Marc Steiner has his game face on.
It is 30 seconds to air time, and the WJHU talk-show host, usually lively and animated, is so still he appears to be meditating. He may not get as nervous as he did when he started the show 2 1/2 years ago, but today's is a tough one, a telephone discussion with Dinesh D'Souza. Mr. D'Souza's latest book, "The End of Racism," which argues that white racism is not the real problem facing black Americans, is perfect for a call-in radio show, controversial and current. It pushes buttons -- especially Mr. Steiner's buttons.
"Hi, I'm Marc Steiner," he begins, as he does every weekday at noon. To his listeners, this disembodied voice, deep and gravelly, is his entire persona. It's a tall voice, a tweedy, professorial tone that suggests spectacles, elbow patches and snifters of brandy.
But the man in the glass booth is short, his body tight with energy, and he wears a blue denim shirt, jeans and Southwestern-style jewelry. He looks a little younger than 49 and not a bit like a grandfather, although he's about to become one for the second time. A hippie, you might say. A stereotypical liberal.
Still wrong. The second you try to slap a label on Marc Steiner, any label, he will slip through your fingers like mercury. Just as his voice can't tell you what he looks like, his show won't tell you who he really is.
"My guest today is Dinesh D'Souza, whom some have called the Mark Fuhrman of intellectual thought," he continues. "I'm not sure I would go that far."
He used to go that far, and further.
There was the time, back in his City College days, when he slapped another boy with a steaming hot pizza slice after a brief, unproductive discussion on civil rights. There was the time he punched his homeroom teacher, who had annoyed him by mocking black students. Which led to Mr. Steiner's expulsion from City, and a tour of Friends School. Young Marc asked his student guide if Friends had black students. The reply included Mark Fuhrman's favorite racial epithet. So he hit him, slugged a kid at a Quaker school. And, not incidentally, ended up attending another private school.
Freedom rider and juvenile delinquent. Patriot and revolutionary. passionate believer in causes, yet always an objective observer. Mr. Steiner sees no contradictions in this list, and it does make a good resume for a radio talk-show host. But it's taken many years, and many jobs, for Mr. Steiner to find his way here. There was always a Marc Steiner show -- at his family's dinner table, around the kitchen table with his wife -- but not always "The Marc Steiner Show."
Last summer, WJHU-FM (88.1) delighted some listeners and infuriated others by overhauling its format, replacing the weekday schedule of classical music with public-affairs
programming. Mr. Steiner, a relative newcomer to the station, was the obvious winner in the change. At least, it was obvious to everyone else.
"They tell me more people listen in the afternoons," he said dubiously in on-air promotions, as if he were the one who needed to be sold. He worried that the character of his listeners would change in the move from evenings to midday. He worried that the syndicated "Diane Rehm Show," based in Washington and heard just before his show, would keep him from landing prominent guests.
But today he has Mr. D'Souza on the line, as high-profile a guest as anyone could want. And he is trying to remember that he is the host, with all the responsibilities the word implies, not some hot-headed kid at the pizza wagon. The callers have the luxury of getting angry. Mr. Steiner is polite as he challenges his guest on several historical points. Mr. D'Souza is similarly smooth, his tone maddeningly reasonable.
Still, Mr. Steiner's not satisfied at show's end -- and not because of his technical inexpertise, which forced him to cut Mr. D'Souza off in mid-sentence as time ran out. "I wanted to reach into the phone and grab him by the throat," he admits with a rueful laugh. But throat-grabbing, literal and figurative, is a relic of Marc Steiner's past.
Well, sort of.
The Steiner family saga sounds like something from a novel, a collaborative effort by Isaac Bashevis Singer, D. H. Lawrence and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A wartime romance, a house filled with tropical beasts, a glass-eating baby, a beautiful mother, a crusading father.
Dr. Albert Steiner, the son of a Baltimore baker, was assigned to one of General Patton's battalions during the invasion of Europe in World War II. When the battalion ran out of gas, he sneaked away and married a young British woman, Maisie Anne Round.
He brought her to Baltimore in 1946, the year Marc was born. When his firstborn was just 18 months old, Dr. Steiner caught him calmly eating pieces of a broken vase, with a side order of mothballs. No need to rush to the hospital, though. "I'm a doctor, I just watched him," his father says now. His son, of course, has no memory of the incident, but it is entrenched in the family folklore.
A sister, Deana, and brother, Brian, followed, and the family settled on Miami Place in Northwest Baltimore, near the Forest Park Golf Course. Dr. Steiner, consumed with his practice, was seldom home. "My phantom father figure," recalls Deana Steiner Smith, now a photographer in West Virginia.
