The Media Today

Q&A: Connie Walker and Max Green on the new season of Stolen and being canceled by Spotify

March 20, 2024

Stolen is an investigative journalism podcast that focuses on stories of Indigenous people often overlooked by the media at large. Its first season investigated the disappearance of Jermain Charlo, a young woman, from a bar in Montana in 2018. The second season looked inward, at the family of Connie Walker, the show’s host, investigating her father’s experiences within Canada’s Indian Residential School system, in which generations of Indigenous boys and girls experienced widespread abuse. The season, which explored the intergenerational effects of the schools on Walker’s family, captivated audiences and won several awards, including last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Audio Reporting.

The show is now back for a third season, Trouble in Sweetwater. Its starting point is the case of Ella Mae Begay, an elderly woman from the Navajo Nation who disappeared from her home in the summer of 2021. Through Begay’s story, the new season explores the policing crisis in the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the United States, and how it contributes to experiences like Begay’s.

While gearing up to release the new season, however, Stolen was hit with a crisis: in December, Spotify, the owner of Gimlet, the podcasting company that produces Stolen, announced that it would not be renewing its contract with the show after the third season, putting its future in doubt. The news bookended a tumultuous year for podcasting and the broader audio industry that saw several companies make cuts to their offerings. “This year, after nearly a decade of uninterrupted growth, podcasts hit a ceiling,” CJR’s Emily Russell wrote in October. “Narrative nonfiction podcasts (costly to produce, difficult to monetize) were affected the most.” Still, she added, “audio journalists are finding ways forward.”

This month, the first few episodes of Trouble in Sweetwater were released. Amid these endings and new beginnings for Stolen, I spoke with Walker and Max Green, one of the show’s producers, about the process of creating the new season, the importance of trauma-informed reporting, and Spotify’s decision. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

FM: The third season of Stolen delves into the policing system of the Navajo Nation through the disappearance of Ella Mae Begay, a Navajo elder. How did you decide on that focus?

CW: Each season showcases a different facet of life for Indigenous people in Canada and the US. “Indigenous” is this kind of blanket term that covers incredibly diverse nations, from coast to coast to coast; there are so many different experiences and perspectives and issues, and we want to help provide a kind of a window into the world. Because last season was such a personal story for me and my family, I was really craving something that was different. And I think that we all, for a couple of years now, have been wanting to do a more contemporary story that was happening as we were reporting. That’s what led us to Ella Mae’s story and the story of the Navajo Nation.  

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MG: There’s a uniqueness to the situation of policing on the largest tribal land in the United States. There’s a lot of things that you encounter there because of the nature of how the police function: how people there interact with law enforcement, and how the vast majority of the officers there are Indigenous themselves and are policing communities that they’re often from. The more time that we spent looking at those dynamics, it felt distinct from the kinds of relationships between community and police that you see in a lot of other places.

As the show’s profile has increased, has that changed or affected the process of making it? 

CW: This season, no. I don’t think that any of the people we spent time with on the Navajo Nation had ever listened to any of our previous seasons prior to us sharing them with them, which we always do. Whenever we meet somebody we want to help them understand the kinds of stories that we tell and the kind of approach that we take. I think that you could go to any Indigenous community in Canada or the US and there is probably some experience with outside media coming in and reporting on their community in some way. Most of the time, I think that Indigenous communities have had really problematic experiences with media.

MG: I think a lot of people we spoke to were understandably skeptical. Where a difference was made was [Connie] going there and people being like, Oh, you’re not just calling or emailing. You’re physically here. You’re knocking on my door. That demonstrates a level of commitment that I think is not what people grow to expect when their communities are not covered with consideration.

Did you get to consult journalists who cover the Navajo Nation about the relationship people have to the media that’s there? 

CW: We connected with Navajo Nation journalists. One who we’re working with is Sunnie Clahchischiligi, who is an editor at High Country News and is not only from the Navajo Nation, but the area of the reservation where we’re primarily focused: Sweetwater, where Ella Mae Begay was from. Reporting there was the first time I’d ever been to the Navajo Nation. There are so many interesting things about life there that I think we’re able to explore in the podcast. The issue of media and public information is part of our story as well. 

