Best Of The Best: Here Are The Finalists In The NPR Student Podcast Challenge | KUNC

Best Of The Best: Here Are The Finalists In The NPR Student Podcast Challenge

Jun 2, 2020
Originally published on June 3, 2020 2:20 pm

Coronavirus, homework, sports, climate change: Working in the midst of a nationwide school shutdown, high school and middle school students around the country took on these and many more topics in this year's NPR Student Podcast Challenge.

After two deadline extensions and a lot of creative solutions to the challenges of recording from their homes, we received more than 2,000 podcasts from 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Today, we're announcing our finalists! We've listened to every single podcast entry and narrowed the list down to 25 finalists — read and listen to the full list here.

From this list, our judges will select our two grand-prize winners, and we'll announce those winners on Wednesday, June 3. (We also identified more than 200 honorable mentions and we'll be announcing those soon as well.)

Among the many outstanding entries we received were:

  • Six high school students at St. Helena High School in northern California who worked together to track down a childhood hero, Popo the Clown. Their witty and poignant conversation with Popo helped the students say goodbye to high school in preparation for life beyond.
  • The entire senior class at Stilwell High School investigated their rural eastern Oklahoma town after a Washington Post article dubbed them "the early death capital of the US" last year. The students' months-long investigation included interviews with elected officials, lifelong town residents, and even researchers in Washington, D.C., to help them understand the data. Their podcast offers a window into a town dealing with poverty, generational trauma, and addiction, but one that also holds a lot of local pride and hope. Listen here.
  • A middle school class in Castle Rock, Colo., focused on local history — with two groups of students on our finalist lists — one for the Forgotten Flood of 1965 and the other for 40 Years Cold.
  • Ditto for J. Sterling Morton East High School in Cicero, Ill., where English teachers Mark Sujak and Jeremy Robinson's students produced compelling podcasts about their lives and struggles in the Chicago suburb.

Across the board this year we saw improvements in sound quality, storytelling and editing. This made our decisions even harder, but marked hard work and dedication from students across the United States. And it set the stage for our contest next year, which will expand to include a third category: entries from college students.

One trend we saw this year was students examining their own backyards — reporting from their local communities on a wide range of issues. Six of our 25 finalists worked on local investigations.

In New Jersey, for example, three juniors at Holmdel High School spent 5 months uncovering their town's little-known past, and they tracked down a Nobel Prize winner to tell them the story. How a Small Town Discovered the Universe explains how two radio astronomers in the remote hills of Holmdel first heard radiation in 1965 that was left over more than 13 billion of years ago from the Big Bang. The discovery validated the scientific theory and garnered the Nobel Prize in Physics. They weren't the only students to focus on famous scientists: Angie Sun, a 12th grader from Land O'Lakes, Fla., used Siri to help explain some little known facts about Nikola Tesla.

In Milwaukee, students at Pathways High School launched a podcast series on the offensive use of Native American iconography in sports. Middle schoolers in Travis County, Texas, interviewed their school nurse to examine the dangers of concussions in athletics.

Not all the projects were research-driven, some were just fun! Elise McClay, who moved to the United States recently from Australia, explored in her podcast her expectations of life in the the U.S. vs. the realities of her new home in Bentonville, Ark.

Two other finalists focused on home life — Maria Frank, a high schooler from Denville, N.J., talked about growing up in a family of five. Middle schoolers Emma Ralph and Caroline O'Brien from Riverside, Ill., discussed sibling stereotypes and rivalries.

While you could count most of these finalists as personal stories, there were a few this year that really dove deep and left us in awe.

High schooler Sam Meneses interviewed his brother about a kayaking journey through the Amazon. The podcast told how, on the journey, Joaquin Meneses tragically lost three friends to the rapids and had to survive on his own for days before a rescue squad could reach him.

Jocelie Gutierrez and Alejandra Nunez Lopez, from J. Sterling Morton East High School in Cicero, Ill., discussed their upbringing in Latinx households and the prejudice they face in their communities. From the same school, 11th grader Ivana Diaz discussed her experience growing up having a brother who is a member of a gang. Both podcasts show high school students in vulnerable situations taking charge of their own stories.

As with last year, we heard students who wanted to change the ways their culture or identity is portrayed in the mainstream. High school student Brandon Yam thought the best way to do this was by "Changing the White Curriculum, One Book at a Time." He followed the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice in its quest to change New York public schools curriculum to better reflect the student population.

