NPR’s Glynn Washington speaks about the power of storytelling
By Chris O'Neal 07/17/2014
“I read recently in the paper that they said Snap Judgment was an overnight sensation and it really made me laugh,” said Glynn Washington. “Blood, sweat and tears went into getting the show off the ground!”
More than likely, you’ve heard Glynn Washington’s voice. Washington’s Snap Judgment premiered on NPR in 2010, bringing real stories from real people — with a beat. This Friday in Thousand Oaks, Washington will share his experience growing up in a religious apocalyptic cult, moving to Japan to put some distance between himself and his previous life, plus the trials and tribulations of bringing Snap Judgment to the airwaves.
Snap Judgment can be heard locally on KCLU, 88.3 FM, Friday night at 9 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m.
VCReporter: Give me a little history of how Snap Judgment came to be.
Glynn Washington: I was a big public radio head in a lot of different ways. I heard about the contest, the Public-Radio Talent Quest, like a day before the deadline and I decided to submit a two-minute audio clip. Three months later, someone called and said, “You’re one of 10 finalists.” I thought it was my buddy Mark [Ristich] playing a joke on me, so I hung up the phone on them. They called back and said, “This isn’t a joke.”
Was it a daunting task to make a full pilot?
I was with Mark and we basically bled into the microphone. When we finished, we were like, you know what? That’s the best we can do where we are right now. I hadn’t slept, I was stinkin’, I went to bed and woke up the next morning and got a phone call from the contest that went like this: “You’ve embarrassed me, you’ve embarrassed NPR, you’ve embarrassed the corporation for public broadcasting and you’ve embarrassed yourself.” Click. I was basically in a fetal position after receiving that phone call. There’s a woman here, her name is Holly Kernan, she gave me my first professional listen. She homed in on some of the technical things I was missing and we sent it back into the black hole that was this contest. I’m still not sure what happened with that revised version, but it may have led in some kind of way to Snap Judgment.
How has your own background shaped the way the show evolved?
One of my favorite authors said something to the effect of, the one thing you owe your kids is an interesting childhood. If that’s the grading criteria then my parents get an A+. I grew up in an urban environment, Detroit, moved to the country very, very rural on a farm, and then high school in suburbia. I saw several Americas in that stretch. I grew up in a very religious fundamentalist Christian cult that gave me a different world view from maybe a lot of people as well. In retrospect, at least with some distance — I appreciate the experience of thinking that the world looks one way and then having my world view yanked out from underneath me. You go into a world with a model of how things are and how things work, and for a lot of people their model is never challenged.
That’s where the snap judgment comes from. A decision, maybe not in your own hands, changes your life for better or worse?
The idea of Snap Judgment is that at some point the main character had to say, this is what I’m going to do and step out on faith or whatever and let the chips fall. We try to throw people into the heart of the story, to really get rid of all and to at least limit the exposition and get to the heart of what’s happening, to give you a kind of vicarious ride-along and allow us to wear someone else’s skin for a while.
How do you curate the stories given to you?
We get stories from people that never in a million years would be getting in front of a microphone. We really have to establish a rapport with someone before they can share their story in a way that makes sense to them. Just sit down, drink some tea, have a snack, play with the dog for a minute and let the stories that someone has unfold.
And a lot of that is trying to get the people to tell the story in a comfortable way.
For us, hearing a good story is like waking up Christmas morning. Some people think that storytellers in general are these people who talk a lot and tell all these stories. The truth of the matter is that most of the best storytellers you’ll ever hear are extraordinary listeners who are genuinely interested in what other people have to say.
Have there been any stories that really stuck with you?
There are so many pieces and, again, I really want to credit these superstar producers that we have on the show, there’s a piece that Anna Sussman did, I believe it was called “Get Right With Your God,” where she talked to a warden of a prison in Mississippi who basically admitted that he believed he executed an innocent man. It’s such a raw and honest and chilling revelation. It stopped me cold when I first heard it.
What can we expect from the show in Thousand Oaks?
This is going to be a kind of intimate, raw trip through some of my own stories. I’m calling it storytelling without a net because there’s not going to be anyone else coming onstage to save me. I’m going to be accompanied by my Snap Judgment live music director. It’s just going to be us. We’re going to share some stories I’ve told on Snap but some stories I’ve never told to anyone, anywhere. Actually, I’ve never been more scared about any show than the show I’m about to do in Thousand Oaks.
Glynn Washington will perform on Friday, July 18, at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Scherr Forum, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. $36. For more information, visit www.civicartsplaza.com.