Sep 25, 2017

Snap Judgment's Glynn Washington on growing up in a cult and how to tell a good story

Glynn Washington, the creator and host of NPR's "Snap Judgment
Glynn Washington
Christopher Spata
Tampa Bay Times
September 25, 2017

Glynn Washington, the creator and host of NPR's "Snap Judgment," will bring his live show to the Tampa Theatre on Sept. 29. Photo courtesy Snap Judgment

Glynn Washington spent much of his last visit to Tampa preparing his soul for the impending apocalypse. He was assured it was coming any day.

More than three decades later, the world's still spinning, the city's still standing and so is Washington, though his life as host of hit public radio show Snap Judgment is a far cry from when his family was entrenched in the Worldwide Church of God.

"One of the things I go back to a lot on the show is that I grew up in an apocalyptic, end of days, Jesus cult," Washington told the Tampa Bay Times. "We had a feast every year called the feast of tabernacles, which meant for a week thousands of people would go to festival sites around the country that the church would pick. One of the top spots was actually Tampa.

"To think that I'll be on a stage near where I was hearing about the end of days just makes me laugh inside."

The stage he'll be on Friday is at the Tampa Theatre, where Washington, plus storytelling masters Jen Kober, James Judd and the experimental soul band Bells Atlas will present Snap Live!

Snap episodes normally open with a personal story from Washington. His escape from that religious sect and his work as a young diplomat in Japan have provided fodder for some of the best. They're followed by several longform tales allowing subjects to speak mostly for themselves, expertly edited by Snap's crack team of young producers into cinematic sagas, all scored by a hip-hop beat.

It has been seven years since Washington beat out more than 1,000 other aspiring public radio producers in a Public Radio Talent Quest. In that time he's often garnered comparisons to Ira Glass, public radio's biggest star and host of This American Life. Both men are expert curators of audio documentaries, and both are known for high standards when shepherding stories to air. But there's a wide gap between their radio personas.

Washington's bubbling, breathless delivery, swirling with colloquialisms, stands alone on public radio. It made for a familiar sound when we caught up with Washington via phone, as he drove from Oakland to Chino, California on his way to interview a story subject .

The Worldwide Church of God was originally named the Radio Church of God. Even as negatively as you've described it, do you think that experience influenced you becoming a broadcaster?

Well, yeah. You run as fast as you can, and get right back to where you started, right? (Church founder) Herbert Armstrong was multimedia before that word existed. He had radio, magazines, TV, newsletters. That aspect of trying to meet people where they are is built into the DNA of Snap, so maybe I do owe Herbert a debt for that. Also, growing up in that organization, you're told you're one of a very select few in all the globe, time and history, and just because you leave doesn't mean that feeling of being special goes away, even though you don't have anything to base it on. It was a tight community, the people in it were for the most part good people trying to do the best they could. Lots of people get hoodwinked by charlatans, and that aspect of life has not changed.

Much like This American Life, each of your episodes has a theme and title. I always wonder if you come up with the theme first and look for stories that fit, or vice versa?

It can be either-or. I see a lot of that as my job on the show. Sometimes we build a theme we want to hit and we're working toward it. Or I'll say, 'How do these things go together?' and it's my job to tie everything up with a bow.

Why do you tell a story from your own life to start the show?

A lot of the point of the personal story is that, yeah, I've had an interesting go of it, but I think that most people have. You'll notice that my stories are not generally some huge, guns-blazing stories. I can tell a story about being in an alley in Tokyo with the gangsters shooting above me, but I've only got a couple of those in me. Real drama is small, granular stories — crossing the street, calling your mom. The point of Snap is you don't have to be some kind of secret agent to have stories that matter.

Has going to the well of your own life every week been a good thing for you?

Absolutely. It has been one of the greatest gifts ever to reexamine the chaste of my own past. What's great about personal storytelling is that most people, if you ask their story, they will tell you a story of trauma, and their story oftentimes stops in that trauma. What's great about going back and telling the story is that you get to put the ending wherever you want. I don't have to be frozen as a 10 year old hiding in a closet or whatever it is. I can take little Glynn and put him in a position of power.

What's more important, the content of the story or the way it's told?

I think both are important. A lot of it is our job as producers. People might not realize that hours and hours of interviews go into a 10 minute story. A lot of our Snap heroes, they're not necessarily pro storytellers, they're just people who have lived amazing lives.

Where do all of these stories come from?

Sometimes they're from a book, or the news, but most of the time they come from this small but amazing team of producers who just talk to a lot of people. The other day I was in the restroom and someone said, 'Hey ain't you that Snap guy?' And he said, 'Hey I have a story I want to tell you about.' I listened to him, and that story is probably going to go on the show.

Are there certain topics that are played out, that Snap just isn't going to do?

There are these tropes in storytelling. If you're going to do a coming out story of any type, it better have some twists and turns, because as a storytelling vehicle it's getting tired. But of course, everyone's coming out story is personal and powerful to them. Another one is the first time someone called me the n-word story. OK, but is that going to really resonate beyond personal, with a national audience?

What should people expect at the live show?

The funk, the soul, the swagger, but on a stage. It's electric. The best storytellers in the world rock it. It's a duet between this amazing band who play in real time live scoring to the storyteller. I promise you will laugh, cry and laugh again, the highs are high and the lows are low.

What's the key to good storytelling?

People think they have to exaggerate themselves, but you want to do the exact opposite 99.9 percent of the time. The best stories come from picking at scabs, that thing you don't want to talk about, that secret you don't want anyone to know about you, that's your story. Leaning into that scab is almost every time where that story is. I don't want to tell the story about me when I wasn't as heroic or as brave or kind as I'd like to envision myself, but that failing is where the real narratives lie. For example, Don Reed came in and was telling a story about his sister, who is trans. He was telling it, and I thought, 'This isn't hitting, I'm not feeling it.' Finally he just said, 'I didn't protect her the way she protected me,' and he sobbed when he said it. Right there we knew we had a story. It ended up being our story of the year.

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