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From nonprofit administrator to NPR celebrity: Career chat with Glynn Washington

In 2007, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Radio Exchange set out to find new public radio hosts. Through the Public Radio Talent Quest, contestants submitted demo shows in an attempt to win $10,000 to produce a pilot.

One of the winners of that contest was Bay-area nonprofit administrator, Glynn Washington, who beat out over 1,400 contestants. His show, Snap Judgment, focuses on how people make decisions that dramatically change their lives. In 2009, his show was picked up by NPR and, according to the Atlantic, “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.”

Glynn talked to us about his career path and why finding work you love is sometimes just a matter of “throwing darts at the universe.”

Glynn Washington

Glynn Washington

Your bio says you were an “an educator, diplomat, community activist, actor, political strategist, fist-shaker, mountain-hollerer, and foot stomper” and you have a ton of experience working at nonprofits, most recently as the Executive Director at the Center for Young Entrepreneur Center at Haas Business School-UC Berkeley. What got you interested in public service?

I think it was a matter of being exposed to the good and the bad. You get a sense that there are so many opportunities to change the world. You can’t wait for someone else to do it.

Why make the jump from nonprofit work to radio?

It’s a blurred line between my nonprofit career and current career. When I was doing nonprofit work it was all about policy change: how to change policy to help the disadvantaged. Often I was using stories in my work. Even the most hardened politicians and jaded policy makers are still human and they respond if you can bring home to them what the affect of various polices are. It was a different type of storytelling but I’m doing the same thing now. I’m telling stories and getting people to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Does your nonprofit background influence how you produce the show?

Every single thing I’ve done influences how I produce the show. But, it’s a show about heart and soul and in my work with nonprofits, everyone was doing this work for hearts and souls.

Where does your inspiration for stories come from?

The inspiration is as varied as the stories themselves. We’re living such weird, wacky, and wonderful lives. How can I give at least a little bit of a glimpse so you are, for a moment, in someone else’s shoes? When we first started the show, we heard, “It’s good now, but stories are going to be hard to come by.” But that’s the least of our problems.

You’re quoted in the Atlantic as saying, “My big problem with public media 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.” 

I think we have a similar problem with nonprofits as we often find ourselves trying to translate the stories of the communities we serve to media or donors or the public in general. What lessons have you learned in producing Snap Judgment that nonprofits could benefit from regarding sharing stories of micro communities?

It’s important to know the community you are supporting and the best way is to talk directly to that community. Let’s say I am a nonprofit director. It’s simply not possible for me to speak better than the battered women at the shelter I am running or the foster kids at the home I am running. I simply can’t do it. We have to trust the communities we are trying to aid. That’s where the divide is, it’s a trust divide. If you don’t let those real dialogues happen, the support is going to be superficial anyway; they aren’t going to stay for long.

You’ve been producing this show for a while now, but is there a story that you really love?

That’s like asking me to say who my favorite child is. There are so many different stories I really love: The Last Mile, by Noah St. John. The Gold Ring by Jeff Greenwald. The first three minutes of Close Knit I really, really like a lot. So many stories.

What story would you recommend someone listen to if they haven’t heard Snap Judgment before?

The storyteller episode. It will give you a taste of what Snap Judgment is about: storytelling with a beat.

Tell me about a snap judgment you had to make in your career that landed you where you are today?

The whole idea is to just keep throwing darts at the universe and seeing what sticks. I heard about a contest for a radio show on the last day the submissions were due. I went ahead and sent something in; I forgot about it. Just another dart I sent in the universe. But that’s the one that stuck. I must have thrown 40 of them and that’s what stuck.

I was not thinking about a career in radio, I was thinking: How can I be a working artist? How can I start making things that matter to me and that will affect people? There are different ways to do it. While I was working at nonprofits, I was making short films, I was making music.

People say I’m an overnight success. That idea just makes me laugh because of the amount of blood, sweat, and stretching that went into this show over years.

Visit Snap Judgement to learn more about the show and how you can share your story.

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