Sound Judgment

Snap Judgment's Glynn Washington: Lessons from a Master Storyteller

Episode Summary

To a lot of listeners, Glynn Washington is a legend. His show, Snap Judgment, has been on the air across the country and in our ears continuously since 2010. It’s snapped up two million times a month by people who love his particular, recognizable brand of storytelling—as he calls it, storytelling with a beat. He’s one of only three people in the world who have had three podcasts hit number one on the Apple charts at the same time—Snap Judgment and his two other shows, Spooked, and a limited series called Heaven’s Gate. When people describe Glynn, and Snap Judgment, the words that come up are curiosity. Music. Empathy…and WONDER. And… no wonder. Because who else other than Glynn would include this statement in the credits of a podcast episode? “We love the universe of life in its glorious splendor.” Glynn and I delve into hostiness, empathy, surprise and why you should go small when storytelling, not big, on this episode of Sound Judgment, where we investigate just what it takes to become a beloved podcast host – by pulling apart one episode at a time, together.

Episode Notes

Before creating the Snap Judgment radio show, Glynn worked as an educator, diplomat, community activist, actor, political strategist, fist-shaker, mountain-hollerer, and foot stomper. 
Snap Judgment is heard on about 500 public radio stations in the U.S. and on podcasts everywhere. 

Scroll down for takeaways you can use from today’s show.

The episode discussed on today's show

"Zoo Nebraska," a Snap Classic, Season 13, Episode 18.

The story of a chimpanzee and a man whose dream brought disaster to a small American town.

This story details violence against animals. Sensitive listeners, please be advised.

Read more about Zoo Nebraska in Carson’s book, Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream.

Additional thanks to Patti Ragan from the Center for Great Apes.

Produced by John Fecile and Carson Vaughan, original score by Renzo Gorrio

Additional production by Jesse Dukes and Pat Mesiti-Miller

Artwork by Teo Ducot

Interested in protecting Great Apes? Learn more at the Center for Great Apes

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Takeaways from today's show: 

1. What you’re doing is taking the listener on a journey with you. That takes intention. 

From the very beginning of any episode, Glynn is thinking about how to persuade the listener to go on a journey with him. He’s taking you into a different world, introducing you to the interior lives of the characters in these stories. He wants you to be curious, surprised, to feel things. He asks this question: “What piece of myself can act as an avatar for this journey I want to take people on? What piece of me can do that? That’s the hostiness of it all.” 

2. To have hostiness is to be animated by a question – and the question that lights you up will be different than the one that lights me up. Snap Judgment is all about empathy - how to evoke, how to get listeners to walk in someone else’s shoes for  a little while. But Jad Abumrad of RadioLab’s animating force was curiosity. What animates you? Stay true to that. 

3. To Glynn, the best characters are not the famous and successful.  They’re the people who’ve made mistakes; who don’t want to face the ramifications of their actions, who’ve had some hard knocks – like Dick, the zookeeper in Zoo Nebraska who didn’t want his story told. Rarely – if ever – are people villains on purpose. 

4. You don’t have to be Batman to have a good story to tell. In fact, you may be able to tell an amazing story about walking across the street, if we learn what it took for you to get from one side of the street to the other, and how high the stakes are. 

5. And five…Don’t leave out the washing machine. It’s the ordinary details of life – even when they happen in the middle of a chimp escape – that make stories real for listeners. 





Episode Transcription

This transcript was auto-generated from an audio recording. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

To a lot of listeners, Glynn Washington is a legend. His show, Snap Judgment, has been on the air across the country and in our ears continuously since 2010. It's snapped up two million times a month by people who love his particular recognizable brand of storytelling—as he calls it, storytelling with a beat.

He's one of only three people in the world who have had three podcasts hit number one on the Apple charts at the same time. Snap Judgment and his two other shows, Spooked and a limited series called Heaven's Gate. When people describe Glynn and Snap Judgment, the words that come up are curiosity, music, empathy and wonder. And no wonder, because who else other than Glynn would include this statement in the credits of a podcast episode? “We love the universe of life in its glorious splendor.” 

