Glynn Washington Revives Radio Storytelling
The host of Oakland-based Snap Judgment is raising audio storytelling to new heights.
(page 2 of 2)
Mark Ristich says Snap Judgment has "evolved over time."
Snap style has “evolved over time,” co-executive producer Mark Ristich says. “We started out super-fast and super-loud. And now, in our seventh season, we’ve kind of found our voice a little more. Like, ‘OK, we can go a little longer and still be Snap. Be a little more low-key and still be Snap.’ ”
While many Snap listeners fit the standard NPR demographic—white, aging, upper-middle-class—Washington says the people who download the Snap Judgment podcast or stream the show are 30 percent nonwhite, 55 percent female, and most often in the 28-to-42 age range.
Born and raised in Michigan, Washington was reared by fundamentalist Christian parents who were the rare African-American members of a mostly white sect called the Worldwide Church of God.
“It’s almost too wacky to get into,” he says, “but the idea was that there was the lost 12 tribes of Israel, who were essentially the first colonies of the United States and all-white.” When Jesus returned, the church maintained, “he was going to bring his chosen ones back. You could be black and be part of that chosen crew, but you had to be close to these white folks because Jesus was white, Noah was white, and Adam was pure white.”
Washington left the sect at 19. He’s done a number of Snap segments about the experience and hopes to write a book about it. His relationship with his parents, who have moved on to another fundamentalist organization, is “strained,” he says.
When he describes his youth in the Worldwide Church of God, Washington does so without bitterness or anger—just a puzzled “Did-that-really-happen?” wonderment. “My wife at one point said, ‘I don’t know how it is that you’re somehow normal. Don’t you need some help?’ I was like, ‘Baby, I have a national forum where once a week I unload to the world.’ It’s my own little therapy.”
Washington moved to the East Bay in 1998, after being fired from Ernst & Young, a professional services consulting firm. It wasn’t a good fit: “I was the worst employee in their long, storied history.” He returned to Michigan, packed up his Honda Civic, and drove to California. “I ended up staying on the couch of my buddy Simon Bryce in Oakland. I was looking for a new place to check things out, and I haven’t left.”
In 2003 he married Annie Campbell, who was chief of staff to former Mayors Jerry Brown and Jean Quan prior to being elected to the Oakland City Council. “She’s extremely supportive and getting Snap off the ground would never have happened without her,” Washington says. As for her city council work, “I’m sworn to secrecy. I have to be her sounding board, her chief advisor, her shoulder, and confidante. I can’t take her stuff and go tell stories about it.”
Before Snap Judgment, he says, “It never crossed my mind to work in public radio.” The series originated when he won the Public Radio Talent Quest in 2008. “I heard about it the day before the entry was due, and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to submit my own. I was a big public-radio advocate.”
He and Ristich, a close friend since college days, rushed to put together a two-minute clip. “Three months later, I got a phone call saying I was one of 10 finalists. I thought it was Mark playing a joke on me, and I hung up.” It wasn’t a joke. A series of challenges followed, and when Washington was named one of three top finalists, he assembled a one-hour pilot.
He won the competition and received Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding for the first three seasons of Snap Judgment. Today the funding comes from sponsorships, station dues, listener contributions, and especially from podcast advertising.
With Snap, Washington wants to expand the parameters of public radio. “I love public radio, but there are aspects of it that really bothered me. I thought the communities that I knew anything about were always being maligned. It seemed like the people reporting on those communities didn’t know, appreciate or understand the communities. You have an Eastern-educated person interviewing someone from a lower socio-economic level. Oftentimes they talk to the person, ask them a question, and then translate what the person said into Eastern-educated speak.”
That distance between reporter and subject “annoyed the fuck out of me,” he says, “because I think America can understand its own America. We don’t have to be afraid of each other, and we don’t have to treat people who are ‘other’ as specimens that we’re observing from afar, like they’re in a Petri dish.”
“Glynn is against the idea of anyone interpreting someone else’s experience,” says senior producer Anna Sussman. “That’s why we don’t have any ‘experts’ on the show, and why we don’t wrap up with the reporter explaining whatever it is our talker just said. We leave it to the talker.”
Similarly, Washington doesn’t want Snap producers to “retreat into NPR-speak or reporter-speak, but actually be a character in the story. I want them to relate personally to the person they’re interviewing.” Too often, he says, “We put on a mask—‘I’m a professional now, professionals don’t feel’—which I think is just the craziest fucking thing that could ever be. Especially in a broadcast medium.”
Last year Snap Judgment aired 33 new, one-hour episodes. Each Snap hour opens with an introduction by Washington. His on-air voice is low-key, conversational—the voice of someone who’s excited about a story he has heard and can’t wait to share it with a friend. The hour will have a theme—“Forgiveness,” for example, or “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”—which is explored through the main story and two shorter pieces.
Eleven people comprise the Snap staff: seven producers, three composers/sound engineers, and an office manager. Each week producers convene at a pitch meeting to offer story ideas. Washington vets the pitches, giving them a thumb or down.
“He’s very serious about the process,” Sussman says. “If it doesn’t sound like a fantastic story from the pitch, he’s not going to let you work on it.”
Once a story is green-lit, the producer collects the story, and then returns to the Snap studio to edit and build a radio piece. Four to six hours of audio will often translate to five minutes of radio time. Washington, Sussman, and Ristich offer counsel throughout the editing, which takes anywhere from three weeks to three months. “We kind of Sherpa the stories along,” Ristich says.
The producers are young, “on the average 26 or 27,” Washington says. “They work hard and we’re very demanding.” As a story develops, the staff meets for a “group edit” conference. Fellow producers can make suggestions, but Washington has the final word.
Is he a hard man to please? “Glynn has the worst poker face in the world,” Ristich says. “So, if you did well and it resonates with him, he’s going to light up like a light bulb. And if something doesn’t resonate with him, he gets this horrific frown on his face. It’s really just him thinking, ‘How do I fix it?’ But when someone is new, they think, ‘Oh, my god, he didn’t like my story!’ Eventually you come to realize it’s the best meter in the world.”
Occasionally, Washington kills a finished segment before it goes on the air: “It happened this morning,” he says. “And it wasn’t the producer’s fault, necessarily. She did the best she could with everything that was going on there. It just wasn’t working for our standards. There has got to be an arc or a twist. We really want to feel like you’re going for a ride.”
Why does he think he’s right for this job? “I think because of a very eclectic background,” Washington answers. “Urban, rural, Japan. I got to be comfortable with a lot of different aspects of humanity, a lot of different types of folks. And I think that goes into this kind of stew that is Snap Judgment.”
“It’s really his ability to be introspective when people are not looking,” Ristich says. “People think Glynn’s just a charismatic guy. He’s actually an introvert. He reads and he listens and he analyzes stories. A lot of people have charisma but he has that extra layer. He has a lot of life experience and a love of storytelling.”
And a love of listening. “People oftentimes assume that storytellers are these gregarious people who like to talk and talk and talk,” Washington says. “Almost invariably, if you meet someone who’s really into story, they listen like hawks. Because they honestly are interested in where another person is coming from.”
Meet the People raising audio storytelling to new heights..
The Faces of Snap Judgment
Snap Judgment is a public radio series that takes its listeners inside a wide spectrum of first-person stories and spotlights the defining moments in people’s lives. It’s a hipper, younger twist on the public-radio classic This American Life. Snap Judgment has an informality, a streetwise vitality, and original music that reflects an urban environment like Oakland. Since its broadcast premiere in 2009, the show has steadily built a national audience, and is now aired on 365 radio stations.
Photos by Stephen Texeira