Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Snap Judgment

Posted by Maximum Fun on 8th August 2010

Vital stats:
Format: thematically linked, host-commented-on personal stories
Duration: ~55m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

I’d been wondering what happened with the Public Radio Talent Quest, a higher-brow American Idol-style affair a couple years back meant to seek out the new generation of public radio personalities. This is just the sort of contest that excites a radio dorkus such as myself, so when the PRTQ turned up not one but two winners — one dude with dreadlocks, one dude with a shaved head — I eagerly awaited their respective projects. Then time passed, and I just sort of forgot.

Over the past month or so, I’d heard a bunch of people mention a new NPR show called Snap Judgment. My Podthinker’s curiosity piqued, I pulled it up and discovered it was the project of none other than Glynn Washington — the aforementioned shaved-head dude. Everything about the show screams “huge undertaking,” from the lush-sounding production to the elaborate-by-radio-standards web site to the big publicity push that’s gotten the program so far up in the zeitgeist so early in its life. I get the whiff of the Big Deal about it.

But after listening to all the available episodes, I’ll still be damned if I can tell you what it’s about. “Storytelling with a beat” is the show’s tagline, and the promise is delivered on, to the extent that (a) its segments are all stories told and (b) Washington, in the role of Snap Judgment’s Ira Glass equivalent, often talks over (pretty surprisingly good) beats. I’d hoped every story would be literally told to a beat, but no dice. They’re told, arhythmically, by the people who experienced them, augmented by Washington’s questions, commentary, interjections, and framing.

You’ve no doubt noticed that “storytelling” is in vogue right now, especially on the radio and podcasts, what with shows like Risk! and The Moth doing pretty well for themselves. But jeez, I’m a little storied out. Telling stories sounds like an infinitely wide mandate — everything’s a story, right? — but it’s far from the only way to get ideas across, and often not the best one. Sure, I’ve heard all the talk about how narrative is a primal human need second only to food, shelter, reproduction, etc., but making stuff into a narrative turns out to demand so, so much pulling of standard tricks — suspend, twist, reveal, double twist — and hammering into standard shapes.

Snap Judgment does this as well as it’s ever been done, though I don’t know how much remains in communal narrative barrel. I was entertained by the participants’ (and Washington’s own) tales of desperate searches for schizophrenic friends in unfamiliar cities, unexpected kindness in Iranian restaurants, startling meetings with obscure religious leaders, and freaky encounters with radio stalkers, but I didn’t come away feeling that I’d heard anything as new and different as the buzz seemed to promise.

The standard critique of new public radio efforts leveled by those not embedded in the public radio world is that, while a lot of it sounds different, almost none if it, at its core, is different. Washington ostensibly won the Talent Quest by being something fresh, and he does have a reasonably fresh manner. He comes off as a guy you’d really want to hang out with, which not everybody seems to think about most public radio personalities. But I’m not sure if this show allows him to be different, especially as long as it insists on short-form skimming across the top of a handful of thematically related human experiences. How about spending the entire hour, every hour, drilling down deep into a single story, say? That’d be new and different, but would public radio be down with it?

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas, the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]