Dr. Steiner didn't care about money, only patients. Without fuss, he integrated his practice and made sure any hospital where he worked was integrated as well. If someone couldn't pay, he let it go, or took his fee in trade.
A stevedore on the docks paid off in bananas. As a young boy, Marc would go down with cages and pick the fruit clean of the wildlife still clinging to the plants -- snakes, lizards, tarantulas that he kept as pets.
This sets up another favorite family story, about the time Mrs. Steiner pulled a semi-poisonous snake from a terrarium, assuming it was dead. The snake bit her on the knee. Mrs. Steiner was fine; the snake died.
"My wife was difficult," explains Dr. Steiner, now 84, long retired, and a widower since 1983. It is an artful understatement. Beautiful and impassioned, a champion of underdogs, Mrs. Steiner also was an alcoholic. "Snake probably overdosed on vodka," her older son says matter-of-factly.
Marc Steiner prefers to talk about the happier memories -- the nature expeditions, the "powwows" inspired by his mother's fascination with Native Americans, the way she typed up his invented stories. Like the one about the Johnsons, a family who adopted 27 kids, of all nationalities. The boys cooked and sewed; the girls fixed cars.
Mrs. Steiner also was active in political causes, from the National Conference of Christians and Jews to the illegal abortion circuit. Through the 1950s and '60s, she referred young women to a discreet doctor in Baltimore County. When 19-year-old Marc's girlfriend became pregnant, he went to his mother for help.
Still, her illness made the household increasingly contentious and unpleasant as Mr. Steiner reached adolescence. He fled to the streets of Northwest Baltimore. One day, he'd be picketing ++ the segregated White Coffee Pot at Mondawmin. The next, he might be at the pool hall, or swaggering down the street with a switchblade.
He looked like such a punk that when someone tried to set him up with another civil-rights activist, 16-year-old Tonya Bundara, she wanted nothing to do with him. It never occurred to her she would become his second wife.
"I guess his style kind of confused me," says Ms. Bundara, a high-school English teacher who has been with Mr. Steiner since 1973. "Marc seems like a contradiction sometimes, but when you get to talking to him and he can explain these things, it turns out it's not a contradiction after all. Sometimes he's that hoodlum, sometimes he's that nice Jewish boy, sometimes that mountain man."
The Stockbridge School in Massachusetts, a progressive boarding school, saved his life, Mr. Steiner has said frequently. He married a Stockbridge classmate at 22, and had a daughter, but the marriage didn't last long. He sneaked into Cuba with other revolutionaries, attracting the attention of several federal agencies upon his return. He finally got a degree, from Franconia College in New Hampshire. He met up with Tonya again and courted her with a single-minded purpose.
All along, he tried various jobs: writing, teaching, counseling, organizing, acting, running local political campaigns. He was at a job interview on Capitol Hill the day his mother died. "I'm going out in a big way," she had always said, and she did, fainting in a blizzard, apparently because of low blood sugar. Discovered eight hours later just a few feet from her own back door, she died as doctors tried to revive her.
Her son continued searching for a job that could hold him, or fulfill him. For all his rebellion, he was still programmed for success, to be the best at whatever he did.
Discovered at the dentist's
When WJHU general manager Dennis Kita decided, in early 1993, that his station needed its own public-affairs program, he solicited opinions from people throughout the city.
At his dentist's office, he ran into Mr. Steiner, an acquaintance at best. But he knew Mr. Steiner had friends and contacts throughout the city, from his old gang on the street corner to teachers, politicians, union workers and artists.
"What do you think about a public-affairs show on WJHU?" he asked.
"I think it's a great idea," Mr. Steiner said. "And I think I should host it."
At the time, Mr. Steiner was working in radio production for Trahan, Burden and Charles. Alan Charles, a boyhood friend and the advertising agency's founder, had offered him the job through another chance encounter, this time in a grocery store.
On March 3, 1993, "The Marc Steiner Show" debuted with a 90-minute discussion on Norplant. Mr. Steiner spoke too rapidly and laughed nervously, but the show was timely, drawing on points of view across the spectrum.
As months went by, and the show expanded to two, three, four nights a week, Mr. Steiner improved. And listeners soon learned how well he knew his hometown -- so well, he sometimes identified long-lost friends by their voices.
Dental technician Samuel "Billy" Bull doesn't call in, but he listens to his friend of 35 years, marveling. "He's perfect for this. .. He's found his niche at last."
