Marc Steiner's firing: a year later

Marc Steiner is now on the air with an hour-long show at WEAA-FM, on the campus of Morgan State University.
Marc Steiner is now on the air with an hour-long show at WEAA-FM, on the campus of Morgan State University. (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)
A year has passed since the very public, and messy, divorce of Marc Steiner from the Baltimore public radio station that he had long represented. Although some predicted WYPR would suffer from Steiner's dismissal last Feb. 1, the station is just as strong a year later, with more listeners and solid donor support especially with the turbulent economy. For his part, Steiner is on the air at WEAA, Morgan State University's public radio station.

Here's a look at four of the figures involved: Steiner; his former boss Anthony Brandon; his WYPR successor Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks; and peace activist Max Obuszewski, one of Steiner's staunchest supporters - one year later.

The voice
He says he's tired of talking about it.

Marc Steiner, whose 15 years at WYPR-FM (88.1) and its predecessor, WJHU, came to an abrupt end last winter, insists he's moved past it all now.

He's been back on the air since June with the hourlong The Marc Steiner Show, which begins at 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on WEAA-FM (88.9). He's concentrating on expanding his own production company, the Center for Emerging Media, which he founded in 2000. He's working on partnerships with other broadcast and print media - raising money, putting together a board of directors. He plans to continue creating information and advocacy programs like "Just Words," a series that was broadcast on WYPR in 2007 and featured interviews with addicts, felons and the homeless.

"Just Words" won Steiner a Peabody Award, announced 10 days after he was fired. "I thought that was poetic justice," he says.

He's working on a new series, this time about the energy crisis.

Steiner's got a lot going on and says he doesn't want to dwell on what is happening at a station that didn't want him anymore. And yet, what happened at WYPR clearly still rankles him.

"I helped build that station. I led the movement to buy the station [from the Johns Hopkins University]," Steiner says from his cramped second-floor office near Hampden. "I thought I was home. It was very tough. ... What they did was wrong. It was vindictive, spiteful and wrong - I think most people got that. But I can't waste my time worrying about that."

His audience is considerably smaller at WEAA. The station placed 24th in the most recent Arbitron ratings, with an average weekly audience of 85,600 listeners who tune in for at least 15 minutes. (WYPR finished eighth, with more than double that audience).

Steiner is spending a lot of time struggling with finances, trying to come up with enough grants, contracts and corporate underwriting to keep his center running and its four-person staff paid. So far, Steiner says, he's received money from the Town Creek Foundation (to look at the issue of sustainability in the new green economy) and the Osprey Foundation, which funds conservation work. He's in negotiations to produce radio and Internet stories in partnership with Urbanite magazine.

"It's a very scary time in this country," he says, "and that's why I think the work we're doing now is the most important work. I don't want to just do the gloom-and-doom stories, like everybody else, about the economy. I want to talk about hope and what works, and what people are doing to make this work. How do we make this society work as a place for all of us."

Steiner says he's energized, and as committed as ever to the cause of social justice that frequently fueled his WYPR show. Nowadays, he says, he listens to WYPR "only by accident."

The station boss
Tony Brandon would do it again.

"We never doubted that the decision we made was correct," says WYPR's president and general manager, insisting there was never a thought of reneging on the decision to take Steiner off the air. "For the long-term growth of the station, we were doing the right thing."

All the tumult that followed Steiner's firing notwithstanding, the latest numbers at the station suggest WYPR has never been in better shape. More people are listening than ever, an average of some 185,000 a week in the last quarter of 2008, according to the most recent Arbitron ratings. The station has climbed from ninth to eighth place in the Baltimore region, garnering some 3.3 percent of the listening audience (up from 2.4 percent for the comparable period a year earlier).

The number of listeners signing on as members has risen as well, even though the average donation has decreased (most likely due as much to the troubled economy as to any trouble at WYPR), and total membership contributions are down nearly 10 percent. So far, in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, revenue is down about 3 percent. That's not bad, given the economic doldrums and the station's decision to cancel one of three on-air pledge drives last year because of the furor over Steiner's firing.

"The fundamentals of the business are operating beautifully," Brandon says from his office at WYPR's Charles Street studios. "The economy is our issue, as it is for any other profit or nonprofit business."

Last February, Brandon could not have been as sanguine. Chosen by the guarantors who backed the $5 million purchase of the station in 2002 from Hopkins, Brandon faced a storm of protest after firing Steiner for reasons that he (and other station officials, most notably then-board chair Barbara Bozzuto) said included declining ratings, a resistance to change and a show that was too Baltimore-centric.

A cadre of vocal Steiner supporters lambasted the decision, arguing that Steiner and his show highlighted issues and generated discussions that weren't found elsewhere on Baltimore radio. Steiner himself said he was blindsided by his dismissal and insisted it all boiled down to a personality conflict and difference in philosophy between himself and WYPR's management, especially Brandon.