Glynn and I delve into hostiness, empathy, surprise, and why you should go small when storytelling, not big. On this episode of Sound Judgment, where we investigate just what it takes to become a beloved podcast host by pulling apart one episode at a time together. I'm Elaine Appleton Grant.

Elaine Appleton Grant

Let me tell you a little more about Snap Judgment's origin story. Back in 2007, Glynn wasn't a storyteller, at least not professionally. Possibly in his travels as a policymaker, a diplomat, he even ran for mayor of Oakland. He did a lot of things. But a career as a radio host wasn't on his radar. Until the Public Radio Exchange, you may know them as PRX, created a contest looking for their next great hosts.

Specifically, they were looking for people with a mysterious quality called hostiness. Glynn heard about the contest and with only 24 hours left before the deadline, he created a prototype of a show and entered. We step right into that story and we mention a mutual friend, John Barth, who worked at PRX and who was my guest on Sound Judgment, episode 2. It was John who first told me there was a word for the quest I'm on to identify the universal skills of beloved hosts. Hostiness, the term PRX coined at least as far back as that contest Glynn entered. 

By the way, he won, and winning changed Glynn's life entirely. Or he wouldn't be here today talking about Snap Judgment. 

Glynn Washington

This whole thing was born out of a contest. The Public Radio Talent Quest. What they said they were looking for was hostiness. There was no prize necessarily mentioned, there was nothing really going on, but do you have hostiness? And everyone's like, what's that? I think maybe I got some hostiness. And I entered this contest. So that concept kept coming up again and again. Hostiness, hostiness, what's hostiness? Do you have hostiness? We’re looking for hostiness. And I thought about it a lot. 

I think what they were driving at is an appreciation of the intimacy of this medium. I'm always struck when people speak to me on the street or something like that, oftentimes they'll be very, very intimate. They will be telling me their deepest stories and I think it's because we have a relationship even if we don't necessarily know each other. It's somewhat one way, but people assume an intimacy because I've assumed an intimacy with them.

Elaine Appleton Grant

And that's how you would define hostiness, is that certain intimacy?

Glynn Washington

Intimacy, but—yes, this is performative. Sure, it appears maybe that I rolled out of bed and told a story. That's an illusion. Everything starts on a page for me. Everything is edited. I get to have these amazing sound engineers and musicians trying to make whatever I said sound better than it might do otherwise.

That's a process. I mean, you get to see the tip of the iceberg, but you're not seeing the entire iceberg. I hope that people hear the sincerity, the realness. It's hard to tell a real story. The storytelling is distilled truth. I can't tell everything that happened. I've got to find a way to condense it and still have it feel like this is just folks, just is me speaking.

Nothing that looks easy is. The radio OG, the original gangster, of this sort of narrative storytelling for me is Ira Glass, like everybody else. And I know how hard that man works to make it look like he's not working, like he's just walking down the street. The characters that he comes across that are interesting, a lot more that weren't interesting end up on the cutting room floor. You're seeing the end point of a process. Hostiness is just maybe a recognition of that. 

How do I carve out a piece of myself that can act as sort of an avatar for this journey I wanna take people on? What piece of me is going to do that? That's the hostiness of it all. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I love that. I absolutely love that. And you know, it's kind of funny, I didn't know John until I set out on this project. And when I posted on LinkedIn that I was gonna work on a project, I didn't name it specifically, on what it takes to become a beloved host, he wrote to me and he said, oh, we used to talk about hostiness at PRX all the time. And so we talked about that on the second episode of the show. So now I'm using the term. 

Glynn Washington

Your hostiness is gonna be different from someone else's hostiness. What animates you? What drives your own curiosity? The same way that, again, Ira Glass, he's like the best features reporter on the planet. Jad Abumrad, when he was doing Radiolab, made a show about his curiosity, and that was the animating force of his hostiness. I think for our show, the animating force is empathy. We're trying to get inside someone else's experience. My whole reason for doing this is I want you to wear someone else's skin for a little while. And whatever the question is that is animating you, your hostiness is going to be different. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Why do you think you arrived at that? Your animating force being I want you to walk in somebody else's shoes for a while? Why is empathy the most important thing for you?

