Apr 16, 2021 | NEWS | By Aidan Luter | Photo courtesy of Sierra Takushi
“I used to be really anti-podcast,” said Anya Steinberg ’21, recent winner of the NPR Student Podcast Challenge: College Edition. “I thought it was what pretentious people talked about all the time. But then about two years ago I started listening to This American Life, which is my all-time favorite podcast. And it dawned on me that people do this for a living. I thought that would be ideal. I feel like I really like talking to people. I really like hearing their stories.”
In the summer of 2020, Steinberg’s opportunity to hear people’s stories arrived. She joined Asian American Organizing Project as a storyteller intern and decided to tell stories in the way she loved most: audio. The podcast is called New Narratives. It explores the narratives that define Asian American identity and showcases stories that don’t fit the usual mold of what it means to be Asian American.
Meanwhile, NPR was hatching an idea for a Podcast Challenge that focused specifically on the experiences of college students.
“We wanted to just hear what college sounds like, which this year is different than any other year,” Sequoia Carrillo, assistant editor at NPR’s Education Desk, told The Catalyst. “We figured it would be great to hear more narratives about life on college campuses right now.”
When word of the competition made it to Steinberg, she instantly knew what she would make her entry about.
“There’s different narratives that Asian Americans can have in popular media, like the struggling immigrant, the Crazy Rich Asians, the Ivy League crazy parents and children,” Steinberg said. “My Asian American experience doesn’t really fit neatly into the different narratives. There’s just a lot of things that aren’t a part of my Asian American experience, and that all ties back to my relationship with my father, and also my biological sperm donor father. So, I wanted to make a podcast talking about that.”
Her winning podcast, “He’s Only 23 Chromosomes,” explores her complex relationship with both her biological and non-biological father. Part of this process included interviewing her mom and brother about their feelings.
“I never really talked to my mom and my brother about it, which sounds crazy,” Steinberg said, “but that was really one of the first conversations that I can remember having with both of them about our biological dad.”
“A lot of [the questions] were kind of scary because I didn’t know how they were going to react to being asked that. I honestly didn’t know if they’d be offended, or if they would be sad, or what,” Steinberg said. “But it was honestly a really sweet and intimate moment for me to get to sit down with both of them over winter break and interview them.”
After the interviews, Steinberg got to work.
“I started with just like a bullet-pointed list of all of my feelings about my dad,” she said. “Both dads, which was emotional.”
“I had to make some decisions about how I was going to tell the story,” Steinberg said. “Am I going to be an angry young woman with daddy issues, mad at her dad for not being there for her, or am I going to be more contemplative about what it means to be family or what it means to share genetics?”
After the script was completed, Steinberg recorded her voiceover underneath a towel in her bedroom, inspired by the recent Billie Eilish documentary.
“The only people who listened to it before I won were my boyfriend, my mom, and my brother,” Steinberg said. “And I’m not even sure my brother listened to it before I won because I sent him the link and he never said anything back. Then a couple months later I was like, ‘Ari, I won, did you ever listen to it?’ and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah.’”
While only a couple people in Steinberg’s life were listening to the podcast, the people at NPR’s offices in Washington, D.C. were loving it.
“You listen to a lot of podcasts that almost make it or are almost amazing,” Carrillo said. “This one actually went all the way. It was fantastic.”
“Anya was able to tell this story without ever making it completely about her. She was able to hear the different perspectives of her brother and her mom and say what she was feeling, but it never felt like I was being told what to feel, which I think is really important in a podcast and in journalism,” Carrillo said. “Present all of the information and let the listener make their own judgment. And I think she did that really beautifully. That’s very difficult to do in a personal narrative.”
Steinberg’s podcast was an obvious finalist, and a favorite among judges when picking the winners.
“It was really a masterful product,” Carrillo said.
Steinberg was sitting at her dining room table when she got the email saying she was picked as a finalist.
“I couldn’t even believe it. I was shaking, just immediately, and my palms were covered in sweat,” Steinberg said. “Then the rest of my day, I was not even listening in class. I just totally zoned out. I couldn’t think about anything. It was so surreal.”
A few weeks went by, and Steinberg figured another finalist had been chosen as the ultimate winner.
“I was like, ‘I was a finalist, but didn’t win and that’s totally fine with me. I’m super happy, this changed my whole life,’” she said. “It also just gave me so much confidence. Okay, I am doing something right.”
A few weeks later, she got a call from Carrillo.
“I thought I was in trouble. Like plagiarized something,” Steinberg said. “Then she was like ‘yeah you won the contest,’ and I couldn’t believe that. I think I told her on the phone, ‘I think I’m going to pee my pants.’ It was just it was so many emotions all at once, I don’t even have the adjectives to describe it.”
After Steinberg was informed of her win, a crew, including Carrillo, came to campus to record an upcoming segment for NPR. They were shown around campus, interviewed Steinberg, and even got to see the towel under which the podcast was recorded.
“Obviously I had put a lot of thought into the podcast, but talking it through with them made me realize, ‘Oh, interesting, I never thought about it that way,’” Steinberg said. “There’s just a lot of things that they asked me about that I hadn’t thought about necessarily when I was making it, but subconsciously were a part of the podcast.”
Carrillo hopes that programs like the Student Podcast Challenge will get more students and schools involved in audio storytelling. She recommends anyone interested in podcasting visit the program’s website for podcasting guides and how-tos.
The competition has certainly helped Steinberg on her path towards podcasting and radio journalism as a career.
“What this win hopefully will do for me is open up a lot of doors and show people I do have what it takes. Obviously, I’ve got a lot to learn, which is exciting to me because I like learning,” Steinberg said. “I feel like this whole NPR thing is super crazy and could be the beginning of a long (or short) career in radio journalism.”