To say that Jason Marck has taken a strange path on his way to becoming an acclaimed NPR producer is an understatement. He got his start in radio as an alternative rock jock.
“I was going to school in Lawrence, Kansas,” Jason explains, “and there was an amazing music scene there at the time. It was on par with what was going on in Seattle or Chicago or Austin, and there were tons of places to see live music at the time, and our college station was really killing it. Then just as I was graduating, a local AM/FM combo had been family owned and was doing adult contemporary, and the guy who ran it had the foresight to notice what we were doing – and thought ‘These kids may just be up to something’. They became one of the first commercial alternative stations in the country. I just walked in, and said ‘this is what I want to do, and I’ll do anything.’ They said ‘OK, you’re hired.’”
The great advantage of working in small town radio is it forces you to learn about every aspect of the business. “I DJ’ed on the FM side, and then ran down the hall and flipped the cassettes of the church services that were being aired on the AM. I was the jock, the engineer, the imaging director, the production director, and ran the Kansas Jayhawks games because we were the flagship. I learned about floating breaks, and hard breaks, and network breaks, and I was doing everything.”
After a stint as a producer for the nationally syndicated Tony Bruno Show (sports talk) in Los Angeles, Jason made his way back to his hometown of Chicago and tried to convince the powers that be at WBEZ to take a chance on him. “They didn’t want to hire me at first at WBEZ. They thought I was tainted by commercial radio, and they might be better off trying to train an 18-year-old kid to think like they think. But the truth is, I already sort of did. I have always brought a public radio mentality to my commercial radio gigs. I’m not a journalist. I’m not a broadcaster. I’m a radio guy. My radio motto that I live by is ‘be smart without being boring, and be entertaining without being stupid.’ If we hit that, we have had a good day.”
Although, Marck admits the change from commercial radio to public radio was a challenge at first. He cut his teeth on the show 848. “There were eight or nine producers plus the host and the director at that time,” he says, providing a great glimpse into the different environment. “They were producing these lengthy sound-rich pieces, and those required a lot of time to correctly put together. We’re talking an eight-minute segment that was written, scored, produced, and had gone through the editorial process. It could take a week or two to produce one segment. Well, slowly but surely over the years, producers left and their positions were not filled, and it evolved into more of a talk/conversation/topics of the day show, and we got a lot leaner.”
He is now part of the team that puts together the highly-rated Morning Shift on WBEZ, and that show has also evolved. “We used to be very Chicago-centric, and now we do more general-interest or national-interest stories. We never used to have callers on the show, but now we do all the time. We’ll still do a very newsy, hard hitting A-segment, but the middle segment now often has more of a pop-culture bent that involves the listeners, and we try to build conversations around what people are actually talking about. The C-section is usually more artsy – and we book bands, and artists and authors and what have you. The ratings have responded, and we are so pleasantly surprised and thrilled by this. These people running the place these days are not only passionate about public radio, and passionate about Chicago, but they also happen to really know what they are doing! Imagine that!”
Jason also considers himself lucky to be working with host Tony Sarabia. “Tony and I are friends in addition to being colleagues. We have a similar sense of humor. We’re both hard-core music guys. He is game for virtually anything! If you come to him with an idea, and sell it to him, he’ll say ‘I’ll give that a try.’ You have to remember that he was a reporter before becoming a host. He still makes calls and books guests. This is a total team effort, and he’s a team player. It doesn’t matter if anyone is buried with work, we’ll help the other person out. It’s the brotherhood of the never-ending show. There’s another one to do tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. We believe in our mission. We believe in our show. And we believe in each other. That’s just the way we do it and approach it, and it makes for a really healthy and fun work environment.”
But despite the awards and the accolades he has received in this role, Marck remains incredibly humble about his place in the business. “You know those people who run the rides at the carnivals in church parking lots? I’m one step above that guy on the entertainment food chain.”