitor. The next-most advertised subjects during that week were the insurance company Progressive, at around 53,000 instances, and the language learning app Babbel, at around 47,500 instances.

Woloshyn suspects that this broadcast marketing push — hitting scores of commercial radio listeners around the country — ultimately resulted in something they weren’t quite expecting: an audience that contains more conservative-leaning listeners than they had originally anticipated.

There was one incident in particular that caught the Forgotten team’s attention on this note. It had to do with a specific line delivered in the show’s ninth episode; at that point in the series, Ortiz Uribe and Woloshyn were going over a theory that posited powerful industrialists being somehow directly responsible for the disappearances and killings of women in Juárez. Near the end of the episode, the narration deployed a brief aside remarking upon on the long history of powerful men getting away with sexual assault and abuse.

“Time and time again, there are examples of powerful men abusing women, whether it’s Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, R. Kelly, Roger Ailes… I could go on and on,” Ortiz Uribe said in the narration. “I mean, our own president was caught on-tape describing how he feels he has license to sexually abuse women. Two men are now sitting on the US Supreme Court despite strong allegations of sexual abuse.”

That line was carefully composed, with the team intending to stress how abuse adheres to no political party and taking pains to name a diverse group of men. But the episode — and that line — drew a noticeable uptick in critical responses within the show’s Apple Podcasts listing nevertheless. “Up until that point, we had almost exclusively five-star reviews and very positive comments,” said Woloshyn. “All of a sudden, we got dozens of one-star reviews and an avalanche of negative comments about having a disguised liberal agenda and an anti-Trump bias.”

Now, it’s important to properly contextualize the scale of these responses. At the end of the day, those one-star reviews worked out to be a mere fraction of the overall ratings. If you pulled up the show on Apple Podcasts right now, you’d see that the vast majority of ratings are still five-stars, and most of the visible reviews were generally pretty positive.

Nevertheless, the bump in seemingly ideologically-driven negative responses still registered prominently in the minds of the two producers. “It was a little disconcerting,” Woloshyn said. “Particularly at the time, it felt bad when it felt like the audience was turning against us.”

Some of those negative responses were the kind you’d expect from contemporary online discourse: “You’re horrible liberal monsters,” and so on. But Woloshyn was struck by several entries that he felt were comparatively more reasoned. He sent over a few examples of the latter — interestingly enough, all written during and around the week that Forgotten was being heavily promoted on broadcast airwaves — and they collectively convey a sense of listeners who were generally appreciated the work they’re hearing, but were bristling at what they perceive to be the show’s liberal-bent.

Here’s one such example:

I thought the show was very well done and professionally done. It could have easily been a five star if not for the latest episode. I believe you did a disservice to the cause by talking about men of power in the US abusing women referencing our current president and two Supreme Court Justices. Yet failing to mention a former and current presidential candidate? I don’t believe that abuse of women is exclusive to a single political party.

“I was shocked because, up until that point, I had no idea how many conservative listeners we had brought along to listen to the story,” said Woloshyn.

He further pondered: “To think that, for nine episodes, conservative listeners were happy to listen to a story about poor people who work in factories on the Mexico border manufacturing goods for the US market, whose lives and fates are basically incredibly negatively impacted by decisions that happen in the US, and those listeners could feel their humanity, and it was only until we said that thing about Supreme Court justices they seemingly flipped.”

Now, it wasn’t that the team didn’t hope to reach conservative audiences. Effectively engaging listeners outside one’s ideological corner is an objectively positive outcome for any journalistic enterprise. “I am glad to know we had listeners with diverse political leanings,” said Ortiz Uribe. “This is an urgent issue. It’s a story that concerns all of us, no matter where we live or how we vote.”

Rather, it was the very fact that the show had caught conservative listeners itself that felt surprising, reflecting an underlying assumption held by the team about the kinds of people who would have ordinarily picked up a podcast like Forgotten. “Most of the big narrative shows come firmly from the liberal tradition,” Woloshyn contends. “Knowing the landscape, we simply assumed that the audience for our show would be liberal.”

Forgotten’s situation neatly feeds into a host of worthwhile editorial debates: about how best to approach telling these kinds of narratives in a way that’s able to sustain a bridge across ideological divides, about how to do so without moral equivalency and resorting to reflexive both sides-ism, and about how to effectively convince while standing your ground during a time of intense political polarization.

It’s all very interesting, but my brain is still stuck on the whole broadcast promotion thing. The efficacy of promoting podcasts over the radio has been a point of contention for quite a bit now; from what I’ve heard anecdotally, results have generally been mixed at best. But if the Forgotten team’s suspicion is right, and heavy targeted radio promotion over the summer actually translated into new audiences and new kinds of audiences who convert into podcast listenership, then it looks like the wall between podcast and broadcast is more porous than ever, and the notion of older broadcast-centric audio companies effectively crossing over to podcasting seems like more of a viable prospect than ever.