Glynn Washington

I think my life path to that point took me there. I've mentioned several times on the show, growing up in a cult, growing up in the middle of rural Michigan, growing up a Black child in the middle of a very, very white community, I felt like there was no one that could understand my circumstance, at all. 

And there was a longing. Everyone has a longing to at least be understood by somebody, somewhere, somehow. And I also think that storytelling is a type of alchemy. It's the only way that we can in fact experience someone else's conditions, only way we can get inside someone else's head. The power of story for me at an early age, feeling like I knew the geography of Middle Earth more than I knew the geography of northern Michigan where I was living… 

Elaine Appleton Grant

You were a huge reader, right? 

Glynn Washington

I was a huge reader, and I think I was saved by books. I was saved, actually, by librarians who looked the other way when we could make our monthly trip to the library and go way over the allotted books that a kid was supposed to be allowed to check out. By those librarians who also looked the other way when I was wandering around the adult section.

Those people who would say, read this or take this or I think you'd like this, or I'm gonna save this something for you because I think it's gonna move you in some kind of way. I have to keep my super nerddom on the down low because I gotta be cool, because I gotta be hosty, right? I gotta be like that, I gotta be that guy. But the truth is, that's why I love librarians so much. 

It was my safe space. There was a lot of craziness going on and when I was growing up, a lot of...whoo, was just a lot of stuff. And being able to go and have a few hours to dive into a book that made sense, where the story had a beginning, middle, and end, which—that had never been my experience in real life, but I appreciated that the books could capture something like that. 

And it started making me think, what is my beginning? What's my middle? What's my twist? What's my end? I wasn't consciously thinking about this, I think as a young kid, but I do know this: that everyone has the story they tell themselves about themselves. And when you talk to someone about that story, that story is almost always rooted in trauma. Mine certainly would have been. And I've mentioned before that for women, it's a higher number than for men, that story is rooted in trauma. When I say rooted in trauma, I mean that if you ask someone their story, it will end in a traumatic episode. 

My mother passed away. Cousins were in a car accident, and I was the one standing left. Whatever it may be, that story will end in trauma. I felt like my brother was always the favorite. However you want to do it, it's going to be that traumatic thing that's a driver. And what's amazing, when you go back and look at your own story, you can consciously say, no, no, no, no, no. I don't want to end my story here. Let me put it over here for a while with the power of distance and perspective. 

And being able to tell yourself, no, no, no, I think I'm gonna use some of that grace I have and say, no, it doesn't end with me screaming in a closet. It ends with me being here. Maybe a graduation, maybe a promotion. Whatever it is that I'm proud of, I'm gonna put it there. And when you tell yourself that story about yourself in a different way, it changes you. 

It completely changes the person who's telling it. So not only is story magical in that it's the one way to get inside someone else's head, it's magical and it's the one way that allows you to change yourself. 

I'm attached to story because I did grow up in this ridiculous, crazy religious cult. And what kept those seats filled every week when the preachers had said that Jesus was going to come, Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming—and Jesus didn't show up. What kept those seats filled was our communal story. We had a story that kept this community on fire, that kept this community looking to the sky, that kept us thinking that we were in the last days and that we're about to leave this world behind. Jesus is coming for us and if we're not on fire, then we're gonna be on one of the heathens that are gonna be left to burn and we were not gonna take that chance. And so that story, that story was a story of my childhood and didn't just shape me, it shaped so many thousands of us. 

Walking out, I'm thinking, wow, what was that nonsense about? What were we doing? What kept us there? What kept me there into my late teens? What kept me there was a shared story and a community that believed that story. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Bring that full circle. You had this collective story. Is there a collective piece to what you do now? 

Glynn Washington

Yeah. So the founder of my cult organization growing up was a guy who used the power of story to scare people into following him. An offshoot of Christianity that was just very apocalyptic. There's a lot of apocalyptic organizations right now going on, and it's interesting speaking to you on Election Day that the same old techniques, the same—the exact same thing. For a kid who grew up on apocalyptic propaganda, to see this is just like a basic class, 101, in session that's happening right now politically. And actually probably a lot more detrimentally, and certainly the same cult-like behaviors, the same tribalism, the same everything, you're seeing it on a grander scale. 

