Best In Show: Our Favorite College Podcasts

Mar 30, 2021
Originally published on April 2, 2021 12:02 pm

From quarantining in dorms to staring at the screen in online classes — it was a wild year to be a college student. And, it turns out, it was a good year for us to welcome college students for the first time to the NPR Student Podcast Challenge.

Today we're announcing our favorites! From podcasts submitted from college students across the country, we've narrowed the list down to 10 finalists. You can read and listen to the full list here.

From this list, our judges will select the grand-prize winners. We'll announce those winners next week, along with our honorable mentions. Then, over the coming weeks we'll talk to the winners and tell their stories on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

Our list of finalists covers a full spectrum of college life. We obviously heard a lot about COVID-19, but we also heard great podcasts about identity and music. About public transportation and friendship and racism in art. We even got some colorful tours through food and culture. Following the pandemic, our second most popular topic was family: tons of multi-generational stories with family histories, traditions and rich storytelling.

Here is a quick rundown of our 10 finalists:

Anya Steinberg from Colorado College, explored what it felt like to learn that her biological father — a sperm donor she had always been told was a doctor — was in fact a jazz musician. Listen to "23 Chromosomes" here. (A warning for listeners — this podcast contains some language that may not be suitable for children.)

Do you like crawfish? Brian Le at Emory University started his podcast with that question, and from there, "A Tale of Two Crawfish" takes us on the journey of two fictional crustaceans, Cajun and Viet, to illustrate the Vietnamese American experience. Along the way, we learn about a little known branch of cajun cuisine.

From Princeton University, Andrew Zacks sent us a podcast that talks about food in a very different way. "Men, Well Done" explained the gendered marketing and history of grilling. And while Andrew whips up a sizzling hot burger, he has a mini heart-to-heart with us because, he explains, when you're behind the grill that's what you do!

Lennon Sherburne, who attends Simmons University in Boston, really went deep in exploring their feelings. They describe how, for them, the pandemic experience was different than most due to one big reason: no computer screens. Listen to the "Let's Do The Time Warp" here.

That sense of isolation amid the pandemic came up over and over again. Elijah McKee from Skidmore College put that feeling into sound in a postcard to his bedroom. Through sound design, and poetic writing, McKee really took us inside his head for his podcast, "A Postcard."

Other podcasts zoomed out for a wider picture. Savannah Kelley from Northwestern University investigated one Iowa high school's response to proposed state legislation that would allow trangender students to use the bathroom of their choice. You can hear her reporting here.

Miriam Colvin from Penn State University also did some digging. "Competition with the Best" reveals the story of a young Muhammad Ali and a fateful boxing match that happened a few years before he became "The Greatest."

After living through a summer of protests centered around monuments to Confederate leaders in Richmond, Va., Gabriela Santana, Joshua Gordon and Hassan Fields examined the difference between vandalism and art. The students at Virginia Commonwealth University took a critical eye to the statues that surround their campus in "When Time Slows Down."

At the University of Chicago, the student podcasters behind "PWI-ing While Black" talked about some of the issues students of color face on their campus, and took a satirical look at the traditional admissions brochure. Lena Diasti, Hope Houston, Chase Leito, Daisy Okoye, Dinah Clottey and Jonathan Brooks all contributed to the piece.

And last, but certainly not least, have you ever heard music in the subway? Not someone busking or humming next to you, but music in the subway trains themselves? Bennett Cook from Buffalo State College does, and he definitely convinced us in his finalist entry "Subway Symphony."

Our congratulations to all the finalists! Coming next month, we'll be announcing the finalists in our Student Podcast Challenge for middle and high school students.

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NPR has been holding a student podcast challenge for a few years now. As tradition, we ask students in middle school and high school to pitch an idea for a short podcast story, and the winner's work airs on an NPR program. This year, though, the challenge was expanded to college students as well. And we got a whole lot of entries. We heard about systemic racism in art, colorful tours through food and culture and, of course, the challenges of school and life in the pandemic. Sequoia Carrillo from NPR's Education team introduces us to some of the finalists.


LENNON SHERBURNE: I don't do much anymore aside from school and skateboard, but even that stopped for a while after I got my concussion.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: That's Lennon Sherburne from Simmons University in Boston. They're one of the many student podcasters who really went deep this year. They described how their pandemic experience was different than most for one big reason - no screens.


SHERBURNE: So all I could do was sit and think and think and think about the school I wasn't doing, about the miles I wasn't running, about the people I wasn't seeing, about the pandemic that isn't ending.

CARRILLO: Feeling isolated was something we heard over and over again. Elijah McKee is a senior at Skidmore College. He really put that feeling into sound in a postcard to his bedroom.


ELIJAH MCKEE: How did you, will you spend your days here? Did the, will the overhead fan rustle scraps of paper and fabric clinging to your walls like it does mine? Did you, will you notice the same neighbors on their daily walks that I do, hear music from the downstairs apartment and start to dance, climb out the window with a blanket and rest on the slight incline of our roof, watch plants flourish and die, sip twice-steeped tea, think about loving and dying right here (unintelligible)?

CARRILLO: While some students looked inward, others zoomed out and really reported on community issues like Savannah Kelley from Northwestern University. She looks at one Iowa high school's response to proposed state legislation that would allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.


SAVANNAH KELLEY: Two sides had emerged. Students started wearing different colored shirts, blue for LGBTQ allies and white for their opponents.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I remember one guy, he sat next to me in my science class and we always talked and we were always good friends. And the day the shirt thing happened, he wore the other color and didn't look me in the eyes.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Rapping) Please let me out of the cage. Please let me out of the cage.

JOSHUA GORDON: I never even really acknowledged that Jeb Stuart, Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson are hovering above me. But they are.

HASSAN FIELDS: This is America, after all.

CARRILLO: After a summer of protests in Richmond, Va., Gabriela Santana, Joshua Gordon and Hassan Fields from Virginia Commonwealth University reported on the difference between vandalism and art on the statues that surround their campus.


FIELDS: We set out to try and understand what made this graffiti a disruptive symbol within the community, but we just weren't asking the right questions.

CARRILLO: Brian Le, on the other hand, knew exactly the right questions to ask, and he started with a very important one.


BRIAN LE: I have a question. Do you like crawfish?





LE: And have you ever had Vietnamese Cajun crawfish?





LE: Interesting.

CARRILLO: Le is a junior at Emory University and takes us on the journey of two crawfish named Cajun and Viet as a way of illustrating the Vietnamese American experience through seafood.


LE: We humans are weird when it comes to food traditions. Food represents culture. It represents history.

CARRILLO: Le says there isn't a lot of Vietnamese Cajun food in New Orleans. He talks about how in a city renowned for its food, people there sometimes get hung up on traditions.


LE: People get defensive, overly defensive, and quick to call things that go against the grain of tradition to be unacceptable. Steak should only be seasoned with salt, pepper, butter and thyme. Pizza should never have fish as a topping. And crawfish should not be tossed in garlic butter. What do you think?

CARRILLO: The winners of the Student Podcast Challenge College Edition will be announced next week on Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN DAZE'S "NEW DESTINATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.