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He Who Tells the Best Story Wins: Radio and Podcast Host of “Snap Judgment” Talks Shop

December 9, 2015

In 2007, Glynn Washington was director of a program at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business called YEAH (Young Entrepreneurs at Haas), working to give underprivileged Bay Area youth more opportunities in life, when he seized upon an opportunity of his own. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) were running a talent contest, looking for the next Ira Glass: a radio host who could mesmerize listeners with their voice and produce the kind of storytelling that engenders those “driveway moments”—you know, those rare times when you’ve made it home but can’t turn off the car radio until the story’s over. That kind of radio host.

The tape Washington submitted won him the resources to develop a pilot of his show, Snap Judgment, which would eventually get picked up by NPR and soon become the fastest growing show on public radio. Today, Snap Judgment has been going strong for five years as both radio program and digital audio podcast, not to mention the occasional live show.

Like This American Life, Snap Judgment blends true stories and music. The Oakland-based Snap feels a little edgier, however; a little more experimental. One recent show, “06 Female,” featured the story of a wolf in Yellowstone National Park—the alpha of her pack and an object of adoration and respect for the biologists who studied her. Without anthropomorphizing, the show somehow manages to make that wolf more interesting than most Hollywood heroes. Another segment, “Marwencol,” produced by UC Berkeley J-school alum Julia DeWitt, tells the story of a man who is so badly beaten outside a bar one night he can’t remember anything. Not even who he is.

California asked novelist Daniel Alarcón, host and cofounder of the Spanish-language podcast Radio Ambulante, to talk with Washington about his show and the art of radio storytelling. Alarcón, formerly a fellow of Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, is now a professor of broadcast journalism at Columbia University in New York. The following is a slightly condensed and edited transcript of their discussion. Pat Joseph

Daniel Alarcón: Glynn, for the uninitiated, would you describe the aesthetic of Snap Judgment?

Glynn Washington: Sure; so we call it storytelling with a beat. And what that means for us is that we really wanted to, from the very beginning, get rid of all the boring parts and get right to what matters. In order to do that, we want to create a sound bed, a musical bed, a floor, so that people understand what is happening through scoring and music. Every tool of the radio producer’s kitchen goes into the audio experience of Snap Judgment, to get you into the mindspace of someone completely different. And that idea has stayed fairly true since the beginning of the show.

“Snap Judgment” creator Glynn Washington

DA: From what I’ve heard, the creation of the show itself was a snap decision, that the night before the talent search deadline, you were like, “Oh, I got this!”

GW: What was happening was I was listening to a podcast, and the guy in the podcast mentioned this contest. And I checked, and the entry was due the next day. You were supposed to make a two-minute audio clip and send it in. And like a lot of us who give to public radio, I felt a type of ownership. And that was really what it was about when I first sent it in. I was like, you know what, there are some things that even my favorite radio programs do extremely poorly. And especially coverage of communities that I know anything about … just horrible. And so I imagined a situation where that was done better. And I made my little clip.

My little daughter came wandering downstairs. I said, “Baby, sit right here. Daddy’s going to tell a little story.” It was seven years ago. I was recording it on GarageBand on my computer and I pulled one of those beats that they have. And I put that together and sent it in, and forgot about it until three months later when I got a phone call, and they said “Congratulations, you’re one of ten finalists!” And I thought it was my buddy Mark playing a trick on me, so I hung up the phone on them, and I went back to eatin’ my Chinese food. And then they called back a little later, and they said, “I don’t know who Mark is, but do you wanna do this contest thing?”

And that’s how it started. I was literally eatin’ Chinese food at a little place in Berkeley when I got the phone call, and at the time there was no grand plan to be in public media. You know, I listened to it. I had never made any audio before. I would like to think I was an artistic person. Myself and that guy who I thought it was on the phone, Mark, we had made some short films, and some music, and a few different things. But I paid the bills as a nonprofit director. And you know I actually really dug that. So I wasn’t looking to make this type of career switch. But, you know, things happen.

DA: The fact that you are an unconventional public radio person—you didn’t come through the newsroom, you got a law degree, and you worked in nonprofit—to what extent do you think that’s been an advantage? And in what ways has it been a disadvantage?

GW: I had been working in a lot of nonprofits and a lot of advocacy groups before Snap Judgment, and I never had any grand resources to move public policy. The only thing I ever had, my only currency, was story. And I remember thinking that He who tells the best story, wins when you’re fighting a lot of these policy debates. And so that served me well going into public media, at least to be able to define what I was doing in public media. I was not going to be a news guy, I was not going to be anybody’s reporter. I was going to be a storyteller.

