Marcie Sillman is retiring. She’s not retreating.
The longtime KUOW arts and culture reporter’s last day is Dec. 2, 35 years to the day since she started with the Seattle public radio station. Not long into the new year, though, she plans to launch a podcast, with former Seattle Arts Commission chair Vivian Phillips, that will allow her to dive more deeply into our creative scene.
“I’ve been reporting on this community for such a long time that I’ve seen it rise and fall and rise and diversify,” Sillman said. “And I think that the longer I’ve done this, the less I have felt like an outside observer and more like somebody who really wants to be more of an advocate. … And so I wanted to move into a position where my love for the cultural community can be more blatant.”
New media’s gain is old journalism’s loss. There are few reporters with 35 years of experience on any beat, let alone the arts and culture beat in one of America’s most vibrant cities. The number of outlets and people covering the arts in Seattle has shrunk dramatically over the last decade; in recent years, the Seattle Weekly ended its print publication while City Arts shuttered completely. Sillman’s departure from one of the city’s most visible outlets concerns some.
“Not only has she been a terrific reporter, but she’s been an advocate for the arts and culture scene in Seattle, and we don’t have many of those in the world of journalism in town — a few,” said Gary Tucker, director of communications at Pacific Northwest Ballet. “Her position at KUOW has given her significant opportunity to spread the gospel of the Seattle arts and culture scene. And I am not shy to say that a lot of us in the community are nervous to find out if KUOW will be replacing her with another reporter dedicated to that beat.”
Jill Jackson, KUOW’s news director, says replacing Sillman is “a no-brainer.” She said Sillman has turned the job from a part-time passion into a full-time beat.
“She’s one of the most passionate people I know about the arts, and I know a lot of artists,” Jackson said. “She just really is so committed to both the art itself, but also she just really has a deep admiration for people who make art. She also is someone who feels very strongly that art has the ability to heal and transform and that it has real power.”
The reporter who comes after Sillman will have quite the knowledge set to replace. The Detroit native first worked for KUOW as an intern in 1979 and returned in 1985 as a show producer after a three-year stint at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She was promoted to local host of NPR’s flagship afternoon show “All Things Considered” a year later.
She quickly began pitching arts stories to the national editors at NPR without much luck.
“You would be on the phone with the editor and you could hear in his voice that they thought that we were just like a bunch of lumberjacks out here, you know?” Sillman said.
Sillman eventually connected with Tom Cole, a then-new editor at classical music program “Performance Today.” As she recalls, she pitched him something about Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and to her delight, he accepted.
“Marcie was one of the first reporters I worked with,” Cole said. “I was the West Coast features editor for that show. And so I reached out to her, or she reached out to me — I forget which — and we’ve been working together ever since.”
Cole, now senior editor on NPR’s arts and culture desk, says they’ve worked on more than 200 stories together over the years.
“You get to know a person, I think, through her reporting,” Cole said. “I think as much as anything else, she can give you the details about a performance or the specifics about a work of art or something. But she can also give you the sense of who that person is or what that work of art looks like or sounds like. She can convey a personal sense of an arts story.”
Her arrival at KUOW in the mid-1980s placed her in the perfect position to cover the rise of Seattle’s music scene in the early ’90s, and its fall. Both she and Cole cited her work on the obituary of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain as one of her most memorable stories.
Cole also loved the work she did around painter Jacob Lawrence’s visual art and Louie Gong’s Eighth Generation store, and the music of Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb. Another favorite was a piece she did on Pauline Oliveros and Stuart Dempster’s “Deep Listening,” a series of recordings made 14 feet underground in a cistern at Fort Worden.
“She got the most amazing sounds,” Cole said. “I’ve always remembered that one as an example of something that you’re not going to hear or read about anywhere else. And she always had sort of an eye and ear for those kinds of stories, too, the really sort of interesting, off-the-wall stories that would make you say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know about that.’”
Sillman will still be making memories even though she’s leaving KUOW. You’ll just have to find them via your favorite podcast vendor.
“I think mostly what I want to say is that this isn’t a frill,” Sillman said of the arts. “It’s something that is just central to our lives. During this pandemic, where have we all turned for comfort? I’m sure people are really happy that sports teams are playing again, but you’re still listening to your favorite song or watching great movies, streaming online or reading good books or just contemplating beautiful nature in Instagram posts. So, it’s something that we need for our souls.”