The hottest radio show in America is NPR’s Snap Judgment, which broadcasts long-form stories better than anybody.
I worked closely over the last few months with one of the show’s talented producers, Nancy López, to help her tell the father-son spy drama that formed the backbone of my book, The Spy’s Son. I gave Nancy some FBI wiretaps, and my former employer, The Oregonian, gave her permission to use portions of my inaugural eight-hour interview with the protagonist of the story, Nathan Nicholson.
As Nancy put it, the spy tale “just really had the plot and the twists and turns to make a good Snap story.”
She talked me into clamping on headphones inside a sound booth at Oregon Public Broadcasting, where I spent a couple of recording sessions lending my (not-so-hot) voice to the narrative. Nancy’s spare script and narration, and Renzo Gorrio's haunting musical score, far exceeded my own high expectations.
But there’s a really cool back story, and here it is:
A few weeks after I began to help Nancy put the story together, she pitched the tale to some of Snap Judgment’s producers.
Snap’s host, the uber-talented Glynn Washington, later attended what’s known as a group edit of the story. Afterward Nancy learned that her boss personally knew the villain of the story, disgraced CIA operative Jim Nicholson, and had worked closely with Jim at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Yeah, it was one of those stranger-than-fiction coincidences.
Jim ran the CIA’s spy operations in the capital city, and Glynn was a junior officer in the U.S. Foreign Service. Because Jim’s cover was that of a U.S. diplomat, Glynn had to pretend that Jim was his boss.
“I thought Jim was the coolest guy ever,” Glynn told me in an interview yesterday. “Everybody liked him. … The women really liked him.”
Glynn would later learn that he and Jim had dated some of the same women.
When the CIA sent Jim back to the U.S. to teach spycraft at the CIA’s covert training center in Virginia, Glynn wound up moving into the same house in which Jim and his children had lived near Embassy Row.
Only later, when Glynn was back in the U.S., did he hear what had become of his former “boss.”
He was watching a Dateline NBC feature on U.S. double agents when Jim’s face turned up on the TV. Glynn learned that during the tour they shared in Kuala Lumpur, Jim had walked into the Russian Embassy, met with one of his Russian counterparts, and volunteered to sell secrets to Moscow.
“I never saw that coming,” Glynn told me. “This is the guy we thought made James Bond look like Dennis the Menace. Just a cool brother. And to go out like this didn’t square with what I knew about the guy.”
When the story came to him at Snap Judgment, he had an interest in seeing the story through. All the way through.
“What made me green light (the piece) is, I didn’t know the end of the story,” Glynn said. “I was just extremely curious about what went down.”
Et voilas: The 23-minute segment was included with other cool stories as part of a package titled, “The Promise.”