Niche. That word keeps coming up, from family, friends and colleagues. All agree radio is the perfect medium for Mr. Steiner.
First of all, there's that voice, although he's still working on the nervous laugh and his tendency to make the station's call letters sound more like "WJH-chew." The sponge-like mind helps, too -- "A walking encyclopedia," his sister says. "Brilliant."
Finally, he has immense self-confidence, essential to anyone with an eponymous show. "This is Marc Steiner and you're listening to the Marc Steiner Show." "This is the Marc Steiner Show and my guest today is "
"He has an ego that's perfect for radio -- very big," says Deirdre Wilson, a friend since college. "He likes to hear himself talk, he likes his own opinions, and I mean that in the most positive sense."
On air, he is calm and thoughtful. When a recent show touched on the issue of interracial marriage, he maintained his laid-back demeanor, while acknowledging that both his wives have been black. Liberals and conservatives say they are treated fairly.
"That's the funniest part of hearing him on the air," says his wife. "Sometimes he comes home, and I say, 'Hello, King Solomon.' At home, around the kitchen table, when we have discussions, he's like a kamikaze, he's not the diplomat at all."
The old temper can still flicker. Asked the last time he was involved in a fight, Mr. Steiner says it's been years. "No, wait, it was just a few weeks ago," he confesses, a little sheepishly. "I came to work, and this guy was beating his girlfriend in the alley behind the station." He grabbed a two-by-four and waded in.
But such encounters are rare, he insists. Mr. Steiner sees himself as a mediator, not a fighter. He was wounded when WJHU colleague Lisa Simeone told an interviewer he had a "macho streak as wide as the JFX."
His wife says: "He does have a macho streak. He tries to be fair when it comes to women's issues, and he gets very upset when we call him on that. He's just like most men. He's not as bad as a lot of others, but he's not perfect."
Not a hippie
Few labels serve Mr. Steiner well. And in a city where WBAL's Allan Prell is considered a liberal, there is understandably much confusion about where Marc Steiner fits in. "I think of myself in many ways as an American nationalist," he says over lunch after his show one day, in between bites of a huge, juicy Reuben.
"I love who we are. I love the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Che Guevara once said -- " he stops, to get the quotation exactly right, his famous memory at work. "Che Guevara once said, 'America's revolutionaries will never win because they don't love their country.' " Suddenly, it seems less surprising that a 12-year-old Marc Steiner won a $5,000 scholarship with an essay on patriotism.
His father once wrote him: "If you want to vent your spleen through the Communist gutters of America, you'll do it without one red cent from me. Love, Dad." But today, Dr. Steiner understands a distinction lost to so many others looking back at the 1960s.
"My son was not a hippie," he says. "He didn't do what hippies did. He was always well-organized in his own life, very focused."
Mr. Steiner also is ambitious, another decidedly non-hippie trait. Like his father, he cares little for money or material possessions -- he just got his first credit card a few months ago -- but wants to excel in his chosen field.
To that end, he has become an increasingly visible player in Baltimore, whether organizing shows on the local political campaigns, or emceeing a recent benefit for the burned-out Clipper Industrial Park artists. However, he says he turned down Baltimore magazine's invitation to be listed among the city's sexiest.
Next to the large blackboard that shows his schedule a month at a time, he keeps a list of Diane Rehm's guests. "That list?" he says, laughing. "I call it my pain-in-the-ass list."
Despite the competition, he has landed important interviews, including Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, "Nightline's" Ted Koppel and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Publishers are delighted to have a new venue for touring authors; writers from Johns Hopkins University, which owns the station, also stop by.
Listeners have shown their support as well: "The Marc Steiner Show" attracted 10 times as many pledges as the old classical music format during the fall fund-raising campaign. (At an
average of 5,700 listeners per quarter-hour, however, its audience is only one-fifth the size of WBAL's. However, he gets a second bounce when one hour is rebroadcast at 7 p.m.) In fact, the pledge drive ended early, in the final minutes of Mr. Steiner's show, with Mr. Kita at his side. That was a nice moment.
"Yes, I could see myself in this for quite a while," Mr. Steiner says.
Then he mentions this television project he's started working on and his plans for a production company named after his mother. He also wants to find a way to add staffers to his essentially two-person operation.
As he talks on, almost bursting with his plans, one senses Marc Steiner isn't waiting for any more chance encounters in the dentist office or the grocery store to get where he wants to go. "The Marc Steiner Show" has been on the air less than three years. The other Marc Steiner show is 49, and just warming up.