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?

John Cuneo

This is a true story,” Glynn Washington assures me as we cross the Bay Bridge, shortly after midnight. He’s just fetched me at the San Francisco airport, and I am discovering the thrill of hearing a voice you know from the radio coming at you from the driver’s seat. “I had a girlfriend,” he continues, “and we kept fighting and breaking up.” They were living in Michigan and had planned a relationship-saving trip to Canada. “And on the way out of Ann Arbor, this show comes on—it’s this guy I had never heard before, a dude named Ira Glass. I was like, ‘Whoa!’ and she was like, ‘Turn this noise off right away!’ ” That was the epiphany Washington needed. “I was like, ‘Stop the car.’ I knew right then the relationship was not going to work.”

That was 1997, when This American Life, Glass’s public-radio show, was just two years old, and people were beginning to suspect that his style of curated storytelling might be radio’s next big thing. Now Washington, a proud student of Glass’s, is the next big thing. In its first three years, Snap Judgment, Washington’s fast-paced, music-heavy, ethnically variegated take on the public-radio story hour, has spread like left-end-of-the-dial kudzu. It is on 250 stations, reaching nine of the top 10 public-radio markets, and its podcast is downloaded more than half a million times a month. And while there has long been minority talent on public radio—a realm that includes National Public Radio and other producers of non-commercial radio, like American Public Media and Public Radio International—Washington is the first African American host to swing a big cultural stick, the first who seems likely to become a public-radio superstar on the order of Glass or Garrison Keillor.

Public-media executives are obsessed with their diversity problem. They are well aware of the perception that NPR is most influential among the elderly (or at any rate the middle-aged—the median age of an NPR listener is 56) and the Caucasian; they also realize that many of the medium’s stars are white men of a certain age. Washington’s big break came as a result of the radio bosses’ fixation on expanding their core audience. Minority hosts and reporters have a presence on public radio’s flagship magazine programs, but due to the nature of such programming, they blend in with the rest of the chorus. While Michel Martin’s daily show, Tell Me More, has a multicultural focus, it is heard on only 117 stations. Tavis Smiley, who had a daily NPR show from 2002 to 2004, never really caught on (perhaps because he was a poor fit for the medium). So in 2007, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes government money to NPR and other public-media ventures, and Public Radio Exchange launched the Public Radio Talent Quest, in the hopes of finding future hosts, perhaps from outside the elite—and mostly white—pool that traditionally yields public-media talent.

The day before the deadline to submit entries, Washington, then a nonprofit administrator, heard an advertisement for the competition. He had an idea for a show: It would, like This American Life, feature people telling their stories, but the stories would focus on crucial life decisions. And it would have the rich audio production of WNYC’s innovative Radiolab, with constant background music and sound effects. Using the GarageBand program on his Mac, Washington worked overnight to make a demo. The resulting entry was selected as one of 10 finalists, launching Washington on a reality-show-style adventure: “They started giving us various tasks to do, and kicking people off the island, so to speak.” Eventually, Washington was declared one of three winners, each of whom was given $10,000 to produce a pilot show. Snap Judgment went on to become the first big public-radio hit since Radiolab launched in 2002 (with the possible exception of The Moth Radio Hour).

Public radio is enjoying a golden age—you could say that the past decade has been to radio what the 1970s were to film. Besides the famous innovators, like Glass and Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, several lesser-known figures have captured the attention of radio enthusiasts: Jonathan Goldstein, the host of Canada’s WireTap; Roman Mars, who covers design and architecture on 99% Invisible; and the Kitchen Sisters, who make food documentaries. According to Washington, Snap Judgment’s great contribution to the genre has been to get out of the way. “My big problem with public media,” he told me, “has always been this: Whenever they speak to someone who is from a micro-community—a minority, or someone of a lower socioeconomic standing—they stick a microphone in the person’s face and then they translate it! The Eastern-educated reporter, producer, whatever, then tells us what this person just said.” Translating is a reporter’s job, of course. But not Washington’s. “Ira Glass is the best features reporter in America, right?,” Washington said. “I’m not a reporter. I’m a storyteller, from a very different place than [where] Ira honed his reporting chops. Ira was bouncing around NPR for almost 20 years before he had his show.”

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.