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Elizabethton podcasters met with NPR reporters this week.

Contributed • May 10, 2019 at 12:12 AM

ELIZABETHTON — After their podcast about “Murderous Mary” beat out nearly 3,000 other entries to win a national contest, Elizabethton High School juniors and podcasters John Gouge, Jaxton Holly, Deanna Hull, and Caleb Miller spent a part of this week with broadcasters from National Public Radio.

The winning podcast not only tells the story of Mary’s tragic end, but also about how Erwin has overcome the stigma of being the town where the elephant was executed. The podcast will air on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and “All Things Considered” on May 15.

It has been quite an accomplishment for the four students.

None had ever recorded or edited sound, much less interviewed anyone. And there were other obstacles.

The students chose an obscure topic that happened a century ago. There were no witnesses still living for the students could interview. Some advantages the students did have included the expertise of Elizabethton City Archivist Joe Penza. They also had the help of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley and several residents who were knowledgeable on the topic.

“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 past 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 they 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.”

All 11 EHS podcasts are available at http://bit.ly/2LrwrIC, and the direct link to the Murderous Mary episode is available at http://bit.ly/2YfshVS.

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