But I grew up watching this guy take stories from the Bible, twist them to his own purposes and use those narratives to get people to send him cash and to be part of this fervor. When I'm leaving as a young teen, I'm thinking, what can I take from this horrific experience? What did I get besides lost and weirded out and being apart from everything? Is there anything I can take? Well, at the very least, I did learn how to tell a story. Now, I don't want to be anybody's cult leader. I don't have that. Been there, done that. But those tools, again, the same tools that we're seeing being twisted for propaganda and political excess right now, I think that those tools can be used for good. 

You know, I grew up in my late teens becoming a hip hop head. I loved hip hop. I still do. But I saw a more popular version of this art form that I love, twisted into misogyny and violence and propagating that. Well, the other stuff was still there, but that misogynistic aspect of hip hop became the dominant aspect. And there's so much that is amazing about this art form that is not that, that oftentimes people don't know about. 

It's the same thing with story. We're talking about cult stuff, we're talking about this crazy political reality right now. Can you take those tools and use them for good as opposed to the detriment of the society that people are supposedly trying to save? And I think that we can, and I would like to think that that's what we set out to do in the first place, was to take those tools that have been twisted against so many of us, and to use that weapon for good. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Well, it comes through. It comes through very loud and clear. I've loved listening deeply to this story. It's been revealing to me to listen to some of the stories again and again, which we'll get to in a minute. 

I have to tell you, though, what John Barth said about you. He said, he is genuinely joyful. So the episode that you chose for us to take a look at, Zoo Nebraska, is definitely on the darker side. I hear that joy even in a darker story like Zoo Nebraska. What role does joy play in hostiness for you? 

Glynn Washington

It plays a huge role. If people don't think you're having fun, they're not really ready to go for this ride. It is so hard to get anyone's attention for anything whatsoever. And I'm asking people to give me an hour of their time. Are you kidding me? And I might tell you a dark story along the way? That's a big ask. That's a big, big, big ask that I'm asking someone, especially today in this nonstop media environment. And because the stories on Snap Judgment oftentimes require attention. It's not like you can just kind of swat the kids and drive down the thing and check the voicemail. You gotta stay with me for a little bit. So I better start off with a situation that at least, if not my joy, at least my excitement to lead you to where we want to go narratively, I'm telegraphing to you that this is worth your time. That what I'm about to say, what the storytellers are about to come up with is like—look, I get it. You got a lot going on, but put that stuff aside for a minute and come into our world. And this headphones nation situation, which really wasn't the case when we first started Snap, but the idea you're gonna put on your own cocoon of silence and listen to our stories is just such a fantastic gift that we really wanna take advantage of it and I’d better telegraph, yeah, I've got joy about this story. I've got excitement.

I feel like with the people that are working at Snap, I honestly feel like I've got a six shooter full of the bestest joy bullets in the world. I feel like I'm loaded. And I want you to feel that too. Like this story here, produced by John Facile, one of the best producers on the planet. I want you to know that going in. I want you to know how excited I am for you to hear it, going in. When I say John Facile is one of the best producers on the planet, it's not a hype statement, that's a statement of fact. And I feel just—lucky. I get to steer the ship, but John's doing the heavy lifting on this thing. And I've got a team of people like that. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

That's fantastic. It's not easy to find those people or train them. And so to have built that…I mean, I do believe that people come to you because you create the right environment for that, right? You make it a magnetic environment, not just for listeners, but for the people who you want to work with. 

Glynn Washington

I will say this, Mark and I, we have our failings—my co-executive producer, co-founder of the show, Mark Ristich—we have our failings and we fight like brothers all day, but what we do…I think our biggest strength is recognizing and developing talent. The people that come in and out of the Snap world, I just feel very fortunate to work with them. From the sound team to the producers to anybody who's just—it's a hard thing to do. We're asking people to open themselves up. No one wants to do that. You recoil from opening up your emotional world, especially to have millions of people comment on it. As a producer, I want you to pursue your passions, but I need to know that you care enough about this story. I wanna hear what you feel. I certainly wanna hear how the people who are telling this story feel. This is a show about empathy. So I need that feeling, is gonna be the baseline, the skeleton on which anything else comes up on.

