The Best Student Podcasts: An 8th-Grade Homage To A School's Unsung Heroes

May 17, 2021
Originally published on May 17, 2021 11:20 am

"How many people do you think take care of our campus?"

A chorus of young voices shout guesses from the Sayre School's playground in Lexington, Ky.

"15? 50? 20?"

The independent, pre-K-12 school has 10 buildings and about 500 students, so those guesses, albeit high, are understandable. The truth: The school has a maintenance staff of five. And now, the unsung heroes who make up that staff are the subject of a podcast that's won the middle school top prize in NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.

"Whodunnit?"

BY: Braeden Collett, Bo Porter, Brennan Williams and Dominique Jannat, Middle School Winners

Sayre School, Lexington, Ky.

Many Sayre students don't know much about this small but mighty maintenance crew, but eighth-grade podcasters Brennan Williams and Braeden Collett see them all the time on their way to their school's audio-visual classroom studio.

"The basement is the only quiet place on campus where we can actually do recording and not hear doors slamming and everybody screaming," said their teacher, Brad Becker.

Around the corner from Becker's basement classroom — one floor below a grand entry room with not one but two pianos and portraits of old headmasters — sits the bright blue office of Steve Guynn and Robert Smith. From here they manage the buildings and grounds at Sayre School.

Left: A framed photograph of four of the maintenance and grounds staff features (from left) Charles Dreux, Lea Dunson, Steve Guynn and Robert Smith in Guynn and Smith's office. Right: Steve Guynn, Sayre's director of building and grounds, creates a to-do list for the day at his desk.
Arden Barnes for NPR

In the cramped, basement studio, Brennan and Braeden listen to podcasts with Becker, who is himself a podcaster, and dream up story ideas. Most recently they turned their microphones to their neighbors — Guynn, Smith and the buildings and grounds team.

Their decision paid off: The teens' podcast beat out over 2,000 entries to win the grand prize in the middle-school portion of NPR's third annual national podcasting competition.

(You can listen to the high school winner and college winners on the Student Podcast Challenge homepage. And check out this year's honorable mentions while you're at it!)

"I always hear my mom listening to NPR on the way to school," Braeden said. "It's really — it's just so crazy to me that we won."

This semester is their fourth or fifth in Becker's class — they honestly can't remember. At some point, the project-based elective became less a class than a safe haven to experiment with audio, to be creative and to study the work of other sound storytellers. Fueled by a steady supply of snacks from a basket on the bookcase (Ritz Bits, Rice Krispies Treats and ... salad dressing?), the boys spent hours searching for sound effects, editing interview tape and, for Braeden, getting used to the sound of his voice.

"I remember I listened to my voice for the first time, like putting it into [sound editing software]. And I was like, dang, I sound like I'm like 5," Braeden laughed. "It's not how I sounded to myself."

Tech coordinator, podcast and video teacher Brad Becker (left) works with eighth grader Brennan Williams in the podcast room at Sayre School in Lexington, Ky.
Arden Barnes for NPR

When NPR visited the boys in Kentucky to congratulate them on their Student Podcast Challenge win, we wanted to know why they'd chosen to focus on Sayre's buildings and grounds staff. The answer was just plain curiosity: Braeden and Brennan wanted to know more about their basement neighbors.

"We just don't even see them or know when they'll be there. They'll be extremely quiet so that they don't disrupt anything, but they're always there whenever you need them," Brennan said.

It was a surprise to Guynn and Smith when the boys asked to interview them.

"To us, the department is not exciting. This is just what we do," Smith said.

However, once Guynn and Smith started telling stories, it became clear how much they contribute to the school.

"We want all of the faculty and staff and mainly the kids — what I call the babies — we want everybody to feel a comfort here when they get on this campus," Guynn explained.

Guynn and Smith do everything they can to help the students focus on learning. That includes tracking down the source of a mysterious, building-fouling smell; fixing any leaks the 100-year-old buildings may spring; and even sleeping in the school to take care of the campus during an ice storm.

"We had an ice storm here in 2003 where we were out for literally eight days," Guynn said. "So I spent eight days with a chainsaw and cuttin' down trees for eight days. I lived here in the gymnasium on some tarps."

Steve Guynn, Sayre School's director of buildings and grounds, helps move materials for the school's upcoming horse show.
Arden Barnes for NPR

Brennan and Braeden, along with their collaborators Bo Porter and Dominique Jannat, want to turn their podcast into a series. Next up: the cafeteria staff.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We got some breaking news now of the joyful variety. We're going to announce the winners of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge. The competition was fierce. There were more than 2,600 entries. And we're going to announce the high school winner later today on All Things Considered. But here on MORNING EDITION, we get to announce the winner of the middle school prize. And here we go. It goes to a team of eighth graders from Sayre School in Lexington, Ky.

Here's one of the students, Brennan Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SAYRE MIDDLE SCHOOL PODCAST")

BRENNAN WILLIAMS: We talked with lots of people about our maintenance staff and what they do every day, basically, so we can do what we come here for.

MARTIN: Their podcast is a fun, sound-rich celebration of the independent K-12 school's unsung maintenance crew, who does everything from fixing the furnace or unclogging a toilet to figuring out why an entire building smells super disgusting.

Here's NPR's Cory Turner.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The winning podcast won me over early on when Brennan and his classmate Braeden Collett sat down with Steve Guynn. He's the head of their school's small buildings and grounds crew.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SAYRE MIDDLE SCHOOL PODCAST")

BRENNAN: Mr. Guynn shared with us a very long list of things the maintenance staff has to handle.

