Even the incomparable Alison Cuddy, frontwoman of WBEZ's news magazine show Eight Forty-Eight, needs the occasional day off. When she's out of the host chair, listeners will likely catch the thickly-Chicago-accented voice of Jason Marck, the show's director and, until recently, a man entirely behind-the-scenes.
After years of running the live show, cueing transitions from segment to segment and hand-picking the music in between, Marck has recently begun filling in behind the mic. We caught up with the Windy City native, who filled us in on his history with radio, the award-winning show's team and his favorite Chicago hotspots.
How would you describe your job as Eight Forty-Eight's director? What are your duties, exactly?
There are many many elements that go into a heavily-produced, magazine-format show. There's the live conversations, there's the pre-produced elements, there's the music, and so much more, and so I make sure that everything fits, you know, 'cause you only have sixty minutes. I'm sort of the constant contact with the host, either visually or through chat, so everything from knowing when to get out of a particular segment, knowing what's coming up next--sometimes I'll type up additional instructions or questions for guests, things like that. I am working very closely also with the engineer who's on my left, to bring in and out various microphones at vartious times, bring musical elements in and out, things like that. So it's both technical, and creative, and all of those things woven into one.
How did you end up this line of work, and why did you start filling in for Alison?
I had done similar work at Fox Sports Radio in Los Angeles. I had pretty much done everything in radio except climb up to the top of the tower and change the little red blinking lightbulb. I knew that I wanted to eventually make my way back home to Chicago, and I knew that WBEZ/Public Radio was the kind of place that I wanted to work that I think sort of was the perfect place to synthesize all of my talents and sensibilities, and so that's how it came to be. I had been on the air all through college and then worked on the air and as the production director at a small rock and roll station for seven years before moving to Los Angeles and going off the air to do the production thing full-time.
When I moved back to Chicago, I had waited a long time for an opportunity at WBEZ, and the one available to me was behind the scenes. I don't think anybody knew even that I had been on the air, but I think that when the opportunity came up, when they were looking for someone to be a fill-in guy, I threw my hat into the ring, and I think that they were pleasantly surprised. It's been really nice, it's a nice change of pace to be able to get back behind the mic.
So how do you choose the music you feature each day?
Well, before I officially got into radio I had been a drummer, since I was a little kid, and I've always been obsessed with music -- I really got into radio as a way to share my love of music. As a musician, my teachers always taught me that you have to listen to and appreciate all different kinds of music, because if you're a studio musician or you're a professional musician, one day somebody's gonna call you for a jazz gig, and the next day somebody's gonna call you for a country gig, and then the next day it could be a rock and roll gig, it could be in the orchestra pit for some sort of musical... So I ended up with very eclectic tastes and a pretty expansive music collection. In terms of choosing which music to play when, I hear a piece, and I get a certain vibe from it. There's a tone to it. Is it up, is it down, is it happy, is it sad, is it somewhere in between... I'm looking for a tone. And I just sort of try to match what I hear: the tone of any given piece or conversation with a certain piece of music.
You have a lot of variety, but it's definitely clear that you're a jazz fan. How did you get into it?
I think that my parents played jazz in the house when I was growing up, and I played in the jazz band in high school, and I've just always had a love for it. I love the idea of people improvising and sort of taking a form, and then using that form as a base, then flying away with it, and then working their way back to that home base. I feel like jazz is the great American art form, and it mixes a lot of cerebralism with sheer joy. I love the fact that jazz is like a true ensemble. Maybe the trumpet will step out and take a solo, and all the other members of the band, are listening to the trumpet, but they're also listening to each other. Then the trumpet steps back, and then the bassist takes a solo, and then the bassist steps back and the piano player takes a solo, but all the while, they're all listening to each other and playing with each other. And if you step away from that and you put yourself above everybody else, then the group kind of falls apart.
That sort of collective element to a great jazz band has always been a huge influence on me, and a perfect example is the people I work for on Eight Forty-Eight. Everybody is working really hard on their own individual things--you know, somebody can be a trumpet player, somebody can be a piano player, somebody can be a drummer--but the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. When everybody is working in sync to make a great show, when everybody's less concerned about their individual piece, and more concerned about how the overall hour is going to sound to the listener, when you all can think together like that, that's when you're making magical radio. Just like when everybody in a jazz band is listening to each other, and they're all cooking along, that's when you're making magical music.
Where do you get musical inspiration? Do you have a favorite venue?
I used to take in a lot more live music, at places like Green Mill, Double Door, Martyrs, SPACE in Evanston, the Mayne Stage right here in my neighborhood, the Empty Bottle. I love watching jazz at the Green Mill, there's no doubt about it.
I know you and your wife just had your first baby, so you may not be getting out as much -- but the next few times you get a babysitter, where will you be rushing out to?
I'll tell you what, I'm hoping that we'll not have to wait until April to get a babysitter, but to me, the quintessential Chicago spot is probably section 215 about five rows up at Wrigley. There's really nothing like being with your friends, or your dad, or your other loved ones, or maybe this summer, with my very own boy, on a beautiful night, and you can smell the beer and you can smell the hot dogs, and they're not losing too badly...that for me is my favorite spot. There's a bar, a little hole-in-the-wall kind of joint called Nisei, about two blocks south of Wrigley on Sheffield, and the fellas and I usually go there before the games to put a couple back. There's no loud music, it's not a "scene," it's just a plain place where you can get a cold glass of beer.
Full disclosure: Lizzie Schiffman previously interned at WBEZ.