Marc Steiner on signing off Baltimore radio after 24 years

Marc Steiner says he remembers exactly the moment he became a radio talk-show host.

In was 1992 and he was teaching drama at the Baltimore School for the Arts. He was also advising the general manager at WJHU, a Johns Hopkins-owned public radio station at the time, on its transition from classical music to public affairs.

“I don’t know where it came from, but at one point I just said, ‘You know what? You should let me be host of a public affairs show,’ ” Steiner said.

“And I stayed on him,” he continued. “Until, finally, he came in one day and said, ‘OK, Marc, here’s your desk. Here’s a phone. No money. No producer … Every Tuesday 7 to 8:30, that’s your time slot. Let’s see what you can do.’ ”

After winning a Peabody Award and logging 24 years of daily talk shows on Baltimore’s airwaves, it seems fair to say the 71-year-old Steiner has done all right behind the microphone. Hosting shows on public radio stations WJHU, WYPR and WEAA, Steiner has become one of the most widely known and influential media figures in Maryland.

Steiner has been near the center of this city’s civic discourse for almost a quarter of a century. To me, he is as much a part of the soundtrack of Baltimore civic life as any media or political figure I can think of.

But Monday, that part of Steiner’s professional life will come to an end. It will be his last day hosting his talk show from 10 a.m. to noon on WEAA (88.9 FM). His contract with Morgan State University, which holds the license for the station, expires, and the school has decided not to renew.

DeWayne Wickham, dean of the School of Global Journalism & Communication, said the decision was a financial and educational one.

“As a result of our close assessment of our financial situation and our need to better manage the resources that we have, we simply couldn’t afford his show,” Wickham said in a telephone interview last week.

The school was paying Steiner $109,000 a year for his show and allowing him to “solicit underwriting for the show and keep the money,” according to the Morgan dean.

“In making that decision to not renew his contract,” Wickham added, “we then had to look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves the larger questions: What can we do to create more opportunities for students to experience the learning lab that WEAA is supposed to be? And how can we create programming that fits within our cost model that better serves our community?”

Wickham said the school will launch new programming in September. Until that time, a rebroadcast of “First Edition,” WEAA’s locally produced early-evening show hosted by Sean Yoes, will move into Steiner’s time period starting Tuesday and continue to air live from 5 to 7 p.m. weekdays.

In May, when I first reported the end of Steiner’s run, he described his nine years at WEAA as “joyous” and said that he was looking forward to doing more in-depth radio pieces once he left the station. But with his final show approaching, his feelings seemed more mixed last week during an interview at his Center for Emerging Media in Charles Village.

“It’s such a weird feeling,” he said. “Sometimes, I’m really bummed. But when I finish the show, I’m always up, because I love doing the show. And then I realize there are more things that are going to happen after it ends. So we’ll develop some new worlds. But, you know, after almost 25 years, this is not something I really wanted to have it end this way. It’s just a strange feeling.”

The hallmarks of Steiner’s on-air persona are energy, enthusiasm, spontaneity and unbridled passion that often takes the form of loud, unrestrained laughter when he really likes something. One of the ironies of his long and successful run on public radio is how antithetical he is to the NPR model of emotional modulation, tight scripts and clear enunciation devoid of regional accents.

Age has not diminished him in that regard. In his last full week of shows, he was still coming out all high energy and, like a jazz musician, ready to live in the moment of spontaneous conversation.

After introducing his guests Wednesday for a roundtable on arts and culture, Steiner started the discussion by saying, “What are we talking about? Well, we’re about to find out.” And he meant it. His words were not a rhetorical pose.

Not that he doesn’t prepare. I was a recurring guest on his show on WJHU in the1990s, and I saw the piles of research he often brought to the table at the start of a show. But unlike a lot of hosts, he actually listens to what his guests say. And when something excites him, he’s willing to chase their thoughts wherever they might take the show. He also listens to and respects his callers, which is increasingly rare these days.

“So many hosts are really driven by ideology these days, especially hosts for call-in shows, and they are not respectful of people who don’t agree with them,” Steiner said. “And that’s wrong.”

Steiner said what he’s hearing from some callers these days is unlike anything he’s heard in the last two decades.

“We have become so divided ideologically,” he said. “But I think with this election it’s really hard not to be that way right now. I think it is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to deal with on the show. I mean, I’ve critiqued and pushed issues around Obama’s administration and Bush’s administration and Clinton’s. But this is now a very different place we’re in with Trump.”

Steiner is anything but politically neutral. He is an unabashed progressive on and off the air with a history of Baltimore activism dating back to his teenage years.

“To some people and maybe many people, he’s a voice on the radio,” Morgan State’s Wickham said. “But for many years, he’s been an integral part of the progressive struggle in this city and the nation. And I certainly applaud him for that.”

Steiner has been one of the strongest progressive voices in the conversation of Baltimore life for decades, and he said that even though he is leaving the daily airwaves after Monday’s show, it doesn’t mean he’s going to stop speaking out or talking to his audience through his Center for Emerging Media.

In addition to doing his own podcast, Steiner said he is in discussion with area journalists to launch a podcast network based out of his center. The center is also working with nonprofits, area filmmakers and artists in identifying grants, writing proposals and doing the administrative work connected with receiving grant money.

And Steiner has already demonstrated his ability to do in-depth, long-form radio series. In 2007, he and his center won a Peabody Award, one of broadcasting’s highest national honors, for “Just Words,” which focused on conversations with the working poor.

“I’m very sad that we're leaving WEAA. It's truly been our ‘home’ for the past nine years,” Valerie S. Williams, Steiner’s wife and executive director of the center, wrote in an email. “But our work will continue. Marc has a strong moral compass. In the past 60 years he hasn't wavered from his deep convictions about race, poverty and human rights. … I just ask that our friends, allies and supporters continue to walk with us on this next leg of our journey. I think it's going to be exciting!”

Steiner said Williams told him that no matter how he “wakes up” each day, the two-hour show always centered him.

“But realizing, after Monday, I’m not going to have that …” he said, not finishing the sentence.

“So, I’m going to have to live by a much more disciplined schedule. I started doing that on my calendar. I write things down like: ‘9 a.m., this call. 9:15, that call. 9:45, you write this. Thursday at 10 a.m., we come in here to tape the podcast.’ ”

Steiner paused as if he might be thinking about life without a daily radio show.

“Otherwise, I’ll lose my mind,” he said, breaking into that loud, unrestrained laugh so familiar to listeners.

“Seriously, I’m not retiring,” he said emphatically. “We’re just moving on.”

On the radio

Marc Steiner’s last show airs from 10 a.m. to noon Monday on WEAA (88.9 FM).

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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