Elizabethton High School students win national podcast challenge

What started as a group project has turned into a national story, as four students worked to tell the story of a small town in East Tennessee and its struggles to overcome its past.

Elizabethton High School students held a press conference Thursday morning at the high school to talk about their recent first place win in NPR’s podcast competition.

English teacher Tim Wasem came up with the initial group project to create a podcast.

“It was a natural jump from last year’s project,” Wasem said about his veteran profiles project he had students create last year.

Students formed groups and chose from a selection of around 50 different topics. For Deanna Hull, she said her group knew nothing about the topic they selected.

“We chose it because we had never heard of it,” Hull said.

The topic was Murderous Mary, the story of the hanging of an elephant in Erwin, Tenn., a town 15 minutes south of Johnson City. The killings took place in the 20th century, and the students said the town has been working to overcome that history with yearly charity projects ever since.

As the teacher watched the podcast progress throughout the semester, he said the level of quality was incredible.

“I was amazed the whole way at their work,” Wasem said.

This level of quality was particularly surprising to the students because the four group members had virtually no experience in any one aspect of the podcast process.

Hull said their teacher showed them a short YouTube tutorial on how to use Audacity and set them loose.

“I thought at first it was just another school project,” group member Caleb Miller said. “It was definitely an experience.”

He said interviewing the people of Erwin, in particular, changed the group’s perspective on the story.

They said the story lurked in the town’s history as a dark period.

“I am grateful I got to talk to all those people,” Hull said.

Overall, the group amassed roughly four hours of recorded footage. Their task was then to compress it into the required 12-minute length NPR required. It took the four students six weeks from start to finish. Again, the students said they had little to no experience in how any of that worked.

“We had to talk about why this story was important,” Hull said. “We wanted Erwin to tell the story.”

As a result, they said they used only a little narration from themselves, instead relying on the interviewed sources to tell the bulk of the story, supplementing context wherever needed.

“We wanted everyone to say it from their perspective,” Miller said.

The podcast won first place in NPR’s Inaugural Nationwide Podcast Challenge. Judges said the quality was so impressive they forgot students made it.

“This podcast took them on a journey,” NPR judge Lee Hale said in a press release. “The voices, the pacing, the arc […] everything worked.”

As part of the celebration, NPR will broadcast the completed podcast nationally on Wednesday, May 15.

“I will be sitting in my driveway for a little while,” Wasem said, saying he is eager to hear the podcast on national radio.

As for next year, Wasem said he is considering doing a more local focus, but said he would love to enter into the podcast challenge again next year.

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