When I say storytelling with a beat, when I say this is not the news, what I'm trying to say is this is a different perspective. When you're telling a news story, that news story means that it's centered around the reporter with the microphone and the thing and I'm telling you how things were, I'm going to check this and that. When I say no, I'm going to tell you a story, for me it means that it's coming from a person. It's coming from their perspective.

We want to fact check everything, I want this to be as accurate as anything you hear in any news story. But a story means this is how it impacted me. Hey, this is what happened to me. And if you get something out of it, that's great. But this is what happened to me first. This is how it went down. This is what I saw. This is the decisions I made because this happened. That's a very, very different thing than the news that you might hear on other places, on NPR.

I keep saying that every single episode, because I want people to understand that we are taking a different line. Instead of kind of a top-down look, bird's eye view, I wanna push it all the way to the person who are experiencing the stories themselves, which means I wanna hear how they feel. That's not extraneous to the story, that's central to our storytelling.

Elaine Appleton Grant

Let's take a look at the Zoo Nebraska story. So just to sort of repeat why we're even looking at one particular story is that I start out every episode, I ask a host to identify a story that was either a favorite or was particularly challenging to make. Sometimes they're one and the same. Zoo Nebraska is ostensibly the story of a little—sort of ragtag zoo that centered around chimps in a little town in Nebraska and the zookeeper, who hated zoos. Why did you choose that story to talk about?

Glynn Washington

I said that we want to have people tell their stories. We want to have the perspective of the storyteller be predominant. But this is a story where, in a lot of ways, the main character can't speak. And trying to find a way to have empathy for a non-human primate is a challenge. We make this stark line between man and beast. On this side is man, and on this side is beast. I think what this story does is make you question who's on what side. This story originally came from a book. It was one of those things, it's like, if we can pull this off, then we're putting them in a perspective that they normally would not get to have. If it's gonna surprise me, I think it's gonna surprise our listeners, and I think it's gonna make them feel something along the way. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

It certainly did that for me and obviously millions of your listeners. I wanted to play for you a little bit of the introduction.

Clip from Snap Judgment

Glynn Washington: When I was four years old, my parents, they took me to the Detroit Zoo. And there we walked by a chimp, kept in a cage, looking out at us, looking out at me from his prison. And something inside—I saw him and me, I saw me and him, and I screamed. I wept, I begged for them to let him out, let him out. My parents eventually, they had to take me home.

And later I read everything I could about the great apes, watched everything I could about them on the TV. Imagined myself with the apes and Jane Goodall. In fact, just consider the chimpanzee. They share 98% of our DNA. They laugh when you tickle them. They can see and recognize themselves in mirrors. They live in groups and they communicate using vocalizations and body language. When you look at a chimpanzee, you're seeing a highly intelligent creature, a creature capable of joy and anger and sadness. They experience depression, they grieve. To quote Jane Goodall, there is no sharp line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. It's a blurry line. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I love that introduction. How did that come about, that you wound up using a story from when you were four years old about your own life to introduce this story that happens a long way and time away from you, that has nothing to do personally with your life? 

Glynn Washington

One of the things that people say is that the Snap Judgment stories are, or the stories you hear on the radio, are so apart from me. I never been in a bank robbery. I never swam to the bottom of the ocean. I never did any of these things. And what I want to do at the beginning of every show is bring it as close to home as I can.

I want to put a stand in for an everyman type situation to make it—you know, first let me get you with me first. Let me take you in my my world. And my world is not extraordinary. It's the story I told at the beginning here. It's not an extraordinary story. When you see a kid go to the zoo, you see a kid have all sorts of reactions. You can imagine the reaction that I had as a four-year-old kid when I saw a chimpanzee; you've probably seen someone have a similar reaction. Especially little kids who might be a little bit sensitive. 

I want to first open the door personally before we go off into this big story That's kind of my role at Snap Judgment, is to make things small first before we make them big. Before I take you on the crazy journey, let me give you a tiny little taste of it. So you're willing to to go on this larger track with us. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I love that. And I love those kind of ordinary details. You just shed some light on the fact that in this scene that happens pretty quickly into the beginning of the story, which we'll hear, there's cops. And they're going to where these chimps have gotten out. And there's a little moment where this police officer's wife is calling him about a washing machine. 

