It was dark. A young man was walking toward a friend’s house where he slept on a couch. He had just gotten out of jail and had promised himself that he’d never go back to prison. After passing by a check-cashing place, he suddenly felt a gun barrel against the back of his neck. A voice said, “I saw you just get the money out. Give me the money and maybe I won’t pull the trigger.” What would he do? Would he give away all the money he had in the world or would he fight?
This was the pitch for a radio story from Oakland resident Glynn Washington, who in 2007 recorded the two-minute piece using Garage Band, the basic audio editing software that comes with every Apple computer. Washington said the story was based on a real-life incident that happened to someone he knows in Oakland.
Washington submitted his pitch to The Public Radio Talent Quest, an “American Idol” type contest sponsored by Public Radio Exchange and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The contest attracted more than 1,400 participants. His idea for a show was to tell dramatic stories that often involved people making decisions and living with the consequences.
Washington never finished the story—in fact, he forgot about his submission—but a few months later it carried him to the final round of the competition. He eventually became one of the three finalists who received $10,000 from the contest’s organizers to develop pilot versions of their shows.
Over three years later, Washington said Snap Judgment—which began airing weekly last July—is now the fastest-growing show on National Public Radio, with more than 100 stations airing it weekly and over 160 having played its specials. All the episodes are available to stream on the show’s website (SnapJudgment.org) and to download as a podcast on iTunes. For Bay Area listeners, Snap Judgment airs on KALW and KQED at 1 pm on Wednesday and 11 pm on Saturday respectively.
“The show is really blowing up right now,” Washington said, sitting in his 9th floor office in downtown Oakland. His desk was cluttered with papers and envelopes. “We’re running like crazy.”
The one-hour show, hosted by Washington, features five to nine dramatic stories told by people from all kinds of backgrounds. Washington narrates some of the stories and the rest are usually told in the first person. One recent episode, “Abducted,” contains the story of an American man who escaped from kidnappers in southern China and another about how a hitchhiking couple from San Francisco survived a multi-day road trip with two serial killers.
Snap Judgment is produced in Washington’s studio in Oakland. Because the show’s staff is small, in addition to hosting, Washington also is involved in the show’s writing, editing and business operations. “I would be happy to host all day,” he said, “but being a host is the very least of the things required to run a show.”
In addition to its online and radio presence, Snap Judgment has also produced several stage performances in San Francisco and specials on World TV, a public broadcasting network. Washington said the past stage shows have sold out quickly and the next performance will take place in Oakland.
Before becoming a radio host, Washington, now 41, had worked for several different types of non-profits. His last job was the executive director of The Center for Young Entrepreneurs at Haas, a business leadership education organization. Born in Michigan, he moved to the Bay Area in 1999, when one of his best friends came to Oakland for work. Washington believes his early passion for storytelling has something to do with growing up in an apocalyptic cult called The Worldwide Church of God. As a child, he was told that you had to be ready for the return of Jesus and the end of the world. Washington says that his time with the group meant that he heard many good storytellers explaining why doomsday had been postponed again.
“In a lot of ways, it was maybe good for me because it let me see the world a little bit differently, ” said Washington, who left the cult when he was 19. “You grew up thinking that you are Harry Potter, and the rest of the world are muggles. ”
Partially due to his eagerness to break the bounds of the cult, Washington went to Japan to study Japanese in the early 1990s; he said that at that time, the sight of an African-American person walking on the street could cause car accidents. Washington said, having lived in Asia and both urban and rural areas of America, makes it easier for him to understand the stories of people from different cultures and communities.
Asked about why he wanted to work in radio, Washington said he has always been “a big public radio head,” but “when you love something, you want to criticize it.” He said people are used to a formulaic NPR style of storytelling, where there’s always a moral at the end of each story and there has to be an interpreter whenever the subjects are from a lower social economic class. “Don’t think so poorly of your audience that they don’t understand their own America,” Washington said.
The storytelling style of Snap Judgment is born out of the slam poetry movement, Washington said. He added that the show is also heavily musical because “it’s storytelling with a beat.” The pace of the show is quicker than the typical public radio show, Washington said. “A lot of radio is slow-moving, they take a time to build up the story, ” he said. “We want to get right to the heart. ”
People now can get involved in the show by uploading their stories in audio, text or video to Snap Judgment’s website. The staff will choose the best ones and co-produce the story with the submitters. Washington said hundreds of stories have been received so far.
“We like to mix cultures, classes and races,” Washington said. “The show is a lot like Oakland.”