How a self-taught podcaster won NPR's College Podcast Challenge

A college-age, half-Korean woman, with shoulder-length dark hair, brown eyes and freckles, looks out a curtained window.

(Elissa Nadworny/NPR)

Anya Steinberg was a college senior trying to break into journalism, despite a lack of experience, when she discovered NPR’s 2021 College Podcast Challenge. “I knew immediately what story I wanted to do,” she says. Her entry, He’s Just 23 Chromosomes, was the winner, kickstarting her career and helping her land an internship with NPR’s Education Team and Throughline podcast. We asked Anya to share her advice for journalists just getting started.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the story behind your winning podcast?

I was conceived via sperm donor and my parents very intentionally picked who my father was going to be. A lot of people aren’t like, “Oh, I’m going to select a father who got these grades in college and has these interests …” But because of the way they conceived me, they were able to do that. Then my relationship with my real dad kind of soured. That leaves a lot of questions about nature versus nurture. Where do I get my personality traits and my interests? Who is responsible for being my father? What kinds of responsibilities do we have to each other and a relationship if we’re not biologically related?

How did you learn to make a podcast?

The reason I decided I wanted to go into journalism is because when the pandemic hit, I lost the job plans I had for the summer. I had to find a new internship, and I just stumbled upon this organization that was hiring a comms intern. When I showed up, they were like, “Oh, you can do anything you want. We just want you to tell stories about Asian Americans,” because it was an Asian American organization. And I was like, sure, I’ll try and make a podcast.

I figured out my recording setup and how to edit it and what software to use and all that kind of stuff, all by myself, by trial and error and just listening to other people’s podcasts and thinking, Oh, wouldn’t it be cool? Like if I had music in my episodes that reflected this? Or, Wouldn’t it be cool? Like if I could write more casually or play around with language?

What surprised you the most about the process?

How many issues there can be. I spent a long time trying to clean up audio using really weird techniques I found on YouTube. What is cool about audio versus print is, if someone doesn’t say something in the right tense, you have to write around that, or if someone stumbles over their words, you have to figure out a way to either make them sound more concise or just have it be — sometimes the stumbling can be a part of the story, too.

Back to your college podcast entry. How did you edit it down to eight minutes?

That was the hardest part for me because I’m really long-winded. I wanted to make sure that every sentence I said had a purpose, either saying a detail to explain my motivations, or my brother’s motivations, or my dad’s motivations. Something that kind of moved the plot forward, introduced a new idea in the story. And then if there was something that I thought, Oh, this is kind of extra, or it just sounds nice, but it doesn’t add anything, I just cut it.

Do you have any advice for someone applying to an NPR internship?

Just because you don’t have formal experience doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of NPR’s attention, even though it can seem like that. Make it clear where you’re coming from and what you have done and how that’s prepared you to have this internship.

What was it like coming into your internship without a lot of journalism experience?

I feel like there was a lot of imposter syndrome coming in, because a lot of other people who have this internship are super-accomplished. And for me it was a question of, Am I just a one-hit wonder? Can I only tell stories about myself?

While there’s things I can’t bring to the table because I don’t understand journalism — I don’t know what AP style is, I don’t get the culture in the journalism world — I think for all the things I don’t understand, there are things I know that I’ve learned being a part of the non-journalist world that bring a new perspective to everything.

The College Podcast Challenge and Student Podcast Challenge are run by NPR’s Education Team (@NPR_ed). For more advice, listen to Anya on this episode of The Students’ Podcast. For more details on NPR internships, follow @NPRInterns on Twitter or go here.

Emma Grazado was the NPR Training team's 2022 writing and reporting intern.