Clip from Snap Judgment

Brian: As I'm watching these two chimpanzees walk around like nothing's going on outside the fence, here comes the guy on the golf cart. I see this guy on a golf cart coming from my right out of the tree line, and he has a .357 Magnum handgun. He's just shooting like crazy all over the place, shooting over his left shoulder, shooting behind him.

Reporter: As Brian watched the shooter fly past the two galloping chimps on a golf cart, his phone rang.

Brian: Hello? 

And it was my wife at home. She told me that the washing machine was not working at the time. 

Okay, shut it off. I got a situation here. I gotta go, bye. 

The wind’s blowing like crazy and I hear that scream. It's a completely horrific scream. Like they're hurt or angry altogether. As a human being, you can't make that sound. It just made you curl inside.

Elaine Appleton Grant

And a lot of storytellers would have taken that moment out. I loved it. It's the same reason, right? 

Glynn Washington

Yeah, exactly. It's the exact same reason. Even in the middle of the most ridiculous plot pattern that you wanna think of, it's those mundane moments that make it real for the listener. In the middle of the volcano, you're still going to be human. One of those things we did, as kind of a thought pattern, was to see if you could tell a story about crossing the street that was compelling. I don't want people to feel like they have to be Batman in order to have a story that matters. The fact pattern is almost meaningless to a good story, a good telling of a story. Your story of picking up your kid from daycare can be an amazing story if you tell what's at stake, if we understand what it took for you to get there, if we understand the fights, the turmoil, for you to get to that daycare, dressed, looking well. Maybe you have had some issues, maybe this is your first day out of rehab, maybe it's a lot of different things. And you look around on the street—and we know this, we know this intellectually, but we don't think about it—every single person is carrying a burden. They might look OK. They might look normal. They might look abnormal. But they got a burden. 

So yes, we tell these big, wacky, fact pattern stories sometimes. But we want to ground it with the everyday, because it's the everyday that connects everybody. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

That's wonderful. I'm going to play a clip for you. And then let's talk about what you think the story is really about, how you framed it with the producers.

Clip from Snap Judgment

Dick: My grandpa was born in this house. 

Reporter: Oh, cool. 

Dick: And great grandma lived there… 

Reporter: I first heard about the zoo over a decade ago, and I quickly started researching the story. But it took me seven years to get Dick to go on record.

Dick: I probably should put another log on. 

Reporter: He hasn't told his story to anyone. 

Dick: I'm just a normal person. I didn't do anything extraordinary. I didn't do anything special. I made a bad career choice and made bad decisions that created a monster that destroyed me. 

Reporter: A monster. That's what Dick calls the zoo. What legacy do you hope it leaves behind? 

Dick: I just want to forget it. I just want it forgotten. I don't want it. There's nothing that it can be behind.

Reporter: Well, I mean, I know that I know that you want it forgotten. But like like I said, it was there for almost 20 years, people are gonna remember it. How do you hope it's remembered? 

Dick: I don't care. I wish people would forget it. Let it die, right? Just forget about it and let it die.

Elaine Appleton Grant

So that's a really interesting scene. Although I have to say, there is nothing in this entire episode that's not—you couldn't pull apart in five different ways. Tell me how pivotal that scene is and how you describe what this story is about without giving away that—I've been trying not to give away the ending. 

Glynn Washington

I think it's important that we meet people in their own terms. I have thoughts about that character's actions. But I think it's important for us to hear where people—where they think they're coming from. It's interesting to hear someone say, this thing that I spent 20 years in was a complete waste. Don't look at that. 

Because boy, I know what I wanna do as soon as I hear that, is look at it. And I also wanna look at why someone did that thing. And that's what the show is about. The protagonist who wants to tell you all the stuff that they did is oftentimes not the person whom you want to listen to. It's oftentimes the protagonist who made the big mistake, who wants to look away from the ramifications of their actions, who says, "'No, I don't want to give the interview.'" Those are oftentimes the people that have the best story to tell and can take you on the biggest ride. 