Protesters marched outside the station, called in repeatedly to disrupt pledge drives and took to other local media with their complaints. WYPR's Citizen Advisory Board, which was not told in advance of Steiner's firing, recommended that he be put back on the air.

Brandon never got into a public debate over the firing, insisting it was a personnel matter that he was legally prohibited from discussing. He still won't discuss it in depth, other than to say it was a decision station management made collectively.

"You have to have confidence that radio professionals know how to make the right decisions," he says, pointing to WYPR's growth over the past year as vindication. "You can not waver because there are protests from a small group."

The successor
It was Steiner who came up with the idea of naming the station WYPR, for "Your Public Radio." And if Dan Rodricks has learned one thing since taking over for Steiner last February, it's that his listeners take that "Y" very seriously.

"I get kind of long, thoughtful letters about my style on the air, my selection of the guests, how it could have been better or different, what I should do next time," Rodricks says as he prepares for another edition of Midday, which airs from noon-2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on WYPR. "I think people are a little more invested because it is public radio. They send in their donations, and they feel they have a right to give me aesthetic input, to be the art director, to help me out."

Rodricks was hardly a media neophyte when he took over the show. A columnist and reporter for The Baltimore Sun since 1979, he also spent more than a decade as the host of nighttime and Saturday morning shows on WBAL-AM (1090). And from 1995 to 1999, his Sunday-morning Rodricks for Breakfast program aired on WMAR, Channel 2.

When WYPR program director Andy Bienstock offered him Steiner's old time slot, Rodricks didn't hesitate.

"It wasn't the most ideal circumstance," he says, "but once it was offered to me, I couldn't see saying no. I love radio."

"Preparation for this show is a lot more involved than preparation for AM talk radio, which is all I had done to this point," he says. "This requires a lot more time and preparation, reading books, reading articles on the subjects so that I'm conversant by the time I get here."

Brandon, Rodricks' new boss, says Rodricks was chosen, in part, because he was already an established media presence in Baltimore, with experience at tackling social issues - including a years-long effort to help ex-convicts find jobs and turn their lives around.

"He walks the walk," says Brandon, who regards Rodricks' performance thus far as an unqualified success.

Ratings for Midday's time slot have been climbing, going from a 1.4 audience share for the last quarter of 2007 (Steiner's last full quarter at WYPR) to 1.9 for the last quarter of 2008, with Rodricks as host. (Curiously, a decline in listeners ages 12 to 54 was offset by a gain in listeners 55 and older.)

Rodricks himself thinks he's become more polished on the air, in keeping with the expectations of the public radio audience. But there's another, and perhaps more important, change he's seen develop over the past 12 months.

"I started getting some e-mails from people saying they were upset about the change [from Steiner], but have gotten used to Midday now," he says. "Some even say they like it."

The protester
Drive past WYPR's studios, and you might still see a man in a lawn chair, holding one of several signs, protesting both the firing of Steiner 12 months ago and the direction station management is taking.

"Take Back YPR," reads one. "Don't contribute to WYPR," reads another.

Protest is nothing new for Max Obuszewski, a longtime city resident and founder of the Baltimore Nonviolence Center. He was one of the first to sign on to the "Bring Back Marc Steiner" movement that started shortly after Steiner's firing and drew a handful of fans for daily protests in the weeks afterward. He stuck with the group after it morphed into the "Take Back WYPR" movement. He's also one of the few to continue protesting outside the station - although his appearances are down to about twice a week. On really cold days, he's been known to stay inside his car and tape a sign to the window.

"A public radio station has to reflect the community, and it has to also deal with community problems," he says. "WYPR is intentionally watering down the local programs. ... They're trying to get another audience to listen to that station. Some people may like a Rodricks' show about vocabulary. Well, I can handle a show about vocabulary, if I've got four or five shows about the conflict in the Gaza strip, about Obama wanting to go into Afghanistan, closing down Guantanamo, etc. And that's not happening. We're looking for those kinds of programming where you're dealing with real, real issues."

Obuszewski is looking forward to Sunday, when Steiner is scheduled to speak at a forum the movement is sponsoring at 6 p.m. at St. John's Church, 2640 St. Paul St. Obuszewski canceled his WYPR membership, but he still listens to the station, including Midday. And because he has commitments into the early evening, he's rarely able to listen to his old friend, Steiner, on WEAA.

Still, he misses his old friend, and the spirited discussions he would encourage between people of vastly differing backgrounds and mindsets. From such conflicts, he said, often came better understanding.

"Steiner would have different points of view on, and they would often parry with one each other," Obuszewski says. "When you have people on with different opinions, that can be the best way to learn something."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun