RADIOACTIVIST: Marc Steiner: WJHU's afternoon talk-show host has been a passionate believer in many causes.

November 19, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

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.

Miami Place

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.

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