Public radio station cancels Steiner show

Marc Steiner, whose radio talk show became a forum for Baltimore and Maryland civic affairs in recent years, was taken off the air yesterday by public radio station WYPR, which blamed sagging ratings.

Barbara Bozzuto, WYPR board chairman, said in an interview that Steiner and management had been at odds over what direction his show should take - and that his show's time period was the only one for which ratings at the station had declined.

Steiner, in an interview, said that was "baloney." He insisted his firing was the result of philosophical and personality differences with WYPR President Anthony A. Brandon.

"Tony Brandon has been trying to diminish my power at the station and move me off the air for six years. It has been his agenda," Steiner said. "It has been one thing after another, and I've always tried to take the high road and never say anything about it publicly."

Brandon could not be reached for comment last night.

Steiner, while acknowledging that his ratings had fallen, questioned whether a public radio station should be primarily concerned about ratings.

WYPR said in a news release that Steiner's noon-to-2 p.m. time slot would be filled with a new locally produced program called Statewide, with WYPR Vice President Andy Bienstock and other guest hosts until a permanent host is found.

Bozzuto said the station has "grown and evolved and has successfully introduced a number of new programs that better serve the community."

"Based on the ratings for this time slot," she said, "the public is telling us that we need a new and better way to share ideas and discuss issues that affect our listeners. We thank Marc Steiner for his dedicated service and insightful commentary and wish him the very best."

Bozzuto credited Steiner for his commitment to keeping public radio in Baltimore.

When the station was facing financial troubles in 2002, Steiner waged a campaign to purchase it, appealing for funds in an e-mail drive that raised $750,000. Eventually the station was saved when eight investors stepped in as guarantors to secure a loan to buy the station. Though the money he raised was used to help buy the station, Steiner was not one of the guarantors and had no ownership in WYPR. He was named vice president then, though he later lost the title.

"We give him much credit," Bozzuto said. "He wanted an NPR station to stay in Baltimore, and he was right. He made an effort, but what he raised was just in the six figures. It was small compared to what they wanted for the station. But we've always praised him and given him credit for being the one who tried to keep public radio in Baltimore."

Steiner, whose show aired Monday through Thursday, said he was informed after Thursday's show "that they wanted an amicable separation."

"According to the book, my ratings dipped, but I think the ratings are an excuse - I'm not sure what for. From the very beginning, I've had the feeling they've been uncomfortable with me," he said.

"Ratings go up and ratings go down, and if they are slightly down, you work to bring them back up," he said. "After all, this is public radio, not commercial radio. At least I think we're public radio."

Steiner said his contract with the station has another year to go: "They have to make the choice of what they want to do with it."

While station officials insisted Steiner's program was the only one to have seen falling ratings, some reports indicate that WYPR's ratings have been falling overall. In the fall of 2005, about 170,500 listeners were tuning in to the station every week, according to Radio Research Consortium. By fall 2007, 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.

WYPR (88.1 FM) has seen its budget grow from $1.5 million to $5 million in the past five years, with annual donations surpassing $450,000, a 50 percent increase since 2002.

"We've done a tremendous job in growing listeners," Bozzuto said. "Everything's been going up. That's been our direction for the last five years. But during this time slot, there's a drop-off."

Bozzuto said that WYPR, since it acquired stations in Frederick and Ocean City, has become more of a statewide station and that Steiner's show was too often centered on Baltimore.

"Naturally the majority of news is always going to come from Baltimore, but we need a different emphasis," she said. "Our listeners want to hear everything that's going on from one side of the state to the other."

Bozzuto said that "suggestions" made to Steiner by management about the content of his show "were not taken."

She expected the news of Steiner's departure to hit some listeners hard.

"I think there are going to be some people who are disappointed who are loyal listeners," she said. "But we think that once they hear the new format, that they will be very happy with a change."

Among those surprised by the news was Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College and occasional guest on Steiner's show.

He said WYPR letting go of Steiner was like The Sun firing H.L. Mencken.

"Marc kind of maintained the Baltimore lyceum," he said. "It really brought dialog to the political process and the intellectual life of Baltimore.

"It was always an incredibly stimulating and challenging experience to be on his show. Marc's hour was not something you could just mail in. You had to be prepared. You had to be ready."

Gerry Altman, a frequent caller better known to radio listeners as "Gerry from Pikesville," said he thinks Steiner's show and the station have become unfocused in recent years.

"It has frankly been my impression for some time ... it seemed to be excessively about the cult of the personality. ... It was more and more all about Steiner, and it should have been more and more about more people," Altman said.

But others said last night that they were taken aback by the news.

Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland Citizens Health Initiative and also a frequent caller to the show, said he was stunned to hear WYPR's decision.

"Whenever I was on, he was good having a balanced show and good dialog," he said. "It will be a loss for Baltimore, but I'm sure WYPR will replace him with somebody good."

"I'm shocked. I'm really shocked," said socialist and perennial candidate A. Robert Kaufman.

"I always thought he could do the same thing that Charlie Rose does or Larry King does, but I didn't want him to do it because we need him here in Baltimore."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com jill.rosen@baltsun.com