Alumnus Marcus Biddle’s stories broadcast from the Philadelphia region reach a national audience
By Molly Petrilla
It has been almost a decade since Marcus Biddle read a Rolling Stone article that shocked him with its bleak and incomplete depiction of the city of Camden. “I’ll never, never forget that moment,” Biddle says of reading the story, which ran under the headline “Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch from America’s Most Desperate Town.”
At the time in 2013, Biddle was a student at Rutgers University–Camden and a frequent face in the local community, volunteering so often at The Neighborhood Center that the nonprofit honored him in 2014 for his contributions. Biddle, who grew up in neighboring Pennsauken, knew Camden in a way that the Rolling Stone writer couldn’t—he saw it with empathy, hope, and nuance. “I said to myself, not only can I write, but I think that I can tell a better story about someone actually making a difference,” Biddle says. “That was what sparked me to pursue journalism.”
Today he’s doing precisely that. As a health equity fellow in Philadelphia at WHYY, Biddle reports on people and communities facing health disparities. You can hear his stories on The Pulse, a national weekly NPR show, read them on WHYY’s website, and watch them in a new multimedia series titled “Making Space for Black Health.”
“We’re talking about things that can be very heavy,” he says of his WHYY team. “But we all try to make sure that we help people understand not just the story, but what the next steps are—what can be done about the issues we cover.”
Immersion in journalism
Journalism wasn’t on Biddle’s mind when he transferred to Rutgers–Camden from Camden County College after earning an associate degree in 2012. He planned to study social work but soon uncovered a more profound interest in the anthropology of cities. That’s how he became an urban studies and community development major—without knowing where it might lead him career-wise.
Things began to gel when in a short span he landed an internship at WHYY, came across that Rolling Stone article, and took a community journalism class with Jill Capuzzo, an instructor in Rutgers–Camden’s Department of English and Communication. For his project in Capuzzo’s class, Biddle focused on a tent city community in Camden, where he conducted video interviews with people experiencing homelessness. “Her class was where I first focused on community journalism,” he says.
After graduation in 2015 and several nonprofit jobs, Biddle found his way back to WHYY in May for the health equity fellowship. “The job I have now is a privilege,” he says. “Basically, all it takes is to be naturally curious, to listen, to write, to be sensitive about the topic at hand, and create a story about it.”
So far, it has resulted in Biddle’s pieces on access to the monkeypox vaccine, a Black doula collective in North Philly, and the history of marketing menthol cigarettes to Black communities, among others.
His favorite project to date has been the first installment of “Making Space for Black Health,” in which he interviewed a father-son duo, the younger of whom had recently published a book titled Black Fathering and Mental Health. “That one felt authentic and personal in many ways,” Biddle says. “It has been rewarding to see how important it is to the people I interview that I do a story in which they share their lives in a way that they can basically keep forever.”
Biddle began his WHYY fellowship having never been on the radio before. “I’ve just started to get used to hearing my voice and listening to a playback of something I recorded,” he says. “I get very motivated to ensure that I am sounding a little bit better each time I do it.”
He has learned to sit up extra-straight while recording, to make sure he’s drinking enough water, and to smile as he narrates, even when he’s covering a heavy topic. And whether working on a web or audio story, he has realized “it doesn’t help to use a bunch of SAT words that no one can remember anymore,” he says. “You always want to make sure that the language you use is accessible to all audiences.”
Biddle’s health equity fellowship is a one-year appointment, supported by The Commonwealth Fund, a private foundation. After it winds down, he hopes to continue telling important stories for many years to come. “One of my goals every day,” he says, “is to make sure that whoever is out there and feeling underrepresented, I’m helping to tell their story.”