Marc Steiner ponders what's next

Sun reporter

The February pastoral, all soft light and tired fields, stops abruptly at Marc Steiner's doorstep. Whatever sanctuary his home along an actual country lane in Sparks would ordinarily offer, he's missing it, as his phone rings and rings and rings.

The longtime talk-show host, whose name to many was nearly synonymous with public radio station WYPR, is freshly fired. He paces the tight living room, taking calls from family members who want to make sure he's OK, from co-workers who point out the support piling up online, from friends and fans who just don't get it.

He runs agitated fingers through thick graying hair and removes wire-framed glasses to rub away a trace of tears.

"The show and the station to me are everything -- they mean a lot to me, and they're gone," the 61-year-old says in the resonant yet rough-cut voice familiar to those who've tuned into his public affairs program over the past 15 years. "I'm worried about public radio and where its soul and heart are going to be."

Late Friday, WYPR announced it would immediately replace the Marc Steiner Show, which aired noon to 2 p.m., with a show called Statewide. Steiner says the news took him by surprise because he was considering "an amicable separation" agreement WYPR had offered him just that morning -- a deal that kept him on the air through May and offered him $50,000 not to speak to the media.

"I had no idea what I was up against," he says. "No idea."

In the small home he shares with his girlfriend, Valerie Williams, and eight cats, one huge dog and a parakeet -- all rescued -- Steiner, who has children from previous marriages, talked this weekend about his persistent and bitter clashes with management. He described fights over everything from holidays station employees would observe to his celebrity status around Baltimore to WYPR's fundraising strategy.

Steiner wanted to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and management didn't. Steiner enjoyed emceeing local events and star turns in local magazines, but management resented his dominating the spotlight. Steiner wanted the station to spend money developing its membership roster, but management was more interested in seeking corporate underwriters.

"I lost that one, too," Steiner says repeatedly.

"This has been a battle for six years, a battle to diminish my role and power at the station and a battle about what public radio is supposed to be," he added. "That's the heart of it, and the rest of it is just a mirage."

Barbara Bozzuto, WYPR board chairperson, objects to Steiner's portrayal of his departure and resents his insinuation that the station is faltering in its public mission.

"It's not, 'Oh, poor Marc, being hit over the head by a big corporate entity.' That would be an unfair depiction of it," Bozzuto says. "We tried to take very good care of Marc and honor him.

"This could have turned out differently. We tried to do whatever we could to bring it to that place. It wasn't our intention to make everyone miserable. We had a job to do."

Bozzuto said Steiner resisted change and "didn't appreciate the new direction" the board and management wished for the station.

"You know what 'new direction' means?" Steiner asks dryly. "No Marc Steiner."

Though years ago Steiner's father, a doctor, told a Sun reporter that his son was too organized to be a hippie -- Steiner himself, who wears silver jewelry and faded jeans, decorates his home with African art and makes near-constant civil-rights references -- would seemingly revel in that description.

In fact, he paints his struggles with WYPR in tones reminiscent of the 1960s -- the idealist versus the corporation, the creative versus the bean counter, the open mind versus the closed.

Steiner clearly recalls his first broadcast on March 3, 1993. He had four women on to debate the contraceptive Norplant. On Thursday, his last show, he explored reform of the bail-bond industry, examined genetically modified agriculture and talked to a professor who plays the clarinet for whales.

When the station faced financial troubles in 2002, Steiner waged a campaign to purchase it, appealing for money in an e-mail drive that raised $750,000 -- short of the $5 million that the Johns Hopkins University wanted for the station. Eventually, eight investors -- including Bozzuto -- stepped in to guarantee a loan to buy the station.

Unlike typical talk-radio shows with shrill voices and blatant political slants, Steiner engaged in controlled discussions that appealed to both sides of the aisle.

Richard E. Vatz, a Towson University professor of rhetoric and an guest on Steiner's show almost since its inception, called Steiner's moderation skills "simply exceptional."

"Marc and I agree on little, yet of all of the progressive moderators in the media -- and by that I mean the national media as well -- I have found him to be the fairest and most knowledgeable," Vatz says. "His removal and the pettiness of those who removed him are nothing short of appalling for those who value good, substantive exchanges on radio."

Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat and a nephew of U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, praised Steiner's ability to "bring out the issues and make all of us come honestly to a debate."

Over the weekend, listeners in Lauraville began an e-mail petition to persuade WYPR to reconsider its decision.

"We just can't imagine what WYPR would be like without Marc Steiner," says Melissa Wahnbaeck, a Lauraville hat designer. "That station basically is him. I can't imagine what they're thinking to fire him."

Bozzuto says that since acquiring stations in Frederick and Ocean City, WYPR has tried to focus on Maryland as a whole, while Steiner's show remained Baltimore-centric.

She called the ratings for his timeslot "sad."

Though station officials point to Steiner's falling numbers, WYPR's overall ratings have dropped, too. In the fall of 2005, about 170,500 listeners tuned into the station every week, according to Radio Research Consortium. By last fall, that number had dropped to 142,000, or by about 17 percent. During that same time, Steiner's audience sank from 47,300 to 37,400, or about 21 percent.

Bozzuto wants listeners upset by Steiner's firing to wait before they hastily change the dial.

"I would ask them to wait and see what we will have. It will be a forum for discussion. It will have a call-in element. And we will have a host who discusses the issues of the day," she says. "We think it will be an even better show. Just give as an opportunity to show you want will come next."

As for what comes next for Steiner, he's not quite sure.

Steiner, who before WYPR did such jobs as teaching acting and selling advertising, has hired an attorney to help him work through the separation with WYPR. He needs to clean out his office at the station. After that is anyone's guess. Maybe a vacation with his girlfriend, maybe some documentary work, maybe even a memoir.

He wants to keep recording interviews, even if he's not sure how people will hear them.

"I'll be taken care of, and I'll take care of myself," he says. "I'm a street-corner boy, and I'll take care of myself."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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