Marc Steiner doesn't listen to WYPR anymore.
"I listen to Morning Edition on WAMU, Amy Goodman on WEAA, and Bob Edwards, Leonard Lopate, and Garrison Keillor on XM Satellite Radio," he says, listing some of public radio's most popular programs and personalities—most of which can be heard on Baltimore's largest National Public Radio affiliate, WYPR (88.1 FM). "I have not listened to YPR since I left."
February marks one year since Steiner, host of the daily two-hour public affairs program, "The Marc Steiner Show," famously "left" WYPR. To be more precise, he was fired. The dismissal sparked a storm of protest and controversy among Baltimore's committed public radio community: Steiner's supporters launched a petition and several websites, collecting more than 1,000 signatures demanding his reinstatement.
Hundreds flooded WYPR's community advisory board meeting at the Baltimore Museum of Art late last February and more picketed outside, pledging not to renew their membership unless Steiner returned. Some handed out stickers that read "No Marc=No Money." Inside, attorney Irene Smith returned the WYPR mug and T-shirt she was sent during the last fundraising drive and received a standing ovation. "When you're dumped, you hand back the junk," she told the board, which included station general manager Tony Brandon.
The Baltimore Sun editorial page and website ran angry op-eds and letters, including some from columnist Dan Rodricks, who called the decision to fire Steiner "sad and infuriating." WYPR cancelled its February fundraising drive, for fear of alienating listeners. For a moment, the state of public radio in Baltimore was on a lot of peoples' minds.
A year later, the storm has passed.
WYPR continues to air local shows alongside national NPR programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Despite the threats from angry listeners, station reps say ratings and membership are at all-time highs. In an ironic twist, Dan Rodricks has replaced Steiner in the noon-to-2 p.m. slot. His show, "Midday with Dan Rodricks," mixes discussions of local news with general topics like food and pop culture, but rarely gets deeply into local politics the way Steiner often did.
"The station had an agenda, it moved forward, everything seems to be working fine," Brandon said recently, sitting in his office at WYPR. "I honestly don't spend a lot of time looking back into what we did a year ago."
Marc Steiner still hosts The Marc Steiner Show, only now it airs from 5 to 6 p.m. on rival NPR affiliate WEAA (88.9 FM), based at Morgan State University. Though they were offered jobs at WYPR, two of Steiner's three producers jumped to WEAA with him. His guests still include everyone from authors and activists to Governor Martin O'Malley, who appeared on the show's "Annapolis Political Summit" special in January. Through his nonprofit group, The Center for Emerging Media, Steiner works on radio documentaries and keeps up a blog on current events.
It's important, Steiner says, to keep busy. "I have to focus on not letting what happened at YPR drag me down," he says. "Because it can. I start getting angry in my head."
For many listeners, Marc Steiner was the heart and soul of WYPR. The Marc Steiner Show began airing on WYPR's predecessor, WJHU, in 1993, and Steiner quickly became a local celebrity, known for his passion about Baltimore politics and his frequent allusions to the civil rights movement. When Johns Hopkins, which owned the station, looked to sell it in 2001, Steiner launched a fundraising campaign to buy the station and maintain local ownership.
He raised $750,000 and helped entice eight local investors who served as guarantors for loans to buy the station and create WYPR ("Your Public Radio"). Brandon, CEO of commercial radio conglomerate American General Media and one of the guarantors, became general manager of the station. Steiner was named vice president for programming.
Steiner and Brandon made an odd couple: Steiner, the loud activist, born and bred in Baltimore City and the reserved Brandon, a recent transplant from California who retains a thick accent from his Louisiana childhood. But, at first, it worked. Brandon's experience in commercial radio built financial stability and introduced fiscal responsibility—budgets could never exceed revenues—while Steiner, with then-program director Andy Bienstock, built a powerhouse local news department.
"At first, even I believed the mythology that the tall conservative WASP and the crazy Jewish guy could create something different," Steiner says. "But from the beginning, there was a real difference of philosophy in terms of what the station was supposed to be about."
Steiner says he and Brandon argued over the makeup of the Board of Directors: Steiner wanted it to reflect the economic and cultural diversity of the city, but says Brandon wasn't interested (WYPR's current 24-member Board includes three African-Americans). Steiner also says Brandon pushed him away from topics that would offend sponsors. "He mentioned Constellation Energy and how much time [my show] spent going after that stuff," says Steiner. "He got very worried about our programming offending underwriters."
Tension remained high through 2005, when Steiner agreed to vacate the vice president position, and through WYPR's fifth anniversary event in 2007. "They cut me out of the program completely, like I didn't exist," Steiner says, adding that a member of the news team, Sunni Khalid, was reprimanded for calling him up on stage at the event.
Brandon and Bienstock, both still at WYPR, dispute Steiner's claims. "We never changed programming for an underwriter," Bienstock says. "There's a firewall there."
As for the fifth anniversary, "Marc was not cut out of the festivities at all," Brandon says. "He was asked to cut the anniversary cake and then spoke to the crowd."
But Steiner maintains that Brandon viewed him as an adversary. "Tony Brandon couldn't stand me being the face of the station," he says. "People thought about YPR, they thought about me. He couldn't stand it."
Less than a year after the anniversary party, Brandon fired Steiner.
Brandon and WYPR's Board Chair Barbara Bozzuto offered a range of reasons for Steiner's firing, from bad ratings to Steiner's fixation on Baltimore city politics (as opposed to statewide issues). "They never explained it to me," Steiner says. "They can't come up with a concrete reason because there wasn't one."
