The Sounds of Success – and Empathy

by C. J. Hirschfield

Glynn Washington is a wonder. He grew up in an apocalyptic cult, holds a law degree, and has worked as an educator, diplomat, community activist, actor, and political strategist. But it was when he beat out 1,400 entries in a National Public Radio Talent Quest in 2008 that he found the calling that takes full advantage of all of his talents—as creator, host, and executive producer of a weekly radio show and podcast called Snap Judgment: “Storytelling, with a BEAT.” First aired on NPR nationwide in 2010, it has grown into a radio/podcast/stage/television show distributed by PRX, airing on over 400 broadcast radio stations, and on eight podcast apps. Known for its real-life dramas that “drop listeners into someone else’s skin” and incorporating killer beats into its creative soundscapes, it now has a huge and devoted following of “Snappas” who identify as members of Snap Nation. 

On Glynn Washington’s Twitter page, his location is listed as “Nice try, NSA” (National Security Agency), but the truth is that he lives in Oakland’s Grand Lake district and says that this city’s backdrop “has been the energy behind Snap Judgment from the beginning.” 

In fact, he considers Oakland as almost another character within Snap Judgment. To him, Oakland has always been real—”no other city is more real—sometimes good; sometimes horrible.” Pre-COVID, when he was working out of the program’s Old Oakland office, he appreciated the diversity surrounding him, marveling at the fact that the neighborhood boasted speakers of 120 languages. 

“The fuel for art is cheap rent,” he says, and expresses concern that all of the writers, artists, refugees, musicians, and other creatives who were priced out of San Francisco a decade ago and made their way to Oakland might now be chased out due to high rents. 

In fact, the East Bay has become a center for podcast and radio activity, with the popular “99 Percent Invisible,” Youth Radio’s “Adult ISH,” “Ear Hustle,East Bay Yesterday, and Reveal, to name a few. In fact, Roman Mars, the celebrated creator and host of “99 Percent Invisible” was the first hire at Snap Judgment over a decade ago. “Our world is small and incestuous,” Washington admits, but he definitely makes it sound like a good thing.

Snap Judgement bills itself as “the show that fights hate one story at a time,” but how exactly do you do that? In a word: empathy, something that Washington says is missing from our national dialog. “Snap Judgment invites you to look at the world through someone else’s eyes, and uses the magical, disarming quality of storytelling to take you to places you’ve never been,” he says.

Part of what sparks Washington’s creativity are his near-daily walks around Lake Merritt, where he says that answers—both about life as well as story inspirations—invariably come to him. “The Lake is meditative to me,” he says. “It’s like a genie.” He also enjoys the beauty of a place where people from all walks of life can come and enjoy the same air.

Snap Judgment’s stories are elevated and enhanced by their groundbreaking soundscapes, which Washington says act as a second narration. “When we drop you into someone else’s world, we need to use every tool we can,” he says. He references the rise of what he calls “Headphone Nation” over the past decade when he says that “if you give me the privilege of wearing headphones to listen, I want to make sure it pays off.”

One of Snap Judgment’s most popular story series (now in its fifth season) is “Spooked, described as “true-life supernatural stories told first-hand by people who can barely believe it happened themselves.” Why does this subject matter resonate with listeners? “The truth is that our society doesn’t have a whole lot of places to discuss issues that really matter, like “what happens when you die’”? And, he adds, “Everybody’s got a story.” 

 The pandemic has certainly rocked Snap Judgment’s world in many ways—some positive, and some not so much. “The idea that I can get a team of 20 on a Zoom call or in a  studio session is crazy,” says Washington, and a great opportunity. But the momentum that Washington had built for Snap Judgment’s national tour was stopped in its tracks. “We love the live tour” he says, where audiences numbered in the thousands (including at Oakland’s Paramount Theater), and the interaction was electric. Washington says he hopes to be back on the road next year.

Inspired by the challenges people are facing during COVID home confinement, Washington and team produced a new, six-part series: “Letters From Lockdown,” which travels around the world to see what can be learned from people who have been in captivity, be it in a war zone, prison, hospital, or another setting. The series is a Webby Awards finalist for “best limited podcast series,” with the public invited to vote until May 6.

When asked to talk about what’s next for Snap Judgement, the master communicator/producer is uncharacteristically reticent. “I can’t talk about it, but I can tell you that it’s very Oakland, and is about something you think you know.”

And what about the time Glynn Washington seriously considered a run for Oakland mayor?

That’s another story.

C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for The Oaklandside, EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.