Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Radio host Marc Steiner leaving WEAA

Peabody Award-winning broadcaster Marc Steiner is leaving WEAA-FM (88.9) after nine years.

Ending an overall run of 24 years on Baltimore radio, Steiner says his last day on air at the Morgan State University public radio station will be July 31.

His departure comes at the start of what promises to be a major transition away from music and programs produced by outside entities, like Steiner's Center for Emerging Media, to a focus on news and public affairs reported and produced by Morgan State students in the university's School of Global Journalism and Communication.

"There are a confluence of events," Steiner said of his departure. "It's not just one thing. I want to do more work on documentaries I'm working on at our Center for Emerging Media ... I'm more into interviewing people not-live these days. It's just a totally different feel."

Steiner also said Morgan State, which runs the station, informed him recently that any new contract it signed with him would require that Steiner and the Center for Emerging Media, his production company, raise all their own money.

DeWayne Wickham, dean of the school, said Tuesday that he had informed Steiner that the school would no longer be contributing to the production of his program. While he praised Steiner and the show, he said it did not fit with the new direction the school was headed.

"Marc Steiner does a quality show, and I highly respect the job he does," Wickham said in a telephone interview. "But the primary mission of the School of Global Journalism and Communication is education. The radio station is in fact a learning lab here at the university, a place where students can get hopefully a high-quality education in the production of news and public affairs content."

Wickham said when he turned his attention to the radio station this year, he saw an operation that was not serving its educational goals.

 "What I saw was an organization that had lost its way," he said. "All our programming was done by professionals, and students had very little involvement in the production of the content. And I could not justify it. I could not justify continuing to fund Marc Steiner's show, as fine a show as he has."

Wickham said Steiner's contract, which was negotiated before he became dean, called for the school to pay him $100,000 a year "to bring his show to Morgan," as well as about $9,000 for a producer.

"And then, on top of that, the contract allows Marc Steiner's company to solicit underwriting for the show and keep the money," Wickham said. "It's a quality show, but we just can't afford it."

Not renewing Steiner's contract, according to Wickham, is part of the larger transformation to serve the school's educational mission.

Wickham said the school recently brought in Mireille Grangenois, former publisher of The Chronicle of Higher Education, as interim general manager to start that change process.

Steiner said that, overall, his time at Morgan has been "joyous."

The 70-year-old talk-show host started on Baltimore public radio in 1993 on what was then WJHU-FM (88.1), the John Hopkins-owned public radio station.

When Hopkins put the station up for sale in 2001, Steiner helped put together the community group that would purchase and run it as WYPR-FM. He hosted a mid-day talk show there and served as an executive vice president.

Steiner and his center, which is located in Charles Village, won a Peabody Award in 2007 for the kind of in-depth, long-form programming he says he wants to do more of at this point in his career.

His Peabody-winning series, "Just Words," focused on conversations with workers, especially the working poor.

Steiner was fired by WYPR in February 2008 as a result of what the station characterized as sagging ratings. But Steiner said it was the result of a struggle over management and control of the station.

His departure got ugly, with pickets in front of the station and charges flying back and forth among Steiner, WYPR management and supporters on both sides.

Three months later, Steiner came to WEAA and has hosted there since.

Because Steiner produces his own show, he could presumably take it elsewhere -- especially if he can find a home station willing to run his program on a weekly basis rather than daily.

"I would be open to that," Steiner said.

Steiner has been involved in progressive politics since the 1960s, and his shows reflected that orientation. Few local public radio shows in the country are as deeply connected to their communities as Steiner's have been to Baltimore over the years.

Full disclosure: I was a recurring guest on Steiner's shows at WJHU and WYPR.

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