WYPR doesn't listen to Marc Steiner anymore either.
At least not Tony Brandon and Andy Bienstock, both of whom say they've never heard The Marc Steiner Show on WEAA. Like Steiner, both say they don't spend much time looking back on Steiner's firing or the firestorm that came after it.
"The station is stronger for having made that decision," Brandon says. He points to the fact that 43,000 more people listen to WYPR than did last year as a sign of the station's health. "It's stronger and it's more balanced."
The duo, who essentially run WYPR in the post-Steiner era, are still cagey about the factors that led to his dismissal, but Bienstock suggests it was a question of quality. "You gotta make the programs better," he says, adding his impression that the backlash was propagated by a vocal minority of listeners. "You're not going to satisfy everyone," he says. "I have either moved or taken off programs that not only—this is not about Marc, I mean network shows—that not only stank, in my opinion, but, if you looked at the Arbitron numbers, had almost no listeners. But those few listeners who listened let me know how unhappy they were with that decision."
Bienstock gives Steiner credit for helping to build WYPR but suggests the station had outgrown him. "Marc certainly was instrumental in starting the news department," he says. "But over the course of four or five years, it became its own entity."
Steiner's critics say he was too fixated on Baltimore City issues for a station that, since acquiring WYPF in Frederick and WYPO in Ocean City, reaches state-wide. Bienstock says the station has to appeal to a broad audience. "If it's a local issue, how does it affect all of us?" he asks "If it's a school issue in the city, how does it relate to people in the county?"
Further, while Steiner's show reflected his progressive political leanings, Bienstock says public radio listeners come from across the political spectrum. "NPR listeners tend to self-identify, almost by third as conservative, liberal, and moderate," says the program director, who nonetheless identifies himself as "one of these typical liberal NPR people."
With his background in commercial radio and emphasis on ratings and revenues, Tony Brandon does not seem like a typical NPR liberal. When a visitor asks about his black Lab puppy, he quips, "They say he's a conservative dog, because I bring him into the office and he pees on the news department."
He agrees with Bienstock that NPR listeners are smart. "And when they complained [about Steiner's firing] it was very articulate," he says. "You get called all kinds of names you have to look up in a thesaurus."
Writer Gregg Mosson was among those complaining after Steiner was fired, telling the community advisory board, "Without Marc Steiner, I don't listen to WYPR." A year later, he admits that he does listen to WYPR again, mostly for national talk-show host Tavis Smiley and local shows like The Signal, but he has not renewed his membership.
"This incident changed the way I look at public radio," says Mosson, who runs the website for Save WYPR (saveWYPR.com), a group that launched in response to Steiner's firing, but now protests various aspects of the station, from the make-up of its board to its reliance on underwriters. "Public radio is becoming less and less 'public.'"
Former State Sen. Julian L. Lapides also appeared at the meeting last February, telling the board that firing Steiner was "a crime." This year, he didn't renew his membership to WYPR, but he has started listening to the station again. "When there is a death in the family, the hurt lessens over time," he says.
On a cold day late in 2008, Marc Steiner leans into a microphone in the studios of WEAA, on the top floor of Morgan State's Communications Center. The main guest today is local photographer Robert Houston, who talks about an exhibit of photos he took at Resurrection City, the encampment set up for six weeks in 1968 on the National Mall as part of the Poor People's Campaign.
"Thousands of people came into Washington D.C.," Steiner says. "Urban and rural African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Native Americans, poor whites from Appalachia and Chicago, all camped out together as part of a dream that was started by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr."
After introducing his guests, including University of Baltimore Professor Lenneal Henderson and Washington D.C. pastor Douglas Sands—both of whom lived in Resurrection City—Steiner adds another fact. "I was also in the camp," he says. "I'm here too."
Marc Steiner grew up in Forrest Park and was kicked out of City College in 1963 as a result of an ongoing dispute with a teacher who called a black student a nigger. He traveled the country and became active in the civil rights movement before returning to Baltimore, where he worked as an actor and a teacher before getting into radio in 1993. He's always had an easier time crossing racial lines than many media people.
LaFontaine Oliver, general manager at WEAA, was considering hiring Steiner to bring his show on the station when he went to the raucous WYPR community advisory board meeting after the host was fired. "It was a cold, snowy night and 400 people came out," he says. "There was story after story about how the program impacted people's lives, informed them, inspired them."
The event convinced Oliver to bring The Marc Steiner Show to WEAA. The addition fits with Oliver's plan, since becoming general manager in 2007, to mix more news and public affairs shows with the station's jazz programs. In addition to Steiner, Oliver added Tell Me More and Amy Goodman's Democracy Now. In the six months after Steiner joined WEAA, listenership went from 80,000 to just under 100,000 (still far less than WYPR's 180,000). In the station's first membership drive after hiring Steiner, Oliver says many of the new donors said they were contributing because of his show.
For now, Steiner's role at WEAA is limited to hosting his show, but he says he'd become more involved in the station if asked. "What we've been talking about at EAA is, in 2009, Barack Obama is President of the United States of America, and there is no African-American public radio station that really stands out—they want to be that station," he says. "An African-American based station with a multi-racial staff could be really explosive, creative, and powerful. It's so exciting to be there. I love being a part of it."
And as for WYPR, Steiner is happy to watch that chapter of his life stay in the past. "I'm very comfortable with where I am," he says. "It takes too much energy to be bitter."