From cult sur...

From cult survivor to ‘Heaven’s Gate’ host

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“Are you that guy on the radio?” Glynn Washington recalls a woman asking him, as so many do, in the grocery store checkout line the other day.

Yes, of course he is.

In an audio landscape filled with nerdy Ira Glasses, Guy Razes and Jad Abumrads, Washington stands out from the typical NPR crowd — he’s a bald, 47-year-old black man who sounds nothing like his audio broadcasting forebears. Washington’s staccato-style of storytelling, complete with pauses mid-sentence that encourage listeners to lean in close, has set him apart since his first show, Snap Judgment, debuted in 2010. 

But the alternative approach hasn’t stopped Washington from becoming a mainstay of the podcast world.

As he continues to host recorded and live versions of Snap, the radio series and podcast that’s 260 episodes strong and become a gold standard of sound-rich storytelling shows, Washington has taken on two new podcast hosting gigs this year. There’s the Snap spinoff Spooked, about encounters with the paranormal (including Washington’s own), that reached No. 1 on Apple Podcasts last month; and the new series Heaven’s Gate, out Wednesday, about a religious group whose members committed suicide.

Apart from his unique style, Washington has something else that makes him specially qualified to host the latter show: He spent his childhood in a cult.

“I saw, early on, the power of story in maybe a way that other people didn’t, because of this cult I grew up in, all we shared was a story, a story about our founder being especially blessed so that he had the special keys to the ‘Book of Revelation,’ ” he says in his signature run-on cadence, as if he’s letting you in on a secret. “The story made me, as a believer, feel very, very special, that I had a role in this whole narrative.”

Washington says he belonged to the Worldwide Church of God, which he later found to preach “nonsense.” But he left with the feeling that he has a special, God-given role in the world, a remnant of the teachings of the organization.

He thinks it’s his role to tell stories.

“I know, intellectually, it’s absurd. But that’s really the way I feel sometimes,” he says.

And so, in Heaven’s Gate, Washington comes full circle on his storytelling journey.

In the 10-episode series from Stitcher and Pineapple Street Media (which also produced Missing Richard Simmons), Washington, in weekly installments released Wednesday, narrates the history of, Heaven’s Gate, the cult that started in the ’70s and ended in 1997 with 39 people committing the largest mass suicide in American history.

Sound familiar? You may have heard about Heaven’s Gate on the news.

As Washington recalls, coverage of the cult was shown on TV while he was at a “fancy bar” and “everyone was like, ‘What crazies?! Who would do such a thing?’ ”

But Washington knew the answer all too well.

Heaven’s Gate is “what would happen if my own background went really crazy off-the-rails, if I had made a couple extra right turns and ended up in something a lot different,” he says.

And so sharing this docu-series, for Washington, is “kind of a do-over of my own spiritual background; a look at something from a slightly different perspective,” he says. “I get to steal back my own childhood from the crazies and tell my own stories.”

That’s something that the singular Washington can do. And pairing him, a well-known voice, with popular podcast topics murder and cults (See: A Murder on Orchard Street, My Favorite Murder, Cults)? It will make it something he can do all while climbing the podcast charts.

Heaven’s Gate is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and wherever you download podcasts.

For last week’s podcast pick, go here.

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