From Project Catapult: ‘Us & Them’

This is part of a series that looks at the shows in Project Catapult’s first cohort.

Us & Them is trying to build a bridge.

In a political and social environment that’s often polarized, the team behind Us & Them, from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, PRX and Trey Kay Productions, wants to bring understanding and respectful dialogue to what are often hot-button issues.

“We try to get behind the passionate exterior of culture warriors in search of commonality and a deeper understanding of each side’s ‘otherness,’ ” said Trey Kay, host and producer of Us & Them. “We want to better understand how and why Americans — perhaps humans, in general — sort themselves into camps or tribes of entrenched belief and worldview.”

Recent episodes of the show have taken on everything from Confederate monuments to Common Core math to football players’ protests.

The team behind the show — including Kay; co-producer and technical director Mitch Hanley; and manager and digital marketing coordinator Joni Deutsch — thinks Americans can not only handle this kind of reasoned, fair discourse, but that they actually want to engage in it.

Joni Deutsch, left; Trey Kay, center; and Mitch Hanley make up the team that creates Us & Them.

“I think more and more people are finding that they are not neatly bundled into Us and Them camps,” Hanley said. “I think many Americans are more deeply examining the available labels, determining which parts of, for example, conservatism or liberalism with which they identify, and looking outside of the tent for other options of self-identification.”

As the show continues to develop, the team hopes to bring these conversations to even more ears, through collaborations with other groups in broader geographical areas.

“We are hoping to build partnerships with news departments of other public radio member stations with the hope of sharing reporting resources so that we can more easily report on Us & Them-type stories in other parts of the nation,” Kay said.

But the show has already seen a recent boost in listeners, even before expanding its reach in this way.

The team credits Deutsch’s marketing prowess for what they say is a recent 486 percent increase in downloads. This boost in download numbers began when the show debuted its first episode after participating in Project Catapult, which was funded by CPB.

Before Project Catapult, Kay said, “We’d thought that our show was about politics” — but, it turned out, “really it is a show about ‘sorting’ — how humans sort themselves into differing camps or tribes of customs, worldview or beliefs.”

Following this epiphany, the team went to work on an episode that came to be known as “Hillers & Creekers,” which got six times more downloads than their next-highest downloaded episode, Kay said.

“The ‘Hillers & Creekers’ episode best exemplifies how Us & Them incorporated lessons from Catapult into our show, and how a local story can be relatable on a national scale,” Deutsch said.

Their Project Catapult experience was also unique for another reason: It was the first time all three of them had been in the same place at the same time. Kay is based in New York, Hanley on Boston’s South Shore and Deutsch in Charlestown, West Virginia.

“I like to say that Catapult actually brought us together, literally, because we had never met face-to-face until the first day of bootcamp in January 2017,” Hanley said.

The team encourages anyone with a personal story or episode idea to reach out on the show’s Facebook or Twitter pages. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.