National Public Radio recently announced four Elizabethton High School juniors as the winners of the inaugural nationwide NPR Student Podcast Challenge. The contest was open to middle and high school students, and judges received nearly 6,000 submissions – about half of which were from high school students.
The winning podcast tells the story of Murderous Mary, the circus elephant hanged in Erwin, Tenn. in 1916, and how the town is reshaping this bizarre legacy. Student podcasters are John Gouge, Jaxton Holly, Deanna Hull, and Caleb Miller. Their podcast is entitled “Murderous Mary and the RISE of Erwin,” and it will air on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered on May 15.
None of the students had ever recorded or edited sound, much less interviewed anyone. These were not their only obstacles. They selected a fairly obscure topic which has been passed down primarily through oral lore, and eye witnesses are all deceased. Thankfully, they were able to report the facts accurately by enlisting the help of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley, archivist Joe Penza, public library resources, and several residents.
“We all thought it was interesting, so we stuck with it,” said Hull. “We learned how to work cohesively, that talking to adults isn’t as intimidating as it seems, and to never give up no matter how bad things appear. We were pretty far behind, but we kept trying and finally got it together in the last three days.”
Despite these hurdles, NPR judges were clearly impressed with the quality of their work.
"This podcast took me on a journey," says Lee Hale, one of the NPR judges and a reporter at member station KUER in Utah. "Halfway in, I forgot I was judging a student competition because I got so wrapped up in the story. The voices, the pacing, the arc — everything worked."
The project educated students about the history of the hanging, but it also gave them a new perspective on the town.
“It leaves an impact on your life and changes the way you think,” said Miller. “I thought Erwin was just a place that hung an elephant, but I realized it’s a community of people that care and are trying to make things right and turn it into a positive note, which they’re doing every day.”
Mayor Hensley expressed gratitude for their work. She hopes it will give community members a platform to tell a new and brighter story, replacing the stigma of Mary’s hanging which has haunted Erwin for the last century.
“Their podcast will be shared nationwide, bringing positive recognition to the Elephant Sanctuary and to Erwin,” said Mayor Hensley. “We hope it will help turn Erwin’s story from one of tragedy to one that reflects the true character and kindness of the people of our town.”
Erwin now hosts the Erwin Elephant Revival Festival and other fundraisers to support the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. An organization called RISE Erwin works strategically to rejuvenate, invest in, support, and energize the town – and one of their priorities has been recrafting the Mary story through elephant advocacy.
The podcast competition was an assignment in the integrated English III and US History classes, which are co-taught by Tim Wasem and Alex Campbell. In total, 11 podcasts were submitted.
Teachers were thrilled with the results of the project – not only because students showed an understanding of course standards, but because students were challenged to do something new and different, and they embraced it and cared about their work.
Several students said they felt compelled to tell their stories with integrity and empathy – not for the grade or the competition – but because someone in their community had shown them respect and entrusted them with a personal and at times painful story that deserved being remembered.
“Even if we hadn’t won, I’m proud of what we did,” said Hull. “I didn’t see it as a project where I really wanted to win. I just wanted to represent Erwin.”
In a statement from NPR, a spokesperson explained their mission with this project and how they hope it amplified the voices of young people in their local communities.
“Public media belongs to everyone. We need to hear the concerns, ideas, and perspectives of young people, and what better way than to give space for them tell their own stories, in their own voices.”
Special thanks go to NPR, Mayor Doris Hensley, Joe Penza, Jamie Rice, Maggie Donnellan, Patrick Callahan, Kayla Jones, Gary Schwenke, Ann Yungmeyer, Hannah Swayze, Haley White, Joe Penza, Abby Frye, and Adam Rose.
All 11 EHS podcasts are available here, and the direct link to the Murderous Mary episode is available here.