Middle school students at Garrison Middle School in Walla Walla, Wash., also wanted their voices heard. They argued that they should read books they liked rather than the traditional literature assigned by their teachers. On the whole, many many students sought to use their journalism to change the status quo: Whether by upending toxic masculinity, as middle schooler Ellis Stephens of Dalton, Ga., tried to do, or as in this middle school podcast from Los Angeles that called for a ban on political advertisements on social media.

New York City high school students, in Brooklyn's Canarsie neighborhood, voiced their frustrations with older generations when it comes to climate change and environmental racism. After going to the Youth Climate March in Manhattan, the students lamented the lack of black climate activists.

In a science-based approach, middle school students from Cottage Lane Elementary School in Blauvelt, N.Y., looked to the natural world for solutions to some of the problems that contribute to climate change.

Many students had fun with the podcasting medium, exploring the full range of tools and techniques for telling stories with sound. In a love letter to nature, high school student Alex Soto from Tucson went on a personal question for the most beautiful sound. If you need a break from the world, give her podcast a listen here.

As NPR hosts can tell you, it is hard to nail a conversational piece in general, but to set just the right tone on a tough topic is even more impressive. Humor can often help, as Alex Morgan and Aaron Morgan of Atherton, Calif., showed with their podcast "Why Instagram is Like a Cocaine-Laced Brownie." The podcast examines how Alex and his peers are being sucked even deeper into their virtual worlds during the global pandemic.

And yes, many podcasts focused on the pandemic and its effects on young people and the communities where they live, including three of our finalists. High schoolers Sara Zhu, Griffin Becker, Ella Rossi, Elizabeth Breidinger and Carlo Pryor, of Alameda, Calif., had planned to record their podcast on gentrification in the Bay Area, but when the pandemic hit their neighborhood early, they shifted their focus to San Francisco's Chinatown. They interviewed restaurant owners about how the early buzz around the virus was affecting business.

Across the country, in New York City's Chinatown, a group of middle school students from a podcast club called "The Dragon Kids" also made our list of finalists. The students, who are English language learners, interviewed their friends and siblings about discrimination during the early months of the pandemic. As they tell their stories they also teach the listener key words in Mandarin to talk about the pandemic.

Congratulations to all the finalists!

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

A lot of schools are closed because of the coronavirus. Still, NPR's Student Podcast Challenge got more than 2,000 entries from 46 states. Today, we have the finalists. They include podcasts on racism and climate change, coronavirus and even homework. Here's Sequoia Carrillo from the NPR education team.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: This year, there's no prom, no graduation, no recess. And on top of that, there's Zoom classes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY INSTAGRAM IS LIKE A COCAINE-LACED BROWNIE")

ALEX MORGAN: I've been out of school now for the best part of three weeks because of the novel coronavirus.

CARRILLO: Many of our student podcasters were trying to figure out what on Earth had happened to life as they knew it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY INSTAGRAM IS LIKE A COCAINE-LACED BROWNIE")

MORGAN: Everybody I know and everybody I've ever met is just sitting at home doing, well, I don't know. That's the big question to me.

CARRILLO: This is Alex Morgan at the Menlo School in Atherton, Calif. And for his podcast, he set out to answer that question.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY INSTAGRAM IS LIKE A COCAINE-LACED BROWNIE")

MORGAN: So here's what I did. I woke up in the morning at 9 a.m., and I recorded every significant activity I did until I went to bed at 11 p.m.

CARRILLO: Four hours and 22 minutes of that time, Alex says, he was on his cellphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY INSTAGRAM IS LIKE A COCAINE-LACED BROWNIE")

MORGAN: I literally can't remember a single substantive thing I did on my phone.

CARRILLO: So he interviewed his friends, and they pretty much all agreed they've been wasting so much time on their phones.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY INSTAGRAM IS LIKE A COCAINE-LACED BROWNIE")

MORGAN: Can we do an experiment? Can you pick up your phone and look at your daily screen time?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No. Alex, you're going to expose me.

MORGAN: I interviewed lots of my friends. This was a typical response.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Well, my weekly average is eight hours (laughter).

MORGAN: So you'd say most of that is just mindless scrolling.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, 100%.

