NPR’s Great Black Hope

The radio network’s stereotypical listener is a 50-something white guy. Can Glynn Washington, the fastest-rising public-radio star in memory, change that?

Many NPR hosts come from NPR-ish families. Not Washington. “I grew up in a cult,” he told me. His parents were members of the Worldwide Church of God, a sect founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, an apocalyptic radio evangelist based in Pasadena. Washington got out—a story he tells with an escapee’s pride—and went on to the University of Michigan and its law school. He studied in Japan, then worked for the State Department, then ended up directing a program at the University of California at Berkeley. Some of the best Snap Judgment segments are drawn from his own life, and you get the feeling he could carry several episodes a year by himself.

“Losing My Religion,” a 2012 episode, features five stories. Two are Washington’s own (including the tale of an interracial teen romance that incurred his preacher’s wrath); one is the story of an ex-nun; another recounts a road trip the author Ingrid Ricks took with her dad; and the fifth is a profile of the South African peace activist Robert V. Taylor, who found that his religion conflicted with his homosexuality. Behind the stories are hundreds of separate sound clips, from a suitcase zipper to a police siren to a girl’s nighttime prayers. Not to mention dozens of musical excerpts: De La Soul, Willie Nelson, Aarktica. (The obvious choice, the R.E.M. song “Losing My Religion,” was rejected in favor of a cover version by the Benzedrine Monks of Santo Domonica.) Snap Judgment feels more kinetic than storytelling shows like This American Life, partly because it features shorter stories and more of them, but also because of its soundscaping. The music is selected not by public-radio careerists, but by people like Pat Mesiti-Miller, 27, a white hip-hop artist who got hired after he saw a Snap Judgment ad on Craigslist, and Stephanie Foo, 25. “I produce stuff I like to hear,” Foo told me at the show’s Oakland headquarters.

When I asked Washington whether he was having any luck attracting a diverse audience, he said that he was, just not on the radio. The people who hear his broadcast are older white people. But those who download the podcast or stream the show “skew 60 percent female, maybe 40 percent minority.” Online, Snap Judgment is most popular with people ages 33 to 42. “It’s much younger than the traditional NPR listener profile. Snap listeners, a lot of them have never heard of NPR before.”

Naturally, everyone wants to know what Washington puts in his special sauce. At industry conferences, he is constantly asked how to bring “diversity” to public-radio listenership. He’s getting sick of this question. “This is what you do,” he told me. “You hire the people you’re trying to reach.” Some of them—including certain members of Washington’s youthful, multiracial scrum of producers—may not even like public media. “I listen to public radio and get stressed out,” Foo told me, recoiling from what she sees as the genre’s clichés. “Like, you can’t do a story on bird-watching.” She has slowly persuaded her friends to listen to Snap Judgment, but mainly as a podcast. They don’t own radios. Neither does Foo.

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Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for The New York Times and is the author of Dan Savage: The First Gay Celebrity. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com.

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