The Grand Champion trophy for Journalism at Denison University’s annual Podcast-a-thon is called “the Buzzy,” a playful homage to the unofficial mascot adopted by Denison students – the turkey buzzards that soar above the campus and sometimes roost there.

So it’s fitting that the piece that won the fifth annual contest this past weekend was about the buzzards and Denison’s love-hate relationship with them.

A student in the cartoonish “Buzzy” mascot suit showed up to present the award to journalism students Mike Maynard, ’24, and Aaron Skubby, ’23, and their Audio Storytelling & Podcasting class professor, Molly Born.

Jesse Dukes, a freelance storyteller formerly of WBEZ in Chicago who helped create the Podcast-a-thon, described the story as combining “bloviating music and sound design with humorously overwrought narration to make a familiar problem at Denison strange and wonderful.”

Dukes served as an audio mentor to some of the 112 students who participated in the contest, and also was involved in judging the entries.

“Battle of the Buzzards” by Mike Maynard and Aaron Skubby

The familiar problem Denisonians find with the buzzards is that they like to eat rubber sealant from campus rooftops. They also eat dead animals, and when they defecate near air intake vents on campus buildings, they – well, they stink. In one case, an aggressive bird crashed into an office window, scaring the daylights out of an employee. All of this and more was crystallized in the seven-minute audio story.

The topics explored in this year’s entries were wide-ranging, dealing with issues of poverty, science, campus life and ethical dilemmas. The friendly competition between six classes involved five professors, and four audio professionals, and resulted in 75 student projects – and a lot of learning about storytelling.

“That’s a credit to the instruction of Alan Miller, Molly Born, Melissa Faliveno, Erik Klemetti, and me, and it’s a credit to the students who have signed up for these classes, and met with the mentors,” said Doug Swift, a Denison professor of Journalism and English, who also credited Journalism Program Assistant Director Beth Lossing and Kelli Van Wasshenova, instructional technologist with Dension Information Technology Services.

“I’ve been involved with the project for five years, and the growth in the storytelling has been really beautiful,” said Jocelyn Robinson, a professional audio mentor to Denison students who made audio stories.

“The care they are bringing to storytelling and how that informs and nurtures community – in all of its spaces and places – is really inspiring,” said Robinson, the WYSO radio producer for Emerging Initiatives, Education and Archives at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices in Yellow Springs.

“The intentionality of that kind of reporting is relatively new. To see it instilled in young journalists – for them to be able to grapple with these issues now – is exciting,” she said.

Runners up were Cordero L. M. Estremera, ’23, and the team of Avery McMahon, ’23, Emily Walker, ’24 and Lilly Walz, ’26.

“Shit” by Cordero L. M. Estremera

Estremera, a student in Swift’s Multimedia Storytelling class, produced a story from his hometown in Iowa, where we learn about his childhood through a frank conversation with his mother and the student’s own memories.

“Becoming the Story” by Avery McMahon, Emily Walker and Lilly Walz

McMahon, Walker and Walz, who are in Miller’s journalism ethics class, introduced us to a journalist covering a story about a devastating illness and the implications that hit unexpectedly close to home. Former reporter Lori Kurtzman goes from reporter to the subject of her own story when a trip to the Virgin Islands puts her in the middle of the Zika global health crisis.

The People’s Choice Award went to Sophie LeMay ’24, a student in Melissa Faliveno’s Literary Journalism class, for “The Bandersnatch,” a story about the beloved, student-run spot for late-night food at Denison.

Emcee and contest judge Clare Roth has been part of the Podcast-a-thon all five years, and she said much has changed.

“Journalism at Denison, and audio storytelling specifically, has only gotten stronger,” said Roth, managing editor of The Ohio Newsroom, a Public Radio collaborative that focuses news coverage on underserved rural areas. “No matter their subject or their style, these entries capture real, human moments, and show the breadth and depth of these students’ skill, curiosity and heart.”

The effort was made possible by a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation and a gift from Denison alumna Sue Douthit O’Donnell, class of 1967.