Jessica Beck ’00 has been honored with a Gracie Award for Best Producer for “Snapshots from Black America” for World at One on BBC Radio 4.
The Gracies recognize exemplary programming for, by, and about women in radio, television, cable, and interactive media. Jessica plans to attend the 46th Annual Gracie Awards ceremony on September 27, 2021 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles. To say she will be in good company is an understatement, as the event will honor some of the most talented women in television, radio, and digital media, including Kerry Washington, Catherine O’Hara, Lena Waithe, Kelly Clarkson, Hillary Rodham Clinton, DeDe McGuire, Danielle Monaro, and Erin Andrews.
A native of Waynesboro, PA, Jessica has been living in England for 18 years but is relatively new to the world of broadcast journalism. She began her radio career as a BBC production trainee in 2018, later working for Woman’s Hour, Today, and World at One. She is currently working for the BBC World Service as the producer for National Public Radio’s London correspondent, Frank Langfitt.
In the award-winning “Snapshots for Black America,” Jessica worked with Mark Mardell, former North American editor at the BBC, who wanted to do a series to give the British audience some historical context for the struggle for racial equality and justice in the United States. They produced three episodes about Black America, starting with an interview with Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who, in 1957, were the first black students ever to attend classes at the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“The starting point for the whole series for Mark was the image of a young Elizabeth where she's being chased by an angry mob,” Jessica said. “We spoke to Elizabeth, and it was a really powerful interview. She said that it isn't just flashbacks when she talks about that picture, it's actually re-traumatizing for her. It was quite an emotional interview, and we were very humbled and grateful that she gave it to us.”
The second episode was about Black Culture and focused on the Sam Cooke song “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Jessica researched who did covers of the song, and booked interviews with Betty LaVette, who sang it at the inauguration of President Obama, and with Grammy-Award winner Terence Blanchard, a jazz artist and composer who is a frequent collaborator with director Spike Lee.
“Terrence had written an opinion piece for NPR about how people listen to music but they don't hear what the words really mean,” Jessica said. “He brought up the Marvin Gaye song ‘What's Going On.’ It’s about people being shot, people protesting, police brutality, and a lot of white people listen to it and dance to it at their weddings and don't make the connection.”
The final episode is titled, “Barack Obama: White Supremacy and Grace” and focused on President Obama singing Amazing Grace after the Charleston church shooting and his legacy for Black Americans. They interviewed Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of President Obama and his Senior White House Advisor, and Jennifer Pinckney, a survivor of the shooting whose husband was killed that day.
In her role as producer, Jessica’s responsibilities include finding and booking the guests to interview, recording the interviews, working on the script, and then mixing it all together with music and archive footage.
The success she’s had as an audio journalist was built on a 15-year career as an award-winning theater director, dramaturg, and playwright. Jessica earned her BA in Theater Arts from the University of San Diego. She then traveled to the UK for what was supposed to be a short stay while earning a BA in Contemporary Theater Practice from the University of Essex’s East 15 Acting School. From there she went on to earn her PhD in Performance Practice from the University of Exeter.
Jessica ended up staying in England, and as a theater artist, she specialized in new writing, devised work, and musical theater. She was an Artistic Associate of The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter, and an Associate of Theatre503.
After the 2016 Brexit vote and election of President Donald Trump, she started to question what she was doing.
“It wasn’t about party politics, they were just votes that were unexpected and didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “I really thought ‘I don’t know what’s going on’ and was just curious about getting out there.”
She started interviewing people at various protests with the intent of producing a podcast, but then applied for the Production Trainee Scheme at the BBC. It is a competitive and prestigious training program, and she said it was an amazing experience which helped launch her broadcast career. In her new role as the producer for Frank Langfitt of NPR, she is covering UK news for an American audience. She covers everything from hard news to feature stories, having recently returned from Northern Ireland where she covered marching season.
"It's been really fun, and I don't feel any different in the work that I'm doing than when I was making theater," she said. "I'm doing many of the same things—I'm casting and thinking about scenes, like where you're going to record in order to engage the audience's imagination. So, I’m a good audio journalist precisely because of my theater career, and I think people don't always appreciate all the soft skills that you learn in the arts, like production management or writing communication."
Jessica spent two years at Saint James, and fondly remembers spending many days in the theater with her friends Liz Benchoff ‘00 and Melanie Regan ‘00. She said Mr. Collin was a huge inspiration to her as an advocate for the arts.
"If I can emphasize anything it's that the arts are really important, and they're important whether or not you're going to pursue them professionally or whether you go into something else," she said.