Glynn Washington Revives Radio Storytelling

The host of Oakland-based Snap Judgment is raising audio storytelling to new heights.


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Glynn Washington

Photo by Stephen Texeira

(page 1 of 2)

Listening is a lost art. We’re plugged-in, overstimulated, increasingly bad at eye contact and social graces.

Glynn Washington is doing something about it. The Oakland resident is host, creator, and executive producer of Snap Judgment, 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. A Snap Judgment TV show, combining animation and live storytelling, is also being developed, and will air on Participant Media’s digital cable and satellite network, Pivot.

Washington, 45, is a charismatic man with a big, open face and an easy facility for connecting with people. He’s married to Oakland City Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington, has a daughter, 11, and a son, 9, and an eclectic background that includes a Michigan childhood with evangelical, fundamentalist parents; a law degree; three years in Japan; and several years running nonprofits, including the Center for Young Entrepreneurs at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

 

 

On the day of our interview, Washington walks into his downtown Oakland office with his mixed-breed brindle puppy, Georgie. The objective of Snap, he says when we sit down in a tiny meeting room, is to blur the walls between people.

“What we have right now in this country is an empathy gap. We don’t seem able to imagine what anyone else is thinking, doing, feeling any more. We can’t reach across a table; we can’t have dinner with someone from a different perspective. And we certainly can’t reach across an aisle to get some things done.”

On Snap, you might hear a man describe the young girl, abandoned by her mother in a Vallejo apartment building, whose death still haunts him. Or the story of twin sisters who never spoke to anyone but each other, until they were in prison awaiting trial for arson. Or the Mississippi prison warden who remembers the Death Row inmate he befriended (“It breaks every rule a warden has,” the warden said), and the grief he felt when his friend was executed.

“We want to create a vicarious experience,” Washington says, “to find stories that introduce you to someone else’s world … [that] expand and not shrink the human experience.”

Snap is headquartered in Oakland, and Washington believes there’s an Oakland flavor to the show: “There’s a lot about the swagger, the spirit of where we are, that animates what we do,” he says. “There’s, like, 120 languages being spoken within three or four blocks of where we are right now. Those fault lines of race and class, gender, and sexuality are where the stories are.

“In a lot of ways you feel like you could throw a microphone out the window and get a story that’s going to work for this show.”

Snap Judgment airs 11 p.m. each Saturday on KQED-FM, 2 p.m. Sunday on KALW-FM and 1 p.m. Wednesday on KALW-FM. The show is distributed by WNYC and National Public Radio. The podcast, Washington adds, is downloaded more than 2.5 million times per month.

There’s also the occasional Snap LIVE!, an evening of first-person storytelling performed by Washington and a variety of Snap contributors, like the one held in February at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland.

Washington acknowledges the strong influence of This American Life and its producer/host, Ira Glass. “Ira has been my fairy godfather. He helped me start this show. He advised me; helped us with financing. Ira has been personally extremely good to me and welcomed me into this world.”

But Snap is different, not only from This American Life but from most public radio, in that it draws a younger, more ethnically diverse audience. Stories are shorter and punchier than standard NPR fare, the music is rooted in hip-hop culture, and the aural soundscape of music and sound effects is rich and detailed. “We’re trying to make a cinema of sound,” Washington says.

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