CARRILLO: Other students explored the coronavirus by reporting on their own communities.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CV19 PODCAST")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But instead, Dom (ph) walked through a dining room that's empty - that is, except for a server who's sitting at a table with his head in his arms and appears to be sleeping. Is he awake?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: She says, no customers, so there's no work to do.

CARRILLO: These are students from the Alameda Community Learning Center in California. Their reporting examined the pandemic's effects and the racism and discrimination behind it across the bay in San Francisco's Chinatown.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CV19 PODCAST")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: A lot of people are trying to avoid Chinatown in general and avoid Asians, I would say.

CARRILLO: That's just one of the many student podcasts that explored the serious issues of racism and identity in America, but few did it with more passion than these New York City students.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Black communities face dangerously high levels of pollution. African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute water and air, an inequal quality of life.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: That's wild.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Bro, that's, like, environmental racism.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Climate change is racial injustice.

(CROSSTALK)

CARRILLO: These are seniors at the High School for Innovation in Advertising and Media in Brooklyn's Canarsie neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: You don't really realize that we're living in these areas. And then you go somewhere else, like Mill Basin or other neighborhoods, and you're like, why is it so much different than where I live?

CARRILLO: And these weren't the only students to take a hard look at their own community.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STRAWBERRIES IN THE DEATH CAPITAL")

PAINTHER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: That was Stilwell High School and Cherokee language teacher Mr. Painther (ph) saying the Trail of Tears ends in our town.

CARRILLO: The entire senior class of Stilwell High School in Oklahoma explored the high early death rates in their community, so high that in 2018, The Washington Post had called their town the early death capital of the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STRAWBERRIES IN THE DEATH CAPITAL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I feel for the people that have that attitude about Stillwell and Adair County that want to get out 'cause this is home to me.

CARRILLO: The students interviewed local government officials, teachers and longtime town residents, and they even did some investigative reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STRAWBERRIES IN THE DEATH CAPITAL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Alexa Sanders (ph) chose to research water issues. She found DEQ violation reports that indicated levels of lead and copper in tap water samples.

ALEXA SANDERS: So far, I've discovered that they dug a 3,000-foot well to hold uranium, and the uranium started to seep out.

CARRILLO: The seniors spent months on this project, and they hope that their reporting will have an impact in their town.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STRAWBERRIES IN THE DEATH CAPITAL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: The Stilwell High School seniors of 2020 want our research work to ignite a spark in Stilwell. Come together not just as a community but as a family. Our town needs healing, not just covering up the facts.

CARRILLO: Halfway across the country, in Holmdel, N.J., three students looking inside their community explored a forgotten secret. Half a century before, their town had played a role in the discovery of the origins of the universe.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOW A SMALL TOWN DISCOVERED THE UNIVERSE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: It was a quiet May morning. And while the birds sang and the deer emerged from the trees, the two radio astronomers sat in the cockpit of the antenna and recorded this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWOOSHING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Unbeknownst to them at the time, this was the echo of the Big Bang over 13 billion years ago, and they were the first people on the face of the Earth to hear of it.

CARRILLO: The students ended up tracking down and interviewing one of the original researchers, a Nobel Prize winner, Robert Woodrow Wilson.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "HOW A SMALL TOWN DISCOVERED THE UNIVERSE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Dr. Wilson, how did Holmdel even get into science in the first place?

ROBERT WOODROW WILSON: So radio astronomy was actually discovered in Holmdel just because Holmdel was a nice place with no radio interference and close enough to New York City.

CARRILLO: Quite a few students used their podcasts to talk about their love of science.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT TESLA")

ANJIE SUN: I think if I asked, who's Tesla, most of us would say, Tesla is a car brand or is it only a car brand? Let's ask Siri.

Hey, Siri, who's Tesla?

SIRI: Nikola Tesla was a Serbian American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer and futurist who is best known for his contributions to the design of the modern alternating current electricity supply system.

CARRILLO: Anjie Sun of Land O' Lakes, Fla., used her smartphone and Siri for her podcast about her favorite scientist.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT TESLA")

SUN: So now I think you know that Nikola Tesla is also a great inventor. Or you want to call him a tech nerd? Definitely.

CARRILLO: It's been a year of challenges. Most of these podcasts were finished up at home, with the students in many cases reporting, producing and recording all by themselves. It took a lot of inventiveness to make these great finalists. We'll announce the two grand prizewinners tomorrow on npr.org.

Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "SETTLING WITH POWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.