And too, the people who, “'Oh yeah, I can't wait to tell you I did this great thing.” Well, from a narrative perspective, the great thing doesn't necessarily make a great story. I need the people who have been through some knocks, who didn't make the right decisions, who come out a little bit worse for wear. The person who did everything right, I don't know what to do with that person. I don't know what to do with it from a narrative perspective. I don't even know what to do from a personal perspective. I need that other guy, that other woman.

Elaine Appleton Grant

And so in this case, this is Dick, the chimp expert, who wound up running this little zoo in Royal, Nebraska. 

Glynn Washington

Well, let me just say this. Very rarely is someone a purposeful villain. Even if we think we did wrong, we have reasons why we did wrong. And that makes it complicated, it makes it real. There are gonna be very, very, very few cartoon bad guys on Snap Judgment.

Even though there might be some bad guys, some bad women, some horrible decisions made by some horrible characters, people aren't gonna wake up in the morning saying, let me get to evil today. That's just not how anybody thinks. At least that's not how our characters generally think. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

So I'm curious, is the story about the inherent tensions of keeping chimps in a zoo because they're so sentient? Is the story about this character's life and how it turns out as a result of all of these actions? Is the story about some really difficult and crazy bad decisions made by the townspeople? What is the story about? 

Glynn Washington

Now Elaine, one of the things that was really important in the founding of Snap Judgment is oftentimes on public radio shows of any stripe, at the end of the story, someone told you what the story meant. 

Elaine Appleton Grant


Glynn Washington

Someone gave you the moral, someone wrapped it up in a bow, someone told you exactly what this story means. You will never ever hear me do that on Snap Judgment! Because—there's a reason why. This gets into the weeds of story itself. If I tell you a story, and I tell you what that story means, your brain—I got it, cool, got it, stop. I'm ready! I'm on to the next thing. That's not the point. The point is, I want you to think about this. At the end of it, I want this to be the story you discuss with your spouse, with your boss, with your kids, and become almost like a vicarious experience that you've gone through. The way this works is that your brain is always asking, What does it mean? What does it mean? What does it mean? What does it mean? What does it mean?

If I tell you what it means, your brain stops. If I don't tell you what it means, your brain keeps that thing going, keeps on going, keeps on going, keeps on going. It means different things for different people. Your experience is going to collide against the experiences here. It's gonna mean different things for you. But whatever that is, I might lead you there, but I'm not gonna make you drink.

Elaine Appleton Grant

And I was going to ask you about that, that you've been very forthright about I'm never going to tell you at the end what this story meant. It's such a layered, layered, layered story. And to think that you do this in and out, in and out for more than 10 years is astonishing. I mean, do you ever run out of being surprised by stories? How do you keep going? 

Glynn Washington

Yeah, the first—beginning of Snap, I thought, oh my goodness, we're gonna run out of stories. I've since learned that that's never gonna happen. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

That's wonderful. That's wonderful news to all the Snap listeners. Okay, let's try a few lightning round questions. 

What do you now know about hosting that you didn't know years ago?

Glynn Washington

I thought that I had to have all these crazy fact pattern stories in order to connect to the audience. And I have had—some remarkable things that have happened in my world. But those aren't the ones that resonate. It's the small stories that resonate. It's that crossing the street, it's that picking the kid up from school, it's not getting a Twinkie in your lunchbox when you thought you deserved one. Those are the stories that people actually end up writing about. The fact pattern about being in an alley in Japan with the gangsters shooting overhead, that's not what hits. 

And so my advice oftentimes to storytellers is our instinct is to go big. And oftentimes I ask them to go small. Go as small as you can in order to have a story that resonates. 

And also the best stories are when someone puts their neck out. And that's not what we want to do. I don't want to tell you about the time that I did the bad thing. I want to be the hero that doesn't make mistakes, but it's the mistakes that make the story. We call it picking at scabs. And the best storytelling does that. Again, the perfect person making the perfect decisions is not a very good story. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

No, it's not. It's not. Who is your dream guest for Sound Judgment?

