“The sudden popularity of the podcast was a surprise”, I heard from multiple voices from across the newsroom. The topic of conversation was a limited, 10-part podcast series launched in September that focused on the Roma community living in extreme poverty and mostly portrayed negatively in crime news.

First let me frame the success, to make it more tangible for an international audience. The first episode was listened to by 34-thousand people. That is the average audience of the most popular daily news podcast in the country (Slovakia).

The same ratio of listeners in the USA would mean 2 million people. That is half of the average listeners to The Daily podcast by The New York Times. I am not counting that the audience for The Daily is global, while the podcast about Roma can only reach 5.5 million Slovak speakers.

source: Spotify

The original title “Odsúdení na neúspech” would translate best as “Destined to fail” (I checked with the creator and she is OK with this translation so I will be using it for this column). It dives into how poverty and segregation came to be and how the whole society is responsible.

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How it came to be

The podcast was created by Zuzana Kovacic Hanzelova, a longtime journalist who started her career in TV journalism. She became known as a savvy reporter at the Slovak national broadcaster RTVS but due to distrust towards new management (and other issues), she left with several colleagues.

Soon after that small team of ex-RTVS employees joined Dennik SME (where I also work) and formed a video team. She also became one of the rotating hosts of the popular daily news podcast “Dobre rano”.

[Full disclosure: Zuzana is my colleague. Despite my involvement early in the creation of the podcast unit at Dennik SME I no longer work with the audio team nor am I involved in the content strategy of the team.]

Like many of my colleagues, I first heard about the podcast months before its launch and thought this is going to be hard to pull off. To be completely honest, I was one of the bigger skeptics thinking this show was destined to fail, pun intended.

There are several reasons why I chose to go deep on this particular podcast and its success. Storytelling podcasts reporting on a single topic via a limited series are hard to produce well. They are expensive unless you have global reach and most opt to tackle such a project mainly as an interview.

“I was tired that almost every podcast is a talk show in the form of an interview,” Hanzelova explained. “Also, no one would ever listen to it if I did it that way, plus there were already a lot of academic debates on the topic,” she added.

“Destined to fail” uses a narrative structure where the author is part of the story. She tells the audience how she feels, what she saw; she shares her own stories and memories and becomes part of the story. 

In each episode, there are three to four main characters sharing what they have seen and learned throughout the years. The closest genre would be a documentary. 

The whole project came together by luck as the newsroom was approached by the non-governmental People in Need in search of a partner for a grant. Hanzelova told me the podcast would have been produced even without the funding with lower production.

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Lessons learned

When asked for inspiration for the narrative approach, Hanzelova cited various, mainly US-based shows but the successful Nice White Parents podcast by The New York Times and Serial production was singled out. It makes sense if you heard both of them.

Just like Hanzelova, who has tackled the topic of the living conditions, poverty and segregation of the Roma people for all her journalism career and joked it took twelve years to produce this podcast, Nice White Parents was produced by a Peabody Award winner Chana Joffe-Walt who spent years reporting on education and school segregation.

In both cases, you have seasoned reporters with a deep understanding of the topic and years of knowledge. If you gave the same stories to a junior reporter, you would most probably get decent content but not a hit, for that you need more expertise, prior relationships with the topic, subjects and experts in the field.

One of the things she told me and surprised me the most was that during the production of the podcast and subsequent reporting she managed to get some scoops that were not known before and they made it into the national press.

It’s no coincidence, such things happen when you let a journalist spend enough time on a topic. Just remember how most books by journalists are marketed, an unknown previously untold story about a personality or celebrity is shared with the press to build hype for the book. The same applies to other forms of content as well.

The form of a podcast helped a lot to get it made with so many sources and also for it to get listened to by tens of thousands of people who would almost never click on the same topic text story. There is just something very compelling about telling a story and letting the person’s imagination fill in the gaps.

Also, for the same content to be filmed and produced in the same compelling form, it would take a much bigger budget and twice the time to be made. Plus, sources are more willing to speak without a camera present, and as Hanzelova explained that is even more true when you are talking to people living on the fringes of society.

Another factor that helped was a combination of having a mainstream national news outlet promoting the show within its podcast network which includes several popular shows, and Hanzelova being an influencer with hundred thousand Instagram followers among whom there are many celebrities who reshared the podcast with an endorsement.

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Feedback and next steps

“I did not get any hate-mail regarding the series, not one,” Hanzelova boasted when asked about the feedback. In the past, she would share various stories of the Roma people on her social accounts and said she would be just overwhelmed by negative reactions.

“The success of the Destined to fail podcast pleasantly surprised me. In our country, topics and discussions about the Roma community are often narrowed down to crime, violence, and sensation, and many people have huge prejudices against it, not to mention racism, either directly or indirectly. That’s why I didn’t expect the podcast to have such a big audience with enthusiastic feedback,” said Jana Matkova, head of the audio and video unit at Dennik SME.

“Thank you for this podcast,” has been a recurring comment when I read the feedback among listeners to each episode in the closed Facebook group the podcast team of SME maintains.

Listeners would play the series to their parents and several have written to Hanzelova it has changed their minds about the topic.

To me, the biggest advantage of this production has been the slow pace of explaining the issues intertwined with stories of actual people who have suffered.

It’s also interesting the podcast is in fact telling the audience they have been racist and are also responsible for the current situation in the country when it comes to the treatment of Roma people of whom some live in slums.

More than 3 million views have a YouTube video called Partying In Europe’s Biggest Slum | Lunik IX by a British vlogger and author Benjamin Rich, better known by his YouTube channel name Bald and Bankrupt, where he explores a large Roma settlement in east Slovakia.

The podcast series by Hanzelova opens with a clip from it and goes on to explain how it came to be and what are the underlying facts and the background story.

Explanation plays a central role, also myth-busting and bringing real stories of people.

Hanzelova plans to produce a second season of the podcast. She wants to focus on other communities that are destined to fail, most likely families with children with disabilities.

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Photo by C D-X on Unsplash