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Remembering the great work of Michigan Radio's Mark Brush

Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio
Mark at his desk in 2017.

Last week, Michigan Radio lost our friend and coworker, Mark Brush.

Mark’s passion for journalism was evident in everything he produced. His 20 years at Michigan Radio took him across the state, bringing stories to our audience with his unique style – a mix of empathy, humor, and optimism that shone in his voice and his writing.

In honor of Mark’s passing, we’d like to share some of those stories with you. Below is a small collection of his work, chosen by former and current Michigan Radio staffers.

We hope that by reading some of his stories, you’ll understand the impact of the great journalist we loved so dearly.

Clearing the clutter: Group offers help for hoarders - February 2018

This was the last piece of Mark’s I edited. The last story he ever did for us. Mark actually started reporting this story – about people helping folks with hoarding disorder – two years before he finished it. Reporters often have these projects that get sidelined, for one reason or another. But Mark was determined to return to this story, and wrap it up when he knew his time was short. I think he felt a duty to the people in the story. Mark had so much integrity in that way. He really saw people, and affirmed their full humanity. He made you want to be a better human. Mark's dear colleague and friend Rebecca Williams helped him produce the piece. By that time Mark was no longer able to come to work. She and our chief engineer, Bob Skon, went to Mark's house, where they recorded his voice tracks in between Mark's naps. His voice sounds a little weaker than usual. A bit faint. But he was cracking jokes while they recorded, Mark in his fancy new remote-controlled recliner. The story aired on February 23, and Mark died about two weeks later.

- Sarah Hulett, senior editor, March 2006 - present

What's so special about Isle Royale? - June 2012

Isle Royale from the bow of the Isle Royale Queen IV.
Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Mark's photo of Isle Royale from the bow of the Isle Royale Queen IV.

In 2012, Mark and I went on a reporting trip to Isle Royale to tell the story of the people who study the island's wolves and moose. Mark did awesome work for that series, but this is one of my favorites. He and I were talking about how we could illustrate what a magical place it is – a wilderness way out in Lake Superior. Mark recorded our ferry trip over with a time lapse camera, and he interviewed the ferry captain for a video (Mark had a dream of becoming a ferry captain later on in life). I think this story does a lovely job of capturing what draws people to Isle Royale.

- Rebecca Williams, senior reporter/producer/host of The Environment Report, May 2000 - present

What is the condition of the oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac? Answers can be hard to find.October 2014

MI Curious was Mark's baby. He loved the Curious City project at WBEZ in Chicago and pushed to get something similar going at Michigan Radio, and I'm so grateful he did. It flipped the script on the traditional reporting process, and made the community much more engaged in deciding what issues they wanted us to report on. This piece showcases Mark's talent as a reporter, his ability to dig deep and communicate complicated ideas in a straightforward way, and it highlights what MI Curious is all about.

- Jennifer Guerra, senior reporter, June 2005 - present

This is what it sounds like to be attacked by a turkey - November 2013

Allow me to indulge myself with one more short piece. I have always loved this clip of Mark's from when he was nearly attacked by a turkey. The fact that a.) he continued to record!, b.) never lost his cool, and c.) laughed throughout, perfectly captures who he was as a reporter: determined to get the story and have fun along the way.

- Jennifer Guerra, senior reporter, June 2005 - present

VIDEO: How dropping two of Flint's lead test numbers changed things for the state - November 2015

One of the crucial facts in demonstrating that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality knew – or should have known – that Flint's water was above the federal action level for lead centered around whether the state intentionally dropped two samples to keep Flint's numbers under the 90th percentile calculation. The state denied doing this, but before Michigan Radio could report that was, in fact, what the DEQ did, we needed to understand how to correctly calculate the 90th percentile. What seems like a simple math problem is actually kind of tricky, and even people inside the DEQ misunderstood how to calculate it. So Mark took a video camera to a math professor and asked him to work it out on the board for us and our audience. For me, this story was a great example of Mark's desire to get to the bottom of complicated stories, and find ways to easily share that information with the audience. It was also one of the stories that began to erode at the state's defiance that it had done anything wrong in Flint.

- Vincent Duffy, news director, May 2007 - present

I was SWAMPED with the Flint water crisis documentary at the time, and one morning I remember realizing how big of a deal this calculation actually was. I called Vince and Mark at the airport. It couldn't wait. And Mark not only knew it, but he knew how to demonstrate it to non-math-loving folks like me. I never would've thought of doing this post and was thrilled it took off.

- Lindsey Smith, reporter, March 2006 - present

How many Michigan lawmakers have kids enrolled in traditional public schools? - April 2015

This was a total Mark project, in both how it came to air and how we reported it out. The question came to us through our MI Curious series – a project Mark was absolutely passionate about. Mark loved the idea of answering questions that came directly from our community, from listeners. Mark spearheaded the idea of calling all 148 lawmakers. And, just like Mark, he got everyone involved: hosts, interns, reporters, editors – everyone did the reporting together. Everyone contributed. Everyone came together with a purpose.

