On Wednesday Georgianna McKenny finally got to share a secret she’d been keeping for weeks: she beat out more than 3,300 students across the country in a national podcast competition. 

Georgianna McKenny, the winner of the 2023 National Public Radio Student Podcast Challenge, with her composition teacher, Thomas Easterling. Credit: Caleb Youngblood/The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

The 17-year-old is the winner of National Public Radio Student Podcast Challenge, which gives students a chance to have their work featured on the daily national broadcast. Her episode exploring the impact of the Jackson water crisis on students was created in her University Composition class at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, a public boarding school located in Columbus. Her teacher, Thomas Easterling, created the project three years ago in an effort to revamp his coursework after the pandemic. 

“It forces them to get out of the classroom and it forces them to see how scholarship and citizenship really are tied,” Easterling said. 

The project begins with an essay at the beginning of the year where students describe a place that’s important to them, followed by a research paper, usually about a topic related to their home community, that provides the basis for the podcast episode. 

McKenny said her initial essay focused on her hometown of Crystal Springs but she ended up writing about the water crisis the more she researched the topic and talked to her family in Jackson. 

The drinking water system in Jackson — Mississippi’s largest city and home to more than 150,000 residents — has struggled with reliable water pressure for years. The city’s water system was on the brink of failure in late August 2022, leaving thousands of capital city residents with low or no water pressure and little information about when service would be restored. The governor declared a state of emergency which was not lifted until late November. The entire city was under a boil water notice for weeks.

The episode begins with McKenny describing the experience of her cousin waking up each morning and checking the tap to see if there was water. Her interviews with her cousin and friends provided the student context for the episode. Easterling connected her with a current Jackson Public Schools teacher who was able to put her in touch with an administrator who spoke anonymously in the episode. 

“Some of the stuff they would tell me, I was surprised,” she said. “Maybe it didn’t go exactly with my research, or it was just something I never thought about altogether.”

McKenny said she was interested to learn that some schools would combine when a campus had to close due to lack of water pressure, because she assumed the students just wouldn’t go to school that day. Her podcast explores the challenges that came with navigating school during this time, including the confusion of teachers and students outside their normal environments and the impact on lunch preparations.  

While the project is usually split into a scriptwriter and a producer, McKenny served as both for her project, something she said she enjoyed because it allowed her to fully realize her vision for the project. She said she particularly liked the process of audio editing, but didn’t like having to listen to the sound of her own voice.

Georgianna McKenny, the winner of the 2023 National Public Radio Student Podcast Challenge. Credit: Georgianna McKenny

“Sometimes I would talk too fast or too slow, that was frustrating to listen to it back again and again,” she said. 

The competition received over 3,300 entries at the middle and high school levels. Judges praised the creative introduction and personal connection in McKenny’s episode. 

McKenny said it feels “amazing” to have won, and encouraged others to pursue telling stories they are interested in. 

“If anyone is considering making a podcast, writing an article, or just publishing something, they should do it no matter how many people it impacts,” she said. “If they’re passionate about it, there’s going to be someone who wants to listen.” 

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.