And then one of the things we did really, really well was hire amazing people. My first hire was Roman Mars, who went on to start 99% Invisible—amazing podcast. Roman ended up being the only person in our group who had ever worked inside a public radio station. And so, we would always be like, “Roman, what would a public radio station think about this?” Or that? Or the other thing? He had to act as a proxy for program directors around the country, which he didn’t appreciate. But he had a lot of things going for him, but one of ’em was he had a real sense of what a radio show might actually look like. And he laughed at some of our ideas, but he was still really flexible enough to let the whole process develop organically.

DA: You’re in hundreds of stations now. But at the beginning, how hard was it convincing station directors to try out this show with a different sound?

GW: It was extremely difficult. It was extremely hard just getting to the point of NPR distribution in the first place. But because we started off with a low station count, no one really paid very much attention to us. And that gave us space to develop our own sound. I think that if we had had the attention of the public media conglomerate aimed at us, the show might not have been able to develop into what it’s become. And so I’m happy that we got a little space.

DA: Talk to me about the way you edit. I’ve talked with some of your producers who say everything comes to a committee almost, to the team, which I imagine can be a very fraught process. How did you come to decide on that editorial process?

GW: When we were hiring people, the main criteria was story knowledge, and how they told stories. And it was really important to use people in a myriad of ways. Not only are they creating stories, but I want to hear what they think. And it was important early on that everybody have the ability to hit the brakes on a story. This served us well in so many situations, because oftentimes you have blinders on. I might not hear something that a Latin female might hear, that a gay Asian male would hear. I’ll miss it and I’ll end up putting something out on the air that says something that I don’t want to say. And this commonality, this diversity that was in the room, everybody just felt empowered to say, “Wait a minute, this isn’t working.”

Now, as far as the story is concerned, it’s funny to play a story in a room full of audio producers. You can see whether people are interested. You can see when they get bored. You can see when you’re not quite getting your point across. And you know these are people who are invested in your story.

The one thing I’ve been really happy and thrilled about, really, is that everyone wants everybody else to be awesome. Which means that everybody is going to be harsh. Everybody is going to take out the knives. And sometimes those knives are really sharp.

This team is amazing at working together to find these endings, to know when to go back and talk to someone the third time, the fourth time. Because we’re trying to create a cinema of sound, we’re trying to stay true to the person’s story, and we want to, more than anything, make sure that we’re putting our listeners in someone else’s perspective. And that just takes some doing sometimes.

DA: Talk about going back for that third interview—which sounds counterintuitive, because the story’s not as fresh.

GW: When we start an interview, we have an idea of where the interview is going to go. There’s a reason why we’re talking to this person. We think we might know something of the story, and we’re looking for that person to tell it to us. But then there’s this surprise, where he just or she just took us somewhere the interviewer was not expecting. Sometimes you miss those, and you might go back and hear your tape and say, “Wait a minute, I missed something.” And we’re trying to tell stories that are really true to the person’s experience. So when we think the story is one way and we get there and it’s some way else, we have to really alter what we’re doing. And sometimes this great storyline we had thought out, that’s just not gonna work. That’s just not what happened. But maybe something else will. And maybe you can’t think of it in the time frame [when] you’re in front of that person. Maybe it occurs to you in the middle of the night—the question you should have asked when you were in front of them.

DA: Oh, I hate when that happens! [laughing]

GW: [laughing] This happens to the best of us. It really does. Especially when we want to craft stories that have something that feels like an emotional ending.

Endings are hard, because in real life, stories never end. But we’re trying to craft something with this person to go from a beginning to an end that feels emotionally resonant, that is true to what happened, that takes us someplace we’ve never been before. We’re serious about a public radio mission of almost like exploring new worlds and new ideas. It’s like, and I hate to be goofy with a Star Trek analogy, but we really want to go into communities that people don’t know anything about: microcommunities, foreign communities, whatever it may be. And put you somewhere where you might not have made the decision that person made, but you at least understand a little bit more about the world that person lives in, and you can understand why they made the decision they did.

DA:Is there something in your aesthetic and Snap’s approach to storytelling that you wish shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered would learn?

GW: Yeah! Not just public media, but media in general. They will often talk to a person of a lower socioeconomic status. They’ll ask the person a question. The person will answer the question. And then the reporter will translate it. And it annoys me to no end. I think that America is smart enough to understand its own America. I think one of the big things that we can do is get out of the way when people are relating what happened. And I oftentimes think, as well, that we don’t trust recollections or history or anything unless it comes from somebody with a Ph.D. or some fancy title, a CFO. History is being made all the time, and you don’t have to have a fancy title to do it, to see it, or to experience it.

DA: Is digital distribution simply a different method of getting people to listen to you? Or does it change something in the character and the sound of the show?

GW: I think that this whole digital explosion that’s going on is a fundamental shift. When you put your headphones on to listen to a Snap Judgment show, I’ve got you in a way that I just don’t when you’re listening on the radio, with the kids in the back seat, in the traffic jam. But this evolution toward the headphones nation has really given listeners a different type of experience and engagement. It’s a more personal, more direct connection.

