Glynn Washington is a tall, bald, black guy with a round face and boyish features. He dresses smart — blazers, cowboy boots, the occasional sports jersey — and speaks in the cadence of a church deacon. His voice is riveting. “There was this guy, Darrell, who had just got out of prison,” Washington said, recounting the tale that helped land him a syndicated show on National Public Radio. “He was gonna make his life right. He was gonna do his thang. No more nonsense. He was walking down the street. He was about to go crash on his friend’s couch. He had just passed by the check cashing place.” Washington leaned forward. “He felt some steel on the back of his neck. Someone said, ‘I just saw you go in that check cashing place. Give me all that money.’ He thought right at that point, what was he gonna do? Was he gonna punk out? Was he gonna punk out, or not?”
Washington said he made up that story on the fly, and recorded it for Public Radio Talent Quest (public radio’s version of American Idol) in 2007. The piece clocked in at two minutes, and it was an instant hit. Washington knew how to manhandle his audience. He introduced a problem right away, built up dramatic detail, and never let the tension slacken. Three months after he submitted the clip, he got a call from one of the judges. He had made it to the Talent Quest Finals. He was one of ten amateur broadcasters jockeying for position on NPR. The judges narrowed their pool by one a week, via a series of verbal challenges. (At one point, Washington had to riff on the word “grace” for two minutes). In the end, he was one of three champions who got a $200,000 stipend to develop his own pilot, which became a syndicated radio show in April. (It will air as a weekly broadcast starting in July and spawn a public television series this fall, barring the unforeseen.) Called Snap Judgment, it centers on taut, dramatic short stories that all take place in an urban environment. Events shift on a dime, forcing characters to make quick decisions. Morality is wobbly at best; the point is to grab listeners by the collar.
Public radio seems like a weird place for a man with no performing arts training to speak of. But Washington was hard-wired for this sort of thing. Born in Detroit, he was raised as a member of the World Wide Church of God, an evangelical faith that he describes as “a fundamentalist Bible cult … with a white-supremacist quality.” As a token black kid in the ministry, he grew up thinking he was cursed. He also cultivated a weird talent for persuading people of his outlandish ideas — that Jesus was coming in the next two years or so, that the world was about to end, that white Americans were the twelfth tribe of Israel. Washington became an expert politician. His family moved every year — mostly to rural and suburban areas of Michigan — so he and his brothers were burdened with being the new, out-of-place black kids at a series of majority-white schools. They had to politic their way into not getting beat up. “The idea was to form a posse, so the ass-whoopings would stop.” By time he reached his teens, he could talk his way into or out of anything.
Thus, snap judgment used to be a survival mechanism; now it’s a brand name. But Washington says his show counters the form of storytelling he learned as a kid. Delivered in a fast-paced, musical style that oscillates between church-speak and spoken word, it relies heavily on inflection and emotion. Stories move quickly, with conflict at every turn. Washington includes at least nine of them in each hour-long program. Many are pure fiction. Some are first-person narratives. Washington and his nine co-producers divide their time between writing original content and interviewing people. They steer clear of conventional news or public-figure profiles, gravitating instead toward ordinary people with phenomenal life experiences. Recent entries on the show’s web site include conversations with relief workers in Haiti, a slide show of photos snapped by a six-year-old boy with autism, and a conversation with two brothers who load their upright piano into the back of City Car Share pickup and play it at different BART stations. Some webisodes contain animated versions of stories told on the radio. This Sunday, Snap Judgment will launch a live stage iteration of its program, with contributions from Joshua Walters, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and spoken word poet Joyce Lee.
There’s a template for this type of material in programs like Radio Lab and This American Life, which Washington cites as antecedents. But he says Snap Judgment differs in form and structure. It’s faster and leaner, with an emphasis on low-tech devices and multimedia presentation. Washington says many of the web videos were shot with a regular digital camera. He says the stories also have an immediacy that you don’t find elsewhere on the public radio dial. Washington describes himself as a voracious podcast listener, and says his tastes fall mostly along the lines of weird personal anecdote (e.g., WireTap or The Daily Purge), explosive confessions (Risk!) or science fiction (his favorite is Escape Pod). He doesn’t cotton to orthodox forms of American storytelling. He wants the problem to be introduced right away, and he wants a new crisis with each hairpin turn of the plot. “The idea was to get away from the dry, rigid delivery of traditional NPR,” he said. “I want to get to the point where someone has to make a decision really quickly.”
Snap Judgment derives from two oral traditions — that of public radio, and that of spoken word. In his bio, Washington says he dabbled in spoken word while living in Detroit. He spent a decade working in the nonprofit world after earning his law degree from University of Michigan. And he doesn’t have roots in the black church. What he does have is a knack for oratory, and an elaborate fantasy life. He produces Snap Judgment from a ninth-floor office in downtown Oakland, where he sits opposite a giant poster of Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan character from Star Trek. On the opposite wall lies a stack of books, a window overlooking the other high-rises, and a black-and-white picture of “the Confounding Mr. Tom,” one of the invented characters from Snap Judgment‘s April 11 radio special. Mr. Tom, Washington said, is “the baddest, coolest stage hypnotist we had ever just heard of.” He appears in a sketch called “Getting Sleepy,” and mesmerizes forty audience members at a toss — with as much cunning as a preacher, or an adroit spinner-of-yarns. As metaphor, it seems apropos.