- Zoe Clark, programming director, June 2006 - present

Beyond the Battlefield - Summer 2015

Mark Brush embodied a spirit of collectivity and creatively thinking through digital projects. Though he wasn’t my direct supervisor, Mark always made me feel included as part of Michigan Radio’s digital team, which was beginning to coalesce under his leadership. His authentic efforts at inclusivity were most apparent to me with the station’s Beyond the Battlefield project. This multimedia endeavor sought out Michigan’s Afghanistan and Iraq veterans’ experiences before, during and after serving in the military. It was one of many opportunities to work closely with Mark to conceptualize and deliberate what it really means to listen as a news organization, rather than parachuting in, getting what we needed and getting out. Even after I took a job at a different public radio station, it was Mark’s keen interest in all things digital that I turned to for nerding out and asking, “Hey, is this a weird idea?” 

- Kimberly Springer, former State of Opportunity intern and engagement producer, Jan. 2013 - Aug. 2015

I'm not "algae," I'm "cyanobacteria," people! - August 2014

Mark was an incredible journalist and a powerful storyteller. He was also a lot of fun. After the station reported on green algae blooms in the Great Lakes, we started to hear from scientists that those blooms were actually cyanobacteria. That led to a very funny conversation about cyanobacteria being upset about people calling him the wrong name. I said, "We should make a video." Mark said, "Let's do it." I said, "Who is going to play cyanobacteria?" Mark said, with an impish grin, "I'll do it!" The resulting video isn't high art, but it does capture Mark's fun-loving spirit.

- Jenn White, former All Things Considered host, 1999 - 2016

TIMELINE: 8 shutdowns at Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in past 2 years - December 2012

The Palisades Nuclear Plant was having a rough time for a couple of years when I first started at Michigan Radio. There were really complicated, technical problems at the power plant that, at one time, gave it one of the worst safety ratings in the country. Mark was the one who suggested toying with a timeline to help people comprehend the series of shutdowns; how often they were happening and why. He pushed me to think in a new way about the work I was doing. He was willing to try new programs and new presentations. And most importantly, he patiently listened and helped when I inevitably ran into technical problems. Mark went on to co-produce many more timelines; most notably on the Velsicol Chemical plant in St. Louis, Michigan, the Flint water crisis, and the fallout from the Larry Nassar case. I'd like to think we got better each time, and we did it because of Mark's creativity.

- Lindsey Smith, reporter, March 2006 - present

#WhyIStay - May 2014

I wasn't even at Michigan Radio when Mark spearheaded this project, but as someone who engages with audiences daily as part of my job, I appreciate the time and effort that went into this community engagement effort. With community engagement projects, it's often difficult to strike the right tone or query people in a way that doesn't ask them to do too much, but Mark did it beautifully here – and the type of responses from the audience shows just how well it was done. 

- Jodi Westrick, social media producer, February 2016 - present

WATCH: People ink their bodies to raise money for Flint - February 2016

I remember when Mark and I visited the Lucky Monkey Tattoo Parlor in Ann Arbor to find out why people would ink their bodies with a heart-shaped water drop. Mark always had a calm presence. He just made people feel comfortable and they opened up to him. Because there was a lot going on, we both grabbed interviews and video and ended up with a great piece. After editing the video, I found hard rock music to go with it and then played the video for Mark. He thought about it. And then, with a smile suggested going with something unexpected. That was a good move. And that's just one thing I learned from Mark: if you have a choice, go with the unexpected. 
- Mercedes Mejia, reporter and multimedia producer, October 2009 - present
Is Kid Rock running for U.S. Senate? "F#@k no." - October 2017

One of the biggest lessons I learned from Mark is that it's OK to not always be a "serious journalist." He constantly encouraged us to take the goofy things we talked about in the office and turn them into stories (see also: our poll about a salamander). Mark taught me it's our job as journalists to take risks – not only by doing tough, diligent work but also by recognizing that sometimes, we all could use a laugh. 

- Emma Winowiecki, intern and multimedia producer, September 2016 - present

Searching for a rare butterfly in Michigan that’s disappearing fast - September 2016

The fen where the Powershiek is barely holding on.
Credit Mark Brush / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Mark's daughter Cecelia (right) helped him tell the story of a rare butterfly in 2016.

Mark loved his work, and he loved to share it with his family. When his daughter Cecelia came along on this story, she wasn’t just there to watch. Mark put a mic in her hand and had her help with the reporting process. That alone was awesome, and I fully expect to see lots of bylines from Cecelia in the future. However, it was also a fun, unique way to tell a story that could’ve easily been a run-of-the-mill interview with an expert. That’s what Mark taught me: There’s always another way to tell the story. 

- Rebecca Kruth, reporter and Weekend Edition host, September 2014-present

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