On the Radio

NPR’s Smooth-Talking Millennial Whisperer

He’s the storyteller with a beat who’s making young and minority listeners pay attention to Snap Judgment. But what’s making Glynn Washington angry?

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What can a con artist, an alligator’s best friend, a thief, a Saudi princess, an undocumented informant, an imposter, and the composer of a deadly song, teach us about race in America? Everything, according to Glynn Washington, host of NPR’s Snap Judgment.

Washington has one of those unmistakable voices that instantly reminds you of itself. It combines the hoarse, smooth talk of the lounge singer with the emotional spontaneity of the comedian and the breathless curiosity that every good storyteller manages, somehow, to implant in the narratives they very well know the endings of.

Snap Judgment first aired in June of 2010 and is now getting ready for its sixth season. “Ok, so, about five years ago, in the middle of the night, I woke up with a big idea,” says Washington in that voice, in the Season Six Kickstarter campaign video. The idea was for Snap Judgment—“Stories that matter. Stories with a heart. Storytelling with a beat.”

“But I know I can not do this alone,” Washington goes on. “I need writers, producers, storytellers, and musicians. I need real people with extraordinary tales. And I asked them, take us somewhere we’ve never been before.”

And they took him, no doubt because he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love stories,” Washington tells me. “I live, I breathe it. Wherever you see a corner at the bar with someone saying, ‘And then what happened next?’ That’s where I want to be.”

While the average NPR listener is 57 and male, Snap is getting a lot of love from younger listeners (the average podcast listener is 30) and minorities, who make up 40 percent of their listenership, a majority of whom are women.

Each show begins with a story from Washington’s life, and then proceeds to two or three or four stories, either first person narratives or stories gently reported by producers but mostly narrated by the guests. This is the crucial difference between Snap and other storytelling shows currently hosted by NPR: its producers absolutely refuse to curate the truth.

“The one thing you will never hear on Snap Judgment is me giving you the moral of the story, or telling you what the story means, or any of that stuff,” Washington tells me. “What we’re really trying to do is give you a vicarious experience.”

There’s a little gap at the end of a radio story, Washington explains, when the listener is open, poised for truth. “This is a magic time where we’re automatically searching for meaning, meaning, meaning. If I give it to you, BOOM! I rob you of your own ability to impose your meaning on it. At the end of the story, yes, I want you to think about what the person went through, but really I want you to think about what you yourself would have done in a similar situation, and not give you the answer.” In this way, Washington says, Snap Judgment differs from traditional, and especially public, media, where the tendency is “to wrap things in boxes.”

Snap does a bit of the opposite—it unwraps the neat boxes we expect stories to come in, with morals and meaning delivered like a bow; instead, the stories on Snap point to the unresolved, the confusing, the thwarted, like the time Washington’s college mate was defrauded by a charismatic exchange student, and took revenge by stranding the fraudulent friend in Canada. Or the man who needed $250,000 to save his child’s life, and started running drugs across state lines to keep his boy alive. The female wolf pack leader who so enchanted the men charged with tagging her. The man who failed to help a little girl in the hallway of his building, to tragic end.

Stories that make you laugh. Stories that make you cry. Stories that refuse to tell you what they mean, but linger, the emotional bells they ring echoing long after Washington’s voice closes out the show, the individuals they introduce populating a new American landscape like a raucous band of ghosts, insisting that their stories, even if they aren’t mainstream stories or white stories or manicured to fit the expectations of NPR listeners, matter just the same.

“We work on stories,” Washington says, “where we can let people, to some degree through narrative, experience what it’s like to live in racially charged America when you’re on the wrong end of the race question—on the darker end of the race question.” This is where Snap lives. “Race, class, gender, sexuality, our show kinda lives on the edge of all those questions,” Washington says. “We’re not going to run out of material, we’re not going to run out of storytelling fodder, by examining those questions.”

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Washington, a truly masterful storyteller, grew up in what he calls “a wacky cult”—the Worldwide Church of God. “I know that a lot of my stories come from the sort of unresolved tensions of my childhood,” he says. “Why did I grow up as a young black boy in a white supremacist Jesus cult? That question I think drives a lot of my storytelling. How is it still with me? How am I getting rid of it? How am I impacted by it? How am I passing that experience on to my own next generation? And I think that the way I process this is by narrative.”

Eventually, Washington learned to narrate his way through his demons. “When I revisit things that were painful, things where I felt powerless, things that were kind of done to me, I can revisit them however I want to, and I can choose the ending point. And by being able to choose that ending point, I don’t have to keep it right there when I was a scared little kid. And in telling the story that way to myself, that’s the way I own it. And I am able to steal back what was stolen from me as a child.

“The last thing I think that we want is to have someone else telling our story. No matter what happened, I don’t ever want to feel like someone else’s victim. By being able to tell my own story, I negate the powers that were working against my own interest and I turn them to a source of instead of pain, I turn it into a source of power. There is something so powerful so… liberating about telling your own story, not to everybody else necessarily, but to yourself.”

This is the power Washington grants the guests on Snap Judgment. Rather than having producers interview subjects, Snap turns all of its guests into storytellers, granting them that power that Washington relies on so heavily to make sense of his own life. For Washington is narrating America through its demons, one story at a time. Refusing to package the meaning of the stories that appear on his show was more than just an aesthetic decision on Washington’s part. It is part and parcel of the implicit politics of Snap Judgment, which folds the margins of American society into its center.

“I think you’d have to be insane to look at the American racial landscape and not have anger,” Washington says. “The question then becomes, what do you do with that? That will be a different answer for every different person. I know right now I am struggling to find a narrative space, a narrative hook to move people on this race issue.”

Washington recalls being the first black child is several all-white schools. The depth of rage, animus and violence that was directed at him—“Spittle flying, the N word flying”—continues to astound him. “When I looked at it, it seemed unquenchable and endless and infinite,” he remembers. “It made me feel that I could throw everything I was at that question, at that anger, and I wouldn’t even begin to have an impact on it. I wouldn’t have a drop of impact on it.”

Despite the trials of a lifetime and the events of this summer, Washington still calls himself a patriot. “I certainly love America. I consider myself as patriotic as patriotic can be because there is an aspect to the American psyche that’s supposed to question America, that’s supposed to burn the flag, that’s supposed to challenge the power structures. That’s the most American thing possible to do. So I feel most American and I feel like I am exercising the most American of rights and duties when I do challenge the current state of things. It demands that we build it and we make it. That’s America, it’s built into the DNA. You don’t like it, fix it. That’s the most American ideal of all.”

In this way, he is using narrative to redefine what it means to be American—it means to challenge, to question, to unpack, to unwrap. It means to be all the things that the individuals he turns into storytellers on Snap naturally are, in all their marginality.

Snap will address Ferguson, Washington says, but probably indirectly, with a story that “when you hear it, it will bring echoes of Ferguson to you.” I ask Washington if he thought Ferguson was a turning point in American race relations, or just another example of the horrors he had endured since childhood.

“I would love it to be a turning point. I would love to think that we could move forward with a newfound sense of purpose and such, but”—Washington takes a deep sigh, and then changes course—“Maybe we will. Maybe we will.”