William Marcus is the quiet giant of Montana media, and it is ironic that he will begin his long planned retirement this month, within two weeks of the surprising and greatly unfortunate departures of two other Montana luminaries in the profession of journalism, veteran state Capitol reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison.
When the career of Marcus began 40 years ago, public television didn’t exist in Montana. Soon after he took the reins at the University of Montana Broadcast Media Center 20 years ago, public television was well on the way to becoming a statewide reality. University of Montana -- Montana State University public television productions can now be picked up by Montana viewers in over 400 communities in every corner of our state. Marcus was instrumental in the collaboration between the two universities that made this happen.
With roots in the small eastern Montana town of Wibaux, Marcus grew up on the back roads of rural Montana. After obtaining a degree in Radio–Television Journalism at UM in 1974 he began as a production assistant on the campus radio station when it couldn’t be heard beyond the city limits of Missoula. As he rose in the management of the station, so did its reach, until today KUFM Montana Public Radio has transmitter-linked affiliates available to listeners making up more than half of Montanan’s population.
Marcus’s accomplishments in pioneering public broadcasting in our state are great and of enormous significance to Montanans. He is probably best known, however, for his role as host of the Montana PBS series “Backroads of Montana,” in which he spotlights rural Montana communities, and the delightful Montana personalities who live in them. Montanans get to see fellow Montanans in an authentic and unrefined state. Marcus has filmed over 40 "Backroads" episodes, and his loyal viewers will be relieved to know, that though in retirement, he still plans to do at least a few more.
Perhaps most significantly, Marcus has been the Executive Producer for four regional Emmy Award winning television documentaries. Though he insists that others deserve the credit more than he, each is truly a Montana masterpiece. They include “Sun River Homestead,” “Evelyn Cameron; Pioneer Woman Photographer,” “Bicycle Corps,” the saga of the amazing cross-country bicycle trek of the all black 25th infantry from Fort Missoula to St Louis, and “For this and Future Generations,” which is the epic story of Montana’s 1972 Constitutional Convention. Though it didn’t earn a well-deserved Emmy, “Night of the Grizzlies,” the chilling documentary on the fatal Glacier National Park bear attacks, has had more viewers than any other production in the history of Montana Public Television.
In the Montana pantheon, low profile William Marcus stands high as one of our state’s most remarkable achievers. To paraphrase the poet, his quiet departure from Montana media leadership will leave a great and empty place against the Montana Big Sky.
Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.