Change is almost never easy at a public radio station.
Remember the protests in front of WYPR on Charles Street when Marc Steiner was fired in 2008? Or, how about the controversy and board member resignations following the ouster of Stephen Yasko as general manager at WTMD in 2015?
Most recently, Morgan State University’s WEAA has been feeling blowback from sweeping programming and personnel changes it implemented Oct. 2 . Deep-seated conflicts about the direction of the station have become public in recent weeks with the on-air resignation Sept. 22 of Sean Yoes, host of “First Edition, over the shift in direction.
The changes have been a topic of discussion on social media since May, when The Sun reported that longtime talk show host Marc Steiner would be dropped by the station as of July 31 and that some of the community producers might lose their shows in the shuffle to a new program lineup. One, James H. “Big Jim” Staton, host of a Thursday-night blues show, publicly resigned in August after 32 years of being affiliated with WEAA. In an interview Thursday, he said he felt frustrated and disrespected by station management.
The good news about the controversy is that it suggests listeners in Baltimore care about WEAA and feel invested in its future. Launched in 1977 by Kweisi Mfume and several students with call letters that stand for We Educate African Americans, it is celebrating its 40th year as a valued Maryland media institution.
In this period of great demographic change and racial conflict, WEAA’s role in the community might be more important than ever. It certainly felt that way listening to some of the talk shows following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.
But what exactly is that role? Is it for WEAA to be a news/talk radio platform staffed by professionals with a focus on African-American life? Or, is it to be a learning laboratory for student broadcasters, a training ground that will prepare them for jobs when they graduate in the new digital and global world of journalism?
The answer is clear to DeWayne Wickham, dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication, which manages the station under a federal broadcasting license held by the university. After restructuring media education at Morgan State during his first three years on the job — with departments in multimedia journalism, multi-platform production and strategic communication — he said he turned his attention to WEAA in 2016.
"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.”
He stressed that the changes taking place at WEAA grew out of the larger mandate for the school, that “we have to create experiential learning opportunities for students so that they can move from the classroom to a work space on campus that will prepare them to go to work somewhere in the media of today when they graduate.”
He said it is especially important for his school to offer that hands-on, in-studio training because many of the students cannot afford to take unpaid internships — and most media internships today are unpaid.
In the realpolitik of academic life, probably nothing is more important to this transition than that Wickham has the backing of Mfume, who went on from being named the the first program director at WEAA five months after he graduated in 1976 to five terms as a member of Congress and president/CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mfume, whose voice was the first heard over the WEAA airwaves when the station signed on in 1977, is now chair of the Morgan State University board of regents.
“The station has undergone several changes over the years, and every time there’s been a change, no one wants it,” Mfume told The Baltimore Sun.
“I’ve seen a lot of iterations of WEAA over time, and in this current one, DeWayne Wickham has an obligation to the university to get back to the educational nature of the station where the students really got an educational experience in terms of production, in terms of taping, in terms of writing and on-air opportunities. At the same time, he has to try and find a way to raise money.”
Mfume said one of the issues that Wickham had “to come to grips with” is that “there was not the kind of financial support needed to keep the station going as it should be going.”
According to Mfume, “It was losing money, many of the programs were not being supported and ratings for the shows were way, way down.”
Wickham said the station was losing more than $1 million a year.
“We had to do something,” he said in explaining moves like dropping Steiner.
Wickham said Steiner's contract, which was negotiated before he became dean, called for the school to pay the veteran show host more than $100,000 a year “to bring his show to Morgan.”
"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. “I could not justify continuing to fund Marc Steiner's show.”
Steiner said Wednesday that the $100,000 was misrepresented by Wickham as if it was all salary for him when in fact it also paid salary and benefits to two full-time producers as well as research, travel and intern costs.
After being off the air for more than two months but doing a podcast version of “The Marc Steiner Show” produced at his Center for Emerging Media, Steiner says of the WEAA experience and controversy, “I’m just trying to let it all go. … I’ve been through a version of this movie before.”
Yoes says he is moving on as well. The Baltimore editor of the AFRO newspaper debuted a video podcast, “The AFRO First Edition” Monday that featured an interview with Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby. It was an impressive launch, and Yoes said the interview drew 17,000 views on Facebook within 24 hours.
In an interview with The Sun on Sept. 23, Wickham characterized Yoes’ resignation the day before as the result of a disagreement over the editing of audio clips that aired on his show. The clips involved the use of the n-word in audio related to a Ta-Nehisi Coates article from the Atlantic magazine.
Yoes acknowledged in a Sept. 23 interview with the Sun that what he labeled the “n-bomb” did air several times in audio excerpts on his show, but that it was not intentional.
But, he added, the disagreement over the editing of those excerpts “had zero to do with my resignation.”
Yoes said in that interview that he resigned because of “profound differences with the direction of WEAA right now.”
The local media landscape is made better by these podcasts and videos. But as a listener and media critic, I miss having Yoes and Steiner on WEAA. Both are deeply connected to the community in their own ways and bring a diversity of voices to the conversation of Baltimore’s civic life. I always listened to Yoes on the way home from work and appreciated his direct engagement and passion for taking on issues of criminal justice and the backstage politics of City Hall.
But you cannot argue with the priority Wickham, Mfume and the administration of Morgan State are placing on using the station first and foremost to educate students for the new world of digital and global media. The process is already underway with students working on the shows under the direction of veteran media producers like Malarie Pinkard-Pierre, who spent three decades at WBAL radio producing talk shows and leading the news team.
On Wednesday, Tamar Jiles, a senior majoring in strategic communications, was in the WEAA studios on Perring Parkway with Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Loyola University professor and host of the new show, “Today with Dr. Kaye,” handling social media for the show.
Meanwhile, Isaiah George, a junior in multimedia journalism, operated the control board for the broadcast. Both Jiles and George are interning with the show that airs from 3 to 5 p.m. weekdays. Students are also producing interviews, features and one-minute news inserts that air throughout the afternoon.
The primary mission of a public radio station licensed to an educational institution is often different from one run by a community group like WYPR. To me, no one has more authority in talking about founder’s intent than Mfume, who wrote the FCC application for WEAA’s license. He recollected “begging old equipment” from local stations, getting a couple of empty rooms on the second floor of Holmes Hall for a studio and launching with an antenna that wasn’t properly grounded, which resulted in the station going off the air every time it rained.
“It was a struggle. But we were kind of militant, so we wouldn’t take no at the time,” he said.
“The petition went to the FCC, and they denied it the first time. … And then, finally they granted it. WEAA was a station designed to be a student lab, a training lab and at the same time service the community with news and public affairs programming,” he said
“April Ryan was one of our students at the time. Cathy Pugh was one of our students, too,” he added referring to the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks and the mayor of Baltimore
“We turn out a lot of students who are all over the country making a difference. My perspective is a long one.”