STEVE GUYNN: Repairs on the commode.

BRENNAN: There are five guys who do the maintenance for this entire campus.

GUYNN: The lighting repairs, the setups and the special functions.

BRAEDEN COLLETT: He went on...

BRENNAN: And on.

GUYNN: Biohazard cleaning.

TURNER: And it was hearing this list that made the boys wonder, do students here have any idea how many people it takes to keep our school running? So some of their classmates took an informal poll at lunch.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SAYRE MIDDLE SCHOOL PODCAST")

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Probably 15.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Fifty.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Twenty.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Fifty.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: I don't know, 30.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: I guess 10.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: Forty.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: Thirty.

TURNER: Again, the real answer is this school of 10 buildings and roughly 12 acres has a maintenance staff of five. And it's not just the amount of work that they do. Brennan and Braeden wanted to celebrate them for doing the kind of work that most of us don't want to do.

Here's Robert Smith, the school's assistant director of buildings and grounds, with my favorite story from the podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SAYRE MIDDLE SCHOOL PODCAST")

ROBERT SMITH: The occupants of that building walked in, and there was this horrible, horrible, horrible smell.

BRENNAN: Oh, my God.

SMITH: And we tried for...

BRENNAN: It stinks in here.

SMITH: ...At least a week...

BRENNAN: (Gagging).

SMITH: ...To get rid of this smell.

BRAEDEN: They tried everything, spraying deodorizers, opening doors and windows.

SMITH: Dryer sheets in the vents, air fresheners - we did everything that we could possibly do.

BRAEDEN: Unfortunately, there was only one more thing to try.

SMITH: We actually had to go a little deeper, and we dove up in the crawl space to look for...

BRAEDEN: You guessed it.

SMITH: ...Dead animals.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

TURNER: When we visited the school in Lexington, producer Sequoia Carrillo and I had to go a little deeper too, to the basement, to find Brennan and Braeden and their teacher, Brad Becker.

BRAD BECKER: I couldn't wait for them to arrive. And they enjoyed coming here. Sat around some class periods and got nothing done, but just listened to podcasts. I mean, that's just, like, the best class there could be.

TURNER: The boys built their podcast as part of a special elective project with Becker in his basement classroom.

BECKER: This is the space where we worked and...

TURNER: Wow.

BECKER: ...Did our thing.

TURNER: It's a cramped studio packed with high-end audio and video gear, computers, microphones, cameras, even a green screen, as well as a giant can of spinach - don't ask - and the most important equipment of all for budding podcasters - a basket of snacks.

BRENNAN: So we got Ritz Bits peanut butter crackers, onion, chives, granola bars, Rice Krispies treats - whoops - salad dressing, too (laughter).

TURNER: Oh, salad dressing for the Rice Krispie treats. Braeden, what's your favorite down there?

BRAEDEN: Definitely the Rice Krispie treats, but sometimes, I like to add the salad dressing.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAEDEN: I mean, it depends on how I'm feeling.

TURNER: Down in the basement, fueled by snacks, the boys spent hours searching for the perfect sound effects, editing their interview tape and, for Braeden, trying to get used to the sound of his voice.

BRAEDEN: I remember, I listened to my voice for a time. Like, dang, I sound like, I'm, like, five.

(LAUGHTER)

BRAEDEN: I sounded super young. Like, it's like, this is not how I sound. Like, this is not how I sound to myself.

TURNER: As for why Braeden and Brennan chose to make a podcast about their school's maintenance crew...

SMITH: This is primarily where most of our tools and things are.

TURNER: Just like Brennan and Braeden, Mr. Smith and Mr. Guynn are also based in the basement, tucked around the corner from the boys' studio, all of them doing amazing things below just about everyone else's radar. Still, Mr. Smith says, he was baffled when the boys said, we want to interview you.

SMITH: Why? (Laughter) why? - 'cause to us, this department is not exciting. But then after hearing the podcast, well, we realized that, man, we do do a lot of stuff that, you know, nobody even thinks about or we don't think about.

TURNER: But when you get them talking about what they do, it's clear that Mr. Smith and Mr. Guynn are heroes. At one point, Guynn says of the students, whom he lovingly calls the babies...

BECKER: What I call the babies.

TURNER: ...He says it's his job to make sure they're comfortable...

GUYNN: We want everybody to feel a comfort here.

TURNER: ...So they can learn, even when that means responding to a frantic phone call at midnight during a storm.

GUYNN: There was actually mud and water coming in the old lower-school basement. And we stayed all night long. And we scraped it, cleaned it, vacuumed it, and actually was ready for school to happen the next morning.

TURNER: Guynn and Smith say they were taken aback by the boys' interest and by their winning podcast, a heartfelt thank you note for and by the heroes of the Sayre School basement.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SAYRE MIDDLE SCHOOL PODCAST")

BRENNAN: We hope that our podcast will make you think about thanking somebody on your maintenance staff and you will come to appreciate all of the things that your buildings and grounds staff does behind the scenes and oftentimes unnoticed. Thank you for listening to the "Sayre Middle School Podcast." Signing off is Brennan.

BRAEDEN: And I'm Braeden.

TURNER: And I'm Cory Turner, NPR News, Lexington, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "MORNING FLATS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.