There’s so much work involved in producing a multi-episode investigative podcast. Can you talk about how this season came together?  

MG: October 2022 is when the reporting started in earnest. [We were] trying to follow a specific story and also see what stories were unfolding while Connie and other members of the team were there. The reporting phase is pretty much ongoing. Our last season was very similar in that we were reporting pretty much right up until the very end. You never really feel done reporting. Also, things shake loose as you start to publish, and you want to include those things. 

In the fall of 2023, we started to dig into the production—in terms of what the story is, people that will play an important role in it, and thematically what is sort of coalescing and feeling important—and tried to lay that across an eight-episode storyboard, which we rework and rework and rework, and iterate on. Then we started to write scripts and work with the tape. That’s a very collaborative process, which is one of my favorite parts of working with this team, because I feel we’ve developed a sense of being able to be in a vulnerable space writing together, which is something that in my prior life, as more of a print and radio journalist, you don’t do as much. I call that the beginning of the production phase. Now we are full-on in that mode. We might have fifteen or twenty revisions of a script or an episode, and those keep getting worked until they’re ready to go out into the world. 

You’ve had to navigate traumatic stories for long periods––Stolen is not a quick-turnaround piece of journalism. What have you learned about the responsibility of documenting the complexities of people’s traumas?

CW: I spent some time at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma [which is based at Columbia Journalism School] as a fellow. One of the most insightful and illuminating parts of that time for me was learning about how—when people are empowered to tell their own stories about their trauma, in a way where they feel safe and where they’re given control and where they have agency over telling their story—that can be a healing experience. We feel like these stories are critical for people to understand Indigenous people and Indigenous history in North America. But also, this is someone’s real life, and that has to be our highest priority. 

For season one of Stolen, which focused on the disappearance of Jermain Charlo, we spent a lot of time with Jermain’s auntie, who was her biggest advocate. At a certain point she was feeling worried about a podcast and how it [might affect] Jermain’s case, and she asked that we not use her interview. I then questioned, Is this something that we should still do if Jermain’s auntie doesn’t want to participate anymore? And so we talked to other members of her family, and they still wanted us to do the podcast, and were supportive. We decided that we wouldn’t use the interviews with Jermain’s aunt. I think that we absolutely wanted to respect her decision not to be involved. The first couple of episodes came out, and she was able to listen to the podcast and to our approach and the information that we were able to get. And she reached out and asked if she could still be a part of it. We were able to include some of the interviews that we’d done with her in later episodes, as Max said, because we’re always producing and reporting up until the last minute. I think that that’s harder, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done.

Despite the impact that Stolen has had, Spotify announced that it won’t be renewing the show. How do you feel about that decision? 

CW: I think that everyone working in podcasting over the last year is probably heartbroken about the way that the industry has been affected. What happened with Stolen is just part of this bigger story of what’s been happening in podcasting over the last few years. I hope that there’s a way to continue, because I feel like—especially for the kinds of stories that we’re telling about marginalized communities, in-depth investigative stories—podcasting and serialized storytelling is really the perfect platform to bring people along, and to help create space for understanding and empathy. The one thing that I’m heartened by is the fact that there’s more interest than there ever has been in stories about Indigenous people.

Can the tension between the intensive and slow work it takes to produce an investigative podcast like Stolen and the business interests of companies like Spotify be resolved? Is there a path you see where this kind of work can still be supported? 

CW: There’s always this tension, especially in podcasting, between this expectation that this work is available and free for people to listen to—which of course, as creators, we all want it to be as widely available as possible—but also the tension that then exists in terms of how people are going to support that work. I think that those are obviously conversations that we’re having right now and things that we’re trying to figure out. As an Indigenous woman, after twenty years in this industry, I feel so incredibly grateful and lucky that I have been able to get to do this work over the last few years and be supported. Because for a long time, that wasn’t the case. And now I’m in a position where I’m like, Okay, I want to keep going. How are we going to make that happen? That’s a huge question in journalism now that we should all be talking about. What is the path forward? And how are we making sure that we’re being safe and supporting all of the diverse voices who should be here with us, and should be helping to change this narrative?

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.