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Klaus Mayr with recording equipment outside the Chapel Hill Public Library.

Klaus Mayr says audio storytelling lets him combine disciplines — work that he enjoys best. He helped the Chapel Hill Public Library develop their podcast. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

A senior in geography and history uses audio storytelling to enlighten and engage.

NASA’s Perseverance rover blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on July 30, headed for Mars. Its multi-year mission: Look for signs of ancient life, collect rock and soil samples, and test technologies that can enable human exploration on the planet.

Klaus Mayr, a senior majoring in geography and history, helped chronicle the story last summer as an intern working on NASA’s first agencywide podcast series sharing the stories behind the missions.

The NASA podcast is one of the latest examples of how Mayr uses audio storytelling to engage listeners intimately with a topic through the words of the people involved.

“I think it transports you into the room better than video or the written word. With a podcast, you actually hear their voice. You hear about the ideas and experiences that drive them to do what they do,” Mayr said. “It has become something I believe in so deeply that it’s now what I want to do with my life.”

Mayr has been interested in storytelling for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, he imagined becoming a National Geographic photographer or a newspaper reporter. But as he prepared to enter college, he began exploring other interests he thought might provide a more stable career path.

A Campus Y-sponsored UNC Global Gap Year took Mayr to Colombia for six months to work with a social enterprise startup and to South Africa for six months to serve as a research assistant to a socio-ecologist.

Once he began classes at UNC, Mayr said anthropology professor Arturo Escobar “pushed me to approach my studies in an interdisciplinary way, looking for the connections between my interests.”

That search ultimately led him to geography: “I’ve found it to be the best place to study just about anything you want.”

In February of Mayr’s sophomore year, a friend pointed him to a job with a podcast team forming at the Chapel Hill Public Library. He began work that spring, helping the library share stories of the town’s history and narrative through voices past and present.

The search for stories enriches all of his other experiences, Mayr said. “It has made my experiences in geography and history much richer. Any time you’re attuned to the story, the process is much more engaging.”

His experiences include returning to Colombia through a Burch Fellowship his junior year, studying how rural migrants shaped the economic dynamics of certain neighborhoods.

They also include work with geography associate professor Javier Arce-Nazario and the Carolina Cartography Collective on an interdisciplinary project to create geovisualizations that bring attention to the complicated history of U.S. naval occupation of Vieques, Puerto Rico. Mayr will explore how audio storytelling can contribute to the mix of disciplines and methodologies behind Visualizing Vieques, a physical exhibit the team will create to share the community’s story.

This year, through C-START (Carolina Students Taking Academic Responsibility through Teaching), Mayr is working with Arce-Nazario to design and teach a course about different approaches to urban environmental history. It will draw on the backgrounds of students to create a collective project on the socio-ecological history of Chapel Hill.

Looking ahead, Mayr plans to combine his interests and experiences in geography and history and his newfound passion for audio storytelling to pursue a career in journalism.

“Interdisciplinary work is where I’m the happiest,” he said. “Audio storytelling, geography and history are where I can do that the best.”

Learn more about Mayr’s Burch Fellowship experience in Bogotá, Colombia, and watch a video.

Klaus Mayr’s Top 5 Podcast Listens

By Cyndy Falgout

Published in the Fall 2020 issue | Tar Heels Up Close

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