Glynn Washington

Well, my dream guest is not possible because of his passing a little while ago, but someone like Anthony Bourdain was my hero in so many different ways. You never want to meet your heroes, and I never did. I was about to, but I never did. In so many different ways, boy, I loved his mind. And his sense of narrative might be kind of our North Star. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Oh, that's incredible. I love that, that it's your North Star. In the tiny bit of time that we have left, one really quick question and then a little favor. So the really quick question is you have and we didn't even get to touch on it, but you've got this great musicality about your speech when you're doing the introductions and especially on stage. I mean, you really are just a delight to listen to. It's really like—against all of the music and the beats, and you can feel that energy. And there's no one on earth who sounds like Glynn Washington but Glynn Washington. 

So many people have said everybody these days wants to sound like Ira Glass, and that really the best thing you can do is sound like yourself. What do you know about learning how to sound like yourself that you have been able to translate to people who don't have the experience or perhaps the inborn talent that you have?

Glynn Washington

What do I know about sounding like yourself? 

Elaine Appleton Grant

In that way that you've got so much energy, you know, yourself, but it's performative. 

Glynn Washington

But it is performative. And I want to say again, that is a performative aspect. And maybe your storytelling isn't performative. Maybe that's not the way that you would speak. Maybe your thing, when you think about telling your thing, it doesn't necessarily have music and a beat and a light and a stage upon it. But I will say this: is that whatever it is, we have so many different types of speakers on this show, and I've never found a particular cadence, a particular accent, a particular anything, to be an impediment to telling a story. And so, however it is that you speak, distill that. Make it as crisp and as concentrated as you can. Hostiness is just whatever you are, concentrate it. Concentrate you. Don't concentrate Ira Glass. You don't got Ira Glass. Don't concentrate Jad Abumrad. Concentrate you. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

I love it. So my little favor is, I would love to hear you say, and remember, don't turn out the lights.

Glynn Washington

Ooh, from Spooked, of course. Of course. And remember, do not turn out the lights. 

Elaine Appleton Grant

Oh, I love it. Glynn Washington, thank you so much. This has been just enthralling, and I so appreciate it. I know people are gonna learn a lot from it. 

Glynn Washington

Thank you for having me on, Elaine. I really appreciate it.

Elaine Appleton Grant

At the end of every episode, I give you just a few of the many takeaways from these conversations. Here are some from today. 

  1. What you're doing is taking the listener on a journey with you. That takes intention. From the very beginning of any episode, Glynn is thinking about how to persuade the listener to take a journey with him. He's taking you into a different world, introducing you to the interior lives of the characters in these stories. He wants you to be curious, surprised, to feel something. He asks this question: what piece of myself can act as an avatar for this journey I want to take people on? What piece of me can do that? That's the hostiness of it all.
  2. To have hostiness is to be animated by a question, and the question that lights you up will be different than the one that lights me up. Snap Judgment is all about empathy, how to evoke empathy, how to get listeners to walk in someone else's shoes for a little while. But Jed Abumrad of Radiolab, well, his animating force was curiosity. What animates you? Stay true to that.
  3. To Glynn, the best characters are not the famous and successful. They're the people who've made mistakes, who don't wanna face the ramifications of their actions, who've had some hard knocks. Dick, the zookeeper in Zoo Nebraska, who didn't want his story told. Rarely, if ever, are people villains on purpose.
  4. You don't have to be Batman to have a good story to tell. In fact, you may be able to tell an amazing story about walking across the street if we learn what it took for you to get from one side to the other, and how high the stakes are.
  5. Don't leave out the washing machine. It's the ordinary details of life, even when they happen in the middle of a chimp escape, that makes stories real for listeners. 

That's all for today. I hope you liked being on this journey with me as much as I have with you. This has been the kickoff of season two of Sound Judgment. Thanks for being with me. Please follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. Check out our show notes and subscribe to our free Sound Judgment newsletter. Our goal is to help you make great creative choices in your work every day. 

And by the way, you can help us do that! Just take one minute and rate and review us on your favorite podcast app. We think it helps with the algorithm, we know it helps with moral support. 

Sound Judgment is produced by me, Elaine Appleton Grant. Sound design by Andrew Parrella. Our gorgeous cover art is by Sarah Edgell. Podcast management and marketing by Tina Bassir.

Coming up on the next episode, a multi-million dollar conversation with National Speaker Association Hall of Famer Jay Baer, host of Standing Ovation—and the man I stole this show from. See you soon.