A lot of our listeners have never heard of NPR. They come to us absent of any biases about what this is supposed to sound like. And too, that audience has been rabid about the show. Those are the people who, early on, were acting as our ambassadors to knock down the gates of the public radio stations, to let them know that, “Hey, I’ve heard this show, and you need to put it on your public radio station. On our public radio station.” I don’t think that Snap would be here if it wasn’t for those people.

Interviewer Daniel Alarcón

Also, when they like something, they let you know; and when they don’t like something, they let you know, too. That kind of instant feedback. Think about this. You as an author know this better than anyone else. When you write a book, you spend two-and-a-half, three years writing that book. Once you’re done, let’s say it’s all wrapped up, you’ve still got nine months to a year-and-a-half before publishing. And that’s when you get your feedback. That’s a long feedback loop before you know how people—your audience— feels about what you just did. And that’s why sometimes I think, as a writer I have the best job in the world, because I know instantly whether or not I was successful in doing what I was trying to do, or not. Because that’s what social media is for. Letting people know when they’ve screwed up. And they let us know.

DA: For better or for worse. The bunker mentality can easily set in when you get hit on all sides from people. Sometimes getting criticized on social media can scare you away from taking risks because it does feel like all the sudden everyone is shouting at you. But it’s not everybody. It’s not everyone who listens to you. It’s often just a vocal minority.

GW: I agree that sometimes that type of criticism, especially for young writers and people just starting out, it can really scare them off. But I think that we’ve been very, very lucky to, just because of the nature of what we do, to have a community of listeners that’s been really welcoming. People let you know when they appreciate something that’s touched them in whatever way that it has. I liken it to a site like Humans of New York, where instead of half the comments being put-downs, 19 out of 20 are encouraging. It’s like, because they’ve put so much love out into the world, they’re getting some of it back in the community that they built. And I think that Snap is a lot like that.

DA: There’s an earnestness to your show. Not an innocent earnestness, but an eyes-wide-open, “Here I am” type of earnestness. Do you think that’s just part of who you are? How much of the character of the show is based on your own personality?

GW: I’m from Detroit. People from Detroit … no one’s naïve there. Everybody already has seen whatever it is you think you’re selling, but still I think, even in that environment, everyone is still open to wonder. And that’s really what we were trying to do with Snap, to show that wonder is left, that awe is still here, that there are things people do that will just strike you to your core. That they’ve experienced things you just don’t know. And that everybody walkin’ down the street is an individual universe.

But as far as the aesthetic of the show, we definitely wanted it to sound like it had some attitude behind it. A little bit of steel, a little bit of grit, some swagger, some muscle, some sexiness. All that stuff. Oftentimes when you get in front of a microphone, you try to strip your voice of personality, and we wanted to be sure that the personality was left.

DA: I’ve been fortunate to see a couple of the live shows, and I wanted to talk about how you translate the podcast onto the stage.

GW: The live show and the produced show are two very different animals. On the produced show, you can take a five-hour interview and edit it down to a five-minute piece. And craft it and go into it that way with every tool in the audio toolbox. And those stories are mostly being told by people who would never get on anybody’s stage. They’re coming from a different place. But the live show, yeah, you have to be prepared to go out in front of 1,500 people and rock a story with the band, and it’s a totally different experience. But the stories are crafted in a way that hopefully does expose the humanity of the person that’s telling them. That’s the essence of what Snap’s storytelling is, I think, is bringing people along into your mindspace. And some of the storytellers that we get, that can do it, are just transportive.

And what’s interesting is that the aesthetic of the show was sort of born out of the slam poetry movement. We certainly don’t want to go out and tell poems. And unlike slam poetry, we want to have a really strong musical element to it. But it’s interesting that some of our top storytellers are those poets who can make the leap from poetry to narrative—there’s very few who can do that—but those who can, they come with so much stage presence and experience on how to relate to an audience that they end up being our top storytellers.

DA: I wanted to end by asking you about your new WNYC agreement and what it means for getting on the air in more places.

GW: We’re thrilled to make this partnership with WNYC, but right now, it’s a digital partnership. And I think that what’s happening is, I think it’s illustrative of what’s going on, in that the importance of the digital has outstripped the importance of the radio.

DA: That happened fast, huh?

GW: It happened really fast, in that most of the revenue that’s keeping the lights on in this organization has come from the digital side, as opposed to the radio side. And it used to be, as well, that if a radio station said, “Oh, you know we don’t like that Snap Judgment” and they refused to play us, it was a big impact, a big negative impact on the organization. Now, things are changing so rapidly that it doesn’t have the same impact anymore. And you know whoever pays the piper calls the tune, and we are definitely born of public radio. We have a public radio soul, public radio DNA. But this ability to go directly to the people who really dig this show, is just amazing. I think it’s gonna change the way media is produced. It’s gonna change the entire landscape of audio production.

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